Will Greece become the Calais of Europe?

Refugees try to cross the Austrian border. [Freedom House/Flickr]

Greece is at risk of becoming one giant refugee hotspot. The closure of its northern border and the continued influx of refugees from Turkey has placed Athens in a critical situation. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

Last Tuesday (1 March), in an interview with Slovakian newspaper Hospodarske Noviny, the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico once again provoked the Greek government in no uncertain terms: “Tsipras, if you do not make an effort, there will only be one hotspot, and it will be called Greece.”

This understandably raised some heckles in Greece, not only for its threatening overtones, but because it evokes a situation that is already becoming a reality.

The Austrian effect

The refugee situation in Greece has been difficult since last summer, but things took a steep downward turn when Austria announced in February that it would only allow 3,200 refugees to transit through the country each day, on their way to Germany. It also decided to limit the number of asylum applications it would process to 80 per day. Austria had previously implemented systematic checks on its southern borders.

Since then, the Balkan countries have found themselves confronted with a mass of refugees in need of aid. Their response has been to close the borders one after the other, in domino fashion, right up to Idomeni, a crossing point between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

The Macedonian authorities also closed their land border to Greece, for fear of ending up with camps filled with refugees turned back from further up the migration trail. The one obvious loser in this game is Greece.

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The noose tightens around Greece

Greece’s major problem is that the majority of the refugees from Turkey arrive over the Aegean sea; a border which, contrary to what the Slovakian prime minister might say, is impossible to “close”.

So how should the flow of refugees be stopped? Should they be sent back to Turkey on their rafts, again risking their lives, as the Belgian Migration Minister Théo Francken suggested? Should they be “stopped” from crossing? And if so, how?

In reality, any accusation that the crisis is a result of the incompetent management of Greece’s border with Turkey should be brushed aside. Italy has faced the same problem, to a lesser extent, in its southern waters, and nobody has accused Rome of not adequately controlling its territory.

As long as the wars rage on in Syria and Iraq, and as long as Turkey fails to manage the migratory flows out of its territory towards the EU, Greece will be condemned to accept any refugees that may arrive.

To the north, refugees can no longer cross into the FYROM. On Tuesday, 10,000 people descended on the crossing point at Idomeni and only 170 made it through. The camps in the north of Greece are overcrowded.

Greece has become a bottleneck in the migration route: the “Calais” of the European continent. And just like in northern Europe, the refugees do not want to stay in Greece. They are just being held there. So they amass in makeshift camps and refuse to leave the borders they hope to cross.

It seems that Robert Fico’s threat is on the verge of becoming a reality. Worse still, it looks as though this situation is becoming accepted as business as usual, and as if Greece had accepted its fate.

Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker have criticised Austria for its decision and opened an inquiry into its legality. But faced with the urgency of the situation and the broad support Austria enjoys across Central Europe, this response is pitifully inadequate.

Even countries like France have failed to speak out against this choice to contain the problem “at Europe’s gates”. For many European governments, seeing the refugees stopped in their tracks in Greece would be a welcome development. But what about Germany?

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What does Germany want?

While Merkel continues to reject any suggestion of refugee quotas and keeps the German borders open, her strategy in recent months has been to try to make the flow of refugees “dry up” by taking action “at its source”.

That is why she launched a spectacular process of rapprochement with Turkey, promising Ankara €3 billion in aid and the reopening of the EU accession process. But Turkey is not responding as Berlin had hoped. And with good reason.

Ankara knows it can use the refugee crisis to leverage further concessions from the EU. From the Cyprus situation to EU accession and the promised aid package (which Turkey would like to increase to €5 billion), there is no shortage of demands to be met.

The refugee bottleneck in Greece is not, on the whole, bad news for the Chancellor. Her current political aim is to appease her conservative CDU voters by demonstrating that she can slow down the numbers of refugees arriving on German soil ahead of the regional elections in three Länder (regions) on 13 March.

But also, more practically, this slow-down will give Germany a chance to integrate the 1.1 million refugees that have arrived so far.

Merkel’s balancing act is not an easy one to sustain. Politically, the Chancellor’s discourse has remained open, but she is also quite happy to see the number of refugee arrivals fall. And this is clearly her aim. But any slowdown in arrivals can only mean one thing: the refugees are stuck in Greece.

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Merkel’s ambiguous stance on Greece

Last Sunday (28 February), the German Chancellor had called for the EU to show solidarity with Greece. “We can’t drop Greece,” she said. But this appeal was a double-edged sword: it also means that the EU should help Greece carry out its role as the “Calais of Europe”.

In other words, the EU should help Greece to become one giant hotspot.

On Tuesday (1 March), Merkel said there was no question of Germany collecting refugees directly from the Greek-Macedonian border. “There is still capacity for hosting refugees in Greece,” she said.

So in short, her position is this: yes to helping Greece, but no to reducing the number of migrants passing through the country.

Any aid will strictly be to help the country adapt to its new role as Europe’s migration bottleneck. The €700 million in EU aid made available for Greece last Tuesday, a paltry sum, only part of which is destined for Greece, is intended for this purpose. It is as though the EU is trying to set the Greek situation in stone by removing the most disastrous humanitarian and security aspects of the crisis.

Greek acceptance

And the Greek government seems inclined to accept its fate. After an attempt at escalation with Austria, in which Greece recalled its ambassador from Vienna, Athens has adopted a more conciliatory attitude.

Nikos Kotzias, Greece’s foreign minister, said last Tuesday (1 March) on television channel Skai that the influx of refugees is “manageable”. Greece’s creditors have also suddenly become more understanding over the pension reforms demanded under the memorandum.

According to Bloomberg, Berlin would be prepared to accept concessions on the memorandum in order to make Greece more willing to accept its front-line role in the refugee crisis. This idea has been floating since last October.

Repeatedly denied by the German government, this now appears to be what is happening. For Tsipras, greater budgetary manoeuvrability may be an acceptable price for allowing the country to become a giant refugee “waiting room”.

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Risky business for Greece

This is clearly a risky bet for the Greek prime minister. The refugees do not want to stay in Greece: their objective is Germany. They understandably reject any measure that may further distance them from that objective, be it a compulsory move to another European country or to another camp within Greece itself. And the risk of violent resistance cannot be ignored, as the events in Idomeni showed.

But whatever happens within the European Union, the flow of refugees towards the EU will not let up, rendering European financial aid all but useless.

Europe is almost totally powerless to redistribute refugees from Greece to other member states. As other EU countries refuse to shoulder their part of the burden, the humanitarian situation in Greece will become even more dire, the UN said last Monday.

If no action is taken, Greece’s tourism industry may feel the impact as the country becomes a less attractive destination for holidaymakers. And the Greek state’s revenues depend heavily on the tourist season.

When the country’s financial problems resurface, will we dare, this time round, to blame it on Greece’s incompetent leaders and lazy citizens?

The European strategy of “managing the problems on the ground”, as Merkel put it, comes at a high risk for the country. It also betrays a cruel reality for Europe: solidarity is minimal, delayed and subject to national interests. And the smaller, more fragile countries are always sacrificed to protect the interests of the bigger ones. This darker side of the European Union had already become painfully apparent during the financial crisis.

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