When President Obama arrives Tuesday in Europe, he will touch down in a country at the center of the continent’s refugee crisis — Greece — before journeying to one that has helped guide the continent’s response — Germany.
The symbolic juxtaposition of the two countries underscores the balance Obama hopes to strike on his last trip to Europe as president. While he plans to buttress Greek efforts to cope with migrants fleeing the battlefields of the Middle East, he must contend with other European Union members’ desire to keep more refugees out of their countries.
That task became more complicated after Donald Trump won the White House, in part by campaigning to severely restrict asylum seekers from entering the United States.
“The trip to Greece is about trying to address not just the refugee crisis, but to speak to the broader challenges Europe faces moving forward and to recognize that Greece is a front-line state when it comes to both irregular migration and economic recovery,” said Charles Kupchan, the National Security Council’s senior director for European affairs.
In Greece, the primary entry point for Middle Eastern migrants, roughly 50,000 asylum seekers remain corralled in refugee camps and U.N.-sponsored accommodations, most of them waiting for E.U. countries to make good on pledges to resettle tens of thousands of refugees in countries across the wealthy bloc. Germany, meanwhile, was the destination of choice for the majority of arriving asylum seekers, and it is still dealing with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applications for sanctuary.
Greek Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas said in an interview Friday that his country expects Obama to emphasize “how important it is to manage the crisis and not close your eyes to such a crisis” during his stops in Athens and Berlin this week.
“It’s not a Greek problem, it’s a European problem,” Mouzalas said.
In Athens, the president will use the city’s history as the cradle of democracy as the backdrop to talk about the importance of European unity, but it is unclear how his message will resonate at home after an election that suggests Americans are prepared to turn inward.
Obama also will advocate additional debt relief for Greece, even as he prods Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to undertake more institutional reforms. But George Papaconstantinou, who served as Greece’s finance minister from October 2009 to June 2011, said that with just two months left in Obama’s term, his words will have limited influence, especially given Trump’s victory.
“The reality is that this is post-election, so while it is welcome, it does carry less weight than before,” Papaconstantinou said. “This is not 2010, when he was calling [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel to get involved. This is not the same. I don’t think this is going to change anything much in Berlin.”
Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, said the president’s speech will show “the need to recognize the challenges presented by globalization, which are manifested in many recent elections including our own,” but will still advocate policies to “invest in democratic governance, open markets . . . and combat inequality.”
A fragile E.U. deal with Turkey and moves by Balkan nations to seal their borders to migrants have reduced last year’s flood of arrivals to a steady trickle. The number of migrants arriving in Greece each day has fallen from an average of 7,000 a day in October 2015 to 100 now. But the region is still coping with major fallout.
The continent remains divided on how to deal with the historic wave of asylum seekers, and some national leaders are arguing that Europe should turn away most of them. Merkel, who last year famously welcomed refugees to Germany, has in recent months faced steep political losses and a growing public backlash.
In fact, the rhetoric in Europe today echoes the debate over immigration in the United States, with opponents decrying cultural invasion and security risks from the arriving newcomers.
Obama will be retracing the steps (though in far greater comfort) of nearly 900,000 migrants who transited last year from Greece to Germany.
Pro-refugee and rights groups called Obama’s visit an opportunity to highlight the plight of migrants, particularly the tens of thousands stranded in dire conditions in Greece.
“We think it’s a great move. We hope Obama will be bold,” said Eva Cosse, Greece specialist for Human Rights Watch. “He needs to be blunt about the situation in Greece and the lack of European Union solidarity to help these people.”
According to a recent report from Amnesty International, many migrants trapped in Greece are living in appalling conditions in unheated camps. An additional 16,000 people are stuck on Greek islands in severely overcrowded camps.
The rights group’s report said there was no effective system to identify vulnerable individuals, such as pregnant women, elderly people, victims of torture, people with disabilities or unaccompanied children, and many are not being provided with the specialized services they need, putting them at heightened risk.
One of the biggest problems is roughly 2,500 unaccompanied minors, some of whom are initially kept in detention by Greek authorities. Roughly half of them, Cosse said, are unaccounted for.
Mouzalas said the conditions in the centers “are not very good, but we make them better every day.” He noted that 400 of the unaccompanied minors have the right to be reunified with family members elsewhere in Europe, but these countries have accepted only 90 of them.
“That’s a very big focus,” he said, referring to unaccompanied minors, adding that younger children are now attending local schools with Greek children.
“If we had not created these camps, these people would have been in the middle of fields in mud, their children would not be integrated in schools, and their sick would not be in hospitals,” Mouzalas added.
Still, Yonous Muhammadi, president of the Greek Forum of Refugees, said the global community must act soon or these refugees could be permanently marginalized.
“If we continue this absurdity like this, it means there is no way for the integration of these people into Greek society,” Muhammadi said.
While Mouzalas acknowledged that the Greek government was still struggling to handle the influx of migrants, he said E.U. authorities have failed to deliver critical assistance on several fronts. Three years ago, Greece did not have an asylum service; it now has one of Europe’s largest. But while it has asked other E.U. countries to send more than 400 asylum specialists to Greece, they have dispatched just 30.
Karl Kopp, spokesman for the Germany-based refugee activist group Pro Asyl, said he hoped Obama would focus on the plight of migrants as a counterpoint to rising right-wing sentiment against them. He urged Obama to pledge that the United States will take in more refugees — but said he recognizes the limits on an outgoing president.
“Obama won’t be able to write the check he would like to write, because he won’t be in power for much longer,” Kopp said.
Faiola reported from Berlin.