Today was a busy day for our Catholic Relief Service delegation. We are seeing more and more refugees and the various humanitarian efforts underway by CRS, Caritas Athens and Caritas Hellas (Caritas Greece). It might be possible for you the reader to imagine how fluid and changing the refugee crisis in Greece is; or perhaps it might be hard to understand that there is a crisis in Greece and why it affects those of us in the United States. Therefore, it might be worthwhile to hear what is known and not known about this situation.
First the known facts. A vast number of people are fleeing their native homelands in an effort to get to Europe, some are migrants but the majority are refugees (see yesterday’s post for the distinction between the two. For convenience I will just use the word refugees going forward since that represents the majority of people arriving). About 4,000-5,000 of these refugees arrive in Greece each day. In warmer months the daily number is higher, in fact during 2015 just short of 1 million refugees arrived in Greece. Those coming from Syria and Afghanistan are allowed by the countries north of Greece to proceed north to Western Europe. Those from other countries like Morocco, Lybia, Albania, and others are not allowed out of Greece and have 30 days to seek asylum, which is generally not granted, and they are returned to their native countries.
Despite their bad economy, the Greek people are incredibly welcoming of refugees since about 1/2 of all Greeks are descendant from Greek refugees and they see providing aid to those in need as a simple and necessary humanitarian gesture. Greece is also complying with UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which demands that ships that enter national waters or survivors of those that sink there, must be accepted by that country. Securing Greece’s borders against the flow of refugees (should they want to do that) is impossible because a major border is the sea itself and there are many Greek Islands.
Refugees arriving in Greece are coming from warm climates and are usually not equipped for the cold of the Balkans nor the cold they face trying to migrate in the middle of a European winter. So, for now we know that there is a flood of refugees coming to Greece and is is not going to stop. We also know that Caritas, CRS and other agencies are working and in some cases struggling to meet the basic human needs that the refugees have.
The unknowns are vast. It is not known day to day which countries will open or close their borders to refugees. It isn’t known if countries will start to accept refugees from other countries or not. There is speculation that Germany might close its borders to refugees which would cause the long line of humanity stretching from Greece to Germany to freeze in place, but no one other than the Germans know if they will do this. The reestablishment of border controls in the European Union will weaken the ‘Union’ itself and could eventually lead to a break from the Euro and loss of the common market the European Union sought to establish, this would have a serious if not devastating impact on global financial markets. The reality of this danger is clear from the EU’s struggle to keep Greece in the EU in 2014 and 2015.
The refugees who get to Greece often are not sure how to go forward to Western Europe. It isn’t clear that other nations will live up to their commitments to accept refugees. While it is certain that as the war in Syria drags on and the Taliban and ISIS continue to attack and terrorize, there will be more refugees, what is not known is how many.
The situation here is complicated and not entirely in control of any one government. No matter what Greece does, if the war in Syria continues, they will get more refugees. Even if the Assad regime is overthrown, if ISIS remains, mass migration will take place. The conflict between the Syrian army, the rebels, ISIS, the U.S and Russia does not seem to have a simple solution or one that could happen soon.
With these things known and not known comes other certainties; tomorrow another 5,000 people will land in Greece after a long and dangerous trip, they will be aided by the Church and other agencies and the refugees will continue to search for a place of peace to live. This is a simple and hard fact.