As migration from Turkey and North Africa picks up once again, Southern Europe is scrambling to find coping solutions. Greece, a frontline country already overwhelmed with diminished capacity to care for more arriving on their shores, now plans to try something new: a sea wall.
Set for construction just off the coast of the island of Lesbos, the netted wall will be 2.7 kilometres long. Erected via floating pylons – with flashing lights to mark Greece’s borders – the barricade will stand 1.1 metres tall, raised approximately 50 centimetres above the sea surface. Elevated barriers make it difficult for small boats to pass, and nets cause problems for propeller-driven vessels – targeting small boats and rafts often used by asylum seekers. If successful, the wall could be expanded to cover 13 to 15 kilometres in total. Greece hopes to have the barrier in place by the end of April at a cost of 500,000 euros, which includes four years of maintenance.
The proposal, however, has sparked controversy and pushback,. Amnesty International condemned the plan, arguing that it would increase the dangers migrants face on the already treacherous crossing.
“This proposal marks an alarming escalation in the Greek government’s ongoing efforts to make it as difficult as possible for asylum-seekers and refugees to arrive on its shores”, said Massimo Moratti, the group’s research director for Europe. “The plan raises serious issues about rescuers’ ability to continue providing life-saving assistance to people attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Lesbos. The government must urgently clarify the operational details and necessary safeguards to ensure that this system does not cost further lives.”
“We see, in recent years, a surge in the number of barriers that are being erected but yet people continue to flee”, said Βoris Cheshirkov, a spokesman in Greece for refugee agency UNHCR. “Greece has to have fast procedures to ensure that people have access to asylum quickly when they need it.”
Adalbert Jahnz, an EU Commission spokesman, told reporters that “The setting up of barriers is not in and of itself against EU law. But physical barriers or obstacles of this sort should not be an impediment to seeking asylum which is protected by EU law”. He did add that monitoring and protecting external borders remains primarily at the directive of individual member states.
Greece’s Defence Minister, Nikos Panagiotopoulos, defended the plans on Skai Radio, saying that “In Evros, natural barriers had relative [good] results in containing flows” – referencing a barbed-wire fence built along Greece’s land border with Turkey, erected in 2012 to deter asylum seekers. “We believe a similar result can be had with these floating barriers. We are trying to find solutions to reduce flows.”
Greece’s Migration Minister, Notis Mitarakis, also defended the floating barrier proposal. Citing the increase in migrant arrivals over the past year, he said the floating barrier “sends out the message that we are not a place where anything goes and that we’re taking all necessary measures to protect the borders”. However, Mitarakis also notes that the deportation process of those who do not qualify for refugee status would not be sped up.
Not everyone in Greece is sold on the idea. Main opposition party, left-wing Syriza, condemned the sea wall as “a disgrace and an insult to humanity”, and former Migration Minister, Dimitris Vitsas, called the proposal a “stupid idea”. “The idea that a fence of this length is going to work is totally stupid”, he said. “It’s not going to stop anybody making the journey”.
Amnesty International insists that processing asylum applications faster should be a priority, and the country has already introduced additional shifts for workers to deal with a backlog of more than 10,000 applications.
Greece is desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis. Last year alone, the country took in more refugees and migrants than any other European state. Meanwhile, human trafficking along Turkey’s western coast has spiked and tensions between countries over energy resources and maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean continue to worsen. Greece fears Turkey neglecting its agreement to curb migration with the EU as an act of political leverage – leaving it to hold the bag for Europe when the country can barely cope as is. And with Idlib, the last city held by the Syrian opposition, on the verge of collapsing, there is deep concern that many more displaced people will flee to Greek shores in the coming months.
Lesbos is the site where nearly one million Syrian refugees alighted during the height of the crisis. Five years later, refugee camps are persistently overcrowded beyond capacity and lack sufficient hygienic and medical resources for the refugees trapped in them. At Moria, the largest camp on the island, there are more than 19,000 asylum seekers living at a facility that has capacity for only 2,840. On the island of Samos, the camp designed for just 700 currently houses approximately 7,200 migrants. In comparison, Samos’ local population stands at about 6,500.
Crowded conditions have led to increased tensions between locals and migrants, with thousands of Greek protesters recently demonstrating on Lesbos, Samos, and Chios. These three islands received 80 percent of last year’s refugee and migration arrivals, which clocked in at a total of 74,000 people with more than 3,500 being children. Protest banners read “we want our islands back”. In some places, demonstrations gave way to violence and police were forced to fire tear gas canisters in an effort to disperse crowds.
During his election campaign last year, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis promised to strengthen the country’s borders and “decongest” camps by replacing them with migration centres. Meanwhile, Mitsotakis has accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of exploiting the crisis. Turkey currently hosts more than 4 million displaced Syrians, surpassing any other nation in the world – and both countries are facing domestic pressure over the issue as local communities direct increased outrage at their governments.
Life on the Front Lines
Greece, along with other frontline nations on the Mediterranean, has repeatedly asked for support from the EU to handle the large numbers of migrants reaching their shores. Those pleas took on new urgency late last year, when Turkey kicked up violence in Syria and threatened to “open the gates” and allow refugees to travel into Europe.
And now, desperate and determined migrants are seeking entry to Europe via Cyprus as well. Some refugees arrive through Turkish-backed territory in the north of the island-nation and seek to cross the green-line into the territory controlled by the Greek-Cypriot government. More than 11,200 people have entered the EU state in this manner alone. Comparatively few come by air or by sea directly to Cyprus, though the country does rescue stranded migrants near their shores.
Cyprus now holds the most refugees per capita within the entire EU. According to government data, the number of migrants arriving and applying for asylum between January and June of 2019 reached nearly 7,000, with around 26 percent coming from Syria. Applications awaiting examination have reached 13,000. In response, the island nation has asked the EU to host 5,000 migrants, citing the “disproportionate pressures” it faced.
Many migrants and refugees arrive in Cyprus wholly unaware of the local political situation, then are surprised to find that the island does not have a land-crossing into the rest of Europe, and that it is not a part of the passport-free travel Schengen zone. In some cases, human smugglers and people misrepresenting themselves as agents on behalf of private universities in the Turkish-controlled northern side suggest the route without explaining what their hapless customers are likely to find upon arrival. The number of asylum-seekers in Cyprus was five times higher in 2019 than in 2015. This is contrary to the trend seen throughout the rest of Southern Europe – despite seeing a rise in migration over the past year, numbers are still nowhere near the heights seen in 2015.
“The simplest way is to think of the north of Cyprus is as the world’s biggest airport transit lounge”, said James Ker-Lindsay, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics. “You’ve landed on the territory of the Republic of Cyprus, but it’s not until you’ve gone through the border check at the green line — which isn’t a border itself — that you’re officially in the Republic of Cyprus,”
In the Mediterranean, over 600 asylum seekers and migrants were rescued at sea during the course of only one week in January, with 403 refugees disembarking in Italy. Malta has also been feeling an increased burden, taking in 77 people from the rescued vessel Alan Kurdi late last month.
Rescue organisations demand that the EU do more to help those at risk and renew their rescue operations. “There is complete chaos in terms of coordination between the maritime authorities in Europe and the maritime authorities in Libya”, SOS Méditerranée operations director Frederic Penard said. “Each rescue, we feel, is a bit of a miracle that we find the boats.“