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Greece calls Commission’s Schengen report ‘politicised’

Justice & Home Affairs

Greece calls Commission’s Schengen report ‘politicised’

Eleonas Refugee Centre. Athens, September 2015.

[Martin Leveneur/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE / The Greek government has accused the European Commission of trying to “isolate” the debt-ridden country, and claims that a report assessing Greece’s observance of Schengen regulations has been politicised and tampered with. 

On Wednesday (27 January), the College of Commissioners discussed a draft of the Schengen Evaluation Report on Greece.

The executive blasted Athens for its handling of the refugee crisis, saying it had “seriously neglected” its duty to protect the bloc’s frontiers. It also raised the prospect of border controls with the rest of the passport-free zone.

>>Read: Tension grows between Brussels and Athens over Schengen rules

The European Commission’s report triggered strong reactions in Athens, and the leftist Syriza government blamed it for trying to “isolate” the country.

“We consider as non-constructive the attempt to isolate a member state on a communication level, on the occasion of an extraordinary review,” Greece’s Alternate Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Nikos Xydakis, told EurActiv.

“The Greek government reiterates that the refugee crisis cannot be addressed with a European Union being divided and the [EU] partners blaming each other. Greece does not produce the refugee crisis, it receives it,” he added.

“The safest route is the implementation of European Council decisions. Unfortunately very little has been done,” he explained.

Xydakis continued, stating that the blame game could not provide a solution to a problem of historic dimensions.

“Greece is working hard to fulfill its obligations, since the country has been for six years in a financial suffocation regime, under the supervision of European mechanisms, in continuing recession and unemployment. Greece surpasses herself. We expect all partners to do likewise,” he stressed.

‘Political and legal issues’

A high ranking Greek government source told EurActiv that the process that had been followed raised “both political and legal” issues.

The source explained that the report had come through an emergency evaluation process on 10-13 November, in which Commission delegates examined points in Evros, Orestiada, Chios and Samos.

“In Evros and Orestiada the flows are minimal […] the situation in the field, though, has dramatically changed since then,” the Greek official said.

The source added that the first version of the report was on 9 December, and the Greek side had the opportunity to comment on the findings, which was not the case for the second version.

“The second and final version of 12 January (that) was discussed in the College of Commissioners on Wednesday (27 January) had not been formally notified to the Greek side, but only after the College meeting.”

“Between the two texts, which are based on the same evaluation report, there are changes in phraseology,” the source emphasised.

“We would also expect to see similar assessments, and in many other border points in Europe, which have seen increased refugee flows.”

Athens fires back with data

The Greek foreign ministry released statistics on Wednesday (27 January) regarding the state of play of the refugee crisis.

The data showed that in 2015, 851,319 refugees and immigrants entered the country while the previous year the number just 41.074, representing a 1972% increase.

As an example, in December 2014 the number of refugees and immigrants who arrived in Greece was 2,056, while in the same month in 2015, it was 103,338.

Regarding the composition of the new arrivals in 2015, the Greek foreign ministry noted that according to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) data, 57% were Syrians, 24% Afghans and 9% Iraqi, the majority of whom could fall under a refugee regime and, therefore, be eligible for asylum.

The European Commission, though, seems to work with different data.

On 26 January, Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud cited Frontex data, saying that for December [2015], “the share of people not likely to be eligible for asylum is a lot higher than we’ve seen in rest of 2015 […] roughly 60%”.

She explained, though, that the figures were not yet public.

In a recent interview with EurActiv, Greece’s Alternate Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Nikos Xydakis, said that Athens had identified new routes and urged Turkey to check the people who enter its territory from many countries, mostly Arab and Islamic, without a visa.

>>Read: Greek minister: New EU border force should assume full control of refugees

“The route we have identified is the following: Moroccans and Algerians can travel without a visa from Maghreb countries, with a very cheap ticket with Turkish Airlines, directly to Constantinople [Istanbul], and then they easily reach the coast and go to the other side [Greece],” Xydakis noted.

As far as the people who lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that of the 851,319 arrivals in Greece, 805 died. Italy had 135,052 arrivals and 2, 892 fatalities, and Spain 3,845 arrivals and 74 fatalities.

Regarding the relocation program agreed on by the European Council on 23 September for 160,000 refugees, only 414 have been relocated from Greece and Italy.

Poor response from Civil Protection Mechanism

The Greek foreign affairs ministry’s data also emphasised the poor response of the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism to Greek government requests.

“We tabled our request today – and not a few months ago – because back then we were not in a position to weigh our specific needs,” Alternate Minister for Immigration Policy Yiannis Mouzalas said on Thursday (28 January).

The Civil Protection Mechanism was established in 2001 as a means of fostering cooperation among national civil protection authorities across Europe.

Athens has requested 26 ambulances, and to date, has received nothing. Of the 100,000 sleeping bags Greece has so far requested, just 4,100 have been delivered.

Asked by EurActiv today to comment on the performance of the Civil Protection Mechanism, European Commission chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said:

“We are fully aware of the great effort that Greece is currently undertaking to improve the situation in the Aegean. […] I simply want to remind that this happened at our invitation. We invited Greece to activate this mechanism.”

Bertaud noted that efforts were being made, but there was still much to be done.

“For example, they requested 80,000 blankets, they got 80,000 blankets. It’s clear that all categories have not been met, but we continue to ask and to pressure other member states to respond to this call,” she said.

Unbearable cost

Cash-strapped Athensalso analyzed the cost covered by exclusively national resources for tackling the refugee crisis.

The total cost is estimated at €350,648,475.

According to Athens, just for the search rescue and the transport from the islands to the mainland, €146,564,680 is needed, while for the opening of reception facilities, the figure stands at €195,902,800.