After facing near financial collapse amid a eurozone referendum last summer, Greece is continuing to experience another crisis as a frontline state to a growing refugee crisis. Greece is principally a transit country for asylum seekers, many of whom have other EU countries such as Germany or Sweden as their intended destination, and these countries are now floating the possibility of suspending Greece’s membership of the free travel area to try to stem the flow. Under Article 26 of the Schengen Code, Greece can be suspended for up to two years. But this seems unlikely to deter refugees and could lead to an escalation of the humanitarian crisis in northern Greece.
The large-scale movement of asylum seekers arriving in the eastern Aegean islands has created huge pressure on local services. Lesbos Island remains the main entry point and the numbers are striking: according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) emergency response data there were 545,944 arrivals by sea in Lesvos between January 2015 and February 2016.
At present, only Syrians and Iraqis with a valid ID or passport are allowed to cross the northern border of Greece and continue their journey through Europe whereas others, including Afghans, remain stranded at the border. With limited reception spaces available, any border closure caused by suspension from Schengen would likely lead to more people being stranded in Idomeni (the Greek village bordering Macedonia) with the risk of increased hardship, violence and recourse to unsafe channels to secure movement out of Greece. Consider that in October 2015, according to UNHCR, more than 10,000 refugees were stranded in Serbia when Hungary sealed its borders; there, refugees faced violent tactics from Hungarian police forces, including the use of tear gas and water cannon.
There are a number of initiatives underway aimed at reducing the flow, including the ramping up of border management operations in the Aegean Sea through a new NATO mission targeting people smugglers, as well as interception at sea by Frontex, the EU’s external border management agency. But closed borders as well as other obstacles do not seem to deter refugees attempting to reach Europe, risking their lives in the process. Since the beginning of this year, 83,233 have arrived by sea, a clear indication that refugee flows have not stopped despite colder weather. As long as there is no peace agreement in Syria, there is little reason to believe that the numbers will fall.
A better response
To be sure, Greece has had problems implementing a coherent response, and back in 2011, the MSS decision of the European Court of Human Rights found systemic deficiencies in Greece’s asylum system and procedures. But Greece has sought to improve its mechanisms for receiving asylum-seekers through the introduction last year, in cooperation with UNHCR and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), of the ‘hotspot’ approach. Hotspots are a provisional measure creating centres for fingerprinting and registering new asylum seekers at key entry points. The hotspot procedures and roles in the management of these processes are better defined, and fingerprinting increased from 8 per cent in September 2015 to 78 per cent in January 2016. In addition, a new legal framework is ready to be adopted by the Greek parliament by the end of February, temporary coordinators have been deployed to the hotspots at the islands and two more temporary camps are available with 3,000 places on the mainland. These are positive steps that should be recognized by EU partners who have been quick to criticize Greece’s handling of the situation.
There is, though, still a lot to be done to fix Greece's asylum system and the Greek authorities should clarify what additional support they need from the EU. This can only be achieved if Greece is part of the Schengen area and an equal interlocutor to its European partners. Greece seems to be isolated as an entry point country and should not bear the weight of the refugee crisis alone. Practically speaking, EU support should involve member states increasing their pledges under the relocation programme in line with the European Common Asylum System acquis and enhancing the role of EASO in the hotspots.
There is also a contested debate about whether Turkey should be declared a ‘safe third country’, a status which the Greek authorities could rely on to return asylum seekers who have reached Greece from Turkey. Although such a declaration could in principle ease some of the pressure on Greece and reduce the flows to the rest of the EU, it could also undermine the rights of refugees forcibly returned to Turkey where they receive inadequate protection. Its effectiveness may also be questioned given the prospect of legal challenges to such returns. And on top of that, Turkey’s restrictions on allocations of funds to refugees and access to education and work permits will continue to push people to seek options elsewhere.
The realistic scenario is that the numbers of migrants and refugees arriving at the EU’s borders will significantly increase in the next few months, stirring up anxiety and insecurity within the region. Border management and the desire to see asylum-seekers pushed back to countries outside the EU illustrate the fears in many EU states that continued large-scale movements to Europe will threaten their security, welfare systems and social cohesion. But a panicked response that abandons fellow member states would be worse − dividing Europe into a hostile, inward-looking region with a declining will to protect those fleeing situations of armed conflict and humanitarian crisis.
Christina Velentza became an Academy Stavros Niarchos Foundation Fellow with the International Law Programme and Europe Programme in September 2015. She is an attorney at law and legal adviser with the Athens Bar Association, Greece. She has worked for the Greek Asylum Service (Ministry of Interior) in partnership with UNHCR on refugee status determination procedure and assessment of claims for international protection. She has previously worked for the EEAS, Legal Service in the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU and NGOs in the field of human rights.