The UNHCR have published figures for the first two months of 2016, giving details of some 138,280 people who came by sea to Greece and Italy, 36% of whom are children while 410 deaths or missing people in the Aegean Sea are also reported. During this same period Frontex started its operations in the Aegean and for the last 15 days has been accompanied by NATO. “Doctors without Borders” and other humanitarian aid organizations explicitly refer to a reception crisis rather than a refugee crisis in their communications.
What happens when some of the so-called “Balkan Route” countries closed their borders?
During the last week we have seen the results of closed borders at Balkan route countries. Thousands of refugees are gathered in Eidomeni on Greece’s northern border and are literally sleeping anywhere they can find a free space; once again aid organizations point out the inadequate medical and feeding attention. The Greek army is highly involved not only in constructing but also administrating hotspots and camps (the new legislation has already been published in the Government’s Gazette). Furthermore, the army is reopening, one by one, old military camps in order to accommodate refugees in improvised conditions clearly designed for smaller numbers of people and certainly not for families with kids. Despite NATO’s and Frontex’s operations in the Aegean the flow has not stopped. As a result of the new arrivals (and closed borders) refugees are either gathered on the islands and even sleep in the boats which operate for days as temporary accommodation or remain in the docks of Piraeus trying to organize their trip to northern Greece. Civil society keeps asking for the borders to be opened by those countries acting as a de facto shield for Austria and Germany.
What does NATO say?
The North Atlantic Alliance’s commander undermines any moves towards reopening borders or solutions for the refugees based on European solidarity with his declarations. He talks about ISIS terrorists who “grow like cancer among the refugees” and continues to blame Russia alone for the war in Syria.
What is the European Union’s attitude?
Donald Tusk, who visited Greece and Turkey last week due to the Summit Meeting (on Monday 03/07/2016) in Brussels, said that European countries should respond together and unilateral activities by some countries should be avoided. Nevertheless, he constantly refers to irregular migrants rather than refugees or people who wish to apply for asylum; he essentially accepts Turkey as a safe third country and (indirectly) undermines international and EU treaties and agreements about asylum seekers in Europe. In this context Turkey also received financial support for dealing with refugees on its territory.
What have Greek political leaders announced?
The government coalition and political leaders’ (ND, PASOK and To Potami) joint communiqué promises that Greece will fully implement the commitments resulting from the relevant decisions of EU bodies. Greece will be the EU’s external border and under this spirit Greek authorities will not only cooperate with Frontex but will facilitate its rapid evolution into a European Coast Guard while respecting Greece’s national sovereignty; and expresses willingness to host the headquarters of the newly-established European coastguard. They also declare their full cooperation with NATO’s pre-agreed missions on condition that Turkey will also respect its own corresponding obligations. Tusk’s line -about irregular migrants instead of people seeking asylum- was also fully adopted and EU countries are urged to jointly address the problem avoiding unilateral actions.
How are Greek people responding?
At the social level, during the last months, we observe with relief the Greek people’s solidarity towards refugees trying to escape from war and extreme poverty. In central Greece, at the end of the road to Stylida, more than 100 refugees are on their way by foot to the border. Greeks are coming out of their houses offering them the very basics for their long trip. Refugees coming through Nea Magnesia (a suburb whose citizens have origins in Asia Minor), students with their teacher offer food while the city’s doctors, on their own initiative, do everything they can to relieve sick refugees. At the other end of Greece, the Laconian teachers’ union organized a solidarity festival. The solidarity walls are multiplying in all big cities.
Local authorities (almost all of them) are in a fight against time in order to support any host structures by the army and the state and in some cases they are preparing their own, ad hoc ones. The Mayor of Kozani is the most notable example of someone who was accidentally informed that in the next three hours five buses with refugees would arrive in his city. Within three hours he ordered Lefkovrysi’s gym to open while putting out a statement through social media asking his citizens to help cover the basic needs. Journalists began to spread mats in the gym, university students cleaned the reception area and toilets, volunteer groups organized food, blankets and hygiene items and set up mobile kitchens. At the same time dentists gave free dental checks while doctors took care of whole families. However the gym has no central heating system and it is worth noting here that Kozani is a mountain town; although for the last few days the weather in Greece has been fair any weather change would endanger even those in shelters.
Such “empirical” and journalistic observations are now also confirmed by statistical evidence. The survey conducted by Public Issue in January 2016 on a sample of 1220 people, among other results showed that 58% of respondents actively express solidarity to refugees, providing food (39%), clothing (31%), financial aid (10%) and other services (4%). Public Issue made a projection of the results to the general population and concluded that if the answers are honest, more than 5,000,000 citizens have recently helped refugees.
Greece even under severe economic crisis and high unemployment is showing strong solidarity. Common sense as well as the spirit of past generations that have experienced wars and exile is activated nowadays in Greece either because of these past experiences or simply because of the new ones in Syria, Afghanistan and other war zones.