Greece holds out hope for EU action on migration
ATHENS — Greece has a message for Brussels: You should have seen this coming.
On Tuesday, the presidents of the European Council, European Commission and European Parliament will travel to the Greek-Turkish land border in a show of support for Athens after Turkey announced it would no longer stop migrants from crossing into the EU.
But symbolic gestures alone won’t placate Greece, which warns that the EU is no more prepared for a surge in asylum seeker arrivals now than it was in 2015.
“For the last eight months, Ankara has been threatening to open the ‘migration doors,'” said Greek Deputy Migration Minister George Koumoutsakos. “We have repeatedly told all our counterparts … that they need to take these warnings seriously.” Had they listened, Europe might have been better prepared, he suggested.
Front-line countries like Greece “have the right to expect solidarity” from their fellow EU members, said Koumoutsakos.
More than 10,000 migrants have reached Turkey’s land border with Greece and Bulgaria, and Athens says at least 1,000 people have arrived on its islands since Sunday morning. While the numbers are nowhere near 2015 levels, they herald a significant increase if Turkey keeps its borders open.
With its island reception facilities already over capacity, Greece is expecting more than statements of support from Brussels. But Athens shouldn’t hold out hope for concrete action, said George Pagoulatos, director general of think tank Eliamep.
“The Greek government has already requested the deployment of Frontex’s rapid border intervention team and got support comments by top EU officials,” he said. “But the issue is what more can it expect than that: either a diplomatic intervention to smooth the Syrian crisis in Idlib … or a decision of asylum seeker burden-sharing among EU member states. The first is challenging, the second seems even more so.”
Even the emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers later this week will be informal and won’t be able to take immediate decisions.
In the meantime, the government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has taken measures of its own. The army has been deployed to fortify the border, and officers tried to disperse migrants gathered on the Turkish side by firing tear gas and warning shots.
The government also announced on Sunday that it would no longer accept any new asylum applications for a month and that it would try to push back migrants. Mitsotakis said he was invoking Article 78.3 of the EU treaty “to ensure full European support” and trigger emergency relocation measures.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned Greece that suspending asylum applications and pushbacks are illegal both under international and EU law.
Koumoutsakos argued that any criticism should be directed toward Turkey rather than Greece, adding, “The country is in urgent need of protecting its borders and security. This is the highest and most important task of any democratic state.”
Nick Malkoutzis, editor of economic analysis website MacroPolis, said that Athens had learned the lesson from the 2015 refugee crisis that if it doesn’t close its borders, the countries further north will — leaving any migrants who arrive marooned in Greece.
The asylum seekers flocking to Greece’s borders are seen as the first major test for Mitsotakis’ conservative government since it came to power last July.
Click Here: kanken kids cheap
“The government feels that it has to be seen to be acting decisively, not buckling under the pressure applied by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and not allowing any large influx to strain any further conditions on the islands and other parts of the country,” Malkoutzis said.
The leftist opposition party Syriza, which was in power during the 2015 crisis, has called on the government to request an extraordinary EU summit to come up with a long-term solution and to focus on mitigating the situation on the overcrowded islands.
Syriza, too, expects more than supportive words from the EU. Dimitris Vitsas, a Syriza lawmaker and former migration minister, said that Brussels needed to get tough on Turkey.
“Europe should show Erdoğan that it is not afraid of him sending people over, [that] it can deal with it by fair distribution” of asylum seekers, Vitsas said, adding that Ankara should face consequences for its actions.
Before coming to power, Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party had accused Syriza of being too soft on migration. But the new government, too, has struggled to find an effective way to address the issue. Migrant arrivals on Greek islands rose significantly in recent months even before Turkey’s announcement last week.
As a result, Mitsotakis has come under pressure from hard-liners within his party to adopt a tougher approach.
The government has already pushed through legislation aiming to speed up deportations of failed asylum seekers and was in the process of building closed camps on the islands. It also re-established the migration ministry after initially abolishing it last year.
But in the absence of an EU plan to help frontline states, progress has been slow. On Tuesday, Mitsotakis hopes to show the EU leadership that if it wants to secure the bloc’s borders, it needs to listen to Greece — and follow words with action.