Smuggling: a multibillion-dollar driver of the refugee crisis

According to a newly released EURO-Pol / Interpol report, more than 90% of migrants coming to the EU are facilitated by smugglers. Many of the refugees we have spoken with describe their experiences dealing with smugglers, who charge hundreds of euros a head to get people from Turkey to Greece. They describe their experiences as horrible but necessary, as the smugglers would pile people on top of one another, sometimes doubling the capacity of inflatable dinghies, taking people’s phones and forcing them to leave behind baby formula and all their possessions. To avoid detection, the refugee boats had to navigate in the middle of the night, sometimes without a driver or even a map for direction. These conditions contribute largely to the death toll in the Mediterranean Sea, which has reached nearly 3,000 drownings this year alone. Interpol also notes that many asylum seekers enter into debt with the smugglers, which can lead to various forms of exploitation.

In efforts to crack down on smugglers, Interpol initiated Operation HYDRA. The irony of this name is hard to miss. In their report, Interpol themselves acknowledge that smuggling routes are diverse and constantly shifting to avoid detection. Even if some smugglers are caught, the smuggling industry is still lucrative, turning over an estimated 5 to 6 billion USD last year alone. Like the mythical hydra creature, smuggling networks do not die when their heads are cut off; more heads continue to emerge. Even though arrivals of asylum seekers in Greece have tapered off since the EU-Turkey deal, smugglers are selling their services and falsifying documents to help people leave Greece and move elsewhere within the E.U.


Stickers condemning the closed borders are pasted around the Exarcheia neighborhood

Although increased border patrols and police intelligence may lead to more arrests of smugglers, this alone is not enough to stop cross-border smuggling. Many international humanitarian organizations, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, advocate for Europe to provide safe passage to asylum seekers, so that people do not have to risk their lives to apply for asylum in Europe. The heart of the matter is that people feel desperate and trapped, and other countries in the EU are not yet efficiently coordinating their efforts to facilitate family reunification. In a recent personal example, a mother traveling alone with her child had all the necessary documents to reunite with her husband who was already working elsewhere in the EU, but she has been stuck in processing, living in poor conditions for over 5 months, with no anticipated end date to her waiting. There is no ‘silver bullet’ policy solution to the complex issue of smuggling, and because asylum-seekers are in this waiting game, smugglers have the second opportunity to move people across borders.




Greek Foreign Policy with the Arab World: Current deficits and Future Possibilities

Recently, the refugee crisis seems to have lost its media visibility. Headlines now are focused on the Brexit, the terrorist attacks in Turkey, Baghdad, Saudi Arabia and the continuing plight of the Greek economy (in the domestic press). In mid July, Athenians are still in town, scrambling to face the new and ever increasing bills sent out recently by the government.

One curious aspect that our summer research has revealed is how little academic work there is on Greek-Syrian relations. While, journalistic accounts on current affairs abound, there is hardly anything written about Greece’s relations with the Arab world even though Greek foreign policy has for decades positioned itself as being close to the Arab cause and particularly with regard to the Palestinian question.

In fact, Greek-Arab ties have a long history that goes back to 1947, when Greece voted against the partition of Palestine in the UN General Assembly. In the post-1974 era, these relations were strengthened, reflecting Athens’ efforts to gain support in the dispute with Turkey and secure oil supplies. Within the last ten years, however, such security objectives of Greek foreign policy have moved to the background and economic priorities have come to the fore. This changed most recently following the 2015 mass exodus of Syrian and other migrants to Europe that increasingly transformed the wider MENA region into a source of instability and a growing security threat, resulting from failed states and the violent rise of ISIS (DAESH).

Just like in the case of Greek relations with the GCC, this crisis makes it apparent that there is now a wide opportunity for academic study of relations between Greece and the wider MENA region to better understand and reformulate policies that will benefit Greek interests especially in the immediate future as the conflict in Syria will eventually draw to an end. This becomes particularly important from a security perspective. Turkey for example has just announced that it would grant citizenship to Syrian refugees. Turkey’s decisions are closely monitored by the Greek state as developments there impact the country’s security and position in the region. There are also wider geopolitical re-alignments taking place in this part of the world. Russia has once again actively returned to the scene, the United States seems to be hedging its bets sticking to a general reluctance for more Middle Eastern exposure, Turkey is weighing its options while Erdogan becomes an unpredictable interlocutor, the GCC countries are monitoring the return of Iran to the international community, and Europe struggles both at an Institutional level and a societal level with anti-migration voices dominating the discourse.

One of my recent conversations with a Syrian scholar who has followed Greek foreign policy in the region made me think that there is much room for credible study, data gathering, to inform the drafting of more accurate policy recommendations if Greece has any chance of repositioning itself in light of all these new regional challenges and fast-paced developments.





Hellenic Coast Guard to the Rescue: Supported by the Greek private sector

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Of the many unsung heroes of this crisis, the Hellenic Coast Guard can be proud of the thousands of lives saved at sea over the past 2 years. With the support of Greek private sector companies such at the OTE Group of Companies, the Hellenic Coast Guard has rescued over 74,000 people at risk of drowning in the Aegean.

Even though the Greek private sector has been hard-hit by the economic crisis, they have stepped in to support Greek citizens and refugees in this difficult time. They have protected their corporate social responsibility budgets from cuts, and they have used the funds to support programs with significant social impact.

Please watch this video to see for yourself the impact that a real commitment to social responsibility has made.

-SK and AG

A hierarchy of refugees?

Although the Syrian refugee crisis has drawn some renewed attention to the forgotten plight of Afghan refugees (many of whom have been displaced for far longer), Afghans are filtered through a different asylum process. Before the Syria crisis unfolded, Afghanistan had been the world’s biggest source for refugees for 32 years. However, now that parts of Afghanistan are being rebuilt and are considered ‘safe’ again, only about 68% of Afghan applications for asylum are granted.

In order to qualify for relocation within the EU, asylum applications from a given nationality must be accepted at least 75% of the time, meaning that Afghans just miss the cutoff to be eligible for relocation. The choice that many Afghans face now is between returning to Afghanistan, paying a smuggler to take them elsewhere in Europe, or applying for asylum in Greece. If they choose to apply to stay in Greece, their application has a 60% chance of being approved. Unlike Syrians, their applications are not fast-tracked, meaning that it may take months or even years for their application to be processed.

This difference in the asylum process has reportedly led to tensions and clashes between Afghans and Syrians currently staying in Greece. We have seen that many of the areas around Athens hosting refugees are divided by nationality; the Elliniko airport is primarily occupied by Afghans, while the Eleonas camp contains more Syrians. However, some of the informal squats around Athens host refugees of both nationalities without conflict. One Syrian woman told us that in her squat, Afghans and Syrians coexist peacefully. She said, “We have the same pain and took the same journey. We share the same spirit.”

Based on exchanges with service providers, we have heard that the Afghans have a more difficult time accessing refugee services and information about the asylum process, partly because there are fewer Farsi interpreters and no Pashto interpreters. Others have told us that Syrian asylum-seekers are more willing to adapt their customs and values to adjust to life in Europe, while Afghans hold more tightly to conservative practices.

In some ways this topic is an interesting extension of Sophia’s previous posts about cherry-picking migrants: are European countries more sympathetic to Syrian refugees because of their higher educational levels and less conservative culture? Or perhaps the crisis in Syria is considered more urgent than the situation in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban still violently rules nearly 30% of Afghanistan. However, with Pakistan threatening to revoke the refugee status of the 2.5 million Afghans living inside its borders, it is possible that the numbers of Afghan refugees will soon surge again.

While the experience of being a refugee would be traumatizing and frustrating for anyone, Afghans’ uncertainty about the future is more pronounced because their options are even more limited and international attention is fixated primarily on Syrians. One service provider explained it this way: “Syrians will find their way. It may take 6 months, 1 year, but they will get the chance to start over. Afghans…I still don’t know.”


The German Dream

Why is Germany perceived as the land of opportunity for refugees? Syrians in particular share more cultural common ground with Greeks than with Germans, but the belief that we have heard repeated is that refugees cannot make it in Greece due to the financial crisis. Despite not knowing a lot about the culture or lifestyles of Germans, asylum seekers believe that Germany offers the best benefits, healthcare, and employment opportunities. One service provider described how Germany has replaced America as the country in which people collectively dream of upward mobility and economic success.

One reason for this fixation on Germany may be due to a cascading effect: Merkel was one of the first and most vocal European leaders to welcome refugees, so while the borders of Greece were still open, Germany became a destination for refugees in 2015. Germany not only has the reputation for being refugee-friendly, but new arrivals now often seek to join their family members who already came to Germany ahead of them. The prospects of economic opportunity, a welcoming society, and reunification with family members make Germany the top destination for nearly every person we have spoken to.

However, now that Greece’s borders are closed, most asylum seekers must apply through the formal relocation process and accept whatever destination countries are offered to them. When we asked people whether they would be satisfied with relocation in another European country besides Germany, most people actually said yes, that their ultimate priorities were safety and education for their children.

Once people have been settled for some time, it will be interesting to investigate whether the reality of life in Germany differs in any significant way from the high expectations and pre-conceived notions refugees held before arriving. It will also be interesting to learn how the process of formal relocation changes the dynamics and distribution of asylum seekers around Europe, and wether the German dream will still prevail. 


The dilemma of taking sides: fight or flee

Our conversations with refugees have identified a key reason explaining why Syrian civilians have been fleeing the country en masse. Of course, issues of safety, joblessness, quickly rising cost of living, prospects for a better life, these themes all stand out. Yet for many it was the plight of the men. Over the past year, they were being pushed to re-enlist, or were being drafted either to serve in the government forces or side with the various local rebel groups. People felt pressed to make a choice. People described men in hiding, avoiding buses from which they could be snatched.

So men left first. One woman spoke about how  “Syria was becoming a land of women.” And then the mothers started to fear for their sons who were ‘pushed’ to serve even though they were barely 16. Once the men left, many families  decided to take the difficult journey in the hopes of quickly reaching their destination and re-uniting with their loved ones.

It appears that a large part of the Syrian population does not really want to take sides in this conflict. Disillusioned and lied to by both sides they are not willing to be drawn into a fight that in the end does not seem to be capable of restoring normalcy, safety, and peace in a land that they all love and are so sad to leave behind.  It does make one wonder about how this decision by the population will affect the war’s outcome in the end. What could peace look like and what would the new Syria really have to offer to draw back those who have now left hoping for a fresh start?


The Waiting Game

While pressures in the US mount to militarily intervene in Syria, those who have made it to Greece await. They await for their skype interview to take place. They await to be given a choice of countries for relocation. They await for the verdict of what country that will be. Most continue to want to go to Germany. Some because they think it offers the best services and chances to ‘make it.’ Others because they have a network of family members or friends who have already arrived there and settled. A few, think Greece wouldn’t be a bad place to end up. Those who wouldn’t mind that option, feel that at the very least, there is a cultural connection. They actually feel comfortable in Greece. They mostly like the people and speak about their generosity and warmth. Yet, they are unsure mainly because both Greeks themselves and other Syrians lament the difficult economic conditions that continue because of the debt crisis. What would they do? How would they live?

For those who first want to know about the plight of these refugees, the questions revolve around the way they got here. The harrowing boat ride, the smuggler ring and the trip through Turkey. Yet now, the trip itself is behind them, though some wonder whether they would have embarked on this journey  had they realized what it truly entailed. Nonetheless, that is in the past. Now the desire seems to be to get to the final destination and start over. The youngest have no desire to ever go back to Syria. They want to begin their life and can’t think of starting over once again if they ever go back. This may or may not change in the future. But at the moment it’s the waiting and the lack of certainty about what place they will next and eventually be able to call HOME.

– Sophia K.