Nikos Konstandaras MARCH 15, 2016
PIRAEUS, Greece — Greece pulsates with people fleeing war and poverty, from the docks of this port to the muddy fields of Idomeni, where their great migration runs into the barbed wire fences of Europe’s confusion and fear. Already drained by overwhelming debt, austerity and recession, the country is rushing to provide shelter and care for a surging number of stranded refugees and migrants who want nothing more than to keep moving, indifferent to the fact that their pursuit of freedom, stability and prosperity has thrown the European Union into its greatest crisis since its founding.
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An average of 1,442 people arrive each day from Turkey, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Greece has hastily converted military camps, children’s summer camps and facilities from the Athens 2004 Olympics into reception centers to care for the immigrants. The prospects for their moving on look bleak: Balkan borders are closed; in Germany, which took in more than a million people last year, a populist anti-immigration party made strong gains in three state elections last Sunday.
Germany has been pushing the European Union for collective action that will share the burden but also respect principles of solidarity and humanism. The result has been acrimony and division. Many member states reject a quota system for distributing refugees. Stopping people on crowded rubber dinghies once they have set out from Turkey has proved impossible for the Greek Coast Guard and the European border agency Frontex. NATO warships, too, will be ineffective: They will rescue people at sea, as Greek fishermen have been doing for over a year, rather than prevent their launching. The latest effort to cut a deal with Turkey will most likely sow further division in Europe.
Here in Piraeus, the refugees and immigrants arrive daily aboard huge ferries from Greece’s easternmost islands. By last weekend, 141,787 had arrived this year and about 43,000 were still in Greece. Inside a cargo warehouse a banner in English declares: “Welcome to Piraeus. Information, help and rest for a little while at the passengers’ terminal E1 for free.” The cavernous space is empty, apart from a few municipal workers and volunteers folding blankets, collecting shoes, slippers and other bits of clothing, disposing of half-eaten sandwiches and trash left by hundreds of people who have just moved out.
Some have accepted bus rides to reception camps; others still place their hopes in smugglers’ promises to get them through closed borders. Passenger terminals are crowded with families. The air is hot and humid, filled with the cries and laughs of women and children. Outside, in the winter sun, children draw, with crayons and paper handed out by volunteers; others hop, skip and jump; youngsters play soccer in vast spaces where trucks roll through. Small groups sit on the dock’s edge, gazing at the choppy sea. Municipal and port authority workers, soldiers, police officers and all kinds of N.G.O.s and volunteers are at work: cleaners and barbers, medics and child care workers, people on their own arriving with food and personal care items.
Similar scenes play out across the country, at 23 official camps and wherever else citizens find groups in need. This is a huge mobilization for a country with little experience of volunteerism, prompted by deep-rooted, personal empathy with people who have lost everything, who risk everything for a better life.
Greece’s history is full of war, dictatorship, economic hardship and mass migrations. In the last century alone, the Balkan Wars, in which Greece expanded at the cost of the Ottoman Empire, melded into World War I, in which Greece was on the winning side. In 1922, Turkish troops routed a Greek military campaign in western Turkey, forcing more than a million Greeks to leave their ancestral homes in Asia Minor. A large part of Greece’s population is descended from those refugees. World War II and a brutal German occupation were followed by civil war. Through the century, hundreds of thousands of Greeks emigrated — mainly to America, Western Europe and Australia. The last military dictatorship, from 1967 to 1974, was followed by accession to the European Union and the longest period of peace and prosperity in Greece’s history.
Greece, the European Union country closest to the turmoil of the Middle East, faces the dangers of long coastal borders and risks isolation from its partners. There have been frequent suggestions in other countries that Greece be suspended from the Schengen area of passport-free travel. And yet the current crisis has brought Germany and Greece closer. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open welcome to refugees last year showed her as a supporter of European humanist principles, rather than a fiscal authoritarian who had been tough on Greece. Now her government’s insistence that borders remain open puts Berlin and Athens on the same side of the issue. Countries that backed Germany’s hard-line stance on Greece’s economy are now at odds with Berlin, refusing to take in any refugees, while Greece, the black sheep, puts up a brave struggle to cope with the immigrants, defending European Union principles.
The European Union-Turkey summit meeting on March 17-18 is aimed at concluding a deal with Turkey that will, in effect, make that country the union’s gatekeeper. The proposal includes principles “to return all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands” and “to resettle, for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian from Turkey to the E.U. Member States.” In exchange, the visa requirement for Turks entering the Schengen area will be relaxed, Ankara will receive three billion euros (with more to be decided later), and talks for Turkey’s accession to the European Union will pick up speed.
The proposal has drawn fire from many sides:The United Nations refugee agency, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and many others point out that mass fast-track returns threaten refugees’ rights. Others note that Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government will be rewarded, gaining respectability by effectively holding refugees to ransom. Anti-immigrant forces in several countries will focus on the promise that Turkey’s citizens, who are mostly Muslim, will have easier access to the union.
Despite policy makers’ confusion and populists’ exploitation of citizens’ unease, the European Union remains a beacon of freedom and stability. People will still come in the hope of a better life. Managing immigration must not make Europe less free, less stable, less fair, less united. Without political and moral courage, the crisis may defeat the European Union, and the defeat will be mostly self-inflicted. If the Greeks — bankrupt and tired, with a state that is dysfunctional at the best of times — can try their best, the union can try harder.
Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.