European officials have been quick to criticize Greece’s inability to stem the arrival of refugees, with some even calling for the country’s expulsion from the passport-free Schengen zone.
Austria, Germany and Sweden have all criticized Greece, warning that Greece could be kicked out of the travel-free region of 26 countries, at least temporarily, if it could not meet its Schengen obligations.
With Europe— as a union— unable to come up with a unified plan amongst its fractious members, Greece has become the easy scapegoat.
It’s an easy approach for Europe’s ineffective leaders who have tried numerous times to implement plans that have all led to failure:
German chancellor Angela Merkel sold her soul (and Europe’s) to the devil by trying to bribe Turkey with more than €3 billion in support to stop refugees from leaving the country.
Merkel falling prey to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s spin when she became his subject for a day, being photographed in his Ottoman-inspired palace and being ridiculed globally for pushing for an agreement that would bring Europe closer to one of the most autocratic, oppressive regimes in the region.
The agreement with Turkey has resulted in an increase in arrivals from the country, practically no crackdown on the part of the Turkish government and most recently, Turkey’s request for more money— also known as a shakedown in street terminology.
Another EU-promoted initiative to redistribute asylum seekers more evenly across the bloc has also failed. Only 331 refugees have been moved from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, out of the 160,000 that should be redistributed over two years.
With Greek agreement, the European Union’s own border agency Frontex sent almost 300 officers and 15 vessels to assist the Greek coast guard in patrolling the waters and registering incoming refugees. But the sheer numbers of the arrivals has made these border guards ineffective, as well.
So as their ineffective plans fail, one after the other, and they can’t come up with a plan that works (like pressuring for a halt to the war, perhaps?), Greece becomes the target.
With limited resources of its own and in the midst of its own financial crisis, the weight of the entire refugee crisis has fallen on the nation with the longest sea border in the entire European Union.
Europe is throwing stones, but ignores the realities at ground zero of the crisis— in the sea separating Turkey from Greece.
Patrols by Greek and Frontex vessels are operating night after night, day after day and around the clock along the coast, on the look out for smugglers transporting refugees.
No matter how many patrol boats are out in the thousands of square miles of Greek waters, attempting to force a vessel of asylum-seekers back into Turkish waters is both illegal and dangerous, even in calm seas.
If there isn’t cooperation from the Turkish side— both on the ground to prevent smugglers from using Turkish beaches as departure points, as well as in the water, forcing refugee dinghies from entering European waters— there is little or nothing Greek and Frontex patrols can do once a dinghy enters Greek territorial waters.
The sheer numbers of the arrivals— mere statistics on an excel spreadsheet to most European technocrats who haven’t seen the realities— are mind boggling and impossible to control.
I interviewed a senior member of the Greek coast guard, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak officially.
“All of the navies of every European nation combined couldn’t patrol these waters and prevent these crossings. It’s just impossible. We have more than 8,500 miles of coastline and dozens of scattered Aegean islands between us and Turkey, Greece has, by far, the most difficult border to control in the world,” he told me during a phone call.
He added that “When you add the complicity of the Turkish officials into the mix and the smugglers’ ease at dumping thousands of people out to sea, not to mention the desperation of the fleeing refugees and the notion that this sea journey and the risk of death is a safer option for them than staying behind— well, you have a situation that is impossible to handle in the current way that our European leaders are proposing.”
The numbers back up this coast guard official’s claims.
Almost a million people landed on Greek islands last year and so far this year, the numbers are staggering— 25 times more than January of 2015. Already in 2016, 35,455 people have arrived despite plunging winter temperatures and days of stormy weather.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Christos Fragias, the deputy head Commander of the Greek coast guard on the island of Chios said it is impossible to control the coastline. “When you have 50 or 60 boats daily, you understand that these (patrol) vessels can’t cope,” he said.
But the Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner rejects these arguments about the difficulties in patrolling Greece’s maritime borders with Turkey. “Greece has one of the biggest navies in Europe,” she said. “It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected,” she said.
My anonymous coast guard source, responding to the Austrian official’s statement said— “We invite her to visit the islands and spend a day with us patrolling the waters. I’m wondering if she’s ever left the mountains of Austria to experience what thousands of square miles of ocean actually means.”
One has to ask some pretty basic questions to those pointing the finger to Greece– as the problem.
(a) Before pointing the finger and threatening to remove Greece from the Schengen zone, what concrete solutions have you offered?
(b) Why not consider using diplomatic pressure and force on Turkey– the real root of the problem, rather than bow to the Ottoman Pasha and offer gifts and bribes, since that route didn’t seem to work?
(c) Why not combine the forces of your two dozen powerful nations, with France and Germany as heads, to stop this goddamn war that is the reason for this crisis in the first place?
(d) Instead of bribing the Turks and effectively wasting €3 billion, why not pump that money into Greece and work directly with the country to upgrade its borders, build more reception centers to properly handle the legitimate refugee applications and bring dozens more patrol boats to the region from Frontex to help control the flow to more manageable numbers, rather than the paltry 15 that can’t even patrol the coast of a single island, let alone the entire Greek-Turkish sea frontier.