Despite the cold, freezing rain and rough seas, this January over 50,000 people have already fled to Europe to escape the horrors of conflict and oppression in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries. Greece has seen thirty times the number of people arrive this month compared to January 2015. People who are arriving seeking sanctuary, safety and a brighter future. However, unbeknownst to them, they are entering an increasingly fragmented and acrimonious Europe.
Earlier this week amidst a rising sense of panic, EU ministers met in Amsterdam to discuss suspending the Schengen Zone for two years in response to the escalating refugee crisis. Many lay the blame for the increase in refugees at Greece's door, with Austrian interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, saying "Greece has one of the biggest navies in Europe...It's a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected."
I write from Athens where pressure is also being felt from the European Commission, who this week stated that "there are serious deficiencies in the management of the external border in Greece". It has given Greece three months to address these issues, which include proper reception, registration or relocation or return of refugees, or face possible expulsion from the Schengen Zone. Staggeringly, rather than adopting a shared, cohesive approach across EU member states, there is even talk of debt relief for Greece in exchange for them absorbing greater numbers of those who've fled their war-torn homelands. I'm here in Greece because Mercy Corps is entering into partnership with the Ministry for Migration Policy and the City of Athens to help them deal with this unprecedented crisis. We will provide support to effectively integrate refugees granted asylum, promote social cohesion and reinforce the capacity of key governmental partners and local organisations.
This signals the start of a long-term partnership that Mercy Corps is embarking on with Greece, where we are focused on a holistic approach to address both the challenges and, importantly, harness the opportunities that this massive movement of people can bring. Our experience working in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and our already established refugee response in Greece and The Balkans, means we are uniquely positioned to help.
Unfortunately, while we are forging new agreements with the Greek authorities, the spirit of partnership and co-operation seems to be in short supply across Europe this week. On Tuesday, shockingly, the Danish parliament passed a law approving the seizure of refugees' assets, purportedly to help cover the costs of their stay in Denmark, there are escalating calls from central European countries to close borders with the Balkans, and Macedonia is constructing a three-meter high razor-wire fence along its border with Greece.
These morally outrageous and ineffective measures will not help the thousands of desperate people who continue to make the perilous journey to Europe's shores. The European Commission has predicted that three million refugees will arrive in Europe by the end of 2016. But, in reply to these predictions, what we are seeing are short-term political responses to a long-term challenge that do nothing to address the root causes of the crisis. Of paramount importance is securing a political solution to end the conflict, first and foremost, inside Syria, but also in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, which account for over 90% of the refugees fleeing to Europe.
As world leaders, along with global organisations such as Mercy Corps, prepare to meet in London at the Supporting Syria and the Region conference this coming week to commit support to the people of Syria and its neighbours, discussions will focus on how to better protect civilians in Syria's brutal war; how to provide more education for a generation of young people who have seen five years of war; and how to create conditions that support equitable economic development and enable refugees and people in neighbouring countries access to more jobs. Commitment from leaders at the conference, along with regional leaders in the Middle East - including those from the private sector - must be made to establishing a fund and framework that supports the small and medium businesses that are the engines of job creation in the region. Creating sustainable, productive economic opportunities for refugees, together with well thought through social cohesion programmes that build bridges across communities, will help to provide people with a more viable future.
Segregating societies, isolating nations, closing borders and seizing valuable possessions from vulnerable people is not the answer. The London conference provides a crucial opportunity to show real leadership and to adopt a holistic approach to addressing both the crisis in Syria and resultant flight of hundreds of thousands of human beings to Europe. We can and must rise to the challenge.