As Greece’s economy teeters on the brink of collapse, the debt-ridden European country has another crisis on its hands. According to a new UNHCR report released Wednesday, Greece has surpassed Italy as the No. 1 European recipient of migrants and maritime refugees.
During the first six months of 2015, 68,000 people arrived in Greece. That’s 500 more than arrived in Italy during the same time period, and 19,500 more than arrived in Greece during all of 2014.
And despite the massive inflow to Greece, the country’s reception capacities are lacking. Considering Greece defaulted on its debt Wednesday, it’s no surprise Athens has not prioritized improving conditions for the migrants and refugees arriving on its shores, 57 percent of whom came from Syria. Of those Syrians, close to 20 percent did not have regular access to a toilet, 30 percent didn’t have mattresses, more than half had no access to showers or blankets, and 70 percent did not regularly receive hygiene items.
Straining under increasing arrivals as far back as 2012, Greece built a security fence on its Turkish border. But the next year, those arriving by way of sea tripled to 11,400, and by 2014, nearly quadrupled again to 43,500.
In June alone, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of refugees arriving in the Western Balkans by way of Greece. Just a few weeks ago, around 200 people were entering the Balkans each day. In recent weeks, that has increased to more than 1,000.
According to the UNHCR, the lack of resources to take in migrants who traveled across the Mediterranean Sea is just a symptom of Europe’s overall lack of a coordinated response to the growing crisis — one that in comparison to the number of refugees received in developing countries around the world is actually relatively small. Because the vast majority of those arriving in Europe by sea are fleeing war, conflict, or persecution, the United Nations says EU states have an obligation to offer them protection.
Many others are fleeing deteriorating refugee camps in developing countries, which carry 86 percent of the world’s refugee burden living under the UNHCR mandate. In Lebanon, for example, 232 of every 1,000 inhabitants are refugees, many of whom have fled the Syrian war.
And despite the massive increases in arrivals in Europe, UNHCR warns that European “reception capacity and conditions remain seriously inadequate.”
Macedonia and Serbia, for example, had 19,000 arrivals in the first weeks of June but offered fewer than 3,000 places of reception. According to the U.N., this qualifies as an emergency situation and could prompt refugees and migrants to move again, straining resources elsewhere.
The migration crisis seized international attention earlier this year when multiple boats, jammed to the brim with migrants and refugees, sank at sea. This caused the number of deaths at sea to hit record levels in April, when 800 people died in a single shipwreck — the largest refugee sinking in history.
But the number of deaths at sea also dramatically decreased in May and June, due in large part to the April decision by European leaders to triple funding for operations in the Mediterranean. Other private programs also ran their own rescue operations, and according to the UNHCR, “the results were immediate.”
While the international community has been quick to label the ongoing movements a migration crisis, the UNHCR insists that it is much more a refugee crisis than a migration one.
In 2015 so far, 8 percent of all those who arrived in Italy were unaccompanied and separated children, including many from Eritrea and Somalia. Greece is particularly lacking in its ability to provide for minors, who are often forced quickly from official reception facilities due to lack of space.
Despite the huge number of migrants and refugees who land in Italy and Greece, their final destination is rarely one of those two countries. Sweden and Germany, among other European nations, are often the final destinations, due in large part to the support they offer to asylum-seekers and the fact many migrants and refugees already have family members there.
This imbalance in arrival locations and final destinations, with the burden falling largely on Italy, Greece, Sweden, and Germany, is not considered sustainable by the UNHCR.
And as those countries face an increasing number of arrivals each day, the xenophobia erupting there threatens the safety and security of those seeking asylum in Europe.
At the end of 2014, 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced around the world, and the great majority of them never even attempted to reach Europe. And the solution, according to the UNHCR, is not to build fences or borders.
“The question facing the international community is not whether to engage with this crisis,” the report reads, “but how best to address it, and how humanely.”
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