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The Refugee Crisis in Greece: Lessons for the United States

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Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, September 2015.

Refugees often face double victimization: first, from the violence, wars and persecution that force them to leave their countries, and second, from the lack of adequate refugee resettlement programs. This unfortunately has resulted in basic human rights violations in the process of resettlement. Mismanagement, lack of coordination and unintended consequences are dominant themes after every humanitarian catastrophe. These policies fail refugees, and also have consequences for the local societies who bear the burden of dealing with the immediate needs of refugees. The lack of adequate international support for displaced populations is directly linked to the rise of nationalism and neo-Nazi sentiments around the globe. In this brief article we discuss the ongoing refugee crisis in Greece and the consequences of an inadequate global response. The Greek refugee crisis offers several interesting points of comparison to current socioeconomic and political tensions in the U.S. Our views are developed in the context of our summer 2017 research in Greece, including interviews with staff and volunteers working with refugees, and displaced populations. 

The Stats
Out of the 65 million people displaced globally, an increasing number of migrants and refugees are passing through Greece. Numbers of migrants and refugees have been steadily increasing over the last decade, but in 2016 Greece saw unprecedented numbers of new arrivals. Syria was main country of origin, with 26,000 asylum claims (compared with just 3,300 in 2015). The second largest arriving group was from Afghanistan, representing over 11,000 refugees. Asylum claims from Iraqis also increased from 580 in 2015 to 4,800 in 2016.

Of course, these numbers only represent those refugees and asylum seekers who are officially registered and counted. It is unknown how many people cross through Greece undetected each year.  The UNHCR estimates the total number of refugees and people in “refugee like situations” in Greece in 2016 at 46,427, with a total “population of concern” at over 86,000.

Most refugees entering Greece between  2011 and 2015 followed the so-called Western Balkan route into the EU – first crossing into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, followed by Serbia, Hungary and then towards Western Europe. Refugees also sail across the Aegean Sea into Greece from Turkey using smuggler-provided (rubber inflatable) boats. This sea border is one of the most dangerous borders a refugee may cross worldwide: the Mediterranean border death count is the highest in the world.

The crossings are often done in the middle of the night and under rough weather, in an attempt to minimize the chances of detection by the Greek Coastguard. The use of open boats means that refugees are typically drenched in water and suffering from hypothermia when they reach land. It is estimated that about half of the people that drowned crossing the Aegean were children.

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) has reported that in 2010, Greece accounted for 90% of all detections of illegal border crossings to the EU. The UNHCR Operational Portal reported 173,450 sea arrivals just in 2016. This number pushes the total number of refugees and migrants without travel documents entering Greece by sea to more than 1 million people since 2015. Given that the entire of population of Greece is just over 10 million, Greece is dealing with what would be the equivalent of 32 million refugees entering and traveling through the US. Additionally, Greece has endured a severe recession since 2009; austerity measures imposed by the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund have further atrophied the government’s ability to provide for refugees.

The Greek Challenge
Given the harsh economic reality of Greece since 2010, it is rarely the final destination of choice for refugees. When authorities enacted the EU-Turkey Deal in March 2016, refugee organizations estimated 50,000 displaced people were trapped in Greece. The European Union implemented an Emergency Relocation Mechanism to help countries like Greece grapple with the refugee crisis. Under this plan, nearly 100,000 asylum seekers would be relocated to various EU member states (66,400 from Greece and 39,600 from Italy). Part of the agreement was that all “irregular” refugees and migrants that land in Greece will be returned to Turkey. This policy raises several human rights and legal questions, especially concerning efforts at family reunification.

Many view the EU-Turkey Deal as deeply flawed, including the Migration Policy Institute and Amnesty International. As of August 29, 2017, only 27,228 persons had been relocated – 28% of the 66,400 from Greece and 20% of the 39,600 from Italy. There are many questions surrounding the legality of the EU-Turkey deal, and many practical complications. For example, the majority of those trapped in Greece are waiting to be reunited with family members who have settled in other parts of Europe

With a lack of international support, the pressure of the global refugee crisis has been disproportionately borne out by Greek government and Greek private citizens. There are several concerns related to the long-term settlement of displaced people in Greece.

Concern One: Human rights
Most migrants and refugees coming into Greece rely on human smugglers for at least a portion of their journey. Smugglers put refugees at increased risk for assault, bribery or even death.

For those who survive the journey to Greece, their struggles are not over. Many refugees feel trapped in Greece. This has mental health implications: “global compounding turmoil” poses challenges to mental health, particularly because economic and migrant crises “expose children, adolescents and their families to multiple sources of common and distinctive enduring stressors.”

Providing education opportunities for migrant and refugee children is a big challenge. While the children living in the camps or in dispersed squatter settlements are technically allowed to attend public school, many families choose to keep their kids at home. Living in metal shipping containers in a hot climate presents unique hardships. According to volunteers we spoke with last summer, the refugee camps only come to life in the evenings when the sun sets. Kids then stay up late and sleep in, so their daily cycle is out of sync with the school schedule.

There have also been reports of cultural conflict with Greek families. Some Greeks have protested the decision to allow migrants and refugees in schools, arguing that this pulls already limited resources away from their children.

Concern Two: Individual Citizens Filling the International Aid Void
One remarkable positive response to the refugee crisis in Greece has been the ways in which private citizens have come to the aid of displaced people. Media accounts from the last few years showcase many examples of Greek islanders welcoming refugees, especially those working in the hotel and hospitality industry. We also had the great pleasure of a meeting ordinary people working to better the lives of displaced people. For example, Rita Continakis (who works full time in the private sector), has been gathering donations to bring dignity and comfort to women and families living in Skaramanga. She worked tirelessly to build a beauty salon for the women in the camp. There are private citizens all across Greece giving of their time, resources and energy to help displaced people and to bring dignity and comfort to displaced people.

However, Greek people are also overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation. They have their own economic woes, and are increasingly frustrated with the failure of international institutions to provide adequate support. The refugee crisis has been bad for tourism, and Greeks are eager to return to normalcy.

Lessons for the United States?
While this crisis unfolds on other side of the world, it is important to understand why the Greek situation is relevant for the United States. First, we should never forget that we play a role in conflicts that drive the flow of refugees and migrants into Greece, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Furthermore, both the Greek and U.S. governments have provided flimsy responses to refugee crises. In the short tenure of the Trump administration, the U.S. has overseen major changes to its refugee resettlement programs and gone through several versions of an executive order banning refugee resettlement. Fences and wall building to block the flow of people have been used as a rallying cry among right wing politicians. Possibly topping the list of inadequate approaches to very complex global inequalities, the EU recently proposed a rubber-boat ban!

Current policy decisions do not offer long-term solutions to the global refugee crisis, but they do help to cement ideas about who belongs (and who doesn’t belong) in each country.

In both Greece and the United States, we see an alarming rise in the popularity of white nationalist movements. In Greece this agenda is promoted by the Golden Dawn party. Inspired by the perfect storm of a coupled economic and refugee crisis, this neo-Nazi party has managed to increase its political power substantially.The Golden Dawn party entered the Greek parliament for the first time in 2012; it had received less than 1% of the total vote in every election for the three decades of its existence up to that point. Since 2012, Golden Dawn has received 6-7% of the total votes in national elections. The party almost reached the 10% mark in the European parliamentary elections of 2014.

In the U.S., the number of hate groups and the level of hate speech are also on the rise. There is little question that Trump won the election with white nationalists as a core part of his constituency. Without policies and funding to deal with rapidly increasing numbers of displaced people, we fear that we will see a continued rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and in Europe, as well as increasing numbers of hate groups and white nationalists. It falls upon all of us to reject the suggestion that refugees fleeing conflict in their homelands are a threat to the cultural or racial identity of a nation. Rather, we should support and treat refugees with compassion and dignity in host nations. It is important that support come not only from compassionate individuals and organizations, but also from U.S. and EU governments.

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Lisa Meierotto

Lisa Meierotto is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University. She earned her PhD in Environmental Anthropology from the University of Washington, and also has an MA in International Development, Community & Environment from Clark University. Her research focuses human rights, environmental justice and international migration.  She teaches courses in Global Studies and Environmental Studies.


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Michail Fragkias

Michail Fragkias, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the Department of Economics at Boise State University. He is an applied economist working broadly on issues of urbanization, land use and sustainability. He has published work in journals spanning several disciplines and has served as a lead or contributing author in large sustainability assessment reports including the UN-CBD Cities and Biodiversity Outlook, the 3rd National Climate Assessment of the US Global Change Research Program, and the IPCC 5th Assessment Report.