The EU Is Overwhelmed by Refugees Who Survive — and Those Who Don’t
The number of refugees arriving in Europe isn't slowing down. And now Greece is running out of room to bury those who die en route.
The European Union is already overwhelmed by the some 700,000 migrants and refugees who have crossed the Mediterranean this year and arrived on the shores of Italy and Greece. Now it has more than four times that many to worry about: The European Commission announced Thursday it predicts at least 3 million more people will brave the dangerous journey to Europe by the end of 2016.
In October alone, 218,000 arrived by way of the Mediterranean — rivaling the number that arrived during all of 2014. Of those who survived the trek last month, all but 8,000 landed in Greece.
For the 700,000 who were lucky enough to survive the trip in wooden boats and rubber dinghies this year, another 3,440 were not — at least that many died or went missing en route.
The tragedies aren’t limited to the Mediterranean.
An increasing number of refugees and asylum-seekers have crossed from Turkey to Greece on the narrow but dangerous Aegean Sea. Last month, more than 80 died on that journey, causing a different complication for the Greek islands most overwhelmed by refugee arrivals: Lesbos, home to fewer than 100,000 Greeks, is running out of room to bury the dead.
Local authorities and officials from the island’s religious community announced this week that the island’s cemetery is full. The local morgue is packed to the brim as well, and dozens of bodies that washed up on the island’s shores are now being kept in a refrigerator.
According to a local bishop, it could take two to three years to build another cemetery. Lesbos Mayor Spyros Galinos said he planned to address the shortage of burial space with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who visited the island Thursday. “We have a problem with the morgue and the cemetery, but it is in the process of being resolved,” he said.
But without help from the EU, Greece may not be able to accomplish much on its own.
On Wednesday, Tsipras said he was “ashamed” European leaders had failed to come to any kind of concrete solution for the crisis, which is worsening due to lack of funding and the rapid approach of winter weather, which will bring rougher seas and a need for improved conditions at poorly insulated refugee camps.
But by Thursday, a visit to a migration center on Lesbos had Tsipras singing another tune. “I think we are battling something which is beyond our abilities, and everyone should understand that,” he said.
At one overcrowded encampment, a frustrated refugee called out to Tspiras that his children were hungry and sick. The Greek leader reportedly touched his shoulder and said, “We will do our best.”
The U.N. refugee agency predicts at least 5,000 people will arrive in Greece from Turkey between now and February of next year. On Thursday, it appealed to donors for an additional $96 million for support in Greece and the Balkans, warning that without more funds, refugees who survive the cross-ocean trip will die from the cold weather once they arrive. Although some buses and trains have been made available for refugees, the agency warned that in a number of places in the Balkans, there are long stretches of road where refugees will be forced to walk on foot.
Meanwhile, Greek officials want to prevent migrants and refugees from making the trek to begin with. The civil war in Syria may continue to drag on, but Tspiras said a harder line on smuggling operations that organize the perilous journeys needs to be prioritized. This fall, the EU sought approval from the U.N. Security Council to use force against smugglers who take tens of thousands of dollars from refugees to send them from North Africa and Turkey to the EU. The Security Council approved the effort in October, but it’s still too early to tell how effective the plan, named Operation Sophia for a child born aboard one of the smugglers’ ships, will be.
In October, François Crépeau, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said the authorization was a mistake and that efforts should instead be redirected toward resettling refugees in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.
But for the authorities overwhelmed in Greece, meeting after meeting to discuss resettlement plans isn’t a quick enough solution to the daily arrivals.
“We have to discourage these people from embarking on these journeys of death,” Tsipras said this week.
Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images