Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Europe: Immigrants, Refugees, and a Dilemma in Greece

Europe has a curious method for dealing with illegal immigrants. Under what is referred to as the Dublin convention, an illegal can be returned to the country of entry into the European Union. This is important to the wealthier northern states that are the desirable locations for immigrants, because it allows them, if they wish to, to return their unwanted to the state that should have prevented the entry in the first place. This convention is said to be critical for justifying the Schengen pact which abolished internal borders in 1995.

Examination of a map of Europe indicates that the most direct paths into Europe for illegals is by boat to Italy from Northern Africa, and by land to Greece via Turkey. Bulgaria is not a desirable option because it does not have an open border with the EU.

An article in The Economist provides a concise summary of the situation.
“In recent years Greece has become the main illegal migration-route into the EU. Its border controls have been lax and its asylum-processing system slow and questionable (the approval rate for asylum applications is tiny compared with other EU countries). Hundreds of thousands of foreigners are adrift in a semi-legal limbo, sleeping rough in Athens or in ports from which they hope to get to Italy. Greek xenophobes are beating up immigrants. Traditionally a country of emigrants, Greece is unready for a mass influx.”
Greece’s inability to deal with this situation has caused some countries to temporarily suspend the Dublin convention for human rights reasons.
“....last month the European Court of Human Rights ruled that conditions at Greek immigrant detention centres are so squalid as to breach the ban on ‘torture or inhuman or degrading treatment’. Even before the ruling, several countries had stopped sending asylum-seekers back to Greece under ‘Dublin II’, a convention ruling that applications must be heard in the first country of entry.”
The flow of people attempting to cross the border has been increasing. Europe fears that the problem will continue to grow, perhaps alarmingly so, with the political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East. In addition to the human rights concerns, Europeans fear that the inadequacy and failure of the Dublin accord could put the open border policy at risk.

Recognizing that Greece’s problem is Europe’s problem, emergency border patrols were set up to aid Greece in October. This is the first such intervention by the EU.
“Frontex, the EU border agency, has deployed a rapid-response team—including border guards, dog-handlers and interpreters—to help. The flow has reduced, partly because the Turks are co-operating. But no sooner has one gap tightened than another is reopening on the Mediterranean. Some 5,000 immigrants, mostly young men, have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy stroppily accuses the EU of doing too little. Political oppression may push people to flee, but the end of dictatorship in Tunisia has also lifted an obstacle. Events on Lampedusa must alarm all EU countries about the popular revolts across the Middle East.”
Who are these migrants?
“.... include Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Congolese and Eritreans....human traffickers, pushing them into the river on flimsy dinghies or across fields of sunflower and garlic. This is one of the most militarised frontiers in Europe. Yet at its most vulnerable stretch, a land section cutting across a bend in the river, slipping into Greece takes no more than a stroll through farmers’ fields. Greece wants to build a fence there.”

“About 47,000 crossed the border last year. ‘They do not have any documents,’ says Colonel Georgios Salamagkas, police chief in the town of Orestiada. ‘All the white people say they are from Palestine. All the Africans say they are from Somalia. They know we cannot send them back to those countries.’ Most immigrants are trying to pass through Greece to reach richer countries. They avoid Turkey’s border with Bulgaria, but that would change if it were let into the EU’s Schengen passport-free zone.”
A BBC report provides another number on the size of the immigrant flux.
“According to government figures, 128,000 migrants arrived in Greece illegally in 2010, about 90% of the total EU number.”
A Financial Times article indicates that Greece’s approach had been to assume that all asylum speakers were economic migrants looking for a home in Greece. This allowed them to leave these people in limbo while their bureaucracy ground slowly forward. This was really an attempt to discourage asylum seekers in order to reduce the number of people entering from Muslim countries

Although the severity of the situation seems to have been exacerbated by Greece’s inefficiency, ill-will, and lack of preparation, it seems cruel to burden the little country with all the responsibility for this crisis while it is contending with a fiscal crisis and being forced to constrain spending. Supposedly, the European Commission is planning to provide assistance to Greece, and an asylum support office, whatever that is, will begin operation this year.

This is another example of a problem that the EU had not planned on having to deal with. The world insists on continuing to change and the EU will have to learn how to change in response. It will have to devise a long-term solution because this problem is unlikely to go away any time soon. As much as Europeans fret about immigrants and immigration issues, they will need a steady flux to maintain their economies. They should also have a scheme to treat economic migrants and political refugees separately. There will be many of each kind.

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