Greek Coast Guard officers escort refugees from a patrol ship after rescuing them from sinking dinghies.
Many in the last few days have been rocked by news of the Greek 'ultimatum'. Which is to say, the threat by member states of the Schengen zone to Greece that it must 'secure its borders' and stop refugees entering within the next six weeks, or be expelled from the elite passport-free club. Which is unfair and makes no sense on so many levels that I can't help wondering if it was one of those ideas we all have in the middle of the night that seem groundbreakingly brilliant at the time but that, as you try to decipher your somnambulatory scrawls the next morning, stand up about as well as a one-legged centipede.
First of all, this has never been a Greek problem. Greece has never dropped bombs on Syria, or sent troops into Afghanistan or Iraq, causing the problems forcing people to flee. Greece has never advertised an open-doors immigration policy for all Syrians and Afghans, catalysing a rush of refugees trying to enter before those doors swing shut. Greece has problems, yes - plenty. Problems of its own (largely caused, arguably, by the same EU member states blackmailing it now) that it was struggling to deal with well before tens of thousands of people started arriving weekly on its islands. Despite these problems, Greece is doing more than most other countries in recognising its human responsibilities and trying to do its best by these people arriving as part of a crisis that others caused for it.
On top of its economic and political problems, plus endeavouring to address the needs of the hundreds of thousands of refugees passing through its lands, Greece is now also having to absorb the fallout from the (legally questionable) Balkan policy of only admitting Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis through the border at Idomeni. This means that all the thousands of people coming from other countries must stop in Greece, apply for asylum in Greece, be processed by Greece, and many - more than would have chosen thus - stay and live in Greece. The country is barely coping, and a few controversial moves which sparked outrage, like the recent arrest of a group of foreign volunteer lifeguards, look like cries for help as the country strains to look after itself and its newest visitors. The decision not even to process Moroccans, who become stuck intractably in temporary camps, is indicative of the nation's inability to handle the situation.
A ship sails the stretch of water between Lesvos's northern and Turkey's southern coasts.
Greece is not finding this crisis any more fun than Austria or Germany is - much less, in fact. Greece is experiencing the effects of this crisis not only economically, but also in the trauma suffered by its islanders, many of whom have witnessed first-hand the tragedy of families displaced and people drowning, and in the polarisation of its society into those 'for' and 'against' helping refugees. The window of six weeks is laughably simplistic, and worryingly reductive of the problems faced. If there were an easy way to solve the disaster recurring daily in its nation, Greece would have been the first to implement it - and the other countries wouldn't have stood around watching for long, all wanting a bit of the credit.
But the fact is that there is no easy answer. And it is not Greece's responsibility, nor in its power, to provide these answers to a problem initiated by, controlled by and fought between other people. Greece is an unlucky onlooker who happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. And now, other EU states are trying to punish Greece for its geography and their own actions. When Greece sent its Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, to Lesvos in October to witness the situation and consider a response strategy, the boats stopped arriving. The Turkish smugglers, fearing a crackdown threatening their revenue, did not allow Tsipras to see the situation at its most acute, and the PM left the island having seen only a few hundred people arrive, after weeks of receiving 5,000+ people daily.
Realistically, what do the Schengen states expect Greece to do to 'secure its border'? Perhaps it could take a leaf out of the book of Medieval monarchs and surround itself with a 10km moat, adding high waves and strong tides for good measure. Oh, wait... A naval patrol along just the northern coast of Lesvos costs thousands of euros daily; for a country still economically in tatters, increasing these patrols is inconceivable. And even if naval patrols were placed nose-to-nose along the Greek-Turkish border and stopped every single boat from entering, what would that mean for the people on board? This short-sighted suggestion by Austria's interior minister overlooks the fact that the people on board those boats will remain in existence (let's hope the contrary doesn't figure in her plan). Sending them back to Turkey is equally unfeasible; Turkey, already accommodating 2 million refugees - compared to the 1 million across the whole of Europe - has a much more real 'crisis' of refugees than anywhere in the EU. Even the countries that thus far have led the humanistic response to the crisis, like Germany, now seem to have forgotten that "refugees" are real people, not just numbers.
The same stretch seen from the Turkish side; Lesvos on the horizon.
Instead of an ultimatum for Greece to 'secure' its 13,676km of coastline and essentially tourniquet the human symptoms of the crisis - an all but impossible feat, and a futile one at that - how about targeting the root causes of the problem, and issuing the UK with an ultimatum to cease the arms trade to Saudi Arabia, or for the UK and France to stop bombing Syria? I will say it time and time again: instead of squabbling and passing the blame like a bad smell, EU member states need to grow up, sit down together and come up with a coherent, fair and mature approach to resolving not just our own self-interested problems, but also those of the people seeking our help. The EU is about unity, alliance and mutual support, and I am a backer of it in that capacity, but this dog-eat-dog backstabbing is corroding its very foundations and questioning the validity of the very high regard in which the rest of the world holds us.
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