Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Greek government has often pointed out that the refugee issue is a European one that needs be dealt with at a European level and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will reiterate this position again at the international summit on migration that EU and African countries are holding in Valletta, Malta, on 11-12 November.

"This problem surpasses us. Greece is a country in economic crisis, and it faces a major humanitarian crisis within a crisis" the PM has said time and again, and the EU has indeed stepped up its actions to help Greece. However, despite EU action plans, the increased efforts of Greece,  recognized by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres and with overwhelming support by volunteer organizations and NGOs, local and international, the refugee crisis is still very far from being dealt with.

As Tsipras stressed in his recent address to parliament (30.10), "Greece is a part of the effort for a more effective and humanitarian management of the refugee problem", and in this vein Greece needs to play a connecting role between the EU and Turkey. "Our position is to support an organized and lawful process of resettlement of refugees from Turkey to Europe", he noted. This means identifying and registering refugees on the coasts for Turkey, and creating safe passages from there to the EU countries that will receive them.

Greek Coast Guard response to the crisis

So far this year, according to the UN Refugee Agency, 788.008 people have arrived in the EU by sea - 643.600 (81%) of whom in Greece - by crossing the sea between Greece and Turkey. During the month of October, daily arrivals on Greek islands were estimated at about 10.000 people per day.

The Hellenic Coast Guard conducts daily search and rescue operations, and since the beginning of the year and up to September, it has rescued about 62.000 people, while at least 1.400 people were rescued in the first weekend of November alone. Despite the extraordinary efforts of the Greek Coast Guard, however, many drown trying to cross from the shores of Turkey: from the beginning of the year until October 29, at least 435 people have died, including many children, in the effort to reach Greece, while the total number of dead or missing refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean stands at 3.440 people.

Reception Centres & Hotspots

In October, the European Union and Balkan leaders agreed on a 17-point plan to cooperate on managing the flows of refugees making their way through Turkey, Greece and the western Balkans. As part of this plan, Greece committed to opening enough reception centres to house 30,000 refugees by the end of the year, with the United Nations providing a further 20,000 places. So far, the Greek First Reception Service operates the open accommodation centre in Eleonas (600 places) as well as the temporary centres in Galatsi and Ellinikon (1500 places in total). As of yesterday (10.11) a new temporary migrant and refugee accommodation centre which can host about 1,000 people opened on the island of Chios.

Moreover, in order to clamp down on human trafficking in the region, the EU and Balkan leaders agreed to scale up the EU’s border agency Frontex’s presence in the Aegean Sea. The Hellenic Police and the First Reception Service, in cooperation with Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and EU-LISA, began operating the pilot hotspot in Moria, Lesvos. Another four hotspots will be established in Kos, Chios, Leros and Samos, and according to Mouzalas, Greece hopes to relocate about 10,000 people every two months, or 70,000 in a year. With the support of UNCHR, the first group of asylum seekers were processed by the Greek Asylum Service and relocated to Luxemburg last week. 

Safe passage and resettlement

An important step in efficiently confronting this crisis, as both PM Tsipras and Alternate Minister for Migration Policy Mouzalas have stressed in recent declarations, is to realize that the gateway for refugees and migrants is not Greece, but Turkey, and to shift focus from relocation to resettlement. In his recent interview with Il Manifesto, Mouzalas noted that "without Turkey there can be no solution to the refugee issue, there needs to be a control of influxes from that side", adding that whilst Greece is participating in the relocation plan, "the main solution will come through the Juncker proposal for the resettlement. This means allowing refugees to settle in Europe through a process of selection made in countries where they arrive before their entry into the EU: Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon".