Refugees’ tents at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the village of Idomeni. Photograph: Eldar Emric/AP
The current influx of refugees into Greece has major humanitarian implications but it also poses a direct threat to the European Union. Together with the neverending eurozone crisis and the Brexit referendum, it could throw the EU into an existential crisis in 2016. Visionary leadership is called for, which at present looks in short supply.
According to the UNHCR, in 2014 Syria was the main source of refugees in the world, and 95% of Syrian refugees were located in surrounding countries. Turkey held the largest number at roughly 1.6 million. It is worth noting that developing countries took 86% of the world’s refugees in 2014. The poor proved more compassionate and generous than the rich yet again.
In 2015 Greece became the main point of entry into the EU of refugees and migrants from Turkey; it is believed 850,000 people undertook the perilous crossing of the Aegean. In January and February more than 120,000 have arrived – far more than the same period last year. At this rate there will be millions of men, women and children who will risk their lives in shoddy rubber dinghies between Turkey and Greece in 2016. Up to 90% are likely to be from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
These are not economic migrants. There is absolutely no doubt that the wave of refugees and migrants into Europe is a direct result of the destruction of the three countries largely due to western intervention during the last three decades.
A bit of perspective is necessary at this point. The EU has the largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $18.5tr (£13tr) in 2014. Its total population is in excess of 500 million. A few million desperate people would hardly upset the overall balance, especially as the migrants are typically young and often well educated. Bearing in mind Europe’s moral obligation toward Syrians and Iraqis, whose countries were ruined in part due to European complicity, a rational and humane approach by the EU would have entailed safe passage, humanitarian aid, proportionate allocation across its territory, and help with integration. None of that has happened because the reality of the EU is quite different to the image it wishes to cultivate. Power politics, nationalism and even racism have gained the upper hand.
For a long time the EU has treated Turkey, Lebanon and other neighbouring countries as its outer border, a convenient depository for the human souls fleeing Syria. Things began to change in 2015-16, as Russian intervention in Syria sparked new brutalities. Turkey, aiming to crush the Kurdish independence movement, sought a “sanitary zone” along its Syrian border. Burgeoning refugee flows across the Aegean offered Turkey useful extra pressure on the west to accept this plan. Faced with this challenge, the EU failed to develop a coherent response and fell into disarray.
Some northern countries, including Germany, Sweden and Denmark, to their credit initially received substantial numbers of refugees. Other powerful nations, including France and the UK, kept very quiet. As refugee and migrant numbers swelled, however, the pressure from the extreme right and from nascent Islamophobia began to be felt even by Chancellor Merkel in Germany.
Since the beginning of 2016 the outlook has changed noticeably in the EU. In mid-February the so-called Visegrad group – Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – effectively closed borders to refugees. A little later, Austria held a summit of the countries of the western Balkans – everyone except Greece – that also decided to restrict refugee inflows. The borders of Greece have been effectively sealed, turning the country into a dumping ground for refugees coming from Turkey. It is, of course, highly unlikely that the small EU countries restricting refugee access would have engaged in such momentous action without at least the tacit toleration of Germany.
The Greek state has certainly been inefficient in handling the refugee wave. Much of the burden of the emerging humanitarian crisis has fallen on international NGOs and Greek civil society. The problem is that the heavy flows across the water from Turkey might persist despite the closed borders with the rest of Europe. If, say, 150,000 people found themselves trapped in makeshift camps in the coming period, things could become very tense in Greece .
The Greek economy is prostrate after eight years of recession and six years of disastrous austerity policies. Unemployment is at 24%, there is deep poverty in urban areas, welfare provision has been ruined, and the state is malfunctioning. Greece lacks the resources to cope with large numbers of refugees in a humane and efficient way.
If the Greek borders remained sealed and the EU merely provides humanitarian aid to Greece to keep the unfortunates away from the rest of Europe, popular reaction in the country could become unpleasant. The Syriza government is largely discredited and Euroscepticism is in the ascendant. The reality of the EU has proven very different from the Europeanist ideology of “soft power”, civilisation, culture and all the rest. There is a growing demand across social layers to reassert sovereignty.
At the forthcoming summit on 7 March the EU will have one more chance to adopt a rational and humane policy toward refugees, thus defusing the nascent crisis within the union. The omens, however, do not look good. The EU is probably heading for major ructions. Soon we will know.
First published in The Guardian