Migrants squeezed by Turkey, Greece who can't house them

Five years on, the European Union is still stuck on how to process asylum-seekers. Violence in Syria is sending a new large wave of migrants flowing towards Turkey, which has opened its border with Greece. Migrants are caught in the middle. 

Emrah Gurel/AP
Migrants climb a fence installed by Turkish authorities near the Turkish-Greek border on March 4, 2020. Greek authorities fired tear gas to push back migrants. On Feb. 28, 2020, Turkey said its own border with Europe was open to whoever wanted to cross.

Thousands of migrants massed on Greece's borders with Turkey, and security forces struggling to keep them at bay. Five years on it feels like deja vu, yet the European Union seems just as ill-prepared as it was last time around.

In 2015, hundreds of thousands of people moved on Greece's land and sea borders, most fleeing from war in Syria or Iraq in search of safety in a prosperous Europe.

But this time, the Europeans say, they've been blackmailed by a ruthless Turkey that invaded northern Syria and because of a growing number of battlefield casualties has begun transporting thousands of desperate people, few of them Syrians, toward the EU.

"The tens of thousands of people who tried to enter Greece in the past few days did not come from Idlib. They have been living safely in Turkey," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said this week. "Europe will not be blackmailed by Turkey over the refugee issue."

As he spoke at a podium near the border zone, top EU officials stood proudly side by side, praising his country as a "shield" protecting the 27-nation bloc and upholding sacrosanct European values.

Under normal circumstances, those values would include the right for people in fear of their lives to apply for international protection and not to be pushed back from the borders.

But these are not normal times.

The 2015 migrant emergency was eminently manageable. Turkey now hosts about 3.5 million refugees, more than all EU countries combined. But Greece and Italy felt abandoned by their partners; countries like Hungary that erected fences, or Austria, which turned back migrants bound for Germany or Sweden. A quota system meant to share the refugee burden failed.

The border tensions followed last week's decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to declare the country's gateways to Greece open, in an apparent attempt to pressure Europe into offering Turkey more support in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south.

Even before the current crisis, Greece was struggling to cope with tens of thousands of migrants who had entered from Turkey. Most want to continue to more prosperous EU countries such as Germany, but are stuck in Greece following border shutdowns in countries further along their route.

Greek island migrant camps are many times above capacity – more than 20,000 people are on Lesbos alone – and living conditions there are dire. Under the EU-Turkey deal, new arrivals must stay on the islands until their asylum bids are processed, but the lengthy asylum process has led to a big backlog. Island residents are running out of patience after five years of bearing the brunt of Europe’s migrant influx, and Greek government efforts last week to build new detention camps on Lesbos and Chios provoked riots on the islands.

Greek authorities said that from Saturday morning until Thursday morning, they had thwarted 34,778 attempts to cross the border, and 244 people had been arrested. That includes 6,955 attempts to cross the border in the 24 hours between Wednesday morning and Thursday morning.

Greek security abuses or its suspension of asylum applications – illegal under international and European law, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency – appear to have been set aside for now. These are "exceptional circumstances," ministers and commissioners say.

While acknowledging that both Greece and Turkey need help to cope with their migrant challenges, the International Organization for Migration said Thursday that "international legal obligations must be upheld, in particular with respect to those who may be in need of international protection."

Still, it should never have come to this. For all the EU promises about never allowing the 2015 migrant influx to happen again, it quite simply has and far too easily. In five years, the EU has failed to solve a key political riddle: who should be obliged to process and host asylum-seekers and should European partners not on the front line be forced to help?

"Europe has not been up to the task of dealing with the migration crisis. I hope this crisis will serve as a wake-up call for everyone to assume their responsibilities," Mr. Mitsotakis said.

Since taking office late last year, European Commission migration officials have been working on a new Pact for Migration, aimed at kick-starting a vital reform of Europe's asylum rules, which has been stalled for years.

They say the reform must be all encompassing rather than piece-meal and should involve countries that migrants leave or transit to reach Europe, as well as "robust borders and meaningful and effective solidarity" between EU nations. More people who don't qualify to stay would be sent home.

But it's tough to draw up effective policy in a time of crisis, when national interests make compromise difficult, and the expected unveiling of the pact has been delayed, officials at migrant agencies familiar with its aims say.

"This, I dare to say, will be our last chance. Europe cannot fail twice," European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said, underlining the importance of getting the balance right this time. The failure after 2015 sparked a backlash, with far-right and anti-migrant parties reaping the benefits at the ballot boxes.

But for this kind of policy to succeed, EU countries will rely increasingly on unpredictable allies of convenience like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has troops in Syria, but also in lawless Libya – another source of people trying to reach Europe – giving him great political leverage.

Mr. Erdogan wants more refugee money beyond the 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) that the EU has agreed to provide, but he also wants European help to establish a safe area in northern Syria where people can find shelter and, ultimately, where Syrians in Turkey might be sent back.

Despite the accusations of blackmail more, not less, European help is likely.

After emergency talks Wednesday, EU interior ministers acknowledged "the increased migratory burden and risks Turkey is facing."

They affirmed support for the EU-Turkey migrant deal, saying that both sides "stand to benefit from the continuation of this cooperation and commitment."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Costas Kantouris from Kastanies, Greece; Sylvie Corbet from Paris; Elena Becatoros and Nicholas Paphitis from Athens; Suzan Fraser and Andrew Wilks from Ankara, Turkey; Edith Lederer at the UN; Kirsten Grieshaber from Berlin; and Karel Janicek from Prague contributed to this report.  

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