Nature of the Current Refugee Problem
According to the International Rescue Committee and others that I spoke with in Athens, approximately 2,000 refugees are arriving daily on Greece’s shores. The majority of these individuals and families are fleeing the brutal civic war in Syria, which has raged for five years.
The International Organization for Migration recently estimated that more than a million migrants and refugees had found their way to Europe over the past year. This migration represents the largest mass migration since the end of World War II. The route for most of these individuals has been by way of the eastern Aegean Sea, as they crossed over from Turkey to outlying Greek islands such as Chios, Kos, and Lesbos. In 2015, approximately 810,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Greece from the countries of Syria and neighboring Iraq as well as Afghanistan. Many arrived in rubber dinghies or less than seaworthy boats, and over 700 people have already lost their lives making this journey. Recent colder temperatures and rougher seas have made the crossing even more perilous, and more cold and rainy days are predicted.
In addition to the over 800,000 who have arrived in Greece, almost 200,000 have arrived on other European shores, such as those of Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Malta. A much smaller number crossed through land routes, such as the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Whatever the destination, the numbers represent a quadrupling of European emigrees from 2014.
The Greek Impact
The data clearly supports the fact that Greece is taking the major brunt of the migrant and refugee crisis, with the island of Lesbos serving as the main gateway to Europe. Almost half of those arriving in the past year arrived via Lesbos, which serves as a staging post between Greece and the nearby seacoast of Turkey. It’s geographical positioning makes it a natural stopping-off point for Middle Eastern refugees heading for Europe. Additionally, large numbers of people-smugglers in Turkey have used Lesbos as a dropping-off location. While the monthly peak of arrivals in Lesbos took place during October, an average of over 3,000 refugees have arrived each day during December.
The impact of the refugee crisis upon Greece itself is significant. The country has been plagued by its on financial crisis and faced threats of expulsion from the European Union. Its unemployment rate is currently 25%, and Greece is hugely in debt. Since austerity measures were introduced, suicide is up 36%. An estimated half of Greek school children go to bed hungry. Of necessity, its response to medical and humanitarian needs is limited and those expenditures put a significant strain on an overloaded system. In response, the Greek government has increased law enforcement efforts to halt people before they get into the country, rendering passage through the Aegean Islands – a commonly taken route – even more dangerous.
Of all the countries in Europe, Greece is the one that can least afford to be anyone’s savior. It is one country whose people have every right to be exhausted and – yes, selfish.
But if Europe has failed both Greeks and Syrian refugees, one of the ironic and strangely beautiful outcomes of the crisis is the way in which both Greeks and refugees have been helping each other get through it. Lately, Athens has seen an influx in refugees who were forcibly evicted from a refugee camp near Idomeni, at the Greek-Macedonian border. They are not being granted entry into Macedonia to continue their voyage to northern European countries, because of Macedonia’s enforcement of strict selection criteria for immigrants.
As a result, Victoria Square in Athens has become a meeting place for Afghan refugees before they commence their onward journeys. In a walk around the square, one can see many family groups sitting together. There are small groups of volunteers who are there to help, each with a different role. For example, while I was there I saw a woman who was extremely sick Volunteers organized transport to medical care for her along with her clearly frightened family. It was encouraging to see other children in the square playing with chalk, engaging in the normal childhood activity of drawing. After all they have been through, it was good to see their smiles and hear laughter again. Abdol Rafi was just one of the many individuals I met during my own sojourn in Victoria Square Park. The 22-year-old told me that he had been studying economics at Kabul University, but was forced to leave because of repeated explosions in the area.
In a country struggling to cope with its own poverty, unemployment, and financial disparity, refugees and migrants have become invisible to much of Greek society. But it was encouraging to see the outstretched hands that did offer assistance, and that is surely a testament to the goodness that can still be found in the human heart.
In Part III, we’ll take a look at the “migrant vs. refugee” distinction, and how definitions can affect the future of those who arrive on European shores.