The scale of the migrant crisis on the Greek border with Turkey is hard to put into context for an Irish audience. Already there are mumblings and grumblings of discontent in Ireland about the number of Asylum seekers, and controversy about their housing. 10,000 homeless people, when the country hit that milestone figure, was regarded as a historic crisis.
So, consider this: Greece turned away 9,600 attempted Asylum seekers. In one night. It was Sunday:
Greek officials earlier said they had stopped nearly 10,000 migrants crossing the land border with Turkey.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece had increased “the level of deterrence at our borders to the maximum.”
Turkey says it cannot deal with the amount of people fleeing Syria’s war.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was allowing migrants to try to get into neighbouring EU member states Greece and Bulgaria as of Friday.
The problem is much worse than that, as well. Turkey is presently home to some 3.7million migrants, mainly refugees from the Syrian wars. The Turkish Government, under the terms of an agreement with the EU, had agreed to hold the refugees on Turkish soil and prevent them from entering Europe in return for €6billion in aid.
Last week, President Erdogan decided, for various reasons which we’ll get into in a minute, to say “no more”. The 3.7 million are now free, so far as Turkey is concerned, to make a break for it into Europe.
The decision coincides with a major Syrian Government offensive, backed by Russia, into the northern Idlib province which borders Turkey. According to reports, about a million more refugees from the area are now fleeing north, into Turkey.
To put it in simple terms, Turkey’s proposition to Europe is that either the EU supports it in what is, essentially, a proxy war against the Russians, or it will allow millions of migrants into Europe unchecked.
Greece is now the front line of a human, and political conflict, in which there are no winners.
Let’s start with the obvious: The EU, whatever it says in public, does not want to accept more refugees, let alone a million or more Syrians. Various EU countries, including Germany, have already had their politics destabilised in recent years by a migration surge and the impact of that on its politics.
The migrants, in contrast, are desperate to enter Europe. The refugee camps in Turkey are not great places, to put it mildly, to live. Let alone to raise a child. They are filled with energetic young men who see no future for themselves where they are, and feel compelled to flee for the European border, hoping to make it to France, or the UK, or elsewhere.
The Turks, whatever one thinks of that country’s President or its decision to prolong the war in Syria, cannot reasonably be expected to accommodate five million people or more indefinitely. And when Turkish troops are dying on the front lines, the Turkish Government has no scruples whatever about using the migrants as leverage against the European Union – a kind of blackmail using human lives as the bargaining chip.
While the war rages in Syria, the migrants have very little reason to go home. However bleak the refugee camps in Turkey are, they’re probably better than living in an actual live warzone. And even if the war was to end tomorrow, so much of Syria has been destroyed by a decade of war that they would be going back to little more than rubble. Vienna and Paris and Berlin are much more attractive destinations for them.
And this is how we have a situation where these people – desperate for something approaching hope, or opportunity, find themselves being deployed as pawns in a geopolitical game for which the European Union appears, again, hopelessly unprepared. Greece is, technically, acting unlawfully by closing its borders and refusing to process applications for refugee status, but the Greek case is absolutely sound, when you think about it for anything more than a fraction of a second.
If the Greeks decide to admit tens of thousands of refugees, two things will happen, as sure as night follows day: First, the EU will take its sweet time deciding what to do with the new arrivals, leaving the Greek government and people to put up with the imposition of tens of thousands of refugees as Brussels cycles through its endless cycles of summits and counter-summits.
Second, and more concerning for the Greeks, news that Greece is accepting refugees will encourage more to come. Remember – it’s tens of thousands today, but there are 3.7 million of these people in Turkey, and maybe a million more marching north. At present, it’s probably only the very bravest or most desperate who are making for the Greek border, but if word were to filter through the camps that the gates to Athens had opened, it’s a relative certainty that the number would multiply.
And so, the Greeks are doing the only rational thing, even at great cost in terms of public relations – deploying their navy, and their military, to turn back the boats and seal the crossings. This is providing the pictures – and will in time, surely, provide the deaths – that will fuel widespread outrage and demands for action on the liberal wing of the European political firmament.
Politically, Europe simply cannot accept even a third of the migrants in Turkey. To put it in context, if the EU were to accept a million migrants tomorrow, that would mean an allocation of around 20-25,000 for Ireland if they were distributed according to population. Probably more, in fact, because some countries, like Hungary, would probably refuse to accept to take any at all.
And so, to use an old phrase, Erdogan has the Greeks – and by extension the rest of Europe – by the, ahem, short and curlies.
What’s the likely solution?
In all probability, the only way out of this in the short term will be a new deal that offers even more hard cash to the Turks than the six billion they already gets. Double it, or triple it – Erdogan can probably demand what he wants. The alternative is to send EU troops to Syria to fight his war for him, a prospect that in political terms is about as bad as accepting a million migrants.
The problem of course is that any deal with Erdogan might last for six months, or a year, or two years, before he has enough of it again and plays the same trick. At some point, Europe will need a better plan than just paying off the Turks, because the price will continue to rise.
So, in the spirit of finding solutions, what about this? Irish Independent columnist Jason O’Mahony has been pushing the idea of an EU-funded “safe zone” for refugees for many years now. Basically, what he’s saying is that the EU should fund the creation of a large area, policed by EU troops and managed by EU officials, where refugees can build a home, probably somewhere in North Africa:
We live in a continent that must be prepared to intervene in the ring of instability to our south, and if it means having an EU safe zone somewhere in North Africa and a European defence force to run it and protect the refugees within, so be it. It’s our business because it affects us but also because a nation that builds replicas of coffin ships can’t morally let people die on beaches.
It’s not enough to say they can’t come to Galway: if we say that then we have to say where they should go and put our money and our soldiers and engineers and doctors and teachers to the task, along with the rest of Europe, to create a safe place for them.
There we can screen out the fanatics, teach European values and, in particular, raise their children as young Europeans and gradually drip them into our continent to our timetable and our plans.
Such a project will act as a deterrent to those who wish to enter Europe illegally but still be a place we can provide shelter, safety and hope.
It won’t be cheap: you’re talking about building a little piece of Europe outside Europe. But if that is the price for our secure borders, but also our compassion, then it’s a price worth paying.
There’s no question, by the way, it’ll act as a magnet, but so be it. We already live in a giant magnet anyway, so better it be on the far side of the Mediterranean.
It’s a remarkably expensive idea, but is it really a bad one? Leave your ideology at the door for a moment: Syria is in ruins. Turkey is full. Europe doesn’t want, and can’t accept, all these people. But they deserve a chance, and a life, beyond that which is available in the refugee camps of Turkey. And can it really be more expensive than accomodating a million more migrants in Europe? In the end, it could be cheap at twice the price.
It’s very easy to say “not our problem, close the borders”. But trying to keep millions of people out, who want to come in, isn’t going to work forever.