As Greece continues to capture headlines over the most recent economic bailout and its potential to still derail the Eurozone, another crisis is unfolding in the country. As thousands of refugees pour into Greece in search of the safety of the EU, their numbers and the inability of Greece to cope is setting off a chain reaction that could result in a far bigger political crisis down the line.
The difficulty in handling the refugee crisis is evident in the recent news from the Greek island of Kos. A popular tourist destination near the Turkish coast, in recent months Kos has become the EU landing site for thousands of refugees, mainly Syrians fleeing that country’s ongoing civil war but also people escaping human rights abuses in Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea. But as refugees come in search of a new life within the EU, what they are finding instead is a Greek government already struggling to provide for its own citizens and completely unable to cope with the needs of new arrivals.
That struggle is demonstrated in stark relief as local officials herded thousands of refugees into the local stadium, leaving them without food or water. Those with more resources took over abandoned hotels as they waited for their paperwork to be processed. Even as those on the island struggle to get by, more refugees arrive every day believing they finally have reached the promise land of the EU only to find little support and even less desire to assist them.
A Widening Crisis
While the recent stories from Kos highlight the desperate measures many are taking to reach the EU and the difficulty the Greek government is having in managing their numbers, the crisis extends far beyond the island. Earlier this month UNHCR reported that Greece took in more migrants in the past month than it accepted in all of 2014. Year to date, Greece has seen a 750 per cent increase in the number of refugees reaching its shore from the Mediterranean compared to last year. Yet despite the dramatic increase of migrants, Greek financial woes and an overstretched international aid systems means the response is falling far short of what is needed.
Because of austerity measures and the Euro crisis – Greece is now ranked as the 7th poorest state per capita in the EU – Greece in particular is in a bad spot to handle the massive refugee flows reaching the country. Making the situation worse is the lack of political will within the EU to deal with the crisis in a comprehensive way.
Under the current Dublin Regulation that controls how EU states handle asylum requests and irregular arrivals of refugees, it is generally the responsibility of the state a person first enters to process their claim. The outcome is border states, particularly those on the central and eastern Mediterranean such as Italy and Greece, face the bulk of the burden of the crisis. With few others EU states willing to share that burden, frustration is growing as border states struggle under the weight of refugee arrivals.
“The EU is having to deal with large numbers of people arriving in an irregular manner by sea and the logistical aspects of dealing with this are inherently difficult and dangerous,” Niels Frenzen, clinical professor of law at the University of Southern California, told UN Dispatch by email. “Syria is the largest refugee crisis in post-WW II era. Millions of people are on the move as a result. So even if the EU and other neighboring countries had political consensus, they would be under strain because of the historic numbers.”
Europe, Unhelpful and Divided
The fact that political consensus is lacking only makes the problem worse.
Rather than come up with a unified approach to handling the refugee crisis, most European states are shifting blame and taking national approaches to block refugees from further entering the EU from Italy and Greece. This includes France blocking asylum seekers from entering the country from the Italian border, Hungary building a fence along its border with Serbia, and most recently, Macedonia attempting to close its border with Greece as riot police beat back refugees attempting to cross the border. These measures do little to address the underlying issue and instead create a whole new list of problems as asylum seekers desperately try to make it north.
“The biggest issue is political,” noted Frenzen. “No EU country wants to accept more people. And no country wants to engage in burden sharing in regard to people arriving in Italy and Greece. Migrants and asylum seekers are already reaching Germany, Sweden, UK and other countries by other means – overstaying visas, irregular movements – and there is no desire to accept more people who are arriving in EU by sea.”
Whether the EU likes it or not, these refugees will continue to come and they have rights that European countries are obligated to respect and uphold. In the meantime, the more Europe continues to stall in finding a unified response to the crisis, the more pressure it will place on states like Greece that have little room to handle yet another crisis. Doing so increases the likelihood that the next political crisis will occur much closer to home, and may in fact be within the EU’s own borders.