|Moria refugee camp is the largest in Greece. Its current population of about 20,000 stretches well beyond the organised camp into surrounding olive groves.|
LESVOS, Greece – It is midnight on a solitary beach on the north shores of the island of Lesvos. A boatload of 42 asylum-seekers is bedding down on the grass in front of a seaside chapel to St. Demetrios. The rubber dinghy they arrived in from Turkey bobs in the shallows just yards away.
“Turkey told people ‘If you want to go, you can go to Europe’,” said Ayman Ahmadi, a Syrian who worked 16-hour days in a shoe factory for two years to pay for his crossing. “Before we saw that whoever wanted to go to Europe, the police would catch these people.”
Most of the group – who include 12 small children – are from Afghanistan, though there are also some from Syria, Uganda and Guinea. It was raining when they arrived just before dusk, and their clothes are soaked. The night air is damp and cold, but there is nowhere else to take them.
A UN staging post ten minutes’ drive away was damaged by fire just three days earlier – a reaction of a small group of right-wing locals angry at the decision by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 27 to “open the floodgates” of refugees to Europe in protest at EU countries’ failure to back him in his military adventures in Syria. Instead, a solitary coast guard officer watches over them until dawn, when buses will take them away.
Demetrios became the patron saint of Thessalonicans when their city came under siege by the Bulgarians eight centuries ago. For the past two weeks, many Greeks have felt besieged by Erdogan. Video footage has shown Turkish coast guard vessels accompanying refugee boats to the Greek-Turkish waterline, and a Turkish armoured vehicle helping refugees who were trying to pull down a Greek fence on the land border. This change in Turkish policy has converted a humanitarian crisis to a national security crisis and hardened attitudes here.
“We believe it is absolutely unacceptable that human souls – people in distress who are trying to survive and to make a better life – are being used to achieve the political objectives of our eastern neighbour,” wrote foreign minister Nikos Dendias on social media.
When Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited German chancellor Angela Merkel on March 9, she took a similar line. “While there is sympathy for Turkey, which is hosting 3.5mn Syrian refugees and many more of other nationalities, it cannot use refugees in this way to solve its internal problems,” she said. “This is unacceptable.”
A national security crisis
Turkey’s open borders decision came hard on the heels of a military defeat at the hands of the Syrian army in Idlib in northwest Syria, and is being widely interpreted as a form of pressure on the European Union to pay for a safe zone Turkey has long wanted to establish inside Syria’s borders. Even though Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin, who supports the Syrian government, seem to have reached a ceasefire in Moscow on March 5, Turkey has alleviated pressure on Europe only across the Aegean, but not at the Evros river, which forms its land border with Greece.
At this border, one of the most heavily militarised in the world, Greek police have used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse what they say have been almost 43,000 attempted crossings of asylum-seekers the Turkish government paid to bus there. The government said it had arrested more than 300 people who succeeded in crossing, and courts had condemned many of them them to prison sentences of four years.
In the space of a few short days, the Greek coast guard went from search and rescue of refugee boats to pushbacks and deflection. Videos released by the Turkish government on March 2 showed coast guard officers pushing rubber dinghies away with long poles and swishing their powerboats this way and that in front of them to discourage their entry into Greek territorial waters. Since the Turkish policy turn, Greece says total arrivals by sea were 1,851 – not a negligible number, but certainly not the onslaught Erdogan threatened.
Such pushbacks are illegal under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, but Greece made no secret of its new policy. “The navy and coastguard have prevented many, many cases of migrant entry by sea,” migration minister Notis Mitarakis told a television network as early as March 1.
This policy has also been praised by the European Union. “Greece’s concerns are our concerns, because Greece’s border is Europe’s border,” said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen while visiting the Greek border with Turkey on March 3. “Greece is our European shield.”
The European Border and Coast Guard already has ten coastal patrol vessels in Greek waters and will deploy more under a Rapid Border Intervention mechanism. The Greek defence ministry announced it had deployed 52 warships and coastal patrol vessels to police territorial waters.
Has Greece lost the immortal part of itself?
For years Greece built a reputation as a haven for the wretched and dispossessed who sought protection from their pursuers. It is now processing 125,000 asylum cases and appeals, almost 11 percent of the EU total, far above the 1.6 percent the EU apportioned it on the basis of its population and economy. Turkey’s decision to push refugees across the border was enough to put Greece into a mode of national defence.
“Why do we spend so much on national defence? Because our neighbour is Turkey, not Denmark,” Mitsotakis said at the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank on March 9. “We need a strong deterrent force… I would prefer to spend 1 percent [of GDP]. Unfortunately, Turkey is not Denmark,” he said to applause.
Mitsotakis has presented Greece’s so far successful border defence as a victory Greece has delivered for Europe. He hopes for something in return. “We have not used our time wisely since the last refugee crisis,” he told EU leaders on March 3, asking for a common EU asylum policy. “We cannot have the burden pushed onto the shoulders of external EU member states… Now that the threat of opening the floodgates has been implemented unsccessfully, I hope we can try a different approach.”
The hardest shock to arriving migrants is that the government has stopped taking new asylum applications for the month of March, considering that those who cross over now are doing so at the behest of the Turkish government, not as free individuals to whom international asylum law might apply. Instead of going to Moria camp to be processed in the usual manner, several hundred people will be taken to Athens on a navy transport ship and sent to a closed deportation camp.
The UN has objected strongly, saying there is “no legal justification” for this, but for people like Wendy Naloudi, a Ugandan woman who sat outside the chapel of St. Demetrios, this was little consolation.
“I’m stranded now,” she said after hearing the news. “I don’t know what to say. I thought here would be better. Maybe if you get asylum everything would be better. You could travel to another country. But if detaining us is part of this, then I don’t have anything to say.”