Saturday, May 5, 2018

Welcome to Another Summer of The Greek Refugee Crisis

Ahh, summer time. I can hardly wait to make my way back to Greece and the Greek islands. I’m not alone in that desire.  Tourists for sure can’t wait, and tourism is booming in Greece.  But there’s another group drawn by the change of seasons to make their way to Greece. Refugees.
Their plight is the topic of my current book, An Aegean April, but this post is not about my book. It’s about the circumstances that inspired it, and have me gritting my teeth every time I read another news story on “the refugee crisis.”  One reporter or another carefully details internment conditions in Greece’s island detention centers, yet barely a thing is done to address the horrors they describe.

EU member states, which should do something, adhere instead to the now in vogue axiom of domestic politics:  keep refugees away from our borders at any cost.  Though some speak those words openly, far more sanctimoniously condemn the “crisis,” while doing little if anything toward remedying the situation in any meaningful way.
The North Aegean Greek islands closest to Turkey are the most directly affected, for they serve as unwilling refugee warehouses for whatever number of refugees Turkey chooses to release into Greece. No one knows better than those islanders that their nation (along with Spain and Italy) serves as the European Union’s refugee filter trap, and tempers are wearing thin as global geopolitics takes its toll upon centuries-old ways of life.

True, many refugees are taking a land route into Greece, and the current influx of refugees is not at the levels experienced in 2015, when nearly a million souls streamed into this nation of eleven million—600,000 onto Lesvos alone, a pastoral island of 86,000—but tens of thousands of men, women and children remain penned in overcrowded, underfunded, inhospitable detention centers awaiting determination of their claims for refuge in Europe.  
For certain there is no easy answer.  Open borders is not an option, but nor should the turning away of those truly facing persecution. What is needed is serious commitment to finding thoughtful solutions.  Obviously, Greece, being still in the midst of Great Depression times, cannot be expected to come up with the answers on its own, but as long as the EU is content to “manage” the situation with an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, it will be events not measured efforts, which will determine the future of the region.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, though in light of Greece’s rapidly deteriorating relations with Turkey, and Greek national elections due within a year, I think it’s safe to say don’t hold your breath for an amicable solution anytime soon. 
In an effort to give you a flavor of what’s actually happening on the ground in that part of Greece, I’ve pasted together two news stories. One from the May 2nd edition of The National Herald (the most widely distributed Greek newspaper in the US), and a second that appeared on May 3rd in Ekathimerini (Athens’ newspaper of record).
Taken together, they show how island Greeks and Greek politics may be on a collision course over the refugee situation—with ground zero where I set my book!

From The National Herald:

[Headline] Frontex Patrols Find Big Surge in Refugees Hitting Greece from Turkey

As Greek officials feared, the advent of warmer weather is seeing an uptick in the number of refugees and migrants coming from Turkey, by land and sea, the Executive Director of the European Union’s Frontex border patrol said.
Fabrice Leggeri told the German newspaper Bild that said arrivals of migrants from Turkey to Greece’s Aegean islands have increased by 17 percent in the past four to five weeks alone, most fleeing war and strife in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
He said Frontex would need to increase its border presence, which Greece has been asking for more than two years as the country is keeping more than 64,000 refugees and migrants in detention centers and camps, including some 15,000 on islands close to Turkey, which has allowed human traffickers to operate.
An EU swap deal with Turkey has seen only a relative handful of those deemed ineligible for asylum in Greece returned and growing tension and violence on the island camps in the wake of the suspended agreement.
The refugees and migrants head to Turkey in hopes of getting into the EU, usually through Greece, where the are stuck since other countries have closed their borders and reneged on promises to take some of the overload.
Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, whose administration has been excoriated by human rights groups and activists for what they said were inhumane conditions in the centers and camps was to take some of his Cabinet ministers to visit one on the island of Lesbos on May 2.
On a pan-European level, only 40 percent of repatriation decisions are carried out,  said Leggeri, who added that despite the increase in migration flows that Frontext has the EU’s external borders “under control,” without explaining why so many are coming to Greece if that’s the case.
From Ekathimerini:
[Headline] Protests Greet Prime Minister on Lesvos

During his visit on Thursday to Lesvos, which was marred by clashes between demonstrators and riot police during protests over the government’s and the European Union’s migration policy, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras acknowledged that mistakes have been made with regard to the refugee crisis.

“Mistakes have been made and there are [infrastructure] shortages,” he said while also seeking to attribute the rallies which drew some 2,500 protesters to “those that aim to create a climate of terror.”

Speaking at the Regional Development Conference of the Northern Aegean, Tsipras took a swipe at the protesters for not attending the event to voice their concerns. “If they were here we would listen carefully but would ask them to make proposals,” he said, adding that those who did not come to the event “have no solutions to offer.”

“They chose the road of tension in an environment already burdened by three years of an international refugee crisis,” he said at the conference, which he said was aimed at boosting economic prospects and quality of life on the islands.

Strikes brought Lesvos to a grinding halt on Thursday in protest at the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement which stipulated that migrants and refugees arriving on the island will be deported back to Turkey unless they are granted asylum in Greece.

However, thousands have been stranded on the eastern Aegean island where they live in overcrowded and squalid conditions.

Hundreds of people, some waving black flags, chanted slogans in solidarity with migrants but were blocked by police from approaching government officials.

Earlier in the day, on a visit to neighboring Lemnos, Tsipras sought to send a message of Greek determination to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid a spike in bilateral tensions.

“Our primary duty is security and protecting our borders and territorial integrity,” he said. “Particularly today in a period of destabilization with a neighbor who often resorts to acts of provocation without realizing that they do not lead anywhere, only deadlock.”

Greece will continue to be “a stabilizing force” in the broader region, he said.


Let us pray for all involved. And while we’re at it, add a prayer for less rhetoric and more concrete workable solutions.

Jeff’s Upcoming Events

Friday, May 18 @ 12:30 PM

Bristol, UK
Moderating Panel titled, “Power, Corruption and Greed—Just Another Day at the Office,” with panelists Jeff Dowson, Thomas Enger, Abir Mukherjee, and Abi Silver.

Saturday, May 19 @ 2:50 PM
Bristol, UK
Participating in Panel moderated by our Michael Sears titled, “Getting Personal—Private Lives of Characters,” with co-panelists Kjell Ola Dahl, Mari Hannah, and Priscilla Masters.


  1. My heart breaks at reading about this untenable situation. The people of Greece, especially Levbos, have been so helpful to the refugees, most of whom are fleeing terrible situations in their homelands.

    Who would leave their homes and families unless they had to do so? I agree that the EU has not dealt with this crisis and, in fact, EU countries are hardening their policies against asylum, jobs, health care, housing for these migrants.

    What are the solutions? It's a global problem. At least a European one.

    For a heartbreaking look at events in Germany regarding migrants, read German writer Jenny Erpenbeck's novel "Go, Went, Gone." It gives backstories of a handful of migrants who had to leave their countries and are being mistreated by German bureaucrats.

    One tears up at every other page.

    These are human beings and deserve to be treated as such, especially bh the wealthier countries' governments. Not foisted on a country with severe economic problems.

    But the conditions in the encampments are horrific, inhumane. That should be remedied, whatever it takes. And the EU must do something about this shameful situation.

    Glad you are addressing it.

    What also irks me a lot are the stories that Golden Dawn is shipping up hostility and even violence against immigrants, even more than earlier. This should not be tolerated no matter the government.

    1. Kathy, to give you a better perspective on what the people of Lesvos experienced over the past three years, from a strictly numbers point of view, 2015 was equivalent to more than 60 million boat people landing in Manhattan, or 28 million in Los Angeles. Today, the equivalent of one million and 500,000 souls, respectively, remain in concentration camp-like circumstances on the island, relatively close by the main town of Mytilini. [N.B. "Concentration Camp" are the words used by a military representative involved in the process in describing the situation to me].

      As for Golden Dawn, that's a subject deserving of true concern--and much more attention.

  2. REad "whipping up" in last paragraph.

  3. Yes, a terrible situation and not the fault of the people of Lesvos. The people of Greece have, in the main, been supportive and given concrete aid to the refugees

    This is a world problem. It's wars and impoverishment that drive people from their homelands, and the need to help feed their families.

    It's not their fault. The wealthy governments in the EU should do something drastic, a Manhattan Project mammoth program. But they are not.

    And many governments, including Germany's, as tightening up restrictions and forcing more people out or into horrible situations. (Again, read "Go, Went, Gone.")

    And go see Golden Dawn then super-repress and assault these desperate refugees is beyond sickening. The Greek government should not allow that.

    It's desperate people fleeing awful situations and increasingly being vilified and repressed. It's horrendous.

    And my own government is restricting immigrants from several countries, many fleeing the same conditions.

    What is with this world? To me human life is sacred. All should be done to aid these migrants. But I have no clout here except to give opinions.

  4. A friend of mine was telling me yesterday of the horror of her holiday weekend in Rome. Followed everywhere by ?? migrants? refugees? tapping them for money, not letting people past on the pavement. There was an incident where a woman said something to her and 'threw' her baby into my friend's arm. Instinctively, my friend caught the child. And was immediately aware of her handbag being tugged from her shoulder, by the baby's dad (?). However, they had not realised that the man walking behind my pal was her husband, who promptly flattened the bloke and summoned the police. Back at the hotel, the management were saying that it is starting to affect tourism. But it's how do we solve the issue before tempers wear too thin?
    Coming back from France, driving up the Calais Ferry, the signs over the cages that protect the approach road now say 'Beware Of Pedestrians In The Road. Do Not Stop.' Naively, at first we thought it had been translated incorrectly. A sad sign of the times.

    1. Caro, when I first started practicing law (back when dinosaurs still roamed the land) a wizened lawyer told me that the "legendary stories you hear about the exploits of lawyers never change, just the lawyers about whom they're told."

      Your friend's experience brings a new perspective to that advice. Back in the mid-eighties when I was in Rome, I was warned by friends to be wary of precisely the same acts as your friend experienced--including the baby-tossing gambit. Back then, though, the practitioners were not labeled migrants, but Roma--or more likely by their pejorative name.

      I'm not suggesting those ruses aren't true, for I had a run in with one at the base of the Spanish Steps, when a horde of young children descended on my girlfriend and me, grabbing at our clothes--obviously to pickpocket--and I had to spin around in a "karate-like" move to force them away. All I'm saying is that the groups accused of the practices seem to shift with the times.

      By the way, in my second book, "Assassins of Athens," I refer to a practice in one Athens' worst neighborhoods (home to "labelled types") where babies were said to be thrown in front of expensive cars passing through in order to get financial settlements from the drivers. As outrageously unbelievable as that sounds, I confirmed the story through three independent sources.

      In other words, the behaviors are not new--either on the part of their current practitioners or the governments that tacitly allow them to continue.

    2. A variant in South Africa is that people throw themselves in front of cars to get settlements. Better than their children, but it indicates their desperation.

    3. The unique contribution of Murder is Everywhere is in the intricate insights it provides our readers on cultures other than their own. Mostly the experience is uplifting, but at times downright depressing...such as the commonality of desperate acts reflected in this exchange.

  5. It's desperation, desperate poverty. If people had decent-paying jobs, homes, food, the basic necessities of life, this wouldn't happen.

    Migrants can't get jobs in many countries nor benefits in some. A Ghanian cab driver told me he lived in Germany for awhile and faced a lot of racism. He said he could not get a job, but could get some benefits.

    In New York, he says he can work as a cab driver, but isn't entitled to any benefits.

    This is all shameful. Everyone should have essentials of life and not be put in this type of desperate situation. And those with children to feed, even worse.

  6. Just read that a Greek court acquitted three European humanitarian aid workers who had rescued refugees off the Greek coast. Thankfully, they were acquitted of whatever crime they were charged with.

    But when people can be arrested and charged for helping to save lives, where are we as a society?

    1. Actually, five were acquitted. Funny you should mention this. I was in the process of preparing a post for next Saturday when this acquittal was announced making the piece moot. It's a tragic situation though when EU laws (not just Greece's) place good Samaritans at prosecutorial risk. For example, giving a crippled refugee struggling along the road a ride to the hospital exposes the volunteer to prosecution as a human trafficker.

  7. Why don't lawyers, judges, police know the difference between a good samaritan and a human trafficker? There are such things as i.d.'s, evidence, etc., not making assumptions.

    Were the five acquitted suspected of being traffickers or were they charged with helping refugees? If the first, then evidence, witnesses, etc., matters. If the second, then shame on the Greek government for making helping those in desperate situations a crime.

    1. It's not as easy as that by reason of the law. In Greece for example, when I wrote the book one must first obtain permission from the police to pick up a refugee in your vehicle in order not to be in violation of the law as a trafficker.