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How Greece fumbled the refugee crisis

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A sequence of events beginning with the record number of people who flowed into Greece in June 2015 and culminating in the photograph of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi woke the world to the refugee crisis, reported The Guardian (UK).
The effect of that awakening was to tip the entire humanitarian complex toward Greece, sending resources tumbling out of the developing world into the European Union. It prompted an unprecedented number of international volunteers to descend on the country, the UN refugee agency to declare an emergency inside the European Union, and the EU to deploy its own humanitarian response unit inside Europe for the first time. In the process, it became the most expensive humanitarian response in history, according to several aid experts, when measured by the cost per beneficiary.

Exactly how much money has been spent in Greece by the European Union is much reported but little understood. The online media project Refugees Deeply has calculated that $803m has come into Greece since 2015, which includes all the funds actually allocated or spent, all significant bilateral funding and major private donations.

The biggest pots of money are controlled by the European Commission (EC), the EU’s executive body, which oversees the Asylum Migration Integration Fund (AMIF) and the Internal Security Fund (ISF) which collectively dedicated $541m to fund Greece’s costs related to border control, asylum and refugee protection. However, since it did not complete the extensive strategic planning required, the Greek government did not receive significant amounts of these funds, necessitating emergency assistance from the commission, channelled through other means. Confusion over the true extent of European spending has been exacerbated by inflated statements from the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who has regularly cited figures in excess of €1bn, although this amount apparently refers to all available and theoretical funds, not what has actually been allocated or spent.

One senior aid official estimated that as much as $70 out of every $100 spent had been wasted.
Nevertheless, the $803m total represents the most expensive humanitarian response in history. On the basis that the money was spent on responding to the needs of all 1.03 million people who have entered Greece since 2015, the cost per beneficiary would be $780 per refugee. However, the bulk of these funds was used to address the needs of at least 57,000 people stranded in Greece after the closure of the borders on 9 March 2016, and on this basis the cost per beneficiary is $14,088.

Officials from the EU’s humanitarian operations directorate, Echo, believe the payout per beneficiary was higher than any of their previous operations. One senior aid official estimated that as much as $70 out of every $100 spent had been wasted.

The Swedish Red Cross saw its daily donations leap 55-fold in the week after the image circulated, according to a study led by Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon. At the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a New York-based relief group, response to the photograph of dead refugee child crashed its website and drove a surge of public donations. Slovic says that Kurdi’s death “woke the world for a brief time”. It also made it imperative for international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) to show they were responding to events in the eastern Mediterranean.

For the established groups already working in Greece, the sudden influx of funds was both welcome and destabilising. Metadrasi, a Greek organisation known for training interpreters and caring for unaccompanied minors, had experienced staff poached by bigger new arrivals on the scene that could afford far higher salaries.

The head of Metadrasi, Lora Pappa, believes the tide of money transformed refugees into “commodities” and encouraged short-term responses. “They [international organisations] were looking at how to show a presence in Greece. This led to some wasting the chance to spend constructively.”
Her rueful conclusion is that “sometimes money can do more harm than good”.

Among the cautionary tales to emerge from this period was the Apanemo transit centre on Lesbos. A million-dollar facility built by the IRC on the steep hillside close to the main landing beaches during the busiest months in 2015, it was designed to receive 2,000 refugee arrivals per day. Funded by private donations, British aid money and the charitable Radcliffe Foundation, it was hailed by the IRC as a “much-needed reception centre [that] provides crucial services to refugees”.

Apanemo never ran at anything approaching capacity – partly because the refugees started landing on a different part of the island – and was mothballed in March 2016. The IRC says it has been able to dismantle materials and use them at other facilities, but the site now stands empty, while chaotic conditions elsewhere on the same island have resulted in fatalities among refugees. But the rapid deployment of resources with questionable results was in no way confined to the IRC.

The decision by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to classify the situation in Greece as an emergency turned what had been a backwater posting into a major placement almost overnight. An office with a dozen staff who had previously spent much of their time overseeing contract workers assisting the Greek asylum service expanded rapidly. The UNHCR team in Greece expanded to 600 people across 12 offices. Roughly one-third of the workforce was international staff.

International UNHCR staff earns three times more than their local counterparts. Fotini Rantsiou, a Greek UN staff member who took a sabbatical from the organisation to volunteer, says tensions between local and international staff complicated relations within the agency. She says local staff were sidelined and “treated like secretaries” by the newly arrived international staff.

The decision to take a role in the Greek crisis also put the UNHCR on a collision course with one of the core elements of its mandate: to advocate for the rights of refugees. Operating for the first time on this scale inside the EU, which is also the organisation’s second biggest funder globally, the UNHCR faced a dilemma over criticising its donors. “Instead of advocating for the protection of refugees they remained silent for fear of the political consequences,” says Rantsiou. “Even if they wanted to criticise policy that violates their principles, they could not.”

The international organisations would work with a Greek administration that, at least in terms of its public statements, was among the most refugee-friendly in Europe. However, problems arose because many officials from the ruling Syriza party were inclined to see the well-financed foreign organisations more as colonialists than as humanitarians.

One senior Greek official says that he detected “a colonial mentality” among some aid workers who received hardship pay while working in the relatively comfortable environment of Greece: “It was a good job to work in a country with fine restaurants and comfortable beds and be paid like you were in Somalia.”

The resentment was fuelled by the fact that much of the funding on offer was directed via international aid agencies, not the Greek government. This was ultimately damaging, according to diplomats, Greek officials and aid workers, since the government had the role of coordinator and had final sign-off on projects. “Coordination of the response has been a key obstacle, with the UNHCR failing to work productively with the government and the government failing to make urgent, strategic decisions quickly enough,” said the UK-based charity Oxfam in a statement.

As the autumn of 2015 approached, Greece remained a refugee corridor, with the majority of new arrivals spending less than a week after arriving on the islands before their exit over the northern border along the western Balkans route. As hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants passed through Greece, it became obvious the country had no mechanism to compel new arrivals to apply for asylum.

Greece came under considerable pressure from the EU to set up reception centres on the eastern Aegean islands of Lesbos, Kos, Leros, Chios and Samos, in order to identify and fingerprint all new arrivals. In October, the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, promised the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that the reception centres would be operational within a month.

In late October 2015, regional leaders converged on Brussels for a meeting to discuss the western Balkans route in an atmosphere described by one diplomat present as “scarcely concealed panic”.

It was already clear to the gathered leaders that any future plans to stem migrant flows into Europe would be contingent on Greece being able to process new arrivals, identify those in need of protection, and deport those deemed not to qualify. It was also clear to everyone that Greece was nowhere close to being able to do these things.

“Either you massively help [Greece] now or you’ll face a huge number of migrants entering the EU,” a senior UN official told the European Commission. On the sidelines of the meeting, Frans Timmermans, a vice president of the EC, admitted to the UN refugee agency that the Commission had “no idea” how to deal with the situation.

By the end of the meeting, Greece had been offered emergency funds to accommodate a total of 50,000 refugees, with the UNHCR tasked with finding places for 20,000 of these in hotels or apartments, and the remainder to be housed in camps under Greek authority.

By mid-November it was already clear that diplomatic agreements were not changing the situation on the ground. An EC team that conducted spot checks in Evros in northern Greece and on the islands of Chios and Samos reported that “nothing seems to be prepared or planned … The whole system seems to be organised to register migrants and let them leave.”

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