Lost in Migration

How Greece Is Becoming Europe's Nauru

Containers housing migrants on the Greek island of Chios, February 2016. Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

The days go by slowly on Chios, this island in the northeast Aegean Sea. A breeze sweeps the scent of jasmine and orange blossom across the landscape. Turkey's coast is visible just five miles away.

In the last year and a half, life has changed significantly here. Last fall, Chios—along with the Greek islands of Kos, Leros, Lesbos, and Samos—found itself in the path of an international humanitarian crisis as it became a transit point for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers bound for the European Union. Since the spring, the tide has mostly subsided thanks to a deal between the EU and Turkey. Ankara agreed to step up efforts to keep refugees from leaving on rubber boats to Greece and to accept failed asylum seekers returned from the Greek islands. In return, Turkey will get up to six billion euros to improve its refugee reception system. Turkey also stands to gain visa-free travel to the EU for its 80 million citizens and a faster track to long-stalled EU accession.

Although EU leaders tout the deal as a success—around 18,000 refugees have arrived in Greece since it took effect March 20, compared with more than 857,000 all last year—Greek islanders disagree. Chios Mayor Manolis Vournous told me that the deal has made the island, home to 50,000 Chians, an open detention center for 4,400 refugees. “It's an extraordinary policy, decided very quickly at the European level, but implemented locally,” Vournous said. “But there is a lack of information and coordination at both the EU and Greek government levels. This naturally brings the local society not to trust anymore those who decide the issues.”

Adding to the pressure was the European Parliament's vote last week to suspend Turkey's EU membership talks over government repression since the failed July 15 coup. Although the vote was nonbonding, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed against the parliament immediately afterward: "You did not keep your word," he said of the refugee deal. He threatened to open the border gates

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