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Fate of Migrants in Europe Remains Murky

Children wait at a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Migrant arrivals in Greece have waned, though many are now held in Turkey after an EU agreement in March intended to control flow of migrants to the continent. Photo: AP via

Children wait at a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Migrant arrivals in Greece have waned, though many are now held in Turkey since an EU agreement took effect in March, intended to control flow of migrants to the continent. (Associated Press)

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, called it “the biggest challenge the EU has ever faced.” With a flow of migrants that Greece and other European countries were ill-equipped or unwilling (or both) to handle, the EU reached an agreement with Turkey in March 2016. The agreement involves sending virtually all migrants arriving in the Greek islands to refugee camps in Turkey.

Despite developing and ultimately supporting this arrangement, some parties involved were not convinced that it would work. Upon announcing that the deal had “irreversible momentum,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented: “I have no illusions that what we agreed today will be accompanied by further setbacks.”

In the one and half months since the EU-Turkey agreement took effect, migrant arrivals in Greece have plummeted. The island of Lesbos used to see 5,000 new arrivals per day. A few weeks ago the total was four. Beaches were strewn with life jackets and other remnants of dangerous Mediterranean crossings. Now those beaches are barren. The Turkish coast guard has also started to escort boats attempting to reach Greece back to Turkey.

Nevertheless around 50,000 migrants are still in detention centers in Greece: refugees currently held on Lesbos cannot leave the island. Those who arrived after the agreement with Turkey was reached cannot leave their camp.

Additionally, the freedom afforded to detainees and resources available differ from camp to camp. One refugee facility on Lesbos seems quite prison-like as it is surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire and patrolled by police. A second, just a five minute drive away and operated by the UN, has no fence and allows “residents” to leave the camp (but, again, not the island) whenever they please.

It seems that whatever a camp’s conditions, the situation is precarious and less than ideal. Families are separated if even one member is allowed entry to the EU. In addition, the refugee camps opening in Turkey as a result of the deal have received criticism for not being able to adequately cope with the amount people being sent there.

While the condition of refugee camps the world over is a problem that needs attention, in Greece and Turkey it is a symptom of the larger issue of who is responsible for dealing with migrants, and where they stay while their future is being worked out.

Fears over the migrant influx may have died down for now, but the problem has definitely not been solved. The burden is just being shifted from one place to another. While some refugees may be lucky enough to “settle” in the EU, many remain stuck at their point of arrival.

One EU official described the situation with migrants and the new arrangement as such: “It’s time to cross the fingers, work hard, and hope for the best. There is a huge amount still to be done.” When people involved in creating this system say from the beginning that their outlook for its success is just hoping for the best, its chances to successfully address the problem are not very promising.

To be sure the migrant dilemma is not one with an easy solution. But the current plan, which was met with skepticism from the start, has raised even more questions and doubts. It may be a starting point or the best option available at the time, but it is clear that the current arrangement is not a long-term solution. More work is needed to develop a system to accommodate those fleeing violence in hopes of a better life.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”