(Athens) - Is Greece at risk of being kicked out of the free-movement Schengen area because of its failings on the refugee crisis?
Several European ministers and senior EU officials have been quoted as accusing Greece of not doing its job of policing the European Union’s external borders and stemming the flow of asylum seekers and migrants, also of refusing to accept EU help to do so.
But Greek government officials I met in Athens last week insisted that Greece has been left largely alone to deal with the refugee crisis. They told me that the EU and member states have largely ignored Greek requests for assistance.
Wherever the truth lies, it is a plain fact that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children languish in Greece today in inadequate reception conditions, face chaotic registration procedures, and remain stuck despite an agreed plan to relocate at least some of them to other EU states.
An unprecedented number of asylum seekers and migrants - over 700,000- have crossed from Turkey to the Greek islands this year. According to the International Organization for Migration, 627 women, men, and children have died in the Aegean Sea since the beginning of the year.
Greek officials told me that only nine of the 27 other EU member states have participated with patrol boats and other equipment in the joint operation Poseidon Sea of Frontex, the EU external border agency. I have to wonder how many drownings in the Aegean might have been prevented if Operation Poseidon Sea had been fully resourced.
Fingers can point in both directions, but one thing is certain: the debt-stricken Greek government has failed to provide for the most basic needs of new arrivals. The vacuum left by the state has been filled to a certain extent by humanitarian organisations and volunteer groups, both Greek and international, operating on the beaches where the refugees arrive from Turkey and running informal camps.
The situation has been dire for everyone, but pregnant women, female heads of household, unaccompanied children, and people with disabilities have faced particular challenges. This is all despite provisions in Greek law that require authorities to provide reception conditions which guarantee human rights and dignity, in accordance with international standards.
The law also provides for mobile first-reception units to identify vulnerable groups, conduct medical screening, provide socio-psychological support and information on the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, and refer vulnerable people to social services. Do any of these units exist? Where are they?
Greece has been criticised for moving too slowly to create five so-called hotspots to provide triage for arriving migrants and asylum seekers, and for failing to register people properly. Only one hotspot, on Lesbos island, is operational. But Greek officials told me that member states have largely failed to deploy personnel through Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office to support Greek authorities in the hotspots, and that only Germany has sent fingerprinting equipment needed to register asylum seekers in the common European database.
Greece’s hotspot failures, critics say, are to blame for slow implementation of the plan to transfer 66,000 asylum seekers from Greece for relocation to other EU countries over the next two years. So far, only 30 Syrians have been relocated. In comparison, 129 have been relocated from Italy since October.
Only 14 EU countries have even made places available, amounting to a grand total of 2 percent of the total 160,000 asylum seekers who should benefit from the plan. The reluctance of asylum seekers to participate is a factor too, but Greek officials say this is partly due to uncertainty about the process and how long it will take to be relocated.
In recent days, things seem to have moved forward. The Greek government has agreed to allow Frontex on its frontier with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where tensions escalated following its decision to bar various national groups from lodging asylum claims.
Greece and Frontex, it seems, also agreed to trigger the Rapid Border Intervention Teams mechanism (RABIT) for extra help with patrols in the Aegean. Then, on 4 December, Greece activated the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, a disaster relief program - a positive step. According to media reports, Greece sent a long list of needs to Brussels, including for ambulances, all-weather tents, blankets, sleeping bags, and first-aid kits.
EU member states should stop the squabbling and finger-pointing and respond as quickly as possible to these new initiatives. They should start by quickly meeting Greece’s request for assistance and donate the needed materials.
For its part, Greece should urgently improve services for asylum seekers and migrants and ensure adequate reception conditions, including shelter, toilets, food, and access to basic health care as well as enough interpreters, human resources, and technical capacity to support people seeking asylum, identify those who are especially vulnerable, and process them more quickly.
Rather than continuing to waste time and energy in shifting responsibility and assessing blame, all parties need to focus first and foremost on resolving the misery that their dysfunctional bickering has contributed to creating.