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Greece: The murky moat of fortress Europe

Europe can no longer portray itself as a bastion of humanitarian values if it doesn't address the issue of migration.

Last updated: 24 Apr 2014 08:47
Menelaos Tzafalias

Menelaos Tzafalias is a freelance journalist and producer based in Athens, Greece. He has worked as an associate producer on the documentary "Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre", a story about migrants and labour relations in early 20th century America.
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Greek Police officers check the IDs of migrants living in Athens [EPA]

Europe has a reputation as a bastion of progressive values. A continent that left behind the scars of a great war and several smaller ones; that did away with colonialism and has become a beacon for tolerance and acceptance. Not all agree, of course. A closer look at the European Union's migration policy casts dark shadows over a continent that prides itself on being the birthplace of the Enlightenment.

Let's start somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean: In Greek waters off Turkey, an alleged trafficker was shot dead - accidentally, authorities say - during an altercation with the coastguard. He had just deposited several migrants on a nearby beach. The following day, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of putting an end to the "push back" regime of making migrants go back from where they came, before their identities and their intentions are established. A sense of due process prevailed. European lawmakers were making a statement: Yes, we value our security but we will not reject someone knocking on our door before first knowing the identity of the person.

But a few days after the European vote, an Italian far right politician called for a halt in the rescue operations of migrants. During the Easter weekend itself, more than 1,200 African migrants made it to the shores of Sicily, escorted by navy and coastguard vessels. When confronted with wave after wave of visitors, does tolerance cease? Must people be made to suffer because they lust for what they believe will be a better life?

Italian migrants centre faces closure

As Cecilia Malmstrom, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, commented: "We have witnessed too many tragic losses of lives in the Mediterranean recently." She mainly meant the respective tragedies of Lampedusa and Farmakonisi. In the case of Lampedusa, more than 350 people died last autumn when their boat capsized, as they were making their way to the small Italian island.

At the beginning of April, the United Nations' special rapporteur on violence against women was refused entry to the privately-run Yarl's Wood migrant detention centre, reportedly on instructions "from the highest levels of the [UK's] Home Office". A woman had died there last month, reportedly - again - because she did not get adequate medical treatment. She was the 14th person to die in Britain's so-called "immigration removal centres" in the past 10 years. Did liberal Britain have something to hide?

European responsibility

After the tragedy of Farmakonisi, where 12 people died at sea off the Greek island when their boat took in water, the German activist group Pro-Asyl made an interesting point: The Farmakonisi tragedy, just like the one at Lampedusa, was a question of European responsibility. For a brief period back then, Italian and Greek authorities made a serious effort to show a better face as to their treatment of migrants attempting to reach Europe by sea.

But it would not be long before things returned to the bitter normal. Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano called for refugee camps to be set up in Libya, saying that an estimated 600,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East were ready to set off from Libyan shores. He also stressed that Europe giving 80 million euros ($110 million) to Frontex, the EU's border patrol agency, was not enough. He did concede that things were not as bad as during the Arab Spring in 2011.

On that note, let us return to Greece, where about 90 percent of the EU's illegal immigrants enter - the other countries at the forefront of the migration wave are Bulgaria, Italy, Malta and Spain.

Europe can no longer portray itself as the birthplace of humanitarian values if it does not properly address the issue of migration.

A recent report by the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) charity on the conditions under which asylum seekers and those migrants deemed "illegal" are detained, was shocking. A researcher interviewed by the Guardian described the situation as a "living hell". The charity also criticised the Greek government's decision to detain migrants indefinitely. According to MSF, authorities "threatened migrants with indefinite detention until they consented to voluntary return or they cooperated in their own forced return".

On the positive front, Greece has a new, autonomous asylum service. In the past, the police had sole responsibility for asylum applications processing. At the end of January, the new service had received 5,577 applications from migrants coming from 77 countries. Asylum approval rates for applicants from Syria and Somalia were 99.1 and 100 percent, respectively. But as its head said in an interview, Greece's European partners are characterised by "hypocrisy" when it comes to the wellbeing of asylum seekers.

But it is not only a question of what is happening at the level of individual states. The EU's border patrol agency Frontex, is morphing into an all-powerful entity with a budget of almost 90 million euros ($124m) and questionable oversight. Hopefully, when the European Parliament’s latest vote is adopted by the EU member countries, things will improve.

Narcotics smuggling

On the other hand, to suggest that all migrants wishing to come to Europe are angels, would be naive. From Frontex official documents, we catch glimpses of narcotics smuggling and ruthless traffickers. For example: "The Western Balkan route also connects the heroin trade from mainly Afghanistan to Europe. Migrants recently interviewed in Greece stated that facilitators forced them to carry drugs with themselves while crossing the border illegally to Turkey from where the further distribution of the drugs is arranged by organised crime networks."

It is interesting how often Turkey is mentioned. Last December, Turkey signed a migrant re-admission deal with the EU, which was then endorsed in February.

Apparently, there will be more developments, as Romania and Bulgaria are admitted into the Schengen free movement area, transforming the Black Sea into a new transit corridor. This is extremely interesting given developments in Ukraine.

Growing private sector involvement is another notable development, suggesting relinquishing democratic control over key institutions. It was recently announced that private security firms would bid for the management of Greek asylum and migrant detention centres. This "big business" aspect of privatised migration oversight and its dangers has been investigated by Apostolis Fotiadis and Claudia Ciobanu.

And there is of course the danger of outright militarisation. Niels Frenzen, an authority on migration, last March highlighted a study by the European Parliament's Directorate-General for External Policies, noting the "serious shortcomings of the security-driven approach that has been taken by the EU".

Europe can no longer portray itself as the birthplace of humanitarian values if it does not properly address the issue of migration. If Europe is paying the price for others' wars, it should not make the victims pay. The upcoming European Parliamentary elections just might be an opportunity for serious debate - or more of the same populism.

Menelaos Tzafalias is a freelance journalist and producer based in Athens, Greece. He has worked as an associate producer on the documentary "Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre", a story about migrants and labour relations in early 20th century America.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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