The year 2015 was historic. Approximately one million people displaced from their homes took to the waters and made their way to Europe. According to UNHCR, some 90 per cent of these people who crossed the sea came from refugee-producing countries, fleeing war, persecution and poverty.
As European states scrambled to respond, they found themselves on the back foot. The refugees, arriving in such great numbers, exposed the fragility of European borders and the EU’s common asylum policy. The European political project has been threatened with member states re-instating national borders, and the EU reassessing the Schengen Agreement. At the same time, particularly in Greece, citizen volunteers have filled the gap of weak state and NGO service provision.
The year 2016 opens with a different set of challenges. The winter weather has not stopped refugees from coming. Meanwhile, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, warned that: ‘We have no more than two months to get things under control,’ in order to save the Schengen Agreement, which allows people to travel freely between the 28 participating European countries.
In practice, this means ‘securing’ or sealing Europe’s external borders, notably the border of Greece, where 800,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea in 2015. Frontex, the European body responsible for promoting and developing European border management, has already increased its presence in Greece. Frontex told the New Internationalist that: ‘At the moment we have 395 personnel in Greece, including 178 in Lesvos alone in the framework of Poseidon Rapid Intervention operation which started at the end of December.’
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In addition, the European Commission has put forward proposals to set up a European Border and Coast Guard staffed with Frontex personnel, and seeks to increase their powers. Proposals include giving Frontex legal autonomy; widening its mandate to organize ‘joint return operations’; and authorizing Frontex teams to use force, including service weapons, ammunition and equipment, with the consent of the home Member State and the host Member State.
The proposals would also give this European Border and Coast Guard the power to operate in a country – even against the wishes of the government – when they decide it is experiencing disproportionate migratory pressure and is not protecting its border effectively. Hotspots, such as Lesvos in Greece, where almost half a million refugees arrived in 2015, would fall into this category.
Greece, struggling to cope with the refugee crisis and faced with this threat to its sovereignty, has been making moves in recent months to manage the situation. In Lesvos, this includes outsourcing the management of Moria registration centre to the Danish Refugee Council, restricting access to certain sites, such as parts of Moria, and registering all NGOs and volunteers operating on the island.
The authorities have become more hostile to volunteers. So far this year, 12 international volunteers have been arrested in Lesvos: seven were arrested on suspicion of stealing used lifejackets from a municipality rubbish dump. A further five – two Danish citizens and three Spanish lifeguards – were arrested and accused of attempted people smuggling and possession of arms (knives), after they responded to distress calls of a refugee boat.
‘The Spanish lifeguards were saving lives. And we know that without them the number of deaths would have doubled or even tripled,’ says Efi Latsoudi from Pikpa. This self-organized group in Lesvos has supported the accused, demanded an end to the criminalization of people who conduct rescue operations on the beaches, and paid for the legal defence of the Spanish lifeguards. ‘They were treated like criminals – they spent 60 hours in a police cell that wasn’t even fit for animals – they couldn’t sleep, eat or go to the toilet. They came to Greece to save lives, to save children.
‘It was obvious in recent days that there has been an attack on solidarity groups. They aren’t just criminalizing them, they are also saying these people are dangerous to the security of the state.
‘I think they have become annoyed by all these rescue operations. They want to take control of the beaches and for Frontex to operate without people seeing what they are doing.’
The trend is reflected elsewhere in Greece. Arrests of volunteers and activists have also taken place on the island of Chios, where one volunteer was arrested on suspicion of spying after photographing a Frontex boat. Meanwhile, the police in Athens are starting to crack down on solidarity actions by checking people’s papers and stopping operations.