Greece has been dealing with the phenomenon of immigration since the ancient years.
Its strategic geographical position at the crossroad of three continents, makes the country a transit stop for refugees who are travelling to other destinations with stronger economies in nothern Europe, as the gap between Europe, Asia and Africa grows larger both in economically and security terms too.
Regarding Greece, three main immigration waves can be easily identified: The first one occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, the second one happened after the Second World War and the third took place after the financial crisis that exploded in 2010.
In 1980s, Greece observed its initial migrant flows coming from Africa and Middle East. They were low-skilled people who were looking mainly for employment.
During the last years of the 20th century, the country became also a famous destination among migrants of some Balkan countries after the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yougosklavia and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
By that time, a lot of people from Albania, which was under a communist dictatorship travelled to Greece to seek both refuge and better economic opportunities.In fact the blended in the Greek society relatively easily finding work in the flourishing construction sector back in that time.
It is also wort-telling that until 1990s there was no legal framework for controlling and managing migratory inflows. The management of the land and sea borders was a huge challenge for the Greek migration policy, so the first Greek response was a reinforcement of the security at the borders, by the creation of the Synoriofylaki (Border Guard Force) in 1998.
The same year, the Greek government gave for the first time to the migrants without documents the right to remain in the country, providing residence permits to those who have arrived the last two decades.
After four years, in 2001, the first comprehensive law was voted and had two goals: The implementation of a new regularisation programme and the management of immigration including border control, insurance, renewal of stay and work permits and redefining of naturalisation rules.
Furthermore, according to the census of 2001, 750″,000 foreigners were living in Greece, which was counting a population of 11 million Greek citizens. The vast majority of the immigrants were people from eastern European countries that had socialist regimes before the fall of the Soviet Union and some Syrians who came to Greece primarily to look for work in the late 90s.
The next years, till 2005, more than 20″,000 Syrians were living in Greece legally according to statistics given by the Syrian Embassy in Greece, but after the global financial turmoil that plunged the Greek economy in 2010, the half number of these Syrians left the country.
Unfortunately, in 2011 a multi-sided armed civil world war started in Syria and all civilians started looking for survival. The majority of these people are travelling to Turkey and then either are crossing the Aegean by boat and are trying to find accomodation in Greek island or they they are arriving by land from Turkey’s nothern border.
According to the International Organisation of Immigration (IOM) 613″,179 migrants and refugees have arrived in the EU by sea in 2015. However, Greece was the country that has received the most important number so far, with 472″,754 maritime arrivals recorded.
According to the UNHCR, there has been an 850% increase in arrivals in Greece from January-August 2015, compared to the same period in 2014.It is important to keep in mind that these figures were changing considerably on a daily basis, as it is estimated that approximately 4″,500 migrants and refugees were crossing into Greece every day at that time.
The wreck of Lampedusa , on 19/4/2015, was the landmark for the European mobilization and change in its response policies refugee issue for both the EU as a whole and the host countries.
Most of the refugees who arrived in Greece in 2015 came, from Syria (57%), Pakistan, Afghanistan, Irak and Somalia.
The host points were ten Greek Aegean islands. Lesvos was by far the main entrance gate for refugees, as it welcomed half a million people (506″,919). Followed by Chios, which received 120.556 people, Samos, who received 73.134, Kos (58.503), Leros (31.618), Agathonisi (31.226), Kalymnos (9.755), Symi (3.984) ) and Tilos (876).
Once they have reached the Greek islands, migrants and refugees walk several kilometers or take a bus to reach a registration center. Groups of people (including children) walking on the side of the roads have now become part of the scenery on many of those islands. Until September 2015, they often had to walk up to 60 kilometers, since there were no buses provided, and car and taxi owners were afraid to transport people, as they could be charged with smuggling.
Since 2014, the EU helped Greece to modernise its structures aiming at controlling the borders (Triandafyllidou and Mantanika, 2016). Progressively, the paradigm changed and Greece, instead of strengthening the border from the inside, launched programs of cooperation and development aid with its neighbouring countries.
This was accompanied with the opening of migrants reception centres and migrants camps in the islands (Chios, Lesbos) and in the semi-periphery of Athens and Thessaloniki. But the living conditions were and still are dreadful.
Some are infested with bed-bugs, scorpions and snakes. Not to mention that they are dangerous places, especially when the police and the army leave the camps at night – leaving free place to gangs, attacks, rapes, prostitution – according to aid workers sayings (Kingsley, 2016). There is a considerable physical and mental suffering, and basic health services are limited (Dearden, 2017).
By the end of the summer of 2015, the figures for refugees and immigrants in Greece were 309.356 people, while 2.748 had drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
The number of deaths was very high: According to the Port State Control, 246 refugees died in the Aegean in 2015, while 149 others were missing. Regarding the demographic data, most of the people who arrived to the Greek islands were men (55%). Women (17%) and children (28%).
That summer, Greece was in the eye of two storms which were tearing Europe apart. The first were the austerity measures and the second was the effort to survive and keep migrants at bay.
Arrivals to Greece peaked in October of 2015, a month that saw over 200″,000 refugee arrivals. By the end of 2016, the total number of people for 2016 stood at 173″,450, according to UNHCR Greece data snapshot report of January 2017.The cost of refugee crisis on the Greek economy, even though Greece is just a ‘transit’ country, was estimated at 0.3 % of gross domestic output, or an annual cost of over $675 million according to the head of the Bank of Greece, Yannis Stournaras.
By the end of November 2015, more than 507″,745 refugees had crossed the border from Edomeni to Europe, following their dream to travel to Germany or Sweden, as the 90″,8% of the people asked, claimed, while only 2″,7% showed willingness to remain in Greece.
Most of the Syrian refugees who crossed the sea border in 2015 were in the age group 18-35 (69%), with 21% in the 36-59 group and only 5% being children aged 12-17.
Nine out of ten had no travel document with them.
85% of respondents said they were Sunni Muslims, while 6% said they were Christians.
It is noteworthy that 43% of the Syrians said they are university graduates, and 43% have completed secondary education in Syria.
6% said they had been tortured in their country and 19% said they had lost contact with one or more family members because of the war.
In Greece the newly elected government was asked to handle the issue or this management having as a starting point different ideological bases from the previous governments have gone through various stages characterized by diversification from previous practices and attitudes but determined by the personality of the two deputy Ministers for Migration Policy.
Mrs. Christodoulopoulou chose the policy of confrontation while Mr. Mouzalas chose the policy of mildness and consensus. Overall Greece was drawn up with Europe’s choices as an example of defending the unity of the EU.
As the system for fingerprinting and the identification process became overstretched, waves of migrants took advantage of these developments to head north toward Germany. At that point in time European borders were still open. The change of policy proved music to the ears of smugglers who now felt that they could more easily turn the shipments of people toward Greece that provided a much easier access point.
In addition, the Greek government had to face up with the humanitarian crisis as daily lives were lost. At the same time he had to handle the situation within the country, which is being tested by economic crisis.
The government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called for a compassionate approach to the refugee crisis. It put an end to the roundups of migrants ordered by its conservative predecessor. It moved to close the grimmest detention centres, describing them as inhumane. It ordered police not to use force to remove people camping in ports and at border posts. The contrast with Balkan countries north of Greece, where riot police have frequently clashed with migrants, is glaring.
“Syriza’s approach was helpful in terms of not fanaticising the discourse regarding migrants. It helped keep racism at bay. But it also means Greece was very backward in how it dealt with refugees.” said Othon Anastasakis, director of Southeast European Studies at Oxford University.
When Germany opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees last autumn, Greece simply waved them through, well aware that none of them planned to apply for asylum in the EU’s weakest economy. There was no interest by the Greek side in putting in place a functional asylum system.
This stance became untenable once Austria put a cap on migrants entering its territory in February of 2016, triggering a domino effect that resulted in the closure of the nothern borders of Greece. Suddenly, the Balkan route was shut and Europe’s refugee crisis became Greece’s crisis. But there was no infrastructure in place to deal with it.
About 7″,000 people were blocked at the border, while the maximum possibility of hosting at the unique informal camp at the border was 2″,500.
Later in March 2016, with the total closure of the border, the situation has deteriorated. Amnesty International met many refugees and asylum seekers from Syria to reside in completely unacceptable conditions.
As time passed, refugees and immigrants began to lose their hope with regard to the re-opening of borders. The Greek authorities sent about 20 buses in Edomeni to transfer the world to adjacent camps, on the 25th March 2016.
Although they suffered miserable conditions, only about 400 decided to leave from the camp in Edomeni, not knowing what to expect in the camps where they would be transported.74 By the end of March 2016, there were still more than 11″,000 refugees and migrants in Edomeni who suffered miserable living conditions.
Out of the 31 temporary housing spaces created by the Greek government in continental Greece to accommodate refugees and migrants to irregularities, 5 are in Athens, Elliniko, Eleonas and Schisto.
In March 2016, refugees and migrants took the ships from the Aegean islands and arrived at two main harbors in mainland Greece: in Kavala, in the north country, and in Piraeus, Athens.
After the closure of the Greek-FYROM border, the port became more and more an informal camp, where thousands of refugees and immigrants sought shelter.
From 3″,000 to 5″,000 people live in the port daily, depending on arrivals ships that bring hundreds that had arrived in the islands in previous days, like and depending on the departures of buses carrying refugees and migrants to new state facilities outside Athens.
During all visits to the port of Piraeus, Amnesty International recorded refugees and migrants, including many families with young children and infants, pregnant women, people with disabilities and the elderly, suffering under the miserable reception conditions.
The conditions in this improvised camp – including housing, feeding and basic hygiene facilities – were very bad.
People of all ages and backgrounds were crammed into passenger areas or out in the open, huddled in overcrowded tents. Men and women are living side by side, anxiously guarding their few belongings.
Long queues snake outside a handful of portable toilets and showers. Swarms of children run amok as toddlers take their very first steps. With Greece’s cash-strapped government struggling to respond to the emergency, all are dependent on volunteers to cover their basic needs.
Desperate refugees trapped in Greece were self-harming and attempting suicide as a result of the “disastrous” EU policies, aid agencies have warned.
Mariam, a woman who came from Syria with her family and was waiting in the registration center in Kara Tepe (Lesvos), said in despair “we escaped death in Syria and we are now afraid that we will die here.”
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Kotzias, said the refugee flows are manageable, he said that Greece could withstand up to 150″,000 refugees and pointed out that the problem does not require panic but sobriety.
“The EU needs to have a more coherent and complex policy, to support refugees in Lebanon and Jordan with money subsidies, to solve the problem of moving to Magreb, to implement all agreements with third countries on readmission. Europe must understand that refugees will not be ruled out in Greece, they will find other ways. That is why we insist on a European solution, ” said Mr Kotzias, stressing that if Europe does not solve this problem, there will be a problem of identity and existence.
“My nightmare is breaking out a bigger crisis in the Middle East and dealing with tens of millions of refugees”,” the Foreign Minister said.
Over the period January-July 2016, 176″,743 arrivals to Greece were recorded. The fact that traffickers adjust their trafficking routes to the political circumstances in the region has become evident when in the height of the tourist season in mid-August, 41 migrants landed on one of the beaches on Mykonos.
Although the majority of migrants originate from Syria (79, 471), migrants from Afghanistan (41″,222), Iraq (25″,781) and Pakistan (9″,310) constituted a sizeable part of that migration wave.
According to official statistics, 11″,548 migrants are on the Greek islands. The migrants are stranded in reception centers the capacity of which was set at 7″,540.
The Greek government’s plan aimed at decongesting these centers by relocating ca.2″,000 people to four new centers in Crete has been harshly criticized by the local authorities.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) called on Greece to take control of the “total chaos” on Mediterranean islands, where thousands of migrants have landed.
“The level of suffering we have seen on the islands is unbearable. People arrive thinking they are in the European Union. What we have seen was not anything acceptable in terms of standards of treatment”,” Cochetel -a 30-year UNHCR veteran- said after visiting the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos and Chios.
He underlined that : “Greek authorities must lead and coordinate the response” , “I have never seen a situation like that. This is the European Union and this is totally shameful.”
Greece along with Italy, has been on the frontline of a wave of people seeking safety and a better future in Europe. But the Greek economy is struggling again after having only just recovered from six years of recession brought on by its debt crisis. As a result, the government says it cannot handle the pressure from thousands of refugees.
Data released on August 27, 2016 have shown that Samos, Lesvos and Leros were affected negatively by the arrival of the refugees as tourists avoid travelling there.
In August 2016 in Greece, Prime Minister Tsipras gave the UN Chief a life jacket found, like thousands of others, on the Greek islands belonging to migrants who crossed the Aegean Sea with the hope of reaching Europe. In a dramatic tone he stated that: “It’s a symbolic gift, a life-saving tool for thousands of refugees who arrived in the Greek islands after crossing the Aegean Sea.”
There were about 5000 shipwrecks in 2015, which resulted in the tragic drowning of a great number of refugees. Some 89 000 refugees have been rescued by the Greek Coast Guard (Hellenic Coast Guard”,2015) and many others by fishermen, but many have died. Among them a Syrian toddler who drowned in the Aegean Sea and who was photographed in a coast in Asia Minor produced great regret and motivated people in Europe to act but this did not last long.
Since Turkish forces began their military invasion at Afrin, Syria, in the end of January of 2018, the code-named operation Olive Branch, the Kurdish population in the region has begun fleeing to Greece, according to border registration data.
“The refugee crisis is the central political and ideological issue for the future of Europe and divides Europe into two camps”,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in statements after the informal summit at which the refugee-immigrant and Brexit on 20th of February 2018.
Greece has a leading role in the camp that has a vision for Europe and the major problems it faces, the Prime Minister noted, adding: “Those who wish to transfer Greece to the other camp must think too well”,” concluding that “realism and logic must prevail”.
Greece’s land border with Turkey faces more immigrants than it’s coast, according to a UN refugee agency (UNHCR) report, as some 2″,900 people are said to have crossed the border in April of 2018.
The only migrant reception center is unable to process incoming requests and without appropriate accommodation, asylum seekers are put into police detention facilities.
In Athens, where passenger terminals, parks and public squares have been turned into chaotic reception centres, Greeks of all backgrounds and ages have rushed to join the relief effort. Everywhere, NGOs speak of an explosion of giving that has taken them aback.