The refugee crisis is a European problem and demands a European solution

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Greek island of Lesbos is temporarily home to thousands of asylum seekers. [Konstantinos Mavroudis/Flickr]

Now is the time for Europe to pull together to solve the refugee crisis, before barbed wire fences and xenophobia destroy our fundamental values, writes Dimitris Papadimoulis.

Dimitris Papadimoulis is a Syriza MEP (GUE-NGL) and European Parliament vice-president for gender equality and diversity.

Since the beginning of 2015, refugee flows have seen a major surge. The majority of refugees come from war-torn Syria, and the first gate towards EU is, geographically, Greece. The Greek government is doing its best to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of refugees – more than 80% of the overall refugee flows, or more than 850,000 counted by end of December 2015 – in the midst of a devastating financial crisis. The fact that these two crises are occurring simultaneously is bad news for Greece and the Syriza-led government, considering that a country with 11 million people and expansive sea borders is called on to shoulder extraordinarily high burdens and challenges. Specifically to successfully receive and temporarily accommodate refugees, while implementing an austerity programme and bringing about broad reforms.

The disappointing responsiveness of the EU member states

The Greek government has been fiercely criticised by a growing number of its counterparts in the EU, ever since the refugee flows began to increase so drastically. This criticism is unfounded for a number of reasons. First, arrivals since the beginning of 2015 have gone up by 1972% compared to 2014, with more than 500,000 refugees having landed on the island of Lesbos alone. Second, the Greek state has so far spent €350.6 million supporting the refugees, and is planning to spend another €112 million in the coming years. And at the same time, and despite difficulties and financial burdens, hotspots are being prepared on the Aegean Sea islands and in the Attica region.

But Juncker’s relocation programme has yielded poor results so far, causing over-crowding in the islands as well as shortages of basic goods. Civil society and solidarity networks have operated in an exemplary and persistent way, against the odds, showing commitment to providing whatever they can to save and shelter all these hundreds of thousands of desperate people.

More precisely, by the end of 2015 Greece had only received offers from 13 member states to relocate 595 people, in the framework of the relocation program, when the agreed number for the country, based on the September agreement, is up to 66,400 out of a total of 160,000 places allocated to the EU28. Of the places offered to 595 asylum-seekers, only 82 have been filled so far. Should EU member states keep on with such a slow pace of implementation, it is almost certain that the blame game against Greece will strengthen and pressure on the government and society will become unbearable.  

On the contrary, the reluctance of many member states to contribute to address this issue, to increase burden-sharing and bear the costs and responsibilities in a balanced and coordinated way, both with respect to the refugees themselves but also with regard to Greece and Italy, constitutes one of the major threats to the cohesion of the European establishment. Already we are witnessing the growing appeal of racist and xenophobic movements and parties across EU, with governments sealing their borders to refugees. The fundamental vision of the EU as a place of solidarity, equality and liberty is under serious threat.

The Schengen situation serves the EU’s distorting voices

Statements about Greece’s expulsion from the Schengen area will not provide any better solution. Neither for Greece nor for the EU. This discussion is hypocritical and biased, making the country a scapegoat, distancing a European solution and fostering an “à la carte” Union.

Greece’s expulsion story does not offer any solution to the refugee crisis, and the structural and ideological problems facing the EU. It is clearly an attempt to punish the Greek government and undo the efforts of organisations and voluntary groups that are mobilised in the islands on the refugee front. At the same time, such a decision would constitute a clear message that the Greek people are no longer welcome in the EU, as restrictions on free movement of citizens and goods would apply. It would also be highly probable that racist incidents would thrive, leading to social upheaval and political and economic unrest in the country, feeding an already rising tide of Euroscepticism. With all this taken into account, one important factor has not been addressed: that of Turkey’s role in the slow implementation of the agreement signed with the EU regarding its obligation to tackle the smugglers’ networks and control refugee flows.

Bold decisions and political cooperation are strongly needed

The Syriza delegation in the European Parliament is making a huge effort to change the way the refugee crisis is perceived and foster joint, cooperative action among member states. We are calling all democratic political parties in the Parliament to press their governments for a European solution. At the same time, the European Commission should better monitor the implementation of the joint agreement with Turkey, while the EU’s involvement in the Syria talks towards a cease-fire has to be further strengthened. If we do not try to see the ‘big picture’ and act collectively, it is almost certain that one by one those fundamental values that connect EU member states and their people will start dissolving.

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