Gunmen, some of whom detonated suicide vests, left 130 people dead in Paris last Friday. French officials said two of the suicide bombers had traveled through Greece in October. That has fueled concerns that some of the attackers may have reached Europe by hiding among the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing there to escape war and extreme poverty.
While European nations have rushed to strengthen border checks and intelligence cooperation since the Paris attacks, far-right politicians have seized the moment to call for the borders to be closed to refugees and other migrants. This week, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia stopped admitting anyone not coming from the most war-torn countries, such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, which has created a bottleneck on Greece’s northern border.
Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH Vice-President, spoke to HuffPost Greece about how the Paris attacks may impact Greece’s refugee crisis and how the Greek government has handled the situation thus far.
Huffington Post: Let’s begin with the Greek state’s absence from the crisis.
Dimitris Christopoulos: If, God forbid, the earthquake that shook the island of Lefkada a few days ago didn’t result in two people dead but 20, and 1,000 houses had collapsed and 5,000 people were left homeless, what would the Greek state have done? Would it have remained inert? Of course not.
So, why doesn’t it do something about the refugees? Because, in the final analysis, [the state] isn’t sure it wants to do something, and what’s more, it has also convinced itself that it cannot either.
HP: Why wouldn’t the state want to find a solution?
DC: I think this goes deeper than problems caused by the financial crisis. Large parts of the Greek government — both the central and local governments — believe that because these people came here just in order to leave, our sole obligation toward them is only this: to prevent them from drowning upon their arrival and to facilitate their departure. If we set up hospitality structures, some are afraid that they will become a "pull factor," or encourage people to stay. This belief is shared by both the right wing and the left wing.
HP: What could the Greek state actually do? The situation is beyond control.
DC: I do not mean to deny or downplay this fact. On the contrary, the situation has all the characteristics of an emergency. The state should, first of all, realize and recognize this. A state of emergency should be declared in some islands, especially Lesbos. Things cannot go along with the ordinary procedures and schedules. The army should also help deal with the refugee crisis — not only to impose order, but to do what a dismantled state cannot.
Why doesn’t the army show up? Simply because both the political and the military leadership know that if they get involved with the refugee issue, they will have to continue to deal with it for years to come. But what can we do? This is how the army works in established democracies during times of peace.
HP: Wouldn’t that project a negative image?
DC: In times of peace, the army is not there to wage war. There are many positive things about bringing in the army during a state of emergency.
Firstly, the state could prove that, even with all the difficulties it faces, it can assume responsibility. Secondly, winter is coming, and we would solve the immediate problem of ensuring these people’s survival. Thirdly, we would take the burden off the shoulders of all the volunteers. We have replaced the state with volunteers, and I honestly wonder how much longer they can last. Last but not least, as the refugee crisis escalates, we will at least have somewhere to accommodate people.
Greece should also open the border along the Evros river with Turkey. The border fence can stay, but we should open border stations for people to cross. This would reduce the dangers that people face when sailing across the Aegean Sea, because the land crossing is easier and safer than the sea passage. There should be a possibility of safe passage into Greece. It would also put pressure on Turkey to do its job, namely, to check who is in need of protection.
Let’s be honest: By the term "refugee crisis," we mean the islands of the East Aegean and some of the other islands. The rest of Greece hasn’t realized yet what this means. Why should Lesbos face the problem all on its own?
HP: Do you think Europe’s moves to tighten border controls after the Paris attacks will make the problem worse?
DC: The problem will increase with the closing of the borders, but not only because of that. It will also get worse because of the war in Syria. With the military intervention, air raids and the possibility of a ground invasion in the future, people cannot stay there. A combination of extremely negative circumstances suggests the refugee crisis will only escalate.
HP: Who benefits from this rhetoric equating refugees with terrorists?
DC: It benefits the logic that, in the name of the war against terrorism, we should shut the borders to refugees and seal off Europe in general. Will this solve the problem? In the mid-term, perhaps it will for some countries with land borders. But it will increase the difficulties for Greece. In the long term, however, it will only make the problem worse and make it more challenging to deal with.
HP: Do you predict a Europe of closed borders?
DC: I see more restrictive policies possibly prevailing over the openness that Germany attempted this summer. It would be a bad development for Greece if we turn from a transit country into a holding country, bringing all the discussion about detention centers to the fore again.
For Europe in general, if such policies prevail, it will be a vindication of the extreme-right agenda and everything that entails. In less than a hundred years, there could be another war within Europe if the extreme right becomes the legitimate political expression of a large part of the European population. Europe cannot take that. Europe must realize that if it goes down that road, it will undermine its own existence as a political structure.
Therefore, in the long term, by helping refugees we are basically helping ourselves. I think this is something that we should all realize.
This story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece. It was translated into English and edited for a global audience.