In a week in which international news focused on the Greek debt crisis and the possibility of a Grexit, scant attention has been paid to the arrival from Turkey of thousands of smuggled Syrian, Afghan and other migrants by boat to several Greek Islands. Yet the two are connected, and both are likely to impact the EU adversely.
The number of boat arrivals is staggering and continues to grow rapidly, much like Greece's debt. During my recent discussions on irregular migration in Athens with think tank analysts, commentators and academics, the numbers quoted have climbed dramatically and currently hover at around 80,000 arrivals so far in 2015. About a month ago, the number was 30,000. Greece has now received more maritime migrants than Italy this year. Some estimate that arrivals to Greece may top 200,000 by year's end.
This poses huge challenges for a country under enormous financial and political pressure, with a relatively small population of around 11 million and a dispersed archipelagic geography.
Firstly, there are the acute difficulties of feeding, housing and caring for so many people, often on remote islands that have little infrastructure and in searing summer conditions. Resources are being pushed to the limit at a time when the focus is necessarily on the economic crisis. Agencies like UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration are stepping up, but they too are under serious pressure.
Secondly, the combination of the debt crisis and the impact of the island arrivals of mostly Syrians and Afghans has damaged tourism in what would otherwise be the peak period. This is on the back of several years of austerity that have cut deep.
Thirdly, there is the dilemma of how and where to provide protection to the arrivals after their immediate humanitarian needs have been met. Many of those arriving will be assessed by Greek authorities as not being refugees. This appears to be understood by some migrants; even those with strong claims for refugee status may not wish to risk an adverse assessment, so there has been a reluctance to lodge asylum claims in Greece.
In addition, the economic crisis means Greece perhaps more than ever before is seen as a doorway to stronger European economies, particularly Germany. This presents problems for EU states, Frontex border operations as well as international organisations and NGOs providing assistance to migrants on the move across several countries, particularly in an era of heightened border control and following several successful border operations that have made it harder for irregular migrants to 'slip through the door'. The Western Balkan route from Greece into Western Europe has seen an increase in traffic in recent months.
With pressures on so many fronts in Greece, something has to give.
The migrant smugglers clearly know this. Just as we have seen the rapid rise of smuggling from an increasingly insecure Libya, the fragility and uncertainty in Greece has seen smugglers target the country. This is one of the more insidious aspects of migrant smuggling, and perhaps one of the least understood. More research and analysis on migrant smuggling dynamics and operations is urgently required.
Finally, there is the unavoidable issue of national security and large-scale irregular migration. While there is no link between irregular migration and violent extremism, the size of the current migrant flows from Turkey must surely add to the sense of nervousness, particularly given Turkey's parlous security situation. Such large migrant flows have the capacity to overwhelm authorities and compromise registration and other border processes. Officials would be wise to ensure it is managed with appropriate proportionality and that the threat is not overstated.
One can only hope the Greece-EU talks account for both the economic and non-economic issues facing Greece and the EU. Further damage to Greek citizens' living standards and the ongoing vulnerability facing refugees and irregular migrants is in many ways inevitable. The challenge will be to minimise damage, maintain social cohesion and safeguard human as well as national security amid further austerity and a bleak economic outlook.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user UNHCR Photo Unit.