An Afghan mother covers herself and her children with a blanket while trying to reach the Greek-Macedonian border, following reports that Macedonia has closed its borders with Greece to Afghan migrants, near the village of Idomeni, Greece, February 21, 2016.
Alexandros Avramidis / Reuters

On the Greek island of Lesbos, everything awful and everything wonderful about humanity comes together. As rafts full of refugees wash ashore, pure terror from the death-defying journey turns first into euphoria at having made it this far and then into stress about the next steps in what is still a long journey ahead.

Even if what is happening on this island reveals only a tiny sliver of the suffering migrants face, it is enough to show that Europe is failing them—and itself. By closing ranks to protect European populations, the region’s politicians are breaking with long-held values and failing to alleviate the crisis. They must find a more European response to the wave of migrants, or this crisis could threaten the entire European project.


Skala Sikamineas, a small fishing village in the northern part of the island, is a prime destination for incoming refugees. The approximately seven-mile journey from Turkey is usually arranged by Turkish smuggling rings. The journey typically begins in the morning, since it is widely known that the Turkish coast guard does not begin patrolling until 11am. This raises the specter of coordination between the smugglers and the authorities. New support from NATO forces in the Aegean to help the Turkish authorities crack down on smuggling rings may not be as effective as hoped.

Graves of unidentified refugees and migrants who drowned at sea during an attempt to cross a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast are seen at a cemetery near the village Kato Tritos on the Greek island of Lesbos, February 4, 2016.
Graves of unidentified refugees and migrants who drowned at sea during an attempt to cross a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast are seen at a cemetery near the village Kato Tritos on the Greek island of Lesbos, February 4, 2016.
Giorgos Moutafis / Reuters
The journey across the Aegean may be short, but it is harrowing. Usually, Turkish smugglers jump off their rafts soon after the set out, appointing a refugee to drive the boat across the Aegean instead. As soon as the rafts cross into Greek territory, a boat from SeaWatch will rush out to meet it and try to corral the rafts toward the beachhead that is most suitable for landing. As the rafts approach the shore, volunteer lifeguards and rescue teams jump into the water, try to cut the rafts’ motors, and slowly bring them to land. This is, of course, if everything goes right. If something goes wrong en route from Turkey, teams of volunteers with speedboats and one Jet Ski try help the Greek coast guard rescue drowning people. Last year, over 3,700 refugees died trying to reach Europe. When I visited, the seas were calm, but the boats were overloaded, the refugees did not know how to swim, a good portion of the life jackets were counterfeit and did not float, and hypothermia was a common occurrence. My first day there, three people died trying to reach Lesbos; around 20 died the following day and roughly another 30 two days after that.

Most of the refugees who do make it to Lesbos hail from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, although the beaches there are littered with Iranian passports as well. Only the former three nationalities are eligible to claim asylum in the EU, so many Iranians and other refugees dump their papers as soon as they arrive so they can say that they are from one of the eligible countries and move on to the next leg of their journey.

In January, the coldest month of the year, over 50,000 refugees risked their lives on the raft trip to Lesbos. Around 850,000 refugees made the journey or one like it in 2015. The great irony is that every single one of these people could have easily afforded a flight to Germany. Most of the refugees pay at least 1,000 euros for a seat on a raft and extra for the life jacket. The problem is that airline passengers must prove that they can enter the destination country before boarding a plane, making it impossible to claim asylum in an airport. As awful as the Turkish smuggling rings may be, they are serving a need, particularly since most overland routes into Europe have been blocked off with walls and fences.


As the refugee crisis has worn on, European leaders have become even less welcoming of newcomers. In early January, Sweden closed its border with Denmark, which had been one of the most open in the world, seeing roughly 17,000 Danish and Swedish residents commute daily. In response, Denmark reimposed border checks along its border with Germany. More recently, there have been reports that the EU has plans to aid Macedonia—a non-EU country—in closing its border with Greece.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity has fallen significantly since she announced last summer that refugees were welcome to stay in Germany regardless of which country had been their entry point into Europe. Around 40 percent of Germans now think she should resign over her refugee policy. The anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has seen its support jump from three percent to 11 percent in a matter of months.

Merkel is facing elections next year and needs the flow of refugees to Germany to slow to stanch the bleeding of her support. Germany has already temporarily closed some of its borders but would like to avoid extending the closures or making them permanent. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are looking to seal off Greece’s northern borders into Macedonia and Bulgaria by aiding with fence construction and offering police support.

Sealing off Greece’s northern borders may slow the flow of asylum seekers from Greece into Europe, but it will not slow the flow of refugees into Greece. Instead, Greece will become a holding pen for refugees hoping to claim asylum in Europe. Seemingly in preparation for that, Europe has demanded that Greece set up three more hot spots on islands to register and host asylum seekers. One hot spot has been in operation on Lesbos since late last year, and a new hot spot in Leros has just opened. The EU is reportedly also demanding that Athens establish a large refugee camp near the capital to hold up to 400,000 people. At full capacity, such a refugee camp would be Greece’s second largest city.

A long exposure photo shows thousands of lifejackets left by migrants and refugees, piled up at a garbage dump site on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 9, 2015.
A long exposure photo shows thousands of lifejackets left by migrants and refugees, piled up at a garbage dump site on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 9, 2015.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

The domestic pressures facing European politicians are immense. But the correct reaction is not to force Greece, a country already bowing under the strain of its third bailout program, to bear the brunt of the crisis.

If European values dictate that Europe should provide a safe haven for people who are unsafe in their own countries, it makes no sense to force these people to defy death in pursuing asylum. Instead, Europe must establish safe passage for asylum seekers. Rather than setting up registration camps in Greece, officials should set them up in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where the vast majority of refugees actually are. For those seeking asylum in Europe, safe transport to the continent via ferries or across land borders should be provided by the EU so that asylum seekers are not reliant on smugglers. Merkel alluded to this on her website this week, saying, “We need to be prepared, if we want to stop illegal migration or human trafficking, to take on legal allotments of refugees and to take up our end of the bargain… Europe can’t completely keep out of this."

The flow of refugees out of the Middle East could also be reduced if Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey offered migrants work permits. Turkey recently extended work permits to Syrians, which is a step in the right direction. Lebanon and Jordan should be pushed to follow suit. It makes sense to formalize the economic activity generated by refugees and include it in the official sector. And this isn’t low-level economic activity; the fourth largest city in Jordan, for example, is the Za’atari Refugee Camp.

Countries in Europe must also share the burden of absorbing refugees. So far, the vast majority of asylum seekers have headed to Germany and Sweden, with the former receiving over a million refugees in 2015. According to the European Commission’s autumn 2015 forecasts, refugees will increase the EU’s population by 0.4 percent by the end of 2017. That growth could be easily managed if it were spread out among EU member states, but it is unmanageable when concentrated in a few countries.

Unfortunately, the EU does not have a great record when it comes to relocating refugees. According to a scheme arranged in 2015, 160,000 refugees were meant to be redistributed from Greece and Italy throughout the rest of the EU. As of last month, only 272 had been relocated. Some countries (Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary) have refused to take any refugees, and others (France and the Netherlands) are only willing to take fewer than had originally been agreed upon under the relocation scheme.


Never before in the EU’s short history has solidarity been in such short supply—and never has it been so badly needed. If European leaders cannot pull together to defend the EU’s external borders, internal borders will no doubt be reimposed. In fact, this has already started to happen; Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, and non-EU member Norway have all temporarily reintroduced border checks.

This will result in immediate economic costs; according to the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the reintroduction of border controls will strip 4.7 billion euros from the EU's economic output over the next ten years. This is during a time of low expected EU growth. The dissolution of Schengen also threatens one of the central tenets of the European project—the free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor. These will not be the only European ideals shattered if policymakers cannot come up with a different approach to the refugee crisis. The idea of unity will crumble if EU leaders continue to allow the region to be divided by walls and barbed wire once again. Surely memory extends far enough back to recognize how dangerous such a situation could be.

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