The construction of registration centers for migrants in Greece was meant to stem the tide of people into Europe. But so far only one exists on the island of Lesbos — and it’s not making much of a dent.
A few kilometres south of Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, an elderly man stands close to a cliff. His eyes are fixed on the eight-mile, watery stretch separating the city’s outskirts from the Turkish coast. He’s looking for the next dinghy with refugees and migrants that will brave the perilous crossing in an attempt to land on the stony beach below.
The man, Manolis, has been at this spot since noon. By 4 p.m., he has helped migrants disembark from six flimsy boats. “No one was in any danger, thank God. This was a good day, with calm seas and high temperatures,” he says with relief. The previous day, a five-year-old child and two women died from hypothermia after crossing to Lesbos in freezing weather.
Manolis, a local, spends hours here every day. “I couldn’t just watch the tragedy unfold in the news,” he says. He wishes Europe’s politicians would react similarly. A year into the refugee crisis, Europe’s response has involved a combination of unrealistic targets, foot-dragging, shortsighted self-interest and bureaucratic insanity. Last year, 3,771 people lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean.
European officials are now emphasizing the importance of registration centers on Greek islands. In theory, these so-called “hotspots” would help slow the flow of migrants heading to the north and mitigate security risks by swiftly identifying, registering and fingerprinting all arrivals. Migrants ineligible for protection would be deported and the rest distributed across Europe.
There are two main problems with the hotspots concept. First, only one of the five planned hotspots in Greece actually exists and is sufficiently operational. It is located close to the village of Moria, 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Mytilene.
So far, the planned hotpots on the other four Greek islands have been hampered by opposition from local residents and mayors, red tape and a lack of funding and resources. In Kos, for example, the government and the island’s mayor disagree about the location and mission of the hotspot. The mayor wants refugees to remain a maximum of 24 hours, fearing a more prolonged and prominent presence will be bad for tourism.
Migrant Flow Still One-Sided
As for the flow of people northwards, nothing has changed. The migrants keep coming. On Wednesday of last week, despite snow and freezing temperatures, more than 2,000 people made the crossing to Lesbos. According to a report in the Greek state news agency, smugglers had cut prices by half that day, to €500. As for deportations, in the first two weeks of January Greece sent back 130 people to Turkey while some 30,000 came from the opposite direction.
The relocation scheme is not faring much better. Hotspots are supposed to be closely linked to a much advertised EU plan that envisages the distribution of a total of 66,400 asylum seekers from Greece to other EU member-states.
But that target number is laughable given the scale of the crisis (in 2015, more than 850,000 people arrived in Greece). Still, even by those low standards, the results are disappointing. A representative from the Asylum Authority in Athens told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the grand total of relocations of asylum-seekers from Greece by Jan. 25 would be 157.
Refugees are duly informed by officials in Moria that they can apply for the relocation scheme, but very few choose to do so. The vast majority take their temporary permits, board the next ferry to Athens and then head north to the Greek border with Macedonia. From there, if they manage to cross the border, their destination is usually Germany.
But even if more migrants were to choose Greece as their temporary home, where are they supposed to stay? Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has correctly shut down inhumane migrant detention centers. Greece was supposed to build hospitality centers instead, with a capacity of 20,000 people, on the mainland. So far, though, they are nowhere to be seen. “All we have is speculation. Nothing concrete about the centers,” says an official at Greece’s Immigration Ministry.
The rent subsidy program has been just as hobbled. It was supposed to offer subsidies to 20,000 refugees to allow them to stay in proper homes in Greece. Tsipras had even said this would give a welcome boost to the depressed real estate market. But so far nothing has happened. SPIEGEL ONLINE was told that the Athens office of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is currently evaluating the proposals of NGOs who have applied to run the program.
Many in Europe point the finger at Greece, arguing that the Tsipras government is intentionally dragging its feet, letting migrants continue their journey north to protect tourism and avoid the kind of political fallout now being faced by Angela Merkel.
The government rejects this criticism. There is genuine fear in Athens that a lack of progress will be an excuse by EU countries to raise more walls, close more borders. Greece could go from being a transit country to being a bottleneck, a “warehouse,” as Tsipras has warned.
But even Greek officials claim that Greek bureaucracy is one reason for the slow progress. Greece can actually cut red tape in a minute — when it wants to.
That’s what Athens did ahead of the 2004 Olympics, which were well-staged — at an astronomical cost — through a combination of strong political will, popular support and a litany of special legislation and expedited processes. Parliamentary decorum and due process weren’t big obstacles when parliamentarians had to vote to secure bailout loans in the dead of the night. Unfortunately, the humanitarian tragedy doesn’t seem to merit the same kind of relentless efficiency.
Whatever its failings, though, Greece is an easy and convenient target. A country with few resources, battling recession and social strife, is being asked to handle a humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions with little help from its friends. Greek officials often slam Europe for delays in sending more men, money and resources. They are also outraged both by Turkey for failing to clamp down on smuggling networks and by some of Greece’s wealthier partners like Austria, who, safe in their geographical distance, decide to cap admissions and tighten border controls.
The way things stand, and as Greece braces for a spike in migrant arrivals in the spring, one thing is certain: There will be more deaths in the Aegean.