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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Greek politicians (wrongly) blame Turkey for refugee arrivals

Lesvos’ leading politicians, including its Mayor Spiros Galinos, have warned the Greek government that it must take actions to reverse the island’s current status as an overcrowded prison camp, or face prolonged and sustained protests.

Galinos said: ‘We are utterly opposed to policies that are turning Lesbos and other border areas into concentration camps where all human dignity is denied. The government has failed to keep to its commitment to effectively deal with this problem and move people on.’

There are more than 8,000 refugees on Lesvos at present, and well over 15,000 on the Aegean islands in total, even though the capacity of the islands’ (morally dubious) detention centres is less than half that.

Several factors have been debated over the increase in the number of refugees to have arrived in Greece since August (both September and October recorded the highest number of refugee arrivals in Greece since the March 2016 EU/Turkey Deal), including the fall of Mosul and the EU’s semi-military crackdown on crossings from Libya and other North African states.

But the Greek government and main opposition party Nea Demokratia have decided that it is Turkey’s fault.

Greece’s Deputy Migration Minister Ioannis Balafas (perhaps noting with alarm that he is next in line to inherit the astonishing mess Greece and the EU have made of the refugee response so far), said: ‘We are Turkey’s neighbour, we are not Luxembourg and so we are careful about what we say. What we are seeing is a political game. Whenever Turkey wants to put the pressure on Europe it turns on the tap and lets more [people] through.’

Giorgos Koumoutsakos, Nea Demokratia’s shadow minister of foreign affairs, said: ‘If it really wanted to, Turkey could more effectively control the flows. What we are seeing, it would seem, is a reflection of Turkey’s problematic relationship with the EU.’

We could first note that if Greece really feels it ‘must be careful’ about what it says, there are hundreds of more careful approaches than openly blaming Turkey in an international news source.

Equally, I feel duty bound to note that the sentence ‘Whenever Turkey wants to put the pressure on Europe it turns on the tap and lets more [people] through.’ Is not, in fact, backed up by any fact or experience whatsoever.

Since the EU/Turkey Deal, in which the EU promised to pay Turkey €6bn in three years and reduce visa restrictions for Turkish citizens wishing to enter the EU in exchange for stopping refugees from coming to Greece, and which also saw the Aegean islands turned into prison camps, was signed in March 2016, Turkey has received less than one-sixth of the money it was promised, and no visa deregulation has taken place.

It has called German politicians ‘Nazis’ after they banned Turkish politicians from campaigning for a Turkish referendum, and arrested a large number of EU citizens on flimsy pretexts. It has also seen its funding from the EU reduced and seen Germany withdraw its armed forces from a Turkish base in what was certainly seen by Turkey as a calculated insult.

In truth, very little of this was the ‘fault’ of the EU (the fault of the EU lies in having signed the EU/Turkey Deal to begin with), or at least there were and still are some sensible reasons and excuses for it, but at no point during this period have refugee arrival numbers on the Aegean islands significantly changed.

Even in September and October, in each of which roughly 4,000 people entered Greece from Turkey, the number is dwarfed by the 26,971 people who entered in the month the deal was signed, March 2016 – and the EU/Turkey Deal came into effect with a third of March left to go, while that number is higher than the total number of refugees to have arrived in Greece from 1 January-7 November 2017 (25,207).

This is not to claim that 8,000 refugees in just two months is a small number, particularly because the Greek detention centres have only that much capacity and were already full. But the latter points are squarely the fault of the EU and Greek government, while we should note that there are 3.2m Syrian refugees in Turkey, and a further 1m Afghans and Iraqis.

It is, in fact, far more likely that the increase is a cumulative effect of the ‘liberation’ of Aleppo, ongoing strikes on Idlib, the fall of Mosul and the EU’s crackdown on central Mediterranean crossings, combined with the fact that Turkey has tightened its own borders (as the EU demanded it must and bribed it to) making attempts at crossing harder and longer to organise, while the refugees now in Turkey are those who left latest, ie., in many cases those who had least money and have had to save to pay for a crossing, which of course takes time.

The point is, Turkey has taken in more Syrian refugees than the whole of the EU combined. There is literally no evidence whatsoever that the state – for all its manifest faults – is ‘using’ refugees to ‘make a point’ or ‘threaten’ Greece. For the Greek government and opposition to say it is, is at best wildly mistaken, and at worst deliberately mendacious.

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