Amsterdam, the Netherlands – Greece’s migration minister dismissed a Belgian proposal to build a camp for almost half a million migrants in Greece as “dangerous nonsense”.
Talking to Al Jazeera after a two-day summit of European Union interior ministers in Amsterdam, Yannis Mouzalas said his Belgian counterpart, Jan Jambon, floated the idea of expelling Greece from the Schengen open borders area, because of its inability to stanch the flow of refugees from Turkey.
“He introduced the subject with some dangerous nonsense about building a concentration camp for 400,000 people in Greece, and we all moved on. It simply wasn’t put forward,” said Mouzalas.
Greece has fiercely resisted the idea of becoming a “concentration camp” for migrants. Last September it was forced to agree to create temporary space for 50,000 people – half the mandated capacity of the entire EU.
Now a chorus of immigration hardliners in the EU wants Greece’s northern border crossing with former Yugoslav Macedonia to be sealed.
Sealing Greek borders
“Greece is in danger of becoming a black box [for refugees] if these flows don’t decrease,” Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, told the Financial Times in December. He repeated that fear at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.
Slovenia gave new impetus to this idea on the eve of the Amsterdam summit, suggesting that the EU concentrate on strengthening the former Yugoslav Macedonian border with Greece as a more defensible one than the Greek-Turkish maritime border.
That could turn Greece into a vast screening area for hundreds of thousands of arrivals. Those qualifying for asylum could in theory be relocated elsewhere in the EU.
Many EU members, however, including Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, have resisted the idea of relocation.
Last September, the EU agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees out of Greece and Italy, who currently receive almost all of the irregular migration into the EU. Greece was to be relieved of 66,000 refugees under this quota.
“Instead we have relocated 900 people in Europe,” said Mouzalas.
“We have another 930 people ready for relocation and 248 of these have been approved. I believe only 13 states have offered places [out of 28 members of the EU]. Instead of relocation, we are closing borders, building concentration camps and removing people’s valuables, smartphones and jewellery,” he said in reference to a decision by the Danish government to strip asylum-seekers of their valuables to help pay for their stay.
“These things are not representative of Europe. They are not European decisions.”
The port of Piraeus near Athens this week had a taste of the unrest Greece might expect if EU hardliners get their way.
Police prevented hundreds of migrants from boarding buses to the border, which is their main gateway to the rest of the EU. Migrants sat on the asphalt of the highway that runs around the port and protested for half an hour, bringing traffic to a standstill.
“When we asked police why they wouldn’t let people on the buses, they said ‘because there are 5,000 people already waiting at the border,'” said Sotiris Alexopoulos, who cofounded a volunteer force called Piraeus Solidarity.
“In the end the buses returned and the people were able to continue. We cooked them some soup and gave them clothes and shoes,” Alexopoulos said.
Authorities have allowed Piraeus Solidarity to use a passenger terminal as a storage area for food and clothing. More than a hundred refugees lingered there well after the protest, resting and allowing their children to play.
A Syrian boy and girl pushed a supermarket trolley across its vast concrete expanse, shrieking with delight.
“I think they will stay here overnight and move on to the border tomorrow,” said Simone, a Dutch volunteer with Refugee Boat Foundation.
Piraeus Solidarity has become a focal point for volunteers and donations from Greece and across Europe. This spirit of co-operation stands in stark contrast to the impasse among governments.
“If the borders close, everything changes. We haven’t considered what that means,” said Sotiris.
Volunteers tell Al Jazeera that the Greek border crossing at Idomeni is currently opened every half hour for about 50 people, and sometimes it is kept closed for up to two hours.
“I think it is criminal for this to be happening before relocation is set up,” said Mouzalas, “because right now this humanitarian corridor that starts in Idomeni is the only legal route for migration. It allows us to know how many cross each day and who they are …”
“If this is abolished, the borders are thousands of kilommetres long. Illegal entry and smugglers and traffickers will be reinforced, and it will of course be a very convenient passage for terrorists.”
A Greek proposal
Greek officials have focused on ways to protect the sensitive eastern border with Turkey, which is the main entry point for refugees and migrants into Europe. Some of them resent the money being offered to Turkey.
“Why should we pay Turkey to enforce its own laws?” asked Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, which receives more than half the migrants smuggled across the Aegean.
“I suggest that instead of chartering ferry boats to bring refugees from Lesbos to Athens, the government should send them directly to Turkey to bring them here for sorting. At least that way we won’t see people drowning, and we’ll cut the smugglers out of their business,” Galianos said.
The EU last year offered Turkey 3.2bn euros ($3.48bn) to do a better job of policing smugglers on its shores, but that seems to have done little.
A European Commission report last month said that Turkey was not doing enough to police its borders. “Turkey needs to take concrete steps in order to improve the capacity of the agencies in charge of border management. Recourse to conscripts for border surveillance is a matter of concern,” the report said.
As many as 3,000 people continue to arrive in Greece daily, despite high winds and low temperatures. Forty-three people drowned last Friday when two boats capsized in Greek waters, most of them women and children.
Ministers at Amsterdam discussed a version of Galianos’ proposal. Greece has suggested that police intercept boats as they alight on Greek shores, and escort migrants to camps for identification. Refugees would be separated from economic migrants.
Frontex, the European external borders agency, would then sail the economic migrants back to Turkey “the next day” according to Mouzalas.
The problem is that for the plan to work, large numbers of patrol boats and a much heavier police presence would be required. Most boats are currently intercepted by volunteers, because police are overwhelmed with the job of identification. Greece would need reinforcement from EU members, whose track record in providing such help is poor.
“We have asked for 26 patrol boats. We have received eight,” said Mouzalas. “We asked for 1,800 officers and received 800. We have asked for 47 ambulances and have received none.”
Short of resettling refugees directly from camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, however, there seems to be no other ideas for stopping their flow once they reach the Aegean. And the increasingly xenophobic mood among European countries does not appear conducive to reaching agreement on more open immigration policies, even if they are more effective.