The Greek Deputy Minister for Immigration, Iannis Mouzalas, couldn’t hide his annoyance at Europe’s criticism of the country’s handling of the refugee crisis. “They’re looking for a scapegoat to hide the inefficiencies and selfishness that are eroding the European Union.”
In a TV interview after a meeting in Amsterdam this week, he spoke through his teeth. “I’m very concerned, not so much for the proposal to expel us from the Schengen, which has no support among the member countries, but for the proposal to create concentration camps in Greece for 400,000 refugees and migrants. These are indecent proposals. Certain governments are throwing Europe to the wind in order to rake up votes for xenophobic parties.”
It’s a suspicion that has long circulated in Greece, not only among the population but among government leaders, that northern Europe’s solution to the refugee crisis is to transform border countries into huge camps of desperate people fleeing war and poverty.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras came out strongly against this project in European Parliament last week. “Lesbos is giving lessons in humanity to Europe,” he said. “The inhabitants of the islands have proven true Europeans.” So much so that a movement arose spontaneously to award them the Nobel Peace Prize.
On a practical level, Mouzalas did not deny delays in processing the migrants and refugees. “It’s true only two hot spots are functioning. But there’s a reason: We have to settle tens of thousands of people every day while more keep coming. By February, it will be all right.”
Last year more than 850,000 migrants and refugees passed through Greece, and the cost to receive them has exceeded €2 billion. Of these people, 300,000 have remained in Greece. Mouzalas said the islands have built around 25,000 apartment units but only rented less than 1,000 rooms. “The E.U. should have already prepared 16,000 apartments but has only 900. Don’t blame us.”
On Sunday, the Deputy Foreign Minister Nikos Xydakis lashed out strongly against the proposal to use the navy to block the flow of migrants. “Greece is guarding its national border, which is also a European border,” he said in a statement. “What it cannot do, and what it will not start to do, is sink boats and drown women and children, because this is prohibited by international and European conventions, as well as by our cultural values.” A ministry spokesman added that Athens has been calling for stronger Frontex support in the Aegean since July, but few countries are have been willing.
For the government, the anti-Greek hysteria goes hand in hand with Europe’s unwillingness to call out Turkey. “In Amsterdam we talked so much about Greece and so little about Turkey,” Mouzalas said. “What happens there? The other day we resettled 130 migrants to that country, while during the week another 60,000 have arrived. Whose responsibility is it?” (Not to mention countries that refuse to accept their repatriated citizens, like Pakistan.)
Athens has long insisted that neighboring Turkey is the key to managing incoming migrants. Tsipras had proposed placing the hot spots in Turkish territory, but the European Council considered it more realistic to promise Ankara €3 billion and visa liberalization. Athens did not object to the financing but believes it should be accompanied by a steady policy to control the flow through the country. It was 2010 when the European Union last subscribed to agreements with Turkey on migrants, and these accords remain in force.
What’s more, the Turks are trying to take advantage of the emergency to consolidate their territorial claims in the Aegean as a fait accompli. Three days ago, Athens again rejected the proposal of joint patrols with Turkish motorboats.
The Greek public follows this shameful European drama with great concern. Already the nation’s dispute with the eurozone has shaken confidence in the E.U.’s ability to provide coherent and effective responses economically. The refugee crisis is likely to deliver the coup de grace.