Europe is facing the biggest migration flow since the Second World War. Indeed, while in 2014, 219,000 refugees were fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria, 350,000 others were crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. At the beginning of 2016, the EU is facing its biggest challenge yet. But how does it manage this constantly growing flow of refugees?
According to the UN, 131,724 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea during January and February 2016, which represents nearly half of the migration flow during the first half of 2015. Experts are foreseeing the number of refugees reach 100,000 before 2017. Response across the EU has been varied.
Building walls against migrants and refugees
Hungary, Austria, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey are building walls or fences to contain migrants and refugees and avoid an overflow of migration into the EU. Whereas the EU is trying to establish an overarching dialogue, each individual member state has its own interests, and therefore perspectives. In this light, the project of repatriation of the refugees after 9 years among all EU members was quickly dropped.
Eastern member countries denounce the compelling character of the measure and the differences in wealth among the EU members which could not permit some of them to welcome such a high number of refugees. In this crisis, Greece stands accused of not being able to control its own frontiers and has been held responsible for the increase in refugee flows by the EU.
The Balkan states reaction: closing borders
Tensions reached a climax since when Balkan states decided to close their borders and sort out migrants who have the right to cross their countries. On February 24, during an Austrian reunion – excluding two pivotal countries, Germany and Greece – nine countries of the Balkans, decided to formalize those restrictions.
Afraid of dealing with the refugee masses, Balkan countries closed the route which refugees used to transit. As a consequence, Austria decided adopt a bottleneck strategy and limit the number to 3200 daily refugees allowed to transit its territory, as well as limit the daily number of asylum seekers to 80.
The last border to close was Idomeni. The Macedonian government decided to close its overland frontier with Greece in order to avoid dealing with refugee camps. As a consequence, more than 10000 refugees are now inundating the Idomeni camp, notwithstanding its maximum capacity of 1600 people. The crowded conditions are leading to disastrous living conditions for those refugees who lack food, shelter, water and sanitation, stressed the UN.
According to Dimitris Avramopoulos, “The possibility of a humanitarian crisis of great scale is there, very real, very close.” This is no time for action without coordination. Isolated initiatives are not going anywhere. But several countries of the EU are accusing Greece of being a travel agency which allows the refugees to travel to Northern Europe.
However, as the UNHCR emphasizes, “Greece cannot manage this situation alone” and reminds the involved parties that, despite European promises, only 325 refugees have been relocated in different European countries in 5 months, a weak figure.
The European Union’s ambiguous position
European Ministers have shown their will to find European solutions which would focus on relocating refugees and establishing both operational hotspots and registration centers in Italy and Greece. However, the Balkan states do not want to reevaluate their unilateral decisions. Even if the latest Austrian decision will be closely revised to assure its legal conformity, influential European countries facing this state of urgency accept that the the flow stays at Europe’s door.
While several European leaders have shown their discordance with Austria’s decision to establish quotas, none of them took concrete measures to punish those countries. The silence of European countries translates into their tacit consent.
Closing the Balkan route appears to be an easy way out, even for Germany. The blockage of refugees in Greece is not bad news for Merkel. Keeping in mind the elections of March 13th, which saw an anti-immigrant party make massive gains, her political goal is to show her capacity to slow down the entrance of refugees and integrate the 1.1 million that are already within German territory. Therefore, the Chancellor has an ambiguous position. Politically, she conserves her discourse of opening frontiers, but also accepts the benefits of lowering refugees’ entrance into German territory.
Exceptional humanitarian aid of 700 million euros
On March 2nd, Brussels confirmed 700 million euros in 3 years in order to fund exceptional humanitarian aid, dedicated for the first time to a European member state. This aid is mostly designed for Greece in order to help it secure tens of millions of migrants now stuck within the country and on the long-term welcome of 100,000 refugees on the Greek territory.
The European Commission will suggest a corrective European budget of 300 million euros donated to Athens in 2016. In total, 400 million euros will be directed towards European countries to face the humanitarian crisis from now until 2018. This European financial aid will be used to buy food, blankets and provide emergency accommodations.
How to help Greece?
The EU’s financial help to Greece is a double-edged sword. Indeed, the organization wants to help Greece, not through the reduction of migrants but rather by giving Greece the means of accepting its status of European migration bottleneck. While Greece declares that it’s capable of dealing with the flow of refugees, such a strategy is very risky.
On the one hand, redeployment among European countries might lead to refusal and violence from the refugees. On the other hand, while the flow of refugees will continuously grow, several European countries do not want to welcome them anymore.
As underlined by the UN, the humanitarian crisis is going to worsen. If the EU is not achieving cooperation and coordination, the impact on Greece could be disastrous. It could turn the country into an enormous detention camp or an open-air prison for hundred of thousands.