Refugee advocates are criticizing the Greek government over its proposal to set up a floating barrier to prevent migrants and refugees from arriving at its islands, many of which have overcrowded camps in deteriorating conditions.
The Greek government wants to construct a 2.7-kilometre net-like floating barrier that would be situated in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Lesbos. According to a government document requesting proposals from vendors, the barrier would rise 50 centimetres above sea level and would be lit at night. The document says the barrier is “aimed at containing the increasing flow of migrants.”
For years, Greece has been the entry point for refugees trying to reach Europe. The country signed a controversial deal with Turkey in 2016 that was aimed at eliminating the flow of refugees from Turkey to Greece. But instead it has resulted in thousands of migrants and refugees being trapped on a few of Greece’s islands until their asylum claims are processed. Meanwhile, refugees continue to attempt the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
Phil Triadafilopoulos, an associate professor at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on immigration policy, said the proposal is a symptom of the much larger problem of maritime countries, such as Greece, bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis.
“There’s been a failure of European Union partner states to share the burden, and so people are getting stuck in Greece. … This has been on going now for the better part of a decade and northern European countries seem quite content to let this go on without any real effort to assist their southern partners generally and Greece in particular," he said.
Refugee advocates say that rather than trying to create another way to prevent people from reaching its shores, Greece should work to faster approve asylum claims and European Union member states should help the country with resettlement efforts.
Evelien van Roemburg, Oxfam International’s Europe Migration campaign manager, said it is another proposal that will make life for people trying to cross Turkey to Greece “more miserable and dangerous and deadly.”
“We’re very worried the Greek government is now using these kinds of methods, which you see all over the world, countries are building higher fences and walls. It doesn’t stop people, it just makes the journey more difficult," she said.
Ms. van Roemburg said instead of a floating wall, the Greek government should invest in the safety of refugees living in camps, expedite the asylum process and increase the accommodation capacity on mainland Greece, where there is better access to services such as health care and schooling.
“Most of all, we think that the European government needs to share the responsibility with Greece for hosting these people. It shouldn’t only fall on the shoulders of the Greeks,” she said.
Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees based in Greece, said the UN body does not know the details about the government’s plan. However, it is urging Greece to move thousands of people living in dangerous and overcrowded camps to mainland Greece. According to UN figures, there are 36,000 people – mostly from Afghanistan and Syria – in five reception centres that have the combined capacity of 5,400.
Mr. Cheshirkov said the situation on the islands has “deteriorated sharply” with the arrival of more people. It is a fraction compared with the thousands that arrived daily in 2015, he said, but last year 59,726 people arrived by sea.
The net is intended to be set up off the Lesbos coast. That island is where Moria refugee camp, one of the most crowded camps, is located.
Ms. van Roemburg, who visited Moria in November, said an area surrounding the camp known as the Olive Grove has grown enormously, with thousands living in tents, including unaccompanied children.
“It’s a disgrace that this is happening in Europe. It doesn’t have to be, we can manage this if we want to,” she said.
Professor Triadafilopoulos said that while the plan is a “disappointment,” it is meant to signal to Greeks that the government is taking steps to be tougher on migration.
He also said he believes that the prospect of having the netting work is “preposterous” and compared it with floating devices meant to respond to oil spills.
“Even if it did work, it has the effect of reducing human beings to something like a transportation disaster or an oil slick, so it’s really unappealing on moral grounds. It’s probably impractical although I’m not an engineer, but it’s politically understandable,” he said.
With a report from Reuters
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