Facing Europe's Historic Challenge

The European Union is facing what could prove to be the most serious challenge in its history, and the first one which could raise considerable doubts as to its ability to produce solutions. E.U. leaders are preparing to meet next Monday, March 7, on the acute refugee and migrant crisis, in the midst of mounting pressure and tensions both on and within the Union. Turkey, a candidate for E.U. membership and a key factor in the evolution of this crisis during the last 9 months, will participate. At the same time, the situation is deteriorating, with the UNCHR warning that "...Europe is on the cusp of a largely self-induced humanitarian crisis. This is in light of a rapid build-up of people in an already struggling Greece, with governments not working together despite having already reached agreements in a number of areas, and country after country imposing new border restrictions".

This crisis has become a challenge of historic proportions for Europe, because it puts to the test not only the cohesion of the E.U. and the ability of European countries to act successfully together, but also their commitment to principles and values fundamental to the European ideal. Once more in dealing with a crisis, precious time has been wasted on pointing fingers instead of working collectively to assess and tackle the challenge; on scrambling to raise fences along national borders as if this could be a solution to the largest refugee flows since WW II, instead of resolutely joining forces, resources and ideas to seek the best possible solutions.

Scapegoating member states situated at the external borders of the E.U, in this case Greece, is easy, but deeply unfair and deplorably narrow-sighted. In fact, this approach amounts to nothing more than choosing to ignore the magnitude and the complexity of the refugee and migrant crisis itself and the realities on the ground. It is no coincidence that the Aegean has become the entry point to Europe for more than 875,000 refugees and migrants in recent months. Simply put, a maritime border is completely different from a land border: it is impossible to raise fences and every attempt to intercept small boats and dinghies overflowing with desperate and terrified men, women and children immediately becomes a rescue operation. It is often overlooked that during the last year, the Greek Coast Guard, under enormous strain, has rescued more than 150,000 refugees and migrants in distress at sea. In reality, once refugees and migrants have set sail from the Turkish coasts, it is already too late to stop them from entering Europe. Even during the winter months of January and February, more than 120,000 people made the crossing.

In its seventh year of recession and in a dire financial situation, Greece has long been struggling to cope with the overwhelming numbers of arrivals. The generosity and decency of Greek citizens, particularly of local communities on the overburdened frontline Aegean islands, has contributed immensely to accommodating the first needs of the people that arrive by the thousands. However, it is clear that this situation is not sustainable. It is impossible for Greece to properly host such large numbers of people, all of whom are determined to use every means and device to continue their movement further north. It is telling that of all the refugees who have arrived, only 3% have accepted to request asylum in Greece, as this would oblige them to stay there.

In the face of these realities, no viable solution can be reached by one single country alone. Even if Greece were left alone to bear the consequences of a crisis which could be catastrophic, the problem would not simply vanish. It would only worsen and eventually undermine regional stability, after having irreparably shattered the E.U.'s cohesion. How long will it take before the despair of ever growing numbers of refugees and migrants leads to violence?

There is no alternative to agreeing on a common strategy. To this end, all actors must commit themselves to collective action and abide by their commitments. It is deeply disconcerting that despite concrete commitments in 2015 to relocate 66,400 refugees from Greece to other E.U member-states, so far only 1,539 places have been pledged, and only 325 actual relocations have occurred.

Moreover, relocation of refugees should be only part of a comprehensive strategy, which needs to be able, first to distinguish refugees from migrants, and second to address the challenge closer to its source. In this respect, the crucial factor is a sincere and effective cooperation with the single most important transit country, Turkey, through the territory of which refugees from Syria, as well as migrants from as far as Morocco, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa manage to reach the Aegean shores. Concerted international action to combat the trafficking networks that continue to thrive at the expense of human lives should be an essential component of this strategy. The idea put forward by Greece for a process that ensures identification and relocation of persons qualified as refugees straight from the refugee camps in Turkish territory, in a legal and organized manner, could considerably alleviate the burden borne by Turkey, while disrupting the business model of traffickers and saving lives. Equally important is the effective implementation of readmission agreements with the countries of origin and transit of migrants, which very often procrastinate or bluntly refuse to readmit their own nationals.

As we run out of time, before the situation unravels, every effort towards concerted action is invaluable. Broader international cooperation is crucial. The United States, accurately describing migration as a Global Issue and playing a leading role in the efforts for peace in Syria, could contribute significantly to containing the effects of the refugee crisis, itself a repercussion of conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which threatens to spread instability further.