For some weeks now, I have been wanting to write a follow-up piece on the refugee situation in Greece, but I have been overwhelmed by the pace of events, which has exceeded my capacity to absorb and comment on them. To summarize what has happened since our trip to Lesvos, which I last wrote about a month ago:
1) The expected drop-off in refugee arrivals from Turkey due to the onset of colder, wetter fall weather and rougher seas did not occur. In fact, the flow increased dramatically. The hundreds of arrivals per day that we witnessed in September turned into thousands per day in October despite rough seas, with a concomitant increase in deaths in the crossing. On October 20, to pick one day, over 8,000 people arrived on the Greek islands. Total migrant/refugee arrivals in Greece have now reached a staggering 700,000 in 2015. The Greek Coast Guard and emergency service personnel have been working 24-7 trying to rescue people from the sea, but they are completely overwhelmed and understaffed. Despite their efforts, some 500 people died on the Turkey-Greek island route in October.
2) The Greeks have been giving people free passage through the country after a cursory registration process on the islands. They have been criticized for failing to screen adequately arriving migrants, but anything more rigorous would create a massive bottleneck, leaving thousands of people in cramped, inadequate facilities on small islands that are completely unprepared for and incapable of handling this. News reports today say that European ministers in an emergency session in Brussels are focusing on the need to strengthen border controls on the periphery of the EU, that is, on the Greek islands. But, let’s face it, this isn’t going to happen without a massive influx of resources from the EU.
3) Most of the migrants arriving on the Greek islands have moved quickly through the country, but a small percentage, most of them Afghans, have been stranded in Athens. The New York Times had a story recently describing the increasingly common journey of impoverished Afghans out of the country, via a hostile Iran, where guards routinely shoot at the migrants, then on to Turkey and Greece. They often leave with only enough funds to get them as far as Turkey or Greece, where they end up stranded. If you go to Victoria Square in Athens on any given day now, you will find it filled with Afghans and other migrants who appear to be stranded here. They are surviving on charity from aid organizations now, but how long will this last? What will happen to these people when the aid agencies move on to another crisis? The Greek government certainly can’t support them.
4) The Paris attacks, involving at least one terrorist who made his way through Greece on a stolen Syrian passport, suddenly changed the entire conversation on the refugee problem. Every country looking for an excuse to close their borders to refugees (Poland, Hungary, etc.) now has the perfect one. Who can argue with the right of those countries to secure their borders from terrorists? Conveniently, this will also allow them to evade their responsibility to share in the burden of taking in the legitimate refugees many of whom are, in fact, fleeing from the horrors of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
5) The Americans, who had previously agreed to take a minuscule trickle of Syrian refugees over the next several years, are now poised to shut off completely that tiny opening. We are being offered many useful suggestions by a variety of American politicians, such as Donald Trump’s brilliant idea of requiring all Muslims in the U.S. to register in a national database. Should we also require that they all wear a patch with a yellow crescent to identify them? Or maybe just round them all up and put them in detention centers?
The refugee crisis, vastly complicated now by the horrific attacks in Paris, is, nonetheless, here to stay. Can the Greek government do more to police their borders? Probably. But not without a huge infusion of resources from the EU—asking a country in the midst of a massive economic crisis, with a steadily declining GNP and 26% unemployment to carry the burden as the border police of the EU is simply not a realistic solution.
Finally, some people have asked about how to donate to the volunteer refugee assistance efforts in Lesvos. The wonderful organization that we volunteered with is now incorporated as a non-profit in Greece and it is called the Starfish Foundation. You can connect with them via their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HelpForRefugeesInMolyvos/ either to donate or to volunteer.
And…a nice video from Lesvos by the charitable organization Samaritan’s Purse, showing the volunteer efforts there and the many challenges they face.