Punish the smuggler or reward the smuggler? (first published in opendemocracy.net on 10 July 2017)

Media coverage of the refugee situation in Greece focuses heavily on the Syrians and secondarily on Afghans and Iraqis. While these are indeed the three most highly represented nationalities among asylum seekers in Greece, the past six to twelve months have seen a gradual shift.

The vast numbers of Syrians that came through Greece in 2015 only passed through Turkey. Many were well-off urban educated professionals and had left Syria only days before reaching Greek shores. The European Union responded to the refugee flows in 2015 with a relocation programme, which aimed on paper to share the responsibility of hosting refugees between member states. With the Balkan route open, refugees would continue from the Greek islands by ship or plane and bus or train, even walking towards central and northern Europe. The need for smugglers (imperative to be able to reach the Turkish border, travel through it and cross the sea to Greece) ended once they had reached the islands.

The relocation plan was devised for those arriving and registering in Greece to convince them to stop taking the Balkan route, thereby – according to its planners – curbing the profits going to the smugglers. In fact this plan rewarded smugglers who continued their business in Turkey and beyond, in Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, only providing a solution for some nationalities, chiefly Syrians. A year and a half later, the smuggling business remains alive and well.

Turkey’s land border with Syria was virtually open to refugees until early 2016 when the pushbacks to Syria started. At the same time a visa requirement for Syrians was implemented for travel by land and ferry. As a result the ferry from Lebanon to Turkey was no longer an option for Syrians trying to reach Turkey. The closure of the Balkan route began gradually in late 2015 and the EU-Turkey deal was implemented in March 2016. All these measures reduced the number of Syrians coming to Greece.

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Fast forward to 2017, taking the period from 10 May to 27 June 2017 as an example, a total of 982 asylum seekers reached the island of Lesvos. The top nationalities were: Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC (202), Syria (160), Iraq (116), Afghanistan (61). The rest were from Iran, Kuwait (Bidoon), Palestine, Guinea, Eritrea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Yemen, Togo, Gambia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Sudan and Nigeria. One person each came from Bolivia, Cuba, South Africa, Haiti and Uganda. Similar trends are noted on the other islands which act as the entry point to Greece.

Those of us acquainted with Moria reception and identification centre in Lesvos have noticed the nationality change among the  new arrivals over the last two years: many more Africans and less Arabs. Groups of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are still coming grouped together, while Africans from different nationalities arrive in different groups with other nationalities. The smuggling fees vary according to nationality.

One may wonder why people  from Africa, whether northern or sub-Sahara, take the route to Europe through Greece, rather than the intuitively more direct route to Italy or Spain. A look at flight routes and visa regimes provides the answer. One may reach the Greek islands from as far away as central Africa, using Turkish Airlines, a Turkish visa and a smuggler picked at Istanbul airport or the Aegean coast, for less than 1,500 dollars total and at considerably less risk than the Libyan route.

Turkish Airlines has 200 destinations worldwide and at reasonable prices. For example, one way flight from Kinshasa to Istanbul costs 833 dollars, Abidjan to Istanbul, 709 dollars and Casablanca to Istanbul 458 dollars.

Turkish Airlines is close to President Erdogan in more ways than one: in ‘humanitarian missions’ particularly in Somalia and Qatar, as well as political purges in the airline, following the failed coup in Turkey in July 2016. Reaching the Aegean coast is easy, whether by bus, taxi or smuggler. These days, smugglers charge less than 500 dollars – even as low as 200 dollars – from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands these days.

Secondly, visas for Turkey are generally easily obtained. From the nationalities arriving in Lesvos in June, all except Cubans and Palestinians, depending on where they were registered, are exempt from any visa requirement or need only an electronic visa, easily obtained online for the cost of 20 dollars.

The question why some nationalities may need refuge often comes up. Without going further into individual cases, whereby people may be facing persecution for reasons that go beyond nationality (religious, professional, sexual orientation, other), we can sift through some general push factors.

The Bidoon of Kuwait are a group who used to live a nomadic life and are not accepted as Kuwaiti citizens. The reasons they have started coming through this route, is because they have family in the UK but are no longer given visas to travel there. Instead they come to Greece illegally and apply for family reunification.

Palestinians arrive in Greece mainly from Syria, but also Lebanon and the West Bank. The fate of those from Syria is similar to Syrian citizens but these people are choosing to come to Europe illegally, because they are refused visas to any European country where they may have family or where they want to study.

Eritreans are often rejected asylum seekers from Israel, deported to Rwanda with cash, which they use to escape again through the Aegean route. Women from the Dominican Republic are usually trafficked to Turkey and once they manage to escape to Greece, seek assistance to return to their country. Citizens of sub-Saharan Africa come from a number of conflicts in the region, both internal and cross-border, including purges in the DRC and by the Boko Haram. North Africans face chronic instability in their countries.

The complexity of the cases facing the Greek asylum service is obvious. With virtually all the new arrivals since the EU-Turkey deal applying for asylum in Greece, even if the ultimate goal is to leave the country, there are currently around 70 nationalities among the asylum seekers, with the corresponding needs in interpretation and context analysis as well as careful consideration of individual circumstances. This is time consuming and costly.

The international community has been under the false impression that providing assistance to the countries around Syria and putting up with Turkey’s demands for more funding  – the latest being twenty million euros for the Turkish coastguard – will stop refugee flows. This approach ignores many realities, for example the facts that people flee wars and unsustainable situations all over the world, that smugglers are available and provide a service when there are no legal routes and that there are states that facilitate them.

As its northern and western neighbours close their doors to asylum seekers through policies, borders and distance, Greece continues to welcome them to the best of its ability. At the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, easily accessible from Turkey, which has an interest in keeping Greece on its toes, there will continue to exist a need for Greece to be prepared to respond. Preparedness in the form of a legal framework, institutions flexible enough to scale up and respond to a suddenly increased influx, infrastructure and stocks, shouldn’t be seen by the Greek government as a pull factor or a luxury but as a necessity. And the EU should support them in this approach.