• Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

The politicised fear of migrants in Greece

ByLili Rose Cariou

Feb 21, 2020

On the 30th January 2020, the Greek government announced a contentious new plan to build a floating barrier which will run across the Aegean Sea, implanted from the island of Lesvos. The proposal is a direct initiative to deter migrants from travelling to Greek islands by sea from Turkey in the hope of finding refuge in Europe. The barrier is set to measure 2.7km in length – although may be increased up to 12-13km if the plan succeeds at meeting its aims – and will be netted to rise 50cm above sea level to hold flashing lights at night. The proposal is set to cost around €500,000.

This is not the first time that Greece has decided to take a tough stance at reducing migration flows, and more specifically undocumented migrants, from Turkey. In 2012, a cement barbed-wire fence was constructed in Evros, along its northern land border with Turkey. Despite efforts, evidence demonstrated the continuing influx of migrants taking riskier routes to reach Greece – notably by sea and smuggling routes. The Greek defence minister, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, told Skai Radio: “if it works like the one in Evros, I believe it can be effective”. In this sense, the more Greece opt for greater barriers along its land and sea borders, the harder it will be for migrants to reach its territory.

Greece was severely affected during the 2015 migration crisis caused by conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea, where number of sea arrivals reached 856,723 compared to 41,038 the year before. The migration crisis led to serious overcrowding in the Aegean islands, where people are awaiting resettlement, repatriation, deportation, or asylum decisions under extremely difficult conditions. The response from the Greek defence minister, Nikos Panagiotopoulos, was clear, a barrier was needed.

“The rules have changed. We are not open to people who don’t have the profile of a refugee” said the minister for migration and asylum, Notis Mitarakis. Although Greece is authorized under EU law to construct barriers within its own borders, the decision is worrying. It should not impede the potentiality for migrants to seek asylum as protected under EU law. A barrier will impede boats from entering the Aegean Sea altogether, but what about the people on the boats that are indeed in need of a refuge? Considering the majority of migrants are from war-torn countries where human persecutions are high, it is not safe to install a barrier that would increase their chances of being stranded at sea when they have legitimate claims for fleeing. It is important for the defence minister to inform the ways in which it will respond to emergency signals issued at the barriers from immigrants, as this will determine the extent of which Greece may breach EU and international law. Under the 1951 Geneva Convention, refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom, and thus, Greece will still have to determine their status before impeding their entrance. Similarly, if they are stranded at sea the boat will have to be rescued as determined under maritime rule where they should be brought to a place of safety – which would either be to Greece or Turkey. A barrier will only add to Greece’s already large bureaucratic burden rather than ‘fix’ Greece’s migration issue.

Many commentators have demonstrated that the budget needed to build the floating barrier could be better spent by improving and investing in the safety of refugee living in camps, or in infrastructure within the camps. It would also be beneficial for Greece to increase their budget towards its asylum procedure. The average processing time of an application was 8.5 months due to delays of 212 days between pre-registration and personal interview, which only worsens the overcrowding problem and further deteriorates the living conditions of Aegean islands as a result of increased detention time. Greek national laws on asylum seekers differ to those of the 1951 Geneva Convention – two criteria have been added in order to be recognised as a refugee. The first is that a person’s application must have been submitted immediately upon their arrival in the territory and that the person has travelled directly from the country where they have been prosecuted. As a result, many were unable to attain the status of refugees as they entered through smuggling routes and were detained before applying for asylum and other led to refoulement simply because they arrived through a transit country or do not share a border with Greece.

The barrier in essence embodies this politicised fear of migrants in Greece. It seems to be more of a political astute for the new centre-right government, rather than a well-thought-out plan. Greek officials will not leave migrants on an overcrowded boat on the other end of the barrier with the risk of it sinking and civilians dying. The absurdity of the plan was called out by the leader of the opposition party, Syriza, as he mentions “even a child knows that in the sea you cannot have a wall.”

Image: AFP via The Telegraph