Last Monday's European Summit was a welcome sign that the European Union is finally trying to articulate a comprehensive response to the refugee crisis. However, important parts are still missing, and a number of hurdles are becoming obvious with each passing day. Most notably, the agreement takes for granted the situation on the ground, including closed borders in the Western Balkans and the suspension of Schengen.
Europe has offered to take one Syrian from Turkey for every one that is sent back from Greece. If implemented, this trade-off may offer a strong incentive to stop the flow of refugees, by ensuring that Europe grants protection to those asylum-seekers who wait in Turkey for their applications to be processed, rather than those who embark on the dangerous journey to Europe. Greece is rightly the focus of attention: According to the International Migration Office, last year more than 850,000 of the 1.1 million refugees and migrants who crossed over to Europe made the precarious boat trip from Turkey to Greece. In the process, more than 100,000 were rescued by the Greek coast guard, aided by Frontex.
As Turkey made clear, however, as far as it is concerned the deal only applies to new arrivals. And Europe still has to agree on how to share the existing refugees, let alone any new ones. An earlier plan to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy has produced poor results: there have been only 800 relocations, 241 of them from Greece. The European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos noted Thursday that in order for the agreement to work, the relocation of refugees needs to reach 6,000 per month.
"If relocation doesn't work, the system may collapse,"
warned Avramopoulos. He also said that all financing tools should be used to help Greece cope with the situation. Since the start of this year, the number of new arrivals in Italy and Greece stands at 135,000 - an average of 2,000 per day.
Almost 42,000 people are currently stranded in Greece. This is largely the result of a decision by the Western Balkan countries to close the refugee route via FYROM, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. On Friday, it was emulated by Albania and Bulgaria. By recognizing that the Western Balkan route is now closed in its statement after the Summit, the EU has accepted a fait accompli which increases the risks for the stranded refugees, while also threatening to destabilize Greece.
Like in the game of musical chairs, when the music stopped Greece was left standing. Thousands of refugees and migrants are currently trying to leave the country for Northern Europe, while 12,000 have amassed at a make-shift camp without proper sanitation in Idomeni, at Greece's northern border with FYROM. With rainy conditions and FYROM allowing but a few dozen entries per day, it is a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen. Many children have already been admitted to the hospitals of Northern Greece with respiratory infections.
Still, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, thanked the Western Balkan states that closed their borders, claiming that this was not a unilateral decision but part of a comprehensive EU strategy. This was challenged by Greece but also Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who noted that unilateral decisions cannot solve the problem.
Closing the Balkan routes will only increase the dangers of the trip for the refugees, who may attempt dangerous border crossings and longer boat trips to Italy. It also raises the stakes for the refugees who are already trapped in Greece, who may turn violent in their despair and test the solidarity shown so far by the local population, ultimately threatening public order in the country. According to a Eurasia Group analysis, if Turkey does not do its part to control the flow, the implications will include more difficulty in achieving credible refugee burden sharing and, "with growing numbers of refugees, growing instability in Greece and over time in Italy" too.
Yet, despite its political, legal and practical short-comings, this deal is better than the alternative: President Tusk was reportedly negotiating an agreement for asylum-seekers and migrants to be processed in hotspots exclusively in Greece and Italy. Such a deal would increase the incentives for illegal migration and put the weight of processing solely on two transit European countries, without any contribution from Turkey.
Even under the current plan, Greece needs all the help it can get. Presiding over the European Council for Migration, the Dutch State Secretary Klaas Dijkhoff stressed the need for all member states to support the country, by making sure relocation and resettlement work, as well as by increasing Frontex personnel.
Despite being at the front-line of the refugee and migration wave, Greece and Italy have largely been left to their own financial resources to deal with the problem. And as high-income countries, they do not qualify for development aid. Given its debilitating economic crisis, however, the UN Refugee Agency warned last July that Greece urgently needs financial aid. At the Summit, Greece was promised a commitment of 700 million euro to tackle the problem, but funds will not be available until April. Most importantly, in order for this agreement to work, the EU will have to finally agree on and implement a refugee-sharing model. Countries like the U.S. can also help by taking on more refugees. And Turkey's role is also critical in stopping the refugee flows to Europe.
For the EU countries left high and dry by Monday's deal, the support of the international community is badly needed. As for Europe, it urgently needs to deliver on its promises in order to avoid a humanitarian disaster from unraveling on European soil.