Greece is still struggling to cope with the refugee crisis – and now thousands of migrants have gone missing

As both left and right stir up ideological fervour among their voter bases, the Greek state is still too inefficient and dysfunctional to even use the money the EU has given it to spend

Thimios Tzallas
Wednesday 30 October 2019 11:29
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Child refugees rescued from boat on Lesbos shore in 2017

Refugee flows to Greece, one of migrants’ and refugees’ most important points of entry into Europe, have risen by 200% in the last five months, mainly due to conditions in Syria and the Turkish government’s efforts to relocate refugees away from Istanbul. But for years, Greece has been unable to manage effectively its migration problem, and the country is still far from able to accommodate this sharp increase, even if it is much smaller than the dramatic uptick in 2015.

That year, when refugee flows into Greece were at their height, Tasia Christodolopoulou, then minister of immigration policy in SYRIZA’s newly-elected left-wing government, was asked where the refugees entering the country went. “I don’t know, they simply disappear,” she replied. This response soon became the epitome of the frivolity with which SYRIZA treated power.

Five years later, the problem is in the hands of the centre-right government led by the New Democracy party, which succeeded SYRIZA last summer. The influx of migrants and refugees has slowed: approximately 50,000 migrants reached the Greek border with Turkey in 2019, as compared to a million in 2015. Yet Greece still does not know where these refugees are.

Out of 156,000 who requested asylum in the last three years, only 40,000 were granted it. “Where are the 115,000 that the system did not accommodate? Where did they go?” wondered Michalis Chrysohoidis, Minister of Citizen Protection, in dramatic tones.

For a country with a population of 11 million to receive 50,000 people is like a city the size of Cardiff being created in Britain each year. It would be a grave challenge for any country, let alone Greece and its inefficient state institutions. Yet Greece has also failed to make use of the resources it has at its disposal.

As of now, the state has used only one quarter of the financial assistance it has received from the EU, and investigations are underway about the squandering of resources in providing meals for the refugees. The consequences for the system and the country at large are already all too apparent.

Across the country, centres where migrants are received and identified are overflowing. A few days ago, residents of Vrasnas, near Thessaloniki, stopped buses carrying refugees at toll stations on the grounds that their presence will “cause a drop in tourism and a rise in crime”. At a camp in Katsikas, near Ioannina, refugees refused to allow newly arrived migrants in; the camp was meant to house 300 migrants, but more than 1,000 people now live in containers there.

Meanwhile, Greece’s two major political parties are both trying hard to conceal their failure to sort out the problem. Instead of detailing how impossible it is to manage, they are both resorting to a needless ideological pitches to their political bases.

When SYRIZA was in government, the open border policy it pursued was an exercise in making a moral case to their voters. It failed to yield the right results, both electorally and practically. It’s not enough for a government to have good intentions toward arriving refugees; on the contrary, it can be extremely cruel if the appropriate infrastructure is not in place. The camp at Moria has become an international symbol of the degradation of migrants’ lives; designed to hold 3,000 at most, it now hosts some 13,000 people in miserable conditions.

At the other end of the political spectrum, extreme voices within the New Democracy party are making a very different case to the electorate. Development and investments minister Adonis Georgiadis describes refugees with the demeaning term “illicit immigrants”. The European MP George Kyrtsos proposed that those entering the country be sent to remote, uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea so as to discourage new arrivals.

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Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, however, distances himself from this rhetoric. He’s a moderate and a reformer, with an agenda to sort out the state. He says he will speed up asylum procedures, institute more effective border controls, distinguish between refugees and economic migrants, and put an end to the system in which doctors supposedly diagnose all arrivals with post-traumatic stress so that all are given asylum.

The problem is that for Mitsotakis to achieve all this, the state’s mechanisms must support him. But the public sector is so inefficient and Greece’s relations with the EU too dysfunctional for the problem to be solved within just a few months.

Greece has already received far more migrants than its infrastructure and civil services can handle. And as yet another refugee crisis looms on its southern border, the EU must again confront the same question: will the responsibility for receiving refugees be fairly allocated among the European states – or will the other 27 merely watch Greece struggle with tens of thousands of new arrivals, even as it tries in vain to locate thousands more who’ve gone missing?

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