“What we are dealing with at the moment is not really a migration or refugee problem. It is a conscious attempt by Turkey to use migrants and refugees as geopolitical pawns to promote its own interests,” Greece’s conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in an interview with CNN International on 6 March, alluding to the on-going refugee crisis at the Greek-Turkish border. To briefly revise the issue, it started on 28 February, when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, in an attempt to counterbalance the killing of at least 33 Turkish soldiers during a Syrian airstrike in Syria’s northwestern region of Idlib, announced his intention to literally open the Evros river border between Greece and Turkey, urging refugees and migrants sojourning in Turkey to congregate on the physical border leading to EU soil.

The Greek government’s immediate response to the thousands of migrants and refugees attempting to enter the country by force, was to launch riot police and border guards to stop them. In the meantime, the unrelenting arrivals of more seaborne migrants/ refugees spurred violent protests by exasperated residents on the isles of Lesvos, Chios and Samos making matters even worse. During the 20 first days of March, clashes between Greek law enforcement forces and young refugees/ migrants escalated, with the former using tear gas to avert the onslaught, while the latter, goaded and backed by Turkish police, stepped up the pressure on the Greek border.

Despite a widespread tacit approval of state tactics to handle the situation, the well-publicised crisis at the country’s northeastern border sparked polarisation; several proponents of allegedly controversial deterring methods, unwittingly rubbing shoulders with extreme right-wing nationalists, as it were, locked horns with advocates of refugee rights and international law. Acrimonious comments on social media flared up.

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Territorial integrity and humanitarian help: A tricky balance

Stella Nanou, Communication Manager at the Greek leg of United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), spoke to Neos Kosmos about the critical situation in Evros. Twice troubled by the continuing crisis itself, as well as by anti-assembly restrictions imposed to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, Nanou could only afford answering via mail.

“From the very first moment, UNHCR made plea for equanimity and tension de-escalation, so as not to aggravate the preexisting ordeal of vulnerable individuals,” Ms Nanou stressed. “All states have the right to control their borders and deal with illegal translocations; but at the same time, they must refrain from excessive or disproportionate violence. Furthermore, there must exist a system, adapted to each separate emergency, that deals with asylum-seekers in a constitutional way,” points out the UNHCR rep, contending that “protection of borders and protection of persecuted asylum-seekers are not conflicting notions.”.

To corroborate this view, Nanou quotes Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the newly-elected President of the Republic, who in the inaugural speech following her swearing-in underscored: “Recent mounting tension on the refugee/migrant front calls for safeguarding the integrity of our borders, while concurrently fulfilling our humanitarian duty towards defenceless and desperate people. The equation is hard, but not an impossible one”.

The question as to whether we should be indeed distinguishing between war-ravaged refugees and economic migrants went unanswered. Ditto for some comment on the controversial New York Times article alluding to a guilty “secret site for migrants” on the Greek side of the border. Nanou did elaborate, though, on the decisive role the EU could play in the current migrant crisis as a whole. “We have stressed time and again that Greece – just like any country under increased migrant pressure – should not be abandoned, forced to deal with such an exceptionally complex and difficult task on their own. The handling of challenges and needs arising for incoming populations exceed in most cases the capabilities of one single country. In this case, the European Union must keep on backing Greece through funding, know-how and human resources, as it already does,” she states.

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Unaccompanied minors, major problem

The indirect interview with the UNHCR official was concluded with the crucial topic of unaccompanied minors. The pressing issue resurfaced yet again a couple of weeks ago, when 20 NGOs addressed an open letter to the Greek PM prompting him to tackle parameters such as these children’s proper accommodation facilities, or the quickening of required legal procedures. Explains Ms Nanou: “Refugee children have not only endured strenuous and dangerous travel, they are also faced with difficulties and hardships once on European soil. These include unsafe housing conditions, erroneous listing as adults, and lack of proper care. Yet regardless of their legal status, of whether or not they carry identification papers, and if they fled Syria, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, unaccompanied and refugee children are, above all else, children; children in need of security and dignity, protection, acceptance and support.”.

Unfortunately, as Ms Nanou emphasises, “Out of the more than 5,400 unaccompanied kids currently in Greece, just one in four is housed in facilities fit for their age. Their vast majority live under precarious conditions exposed to too many hazards. The situation is especially bleak for the roughly 2,000 unaccompanied kids living in the overcrowded hotpots of the Aegean islands, nowhere near the care and protection they are entitled to. Naturally,” Ms Nanou acknowledges, “we welcome the recent commitment on behalf of the European Commission and some member states, regarding the relocation of unaccompanied minors from Greece to other European countries.”