Prisons in the Aegean

Yiannis Baboulias

Last Thursday, President Erdoğan announced that he was going to open Turkey’s borders to refugees fleeing to Europe, apparently in order to put pressure on Nato to back him against the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. The Greek media were quick to whip up fear of invading ‘hordes’ of refugees. A four-year-old Syrian boy drowned in the early hours of this morning after a boat capsized off Lesvos. Those who make it to shore are often met by a mob that won’t let them land. Others are freezing on the Greek-Turkish border along the river Evros. Those who get across are pushed back by the army and border guards, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Greece has announced that it won’t process any new asylum claims for a month.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of New Democracy and prime minister of Greece since last July, calls himself a centrist. In the run-up to the elections that brought him to power, he made the abominable conditions in the islands of the Eastern Aegean a focal point of his campaign. New Democracy accused the left-wing Syriza administration of ‘inviting’ refugees to Greece, of being too soft. (Never mind that the number of arrivals was an order of magnitude lower than at its peak in 2015.) Mitsotakis and New Democracy promised a swift solution to the problem.

In Lesvos, 25,000 people were crammed mostly into the Moria camp (official capacity 3000) and all around it, in tents set up in muddy fields. The Greek residents, who years ago had shown solidarity with the refugees (and voted for Syriza in both general elections in 2015), felt abandoned by the state. They voted ND in hope of a solution. But with no effective way to redistribute refugees among EU states, and mainland Greece refusing to take in any more, ND announced in late January that they would build closed detention centres on the islands.

The people of Lesvos rejected the solution, asking how a second Moria would help with the overcrowding. In response, the government adopted its preferred tactic, sending in scores of riot police. They arrived on the islands under cover of darkness on 24 February and disembarked in military formation and full riot gear. The authoritarian move was met with fierce resistance, and the police had to barricade themselves inside the Kyriazis army camp on Lesvos, as islanders attacked the gate with stones and petrol bombs.

There were never any easy answer to the situation in the Greek islands. Other EU states refuse to do their part, and suffer no consequences; Turkey (which is supposed to have stopped these ‘migratory flows’ under the terms of the deal it made with the EU in 2016) is using the situation as a bargaining chip; and the Union as a whole is locked in a fight over the common budget that makes it look ridiculous, petty and weak. No solution is on the table. Instead, following Turkey’s announcement, Germany refused to condemn the move and officials said they expect Turkey to stick to the deal.

‘Our top priority at this stage,’ Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, tweeted yesterday, ‘is to ensure that Greece and Bulgaria have our full support. We stand ready to provide additional support including through Frontex on the land border.’ It is being made clear, however, that the EU as a whole has given up on the idea of treating its frontiers as a common concern. The wholesale acceptance of Greece and Italy as de facto prison states for refugees trying to cross to the ‘core’ countries makes it clear that the leaders of those countries don’t see Greece’s borders as their own. They have no problem with people dying, or with the historic islands of the Eastern Aegean Sea being turned into prisons.


  • 3 March 2020 at 4:29pm
    Graham Winyard says:
    I fear that the leaders may reflect popular sentiment among their electorates. And the same indifference extends to the 1m refugees in north west Syria which we seem collectively to expect Turkey to accommodate. How do we expect Erdogan to react in these circumstances? It is not as if the situation there has come as a sudden surprise, yet we offer nothing except words.

  • 4 March 2020 at 10:31am
    Remonstrater says:
    So what is Mr. Baboulias suggesting as a practical solution to the problem of "refugees" (who have been living in safety in Turkey for years) being bussed en masse to the Greek border (which Baboulias of course conveniently fails to mention) on Erdogan's orders? Simply wave them through to the "core states", as in 2015-2016? Simply allow Erdogan - and, thus the "refugees" themselves - to decide which EU member state they would like to to settle in? Strangely enough, the country of choice is almost always Germany (aka "Germoney"), which might have something to do with the fact that a very small percentage of asylum applications in Germany are rejected and a miniscule percentage of those whose application is rejected are actually deported to their home country. The official figure of those awaiting "deportation" stands at the moment at around 250,000. No-one seriously believes these people will ever be deported, of course. The lesson for would-be illegal immigrants is: all you need to do is somehow make your way to the "core state" and you're home free.

    • 5 March 2020 at 8:56am
      P Eluard says: @ Remonstrater
      Actually, now you mention it, that would be a nice solution: to let refugees choose where to live, preferably with their families, especially their children. At least someone round here has a grasp of things!

  • 4 March 2020 at 10:39am
    Claudio says:
    The EU is on the run regarding her borders being common borders and that issue requires all 27 countries agreeing on a possible change. There is no way out, unless that rule is overturned.

  • 8 March 2020 at 8:58pm
    Michael Walling says:
    This is deeply depressing, and takes us back towards the worst days of the "crisis" in 2015-16. The policy recommendations from THE PROMISED LAND report seem more urgent than ever: