Saturday, 29 February 2020

Greece on the defensive as Turkey opens border to refugees

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
An Afghan family cooks lunch in Moria camp, Lesvos.

Lesvos, Greece - Greece is bracing itself for what could turn into a flood of refugees and migrants after the Turkish government ordered its coastguard and border police not to prevent people from crossing into Europe.
"No illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted on Friday after Greek police fired tear gas at about 300 refugees trying to cross the land border at the Evros river.
On Saturday, a Greek government spokesperson claimed to have "averted more than 4,000 attempts of illegal entrance to our borders."
Later on Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 18,000 refugees and migrants had gathered on the Turkish borders with Europe since Friday, adding that the number could reach as many as 30,000 on Saturday.
Meanwhile, tensions are exploding at the Greek border, with riot police firing tear gas at groups of arriving refugees, some of whom are allegedly throwing stones and pieces of flaming wood in protest.
Greece's land border with Turkey is relatively strong. It is160km (99 miles) long and contains natural defences such as the Evros river and its marshy delta. Greece reinforced it with extra patrols and thermal cameras in recent months.
The maritime border is another story. Hundreds of kilometres long, it is patrolled by about 40 Greek coastal patrol vessels and boats, aided by a European Border and Coast Guard force.
Greece is in the process of building another 19 vessels but on Friday asked the European Union to provide more assistance.
It is physically difficult to intercept refugees at sea and Greece's archipelago presents them with thousands of islands to alight upon.
Since 2015, when a million refugees crossed the Aegean into Europe, Greece has found that the only real defence is diplomacy - persuading Turkey to put its coastguard vessels back into action to pick up refugees before they reach the Greek-Turkish territorial waterline.
Turkey opened the borders after dozens of its soldiers were killed in an air raid in Idlib, Syria, and has since complained that it lacks international support for its military campaign and that it hosts the world's largest number of refugees.
Mitsotakis on Friday said: "Greece does not bear any responsibility for the tragic events in Syria and will not suffer the consequences of decisions taken by others," he wrote - a reference to Turkey's military support for groups opposed to the Syrian government.
Greece also has expectations of Europe. With 1 percent of Europe's GDP and 2 percent of its population, it finds itself processing almost 11 percent of EU asylum applications - a result of rules requiring asylum seekers to apply in the country they arrived in. So far, the EU has been unable to negotiate a permanent burden-sharing mechanism.
Some Greek officials also see the EU's deeper involvement in the Middle East as a prerequisite to resolving its refugee woes.
"Europe has to decide what to do, because no matter how many people you resettle or save at sea, more people will come," a senior security official in the Greek government told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
"Europe has to make serious decisions but right now its politicians seem to have a [particular] narrative that prevents them from doing so, while societies are suffering from information overload and an economic crisis."
Arrivals on the islands were not unusual on Friday - 151 asylum-seekers on five boats. But that could change very quickly.
Mercantile Marine Minister Ioannis Plakiotakis was on Lesbos in a largely symbolic visit to demonstrate solidarity with the east Aegean.
"We are here with the chief of the coastguard to emphasise our resolve to protect our maritime borders to the highest degree possible," he told Al Jazeera.

Right-wing government's refugee policy

The eight-month-old right-wing New Democracy government has been frustrated in implementing its harder refugee policy.
On January 1, it started implementing a stricter asylum law that aims to speed up processing and increase returns to Turkey but the results have not been spectacular. Returns so far are in the dozens per month.
The government has also failed to persuade the five islands with reception centres - Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos - to allow it to build detention centres that will replace current open camps, increasing total capacity on the islands.
Despite the fact that camps on the five islands are currently overflowing with 42,000 asylum-seekers, islanders say that increasing official capacity will lift numbers even further.
In recent days, riot police ferried in from Athens clashed with locals on Lesbos and Chios as construction companies attempted to bring in earth-moving machinery to start work on the new camps.
"The refugee issue is of national importance," said Plakiotakis. "Everyone must help above and beyond political interests and affiliations.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

EU’s last nickel smelter heads for the gallows, or an afterlife

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

A worker injects pure oxygen into furnace number one to coax out molten nickel-iron at a temperature of 1,300 degrees Celsius

LARYMNA, Greece - The final countdown has begun for Larco, the European Union’s only remaining nickel smelter, and its 1,260 workers and their families. The Greek state can no longer afford to finance it and has given it a final dowry of 35mn euros and a year to find an investor.

“If during this period three quarters of Larco’s assets haven’t been sold, the company must file for bankruptcy,” finance minister Christos Staikouras told parliament.

Larco sits at the centre of a $170mn economy. In addition to its miners, smelters and office workers, more than 22,000 suppliers and contractors are dependent on it, so shuttering it would entail a high political cost.

But the eight month-old New Democracy government has its sights fixed on a new age of smaller government, lower taxes, renewable energy and competitive, high-tech services, and appears impatient to close the book on an attempt at heavy industry that began in the 1950s and was largely bankrupt thirty years later.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Is the US heading to the front lines of European defence?

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
A Greek Chinook helicopter ferries journalists to joint US-Greek wargames on February 19

In contrast to its ongoing redeployment of forces in the Middle East, the US appears to be surging to the fore of European defence.

The US-led annual Defender Europe exercise will involve 20,000 US troops - more than those of all its NATO allies put together, and more than at any time in the past quarter-century.

“The overarching goal of the event is to demonstrate the ability of the US to lift and shift a division-size force over long distances,” said Tod D. Wolters, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe earlier this month. “The planning in itself is deterrence,” he said.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Greece says it’s speeding up asylum cases and returns

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Greece says it has begun to enforce fast track procedures for new asylum-applicants and is stepping up deportations to Turkey, but aid organisations voice concerns that applicants’ rights are being  trampled upon.

Greece deported 53 asylum-seekers in January, police tell Al Jazeera, a significant increase on last year’s monthly average of 16, but only slightly higher than the monthly average of 45 since the EU-Turkey Statement went into effect in April 2016. Turkey and the European Union are obliged to readmit irregular migrants from each other under that agreement.

“The rules have changed. We’re no longer open to people who don’t have a refugee profile,” said migration minister Notis Mitarakis on Friday as he headed for the island of Chios, his constituency and one of five eastern Aegean islands bearing the brunt of new arrivals.

“We’re now taking at least first instance [asylum] decisions within four weeks,” he said.

En route to Berlin, Haftar holds talks with top Greek officials

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

ATHENS, Greece- Smarting from its exclusion in Libyan peace talks, Greece scored a diplomatic win on Friday when Libyan warlord Halifa Haftar paid an unexpected visit to Athens, on his way to the UN-sponsored talks in Berlin.

Greece asked to be included in the Berlin Process, as the talks are called, saying it has vital interests at stake.

The Council of Ministers in Tripoli signed a maritime jurisdiction agreement with Turkey last year that claims waters Greece also sees as part of its own jurisdiction.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), based in Benghazi, is at war with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al Sarraj, based in Tripoli.

Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias said Haftar agreed that a ceasefire agreement had to recognise “the invalidity of the illegal memoranda between Turkey and the Sarraj government.” The government says Haftar has committed to negotiating a new maritime deal with Greece.