Greece’s problems are many. Thanks to the financial crisis, citizens have endured long ATM lines and shortages in stores. Greece may be the last place in Europe equipped to handle its newest problem: record numbers of migrants, particularly Syrians, arriving daily by boat.
Since the beginning of 2015, an astounding 79,338 migrants have arrived by sea, 60 percent of whom are Syrian. Slightly more migrants have transited to Greece than to Italy, a reversal from 2014, when Italy received 170,100 migrants and Greece only 34,442 total, according to estimates from the International Organization for Migration. These migrants pay traffickers exorbitant fees and risk their lives on dangerous journeys. Once arrived, they find the small communities on Greece’s many islands totally overwhelmed and unable to help. Most try to move northwards, to states like Hungary, via the Balkans.
Other migrants remain in hungry squalor throughout Greece. UNHCR recently reported more than 3,000 refugees in makeshift accommodations at a site on the northern Aegean island of Lesbos. Refugees kept in detention centers have limited access to electricity and water. Dozens sleep on makeshift pallets in the Kos police station courtyard.
Greece’s financial crisis exacerbates xenophobia and discrimination against migrants. While many Greeks have rallied to help the migrants, the far-right portrays these migrants as taking precious resources and sullying Greek culture. Golden Dawn, a far-right party, said “We will do everything we can to protect the Greek homeland against immigrants.” Even before the 2015 surge, 84 percent of adults in Greece wanted decreased immigration — the highest proportion in the world — according to 2012 and 2014 Gallup interviews.
And Greece’s No. 1 industry, tourism, could suffer. Migrants crowd the sidewalks of island resort towns beside vacationers, but the contrast could hardly be starker between the wet and hungry arrivals from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and the European tourists who dine on fine meals and rest in posh surroundings. Many migrants fleeing conflict-ridden states have walked almost 40 miles across Greece, sick, exhausted and sometimes pregnant, because they were not allowed to take public or private transportation due to a law that equated anyone assisting migrants with human smugglers. The law — overturned this month — kept both private citizens and public buses from driving migrants that landed in Greece without being rescued by coast guards.
So how does a country with record unemployment, rampant tax evasion and corrupt government officials cope with thousands of migrants or asylum seekers and see that they get assistance?
First, Greece needs more help from the E.U. Although this is a common refrain these days, with migration it’s different. Refugees arrive in Europe via Greece (and Italy, commonly), so the average 1,000 migrants who land on Greece’s shores each day are not just a Greek issue. In April 2014, the E.U. adopted the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and promised 3 billion euros through 2020 to improve how its states deal with asylum seekers and refugees. Greece receives a good chunk of this (EUR 259 million), but clearly not enough. The waves of migrants are really only a “crisis” because of policy failure.
Second, international donors can offer support. Within Greece, civil society organizations that help refugees and asylum-seekers have been hit hard by austerity measures, but international funding could strengthen their capacity to offer legal advice and provisions, like sleeping bags and hygiene kits, while they await asylum processing. The U.N. Refugee Agency and Doctors Without Borders, among others, are in Greece to help, which is key because Greece’s drastic health-care budget cuts have hurt services and availability of medicine.
The solution is certainly not to refuse migrants entry. European nations, generally, need to reconsider their tough asylum policies. Just two weeks ago, Macedonia strengthened its border, preventing thousands of migrants in Greece from moving on, and now Hungary has started construction on a fence to keep migrants out.
Restrictive domestic policy does little to stop migration to Greece or elsewhere and makes it more dangerous, increasing the flow of illegal migrants and encouraging permanent settlement. As we know from the travails of the global drug trade, you can’t stop something just by making it illegal — the price and the risks people are willing to take just shoot up. Smugglers are responsible for bringing most of these migrants to Greece’s shores. The more Europe cracks down on asylum-seekers, the more refugees will rely on smugglers — who charge 1,000-2,000 euros per person — to get them there. Libya’s failed state only makes matters worse, as a popular point of origin for migrants being smuggled to Europe. The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates that authorities don’t register about about half of the refugees who pass through the Western Balkans after arrival in Greece, so they are vulnerable to abuse from smugglers and criminal gangs.
The European Commission in June reinforced Poseidon, its sea surveillance mission for Greece, operated by Frontex (the European agency tasked with border control). Poseidon, which supports Greece’s national efforts, provides technical equipment and officials. This extra help for law enforcement is incredibly important because of ties between human smuggling and other forms of crime. The increased funding is saving lives of those who might have otherwise drowned en route to Europe — from 1,800 drowned or missing between January and April this year to 80 in May and June — but more funding needs to go toward improving conditions for those migrants who actually make it to Greece.
Even if Greece gets its financial house in order, questions over how to handle its migration crisis will continue to divide the E.U. After a particularly tense E.U. meeting at the end of June, paralysis over how to apportion 40,000 refugees prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say, “With the migration question we are facing the biggest challenge for the European Union that I have seen during my term in office.”
Illegal migrants are technically law-breakers, but we need to see them also as victims, especially the world’s 30 million displaced children. At the very least, Greece and its fellow E.U. states should maintain proper safeguards for child asylum seekers, who are arriving in droves, separated from their families. These include providing government-sponsored legal aid and child advocates. Even for adults, more open doors for those fleeing persecution, war, and extreme poverty will save lives and reflect the ideals of European democracies.
The heart of current international refugee law is that no one fleeing persecution should be turned away. But the law is easy to skirt, and many European nations, like the U.K., are doing their best to send asylum-seekers away. A key part of the way out of economic difficulties for Greece — and the E.U. — is dealing with this migrant crisis, but they should do so in a way that strengthens refugee protections and reflects European democratic norms of individual rights for all humans.
Europeans are fed up with bailing out countries in financial disaster, like Greece, and any argument for more money is likely to fall on deaf ears. But the crisis in Greece deserves attention. The country’s financial situation is straining resources that could be used to ensure migrants are housed in humane conditions and quickly processed and protected. Many other E.U. states would have the capacity to adequately deal with a sudden influx like Greece is seeing, but the timing for Greece — and thus for the migrants — is bad. While there aren’t yet reports of violence against migrants, if Greece continues to receive record numbers of arrivals, the far-right is likely to draw greater support, which, if they gain political power, could hurt Greek relations with the E.U.