Closing the Borders of Humanity; Erecting New Walls – Nikos-Pavlos Kotzias, Greece


Terror and chaos in the borders between Greece and F.Y.R.Macedonia (Source: Reuters)

On the 27th of January, the European Commission proposed that Greece take control over its maritime borders again within 3 months or its inclusion in the Schengen area could be suspended.  If Greece fails to adhere to this proposal, its borders could be closed and border checks would have to be enforced again.

That proposal was almost unanimous with many commissioners, who believed that “the situation is out of control,” and that Greece’s inability to react to the influx of refugees and immigrants threatens the stability of the entire European Union. The vice president of the Commission, Mr. Valdis Dombrovskis, said that “Greece is under pressure, Greece seriously neglected its obligations… There are serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border control that must be overcome.”

Interestingly, news of this exclusion have been circulating since June.  Many believe that the reports in question are nothing more than empty threats and pessimistic thinking. Sadly, the EU, as a democratic institution pressured by the alarming influx of refugees in such a short period of time, is indeed capable of applying a temporary ban on Greece by closing its borders – if most of its members agree.

According to the Commission’s press release, the conditions that need to be achieved to prevent the country from being expelled are the following: Improve the registration process, hire more people, and install fingerprint scanners to register and record the migrants and their travel documents via the Schengen Information System (SIS), Interpol, and several other international databases.

In addition, Greece is obliged to provide adequate shelter and initiate the process of deportation for illegal immigrants who do not ask for asylum or do not meet the criteria. Finally, the equipment and the infrastructure at the entry points need to be updated and border patrols need to be improved.  Guards must be trained and a danger analysis system must be involved. All of these goals are not feasible in such a short period of time, given the fact that Greece will not be given any help during this rather tedious process.

Long story short, for the past two years the EU has been rocked by an ever-increasing number of refugees and immigrants who seek asylum and a better life within Europe. According to international law, asylum seekers can apply to a country for asylum and that country is obliged to evaluate each and every proposal and mandatorily provide asylum to those that meet the UN-prescribed criteria. As a result, there have been almost one million applications, half of which are accepted by countries like Germany, Sweden, and Italy.  

However asylum seekers are forced to arrive to their destination on their own. In addition, amongst the refugees there are many immigrants, thus making the problem of tackling the situation more difficult.  This is mainly because many of these immigrants do not carry legal documents and because it’s difficult for authorities to a make a distinction between a refugee and an immigrant. Since refugees are the priority, as they should be, immigrants add another layer of complexity to the whole issue.  To make matters worse, there have been many cases in which immigrants’ human rights were violated.

Refugees swim ashore to safety in Greece, Source: Associated Press

In general, both groups are desperate to enter European soil in any way possible, whether their method is legal or not.  This is because, in most cases, their actions are pardoned. As a result, the majority of these refugees attempt the rather dangerous sea crossing between Europe and Asia or Africa.  However, some do not survive the crossing.

Shipwrecks are, regrettably, an everyday phenomenon, leaving thousands dead. Last year, a picture of a deceased child washed ashore circulated on the Internet in an effort to raise awareness and intervene before more lives are lost at sea.  This effort went largely unnoticed. Otherwise, some months ago German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked for the suspension of the Dublin Regulation, since it pressures countries of entry, such as Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Spain.  This was seen as a call for a humanitarian response to the crisis.

According to some calculations, last year Greece alone experienced an influx of some 850 thousand people and Italy 150 thousand, with more expected to arrive in 2016. It should be obvious enough by now that Greece, a country with a broken economy and only 11 million people, is facing major pressure.  Being in charge of accepting, recording and sheltering these poor people has stressed Greece to its limits. The small island of Lesbos has also become a focal point, since the miniscule country was hit by the biggest influx of individuals; this nearly paralyzed Lesbos when it began several months ago.

However, Greece’s response to the crisis has been quite sufficient, if not spectacular. Greek islanders, the government, and many volunteers and NGOs have catered to the needs of the people in an extraordinary manner, especially given the lack of resources and infrastructure needed to accommodate these people. A government spokesperson noted: ”Greece has surpassed itself in order to keep its obligations.  We expect everyone else to do the same.”  He may have been attempting to pressure other European countries and, mainly, Turkey.

Quite interestingly, Lesbos has become an island of humanity and kindheartedness, with its people being one of the potential nominees to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Every day, volunteers and locals work day and night to help and support these people without complaining or giving up. There are refugees washing up on the shores of their home island, but the citizens of Lesbos keep trying. Fishermen save people from drowning, people offer what little they have, and volunteers help in the camps. On the other hand, the people have no access to a sufficient or well-equipped coast guard, since funding is very limited and the EU’s border patrol forces have not stepped in to intervene. Instead, they provide insufficient amounts of help and guidance.

Now let’s return to my initial point about the exclusion of Greece from the Schengen.  It is my belief that this proposal, should it become a reality, has many contradictions that ultimately lead it to a dead end. First of all, one of the basic principles of the EU is the free movement of people – a principle that will be largely violated if this measure comes into action. Greeks are European citizens, and as such have every right to travel and live within the EU freely. It seems as though the EU is violating its own constitution.

Hundreds of migrants stuck in the port of Lesbos, demanding to be transfered (Source: Mirror)

In addition, Greece has responded to the challenge in a relatively efficient manner – at least, given the current situation within the country, which includes many protests and the general unrest of the people. There’s no doubt that the Greek government could have done more, but let’s be honest: few other countries have done much to aid. The funding Greece got from the EU is laughable, since the entire budget of the EU program amounts to billions of Euros. Recently, Turkey, the country where more migrants come from, received three billion Euros in order to, allegedly, control the flow of refugees. More funds are expected to be commissioned soon, even though Turkey has not fulfilled its promise to contain the influx, with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to send more people across the borders, should Europe not help him.

Arguably, this is an ironic truth. The EU wants to deal with the problem, yet it is reluctant to commission funds to Greece, a country it considers a loose cannon. I believe that it is not a matter of reliability, but of human life. Paradoxically, Frontex’s forces have done little to regulate the flow. Only a handful of forces have been sent to help patrol the borders, even though it is Frontex’s official purpose.

Another point of irony is that, currently, Greece has nowhere to send these people to. All of its immediate members are not in the EU (except Bulgaria, which is not in the Schengen yet) and thus, border patrol is enforced as usual, with people needing papers to traverse the country’s borders. In the past, many migrants tried to cross the border to the F.Y.R. Macedonia in order to continue their journey further north.  Unfortunately, the Government of Skopje decided to erect a fence, thus blocking that route and essentially trapping these people within Greece with no place to go.  This is because border authorities only allow a limited amount of Syrian, Afghani and Iranian asylum seekers to pass through.

Also, after the recent attacks in Paris and amongst the rising xenophobia that permeates European politics, many EU countries have taken anti-migrant actions, with many being violations of human rights because, as they said, “maybe we overcalculated and we cannot deal with the situation as best as we thought we could.” The Danish parliament almost unilaterally voted in favor of a law that will confiscate the migrants’ personal belongings as compensation for the cost of their shelter, basically violating every principle of the International Law. Similar measures have been passed or proposed in many other member-states. Sweden, the largest asylum-granter in relation to its population, said that it may have to tighten the rules of asylum or even deport some of the people because it is near capacity.  

However the most intriguing aspect, and the pinnacle of this paradox, is the way some other member states have responded to this unprecedented crisis. Hungary built a wall on the border with Serbia, only to later expand it to the border with Croatia. During the summer, cameras caught a fellow “journalist” kicking a refugee, an event that sparked public outrage, yet it did not stop the Hungarian prime minister from “protecting the country and its interests.” Austria is also trying to control its transportation network that connects to Germany, which is just another form of closing its borders. France also closed its borders after the recent attacks in Paris. So, where do we stand as of now?

Some years ago, blood was shed and many protests made to unite Europe, tear down walls and create the base for a prosperous and peaceful continent. That very same continent, some years later, is trying to rebuild these walls, but this time it is for our safety – or so they claim. Does Europe really need more walls?

But then again, not all the countries in the EU have responded in the same way. The UK and Ireland are pretending they know about the situation and said that they will only accept a very limited amount of migrants over the next five years, with the UK threatening to leave the EU altogether. Slovenia said that it will only accept very few Christian migrants, since it claims “it does not have the infrastructure to sustain a Muslim population that could disturb its social cohesion.” The Baltic countries are trying to avoid the talks and stay silent. France and Belgium have taken measures that basically make them less appealing to immigrants. Germany is still trying its best, but is reaching capacity too.

All of this is mockery. The EU should stand united to solve this huge issue. There is no other option, nor should anyone opt out. All this time, countries like Greece and Bulgaria have been hit the hardest, yet keep standing tall and face the problem with humanity and pride. I am not saying that my country, or any country for that matter, is better or worse, but if Greece can do it, then we all can. Is its potential exclusion a solution, or a mere distraction, filled with nonsense and contradictions?

After all, it is not about dealing with the problem within the EU. The EU should not try to contain the problem within its borders; rather, it should use its influence to stop the crisis by ending the war, intervening globally and giving these poor people a reason not to leave their ravaged homeland and take the long route to safety. No one wants to put their child on a boat unless it is safer than land. A humanitarian response is far from closing borders and pretending we do not see what is happening on our doorstep. The issue will still be there and the responsibility is in our hands to resolve it. How do we want to be remembered – as savages who preferred to be confined in their comfort and did nothing to alleviate suffering, or as fellow human beings who were there in a time of need? Because, as many tend to say in similar situations, “today it is me, tomorrow it can be you.”

A modern take on the Guernica of Pablo Picasso by artist Jovcho Savov

One response to “Closing the Borders of Humanity; Erecting New Walls – Nikos-Pavlos Kotzias, Greece

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