Greece ‘Overwhelmed’ by Influx of Syrian Refugees Across the Aegean

Argiris Mantikos/Eurokinissi, via Reuters
Argiris Mantikos/Eurokinissi, via Reuters

While the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea has captured the world’s attention after more than 800 people drowned in a capsized ship headed to Italy last week, a parallel situation has begun to unravel in the Aegean, with more than 100 mostly Syrian refugees drowning in the last 48 hours as they attempted to reach Greece.

Italy’s proximity to northern Africa– and Libya particularly, which has become a near-anarchic war zone in the aftermath of the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi–required it to run a program for years to protect the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, either alone or in conjunction with the European Union. Greece, a nation on the brink of bankruptcy for years, has few such amenities and now faces an influx of Syrian refugees fleeing their home nations and are unwanted in neighboring states like Lebanon.

Greece’s migrant crisis escalated rapidly within the past two days, with a makeshift water vessel carrying more than 90 people crashing into the island of Rhodes on Monday. Reuters notes that at least three of those on board drowned, and 30 of the 90 were taken to the hospital. Greek Coast Guard officials described the three deceased as “a man, a woman, and a child.”

The Greek publication Rodiaki published dramatic footage of the rescue operation, in which what remained of the ship after its crash into the island appears to be only debris and one large board holding ten people:

Two Syrian nationals have been arrested in the incident, according to Rodiaki, and most traveling on the ship are also believed to be Syrians attempting to reach Europe by crossing from Turkey to Greece. Rodiaki highlights the unpreparedness of Greek officials in handling a large influx of refugees hitting their islands, noting that both the Coast Guard and Greek police are currently “overwhelmed” and “paralyzed” by having to care for more than 90 migrants at their facilities while the government finds lodging for them.

On the morning of April 21, Turkish officials intercepted a separate group of 30 Syrian migrants attempting to reach Greece. Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reports that the migrants attempted to set sail during a storm, and their vessel immediately began filling with water. “Some migrants were forced by their suspected smugglers to jump into the water,” Hurriyet notes.

While the influx of migrants in the past two days represents a stark increase in the number of Syrians attempting to reach Greece, the pattern is not new. On Friday, April 17, for example, Greece took in 414 migrants landing on its Aegean shores. That same day, authorities intercepted a vessel carrying four women, a man, and newborn twins.

Greece’s growing struggle to halt mass immigration while saving those who wash ashore appears to be peaking just as the European Union assembles to do the same for Italy, whose migrant surge from Libya is far greater in number, yet striking a nation with much more experience handling such a situation. For years, Italy ran a program called “Mare Nostrum,” credited with saving 100,000 migrants across the Mediterranean Sea. While the program was shut down for expense reasons (The program cost Italy nine million euros a month.), it has been replaced by a smaller program called Triton, which operates only on Italy’s shores, not deep in the Mediterranean closer to Africa. It also receives aid from other European nations.

After this weekend, Italy is expected to receive even more aid as the number of migrants dying on their way to Europe grows. On Saturday, more than 800 migrants, mostly from Libya, died when their ship collapsed on the way to Italy; it is believed to be the deadliest disaster of its kind. The European Union, after a 28-nation emergency meeting on the matter, announced plans for a “military action” to stop the sea crossings, as well as attempts to strengthen ties with African nations to help cooperation in dissuading migrants from crossing. The military actions will target smugglers, whose business is booming at the expense of the life savings of thousands looking to cross into Europe.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned overnight that six separate operations were still underway to save 1,500 people trying to enter Italy.

Instead of cooperation with the European Union on this matter, Greek officials are relegated to condemning Turkey for insufficiently protecting its sea borders from illegal crossings. Monday, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Chountis called Turkey’s role in the Aegean migrant crisis “disappointing,” noting that, out of 137,722 migrants Greece has tried to send back, Turkey has kept only 3,838. The rest are believed to still be in Europe, mostly Greece.

The Greek government also warned that such an inability to keep migrants at bay puts all of Europe at risk to Islamist attacks. In comments that were widely received by EU member nations as a threat, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos tied Greece’s dire financial situation to the fight against the Islamic State. “Europe has to realise that by keeping Greece stable, the West’s front against Isis is secure. But if pushed out or forced out of the eurozone … waves of undocumented migrants, including radical elements, will spill in from Turkey, making their way to the heart of the West,” said Kammenos less than a month ago. The steep rise in immigration from Syria makes his prediction all the more ominous.

Greece simply does not have nine million euros a month to spend on a Mare Nostrum-type program, or even a third of that for the equivalent of Triton. It barely has enough money to pay its Coast Guard. The Greek government, led by leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, announced to much dissent from local governments this week that municipalities would be forced to place their funds in a common national account, which would then be used to help pay back the EU and IMF. All signs point to Greece being unable to pay its upcoming installment on its bailout debt from 2008, particularly given refusals by the Tsipras government to deliver the reforms the EU and IMF are demanding to ease payments.

On Tuesday, Tsipras is scheduled to meet with Alexei Miller, CEO of Russian gas supplier Gazprom, in hopes of securing funding for a gas pipeline project that would help relieve the bailout debt in the near future. There are no guarantees, but every payment moves Greece closer to stability, and the migrant crisis shows that Greece, a gateway to Europe, has much more to worry about than paying off its pensions.