Current Affairs

The Deep Roots of Greece’s Asylum Catastrophe

As coronavirus threatens, the condition of refugees in Greece is increasingly “a crisis of politics, not capacity.”

In the Moria refugee camp on the Aegean island of Lesvos, “social distancing” is a meaningless phrase. 

Moria is currently six times over capacity. Pause for a moment and try to imagine that you are one of six people living in a space meant for a single person. Now imagine that you have no access to hot water or cleaning supplies. Over a thousand people around you rely on access to a single tap for water. It is impossible to avoid the garbage that collects everywhere. If you’re a woman, going to the bathroom means gambling your own personal safety against your need to relieve yourself. 

Children sleep in low, shared tents alongside men who smoke all night to pass the time. No one is in good health: people suffer from all sorts of maladies, both physical and psychological. Medical care is scant. Fires break out regularly—electrical hazards, camp residents trying to cook or warm themselves—and when they do, children die. The rapid spread of communicable illnesses like coronavirus or something else is only a matter of time.


The Aegean islands—homogenous, provincial, and mostly lacking in services—make for an unlikely waystation for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. People go to the island hospitals for two reasons: to give birth, or to die. Any more specialized procedure requires the mainland.   

And yet, in the past six years, sheer geographical proximity has sent thousands of asylum seekers hoping to reach mainland Europe into boats that land on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos. Since March 2016, the law has—improbably, nonsensically—kept them there for months and even years at a time. 

The refugee camps in which these asylum seekers are forced to live, also known as “hotspots,” were built for a total of slightly over 7,000 inhabitants. Depending on whose statistics you trust, they are now home—or rather, a poor substitute for it—to between 35,000 and 42,000 people.

In October 2019, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe declared the camps to be on the “edge of catastrophe.” This spring, the catastrophe has presented itself. The first coronavirus case on Lesvos was reported March 11, and on April 1, a woman living in a mainland refugee camp became the first refugee in Greece to test positive for the virus. In the days since, 20 more cases have been confirmed, and a refugee has now tested positive at another mainland camp as well. Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) has called for the immediate evacuation of all five island hotspot camps, saying, “”We need to be realistic: It would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings.” 

This fresh chaos comes just as New Democracy, the center-right party newly in power in Greece, plans to avail itself of emergency legal provisions in order to transform the existing hotspots, currently designed as “first reception centers,” into closed detention facilities—a.k.a. prisons. In response, camp residents are protesting, and the islands’ residents have rioted, attacking aid workers and allegedly setting fire to one NGO warehouse. This has led to the reluctant departure of many medical NGOs at a time when they are needed most. And mere weeks before the specter of coronavirus sent fear rippling throughout the camps, Turkey’s decision on February 28th to open its borders pushed tensions on the islands and at Greece’s Evros river frontier to the breaking point; Greece threatened to immediately deport anyone who entered the country (in violation of international law), and the Greek army was deployed to the Turkish frontier. 

What’s happening in Greece is devastating. But though the pandemic itself may have been a worldwide stroke of bad luck, the conditions for its rapid spread—and the havoc it will almost certainly wreak on asylum seekers waiting in Greece—are deeply predictable. The groundwork for the current reality has been meticulously laid out, piece by piece, over the course of years, and the responsibility lies largely with the E.U.’s centrist leaders.  


For many Americans who know little about the complex legal system underpinning the E.U.’s response to migration, and who are understandably more focused on the U.S. government’s abuse of migrants at our own border, the popular narrative surrounding the E.U. migrant crisis up until now has gone something like this: People came in unprecedented numbers, overwhelming many countries’ capacity to receive them, exacerbating existing tensions and giving rise to a wave of populist, anti-migrant sentiment. Amidst this chaos, Germany rose to the occasion, allowing nearly a million refugees, mostly Syrian, to start their lives over, until political pressure (from those pesky populists!) forced Merkel to end the program. Today, things aren’t as bad as they used to be in 2015, but there’s a lot of negative rhetoric. Bad actors like the prominent far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini and Hungarian dictator Victor Orban are constantly saying vile things about migrants.  

To respond that this is an incomplete picture of the situation would be an understatement of near-comic proportions.  When asylum seekers started arriving in record numbers, the E.U. panicked. In the past ten years, centrist E.U. leaders have been responsible for constructing a comprehensive surveillance system designed to control migrants, closing borders across the region, and paying non-E.U. countries to do the dirty work of border enforcement.

Politicians like Salvini and Orban receive by far the most press for their anti-migrant ways, but it seems at times that their crime is to say out loud what other E.U. countries prefer to initiate quietly. The response to the arrival of refugees to European shores in the past decade has been replete with so many scandals, human rights abuses, preventable tragedies, and individual instances of negligence that they begin to blur and meld in one’s head, like keeping track of Trump’s various henchmen and the specific crimes they committed. Yarl’s Wood. The Calais Jungle. The persecution of humanitarian activists like Salam Aldeen, Pia Klemp, Cedric Hérrou, Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder. The failure of the Dubs scheme. E.U. collaboration with the ultra-aggressive Libyan Coastguard. This will be the E.U.’s legacy.  

No matter the technical alignment of whatever government is passing and enforcing the laws, these anti-migrant policies are fundamentally right-wing in nature They have exacerbated xenophobic backlash by placing an undue burden on poorer, peripheral E.U. nations, and left asylum seekers adrift and destitute, permanently dependent on the state or forced into illegal encampments. 

Today, with Greece’s asylum system in meltdown and a growing awareness that the coronavirus will devastate cramped and overcrowded places like camps and detention centers, the E.U. refugee crisis is back in the news. But over the past few years, as the media trained their focus elsewhere, refugee conditions were steadily worsening with no end in sight. Even before Turkey opened its borders, there were more asylum seekers being held in the Aegean island camps than there were in 2015, when the so-called “crisis” was prominently foregrounded in the media. 

And what about Germany, the so-called best case? Merkel ended her famous “Open Door” policy,  which opened Germany’s borders to asylum seekers arriving from other European nations, in 2018. In the years since, her policies toward refugees have been as bad as those of any E.U. government: “a complete erosion of refugee rights,” as one Berlin human rights lawyer put it.

For more than a million refugees who arrived in Europe at the beginning of the “crisis,” Open Door was undeniably a lifeline. But the policy did not go against some incontrovertible law of nature. It was a rational corrective to an earlier E.U. policy that Germany itself had been instrumental in creating—one that, in 2015, was breaking apart all over the European Union, and one that is collapsing again today.  


The foundation of the E.U.’s unwieldy and dehumanizing system for dealing with refugees is a legal regime that was created long before the “refugee crisis” began to be named as such. In 1990, E.U. nations authored a union-wide asylum mechanism, the “Dublin Regulation,” which dictates individual E.U. member states’ responsibility for asylum claims. It rests on an astonishingly simplistic principle: the country in which a given migrant first sets foot is responsible for considering their asylum claim, regardless of whether that country was the migrant’s intended destination.

Dublin was first ratified by only a handful of states. Though it has been restructured twice over, most recently in 2013, with more signatories added, its core logic has remained consistent. To accept the Dublin agreement means that you are on board with the idea that all E.U. states are equally capable of accepting and harboring refugees. What this means in practice, since almost all asylum seekers arrive in Europe on foot or by boat, is that the E.U.’s peripheral nations, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, end up being responsible for processing the cases of most arriving asylum seekers. 

As Minos Mouzourakis, now the head of Legal and Policy Research at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), noted in a 2014 treatise on the agreement, this arrangement was extremely convenient for interior E.U. states—and that was certainly no accident. It was bolstered by the “safe third country” concept, first established by Denmark in 1986, which decrees that refugees are considered inadmissible for asylum in one country if they have already passed through a country that is considered “safe.” With its adoption, Mouzourakis wrote, “Western European countries were already able to deflect the examination of asylum claims coming from the east.” The Dublin agreement only served to further legitimize and institutionalize the practice of shunting responsibility for asylum seekers onto countries farther away from Europe’s center. 

As a result, Greece, Spain, and Italy—all countries already in various states of economic disrepair, now deeply exacerbated by the onset of the coronavirus—have shouldered the burden of caring for arriving asylum seekers, and received the lion’s share of criticism when they have, unsurprisingly, failed to rise to the occasion. Even if you view the vast sums that the E.U. began sending Greece in 2015 as an attempt to correct for this obvious imbalance, the arrangement still doesn’t make sense for structural reasons. Greece, for example, didn’t even have an asylum system set up until 2013, and its ravaged economy has little room for new workers, especially those who don’t speak Greek or English (One in six Greeks are unemployed, and the youth unemployment rate hovers just below a stunning 40 percent; both of these figures represent the strongest economy since before 2011.) An influx of cash alone won’t change the fact that Greek society simply isn’t set up to absorb the amount of asylum seekers who have arrived on its shores since 2015, even if they hadn’t mishandled almost all of the money.  

And there’s another, critically important reason that Dublin doesn’t make sense: besides the fact that it doesn’t work for the border countries of the E.U., it also doesn’t work for refugees themselves. Somehow, this is a consideration that almost never gets brought up, probably because the presiding institutions tasked with dealing with refugees are bureaucratic behemoths that see asylum seekers as “aid beneficiaries” rather than human beings with agency, needs, emotions, and hopes.  But most refugees don’t intend to stay in the first E.U. country they arrive in on their journey. This could be for any number of reasons: some simply practical, others having to do with personal affiliations or desires. Many people have family members already living elsewhere in the E.U. whom they want to rejoin; others already know another country’s native language or have reason to suspect that job prospects will be better there. 

There are also very real reasons why a first country of arrival might not actually be a safe host nation for some people. Greece’s ethnically homogenous and conservative culture make the country a frequently undesirable asylum destination for Black and LBGTQ+ refugees, to name just two groups. Less than 18 months ago, a prominent gay rights activist was beaten to death in the streets of Athens. Why should an asylum seeker fleeing persecution for his sexual orientation in his native country be forced to settle in Greece because his boat landed on an Aegean shore, a country in which he might face similar treatment? 

The Dublin Regulation ignores these material realities and flattens the differences between E.U. nations. E.U. states’ continued adherence to the Dublin agreement has produced a situation where thousands of asylum seekers are trapped in countries where they do not want to stay, and that lack the capacity to take them in. Inevitably, this conundrum has led to the clandestine departure of thousands of asylum seekers from their E.U. country of arrival as they seek to reach their originally-intended destinations. Every day, people evaluate the system they find themselves in and decide that it is intolerable. But exiting the “legitimate” asylum system exposes asylum seekers to smugglers, violent border police, and natural dangers. Ultimately, it may leave them permanently undocumented, existing at the margins of society for the rest of their lives.


The Dublin Regulation was bad enough. But after the “refugee crisis” began, the E.U. doubled down on the same flawed logic, seeking to concentrate more and more refugees in less well-resourced periphery regions, insulating the central countries even more deeply from what should have been shared responsibilities.  

March 2020 will mark four years since the inauguration of an E.U.-Turkey deal that is currently in shambles. The agreement expands on the “safe third country” concept, first used in Europe to expel asylum seekers from interior countries like Denmark and Germany back to places like Poland, and in turn Lithuania. The E.U.-Turkey deal took this logic one step further and sent migrants to Turkey instead, allowing Europe to functionally externalize its border control beyond the bounds of the union. This policy was—can you guess how this goes by now?—largely brokered by Germany, and it’s had an disproportionately negative impact on Greece. 

The deal was designed to facilitate transfer of asylum seekers back out of the E.U., and stop people from arriving on E.U. shores in the first place. From March 20, 2016 on, it didn’t matter if you had a “legitimate” case for asylum—if you’d set foot in Turkey before arriving in Europe, your claim was simply inadmissible. The majority of asylum seekers who attempt to enter the E.U. from Turkey tend to land on the Greek islands, which meant that after the E.U.-Turkey deal, the Greek government was almost singlehandedly tasked with enforcing the E.U.’s side of the deal—and authorities on the Greek islands now had to go through the lengthy process of determining “admissibility” rather than simply documenting arriving asylum seekers and allowing them to move on. 

On the Greek islands, things changed overnight, and not for the better. I did refugee solidarity work on the ground in various parts of Europe from late 2016 until 2018. In 2017, when I was working at a center for refugee women on the Aegean island of Chios, a Palestinian Syrian family I met explained that they had decided to come through the Greek islands on their way to Europe because a few members of their extended family had taken the same route in 2015. Back then, the relatives landed, regrouped, walked to the ferry, bought tickets to the Greek mainland, and were in Athens in a matter of hours. But when my friends arrived, they got stuck. Subject to new “island restrictions” that forbade travel to mainland Greece, people were forced to stay in Vial, an overcrowded hotspot camp, for months while the admissibility of their claims was considered. Some people I met had been there for nearly two years, their status in limbo, forbidden to move on.

Ironically, the Greek government’s adoption of island restrictions effectively did to the Greek islands what the E.U. had, with the Dublin agreement, done to Greece: exploited a geographic reality in order to “contain” refugees at their point of landing, placing an undue burden on a region unequipped to adequately care for the refugees now confined there. And lest you think this policy was instituted by a right-wing government, it was Greece’s leftist Syriza party that oversaw the camps’ expansion and transition to sites of  “temporary permanence.” Human rights violations piled up. On the islands, many asylum seekers were forced to sleep outside in winter; several people died. The food provided to refugees by an army-affiliated catering company met the barest standards for nutritional content and was frequently inedible; people I met in Vial would often throw it away, as Patrick Strickland reported in the New York Review of Books

Islanders, many of whom were initially sympathetic to the refugees’ bind, grew weary of their continued presence on the island, and an ugly strain of nationalism began to surface. In January 2018, locals angry at a proposed expansion of Vial set up a makeshift shelter on the way into the camp. They huddled there at all hours of the day, even in miserable weather, watching and waiting. One day, they were especially fired up. When we walked from the camp’s entrance out to the main road, the locals followed us, badgering the asylum seekers among us. One Greek man began to scream at my Palestinian Syrian friend, who was carrying his baby son on his shoulders. “Where is your country?” the man spat. My friend’s hands curled tighter around his baby son’s legs. 

Greek citizens’ frustration with the overcrowding on the islands almost certainly played a role in New Democracy’s stunning win this July. The center-right party gained an unprecedented 83 legislative seats, finally wresting power from Syriza, and Kyriakos Mitsotakis took over from Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. By November, the new government had passed its asylum law, which will restrict health care for registered asylum seekers and extend detention times in addition to transforming the island hotspots into closed detention centers (Under Syriza, the camps’ most humane feature was that refugees were permitted to leave them during the day to seek outside social and legal services or simply spend a few hours in a place that is not a dirty and overcrowded holding zone). 

New Democracy has framed these changes as a much-needed corrective to Syriza’s mismanagement of the crisis. “Your law brought 75,000 asylum applications, which we inherited, thousands of people who are waiting, which is not humanitarian, a zero-rate of returns [to Turkey], which exposed us to criticism from Europe, and a law that worked not to control or deter, but as a huge institutional magnet,” said Deputy Citizens’ Protection Minister George Koumoutsakos as reported by Al Jazeera. Another MP, Maximos Harakopolous, went even further, saying, “The previous [Syriza] government had a welcome policy that allowed hundreds of thousands to cross the border.” 

Of course, Syriza’s response to the refugee crisis has been far from admirable. But the party simply did not practice the “welcome policy” that its right-wing political detractors accuse it of enacting. Though its ill-treatment of asylum seekers may have been a result of incompetence rather than evil, considerable damage has been done regardless. Beyond the notable failures outlined above, its defense ministry is currently under investigation by the E.U. Anti-Fraud taskforce over the possible (local NGOs and even Greek government officials would say “extremely likely”) misuse of more than three quarters of a billion dollars of E.U. funds allocated to support refugees—money Greece has spent without ever meaningfully improving standards of living for asylum seekers.

Independent of anything Syriza did, it’s undeniable that Greece has been dealt a bad hand by far more powerful E.U. nations. (It might be fairer to say that the E.U. rigged the deck.) Beginning with the Dublin agreement and then continuing with the terms of the economic bailout and the fallout of the E.U.-Turkey agreement, Greece has been effectively consigned to eternal servitude within the European Union. The crushing impact of that role on Greek citizens and asylum seekers alike cannot be understated.  


In 2015, as refugees started to arrive in greater and greater numbers on European shores, and important people began to use the word “crisis,” Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth responded with a warning. “We should recognize that if there is a crisis,” he wrote, “It is one of politics, not capacity.”

The last six years have proven Roth more right than he could possibly have known at the time. The story of the E.U. refugee crisis has been a story of richer and more powerful countries imposing their will onto weaker and poorer ones—and, when those impositions become untenable, the flimsy, repressive status quo that passes for “order” breaking down into disarray and shocking violence. This is then recast as the fault of the refugees, who have arrived in numbers too enormous for the “entire” E.U. to handle, rather than the inevitable result of deliberate and deliberately flawed policies.

Until the root issues are addressed, various policies designed to confront the symptoms will continue to fail. Centrist and even left-wing governments will continue to pass repressive measures; right-wing backlash will only increase. Refugees will have years of their life stolen from them, experiencing devastating repercussions to their emotional and mental health as they wait for delayed asylum decisions in inhumane reception facilities. And people will keep dying: in locked cargo trucks, in camps, on the highway, in mountain passes, on railroad tracks, in the Evros River, in the vast watery grave of the Mediterranean.  

Up until now, these deaths have happened one by one, ten by ten. The bodies of drowned migrants are often never found. The true toll of this crisis goes unrecognized; it accumulates person by person. It is easy to ignore. It is a spaced-out but inexorable curve that never rises above the E.U.’s threshold for recognition. 

The spread of coronavirus has the potential to explode those grim statistics, to cause mass, accelerated death. Maybe this will change things; maybe it won’t. But it shouldn’t take a pandemic for E.U. leaders to realize that the situation facing asylum seekers on their shores has been intolerable for a long time. 

Cover image: Syrian and Iraqi refugees reach the coastal waters of Lesvos in Greece, after having crossed from Turkey, 2016. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

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