For a story of waste and suffering, it’s notable that some of the worst decisions in response to the refugee crisis in Greece were born of good intentions. An archipelago of some 50 small refugee camps was scattered over Greece in preference to concentrating asylum seekers in larger ghettos. As an idea it had merits. In practice it was disastrous.
Authorities still struggle to say how many camps there are. The Ministry of Migration Policy lists 39 but the UN says there may be more than 50. Many of these sites, which are in various states of closure, were clearly unfit for human habitation in the first place.
The choice to build so many of them multiplied infrastructure costs for things like sewage systems built on private property or remote sites that will serve no public purpose in the future. Meanwhile, the Public Power Corporation is building substations at sites that will likely face closure.
The European Commission and its humanitarian operations agency ECHO are expected to cease support for all but 10 of Greece’s mainland camps in the near future. As the main donor, this will be decisive.
There is similar confusion over how many asylum seekers remain in Greece from the 1.03 million who entered in 2015-16. Again the ministry and the UN disagree, with the former saying 62,000 and the latter nearer 50,000. European officials say privately that both numbers are overestimates.
This shroud of confusion has contributed to a mess that will be remembered as the most expensive humanitarian response in history. Some $803 million flowed into Greece from the beginning of 2015, according to an investigation by Refugees Deeply, an independent reporting platform. The bulk of these funds were meant to be spent on services for the 57,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece when the borders shut one year ago. That translates to a rough cost per beneficiary of $14,000.
Nobody believes this has been money well spent. One senior aid official admitted that as many as $70 out of every $100 spent had been wasted. As anyone who followed the response in Haiti or Kosovo would affirm, the aid industry is inherently wasteful but this was excessive.
The scale of this became obvious from November onward when refugees were pictured in tents in the snow and it sparked a blame game. None of the actors emerge with much credit. The UN refugee agency played mute witness to failures in refugee protection for fear of offending its second largest donor, the European Union.
The European Commission was content to make grandiose statements that exaggerated the funding it had committed, while doing nothing to correct the mistakes it witnessed on the ground. It also made promises on asylum service assistance that were not kept. The bigger the mess in Greece, the greater the deterrent and the stronger the message to future asylum seekers not to come this way.
The most shrill voice in denying responsibility came from the Ministry of Migration Policy. Blame was deflected onto selfish hoteliers, troublemaking opposition politicians and local authorities. Most convincingly it was placed on foreign aid agencies, who Greeks were told were the ones who received all the funds. Unaccountable NGOs consuming astronomical sums resonated with many Greeks whose memories extend to past episodes in the Balkans.
The truth is that the Migration Ministry in its role as coordinator had final say over almost all major projects. The Commission channeled money through ECHO to international aid agencies but they still required government agreement on plans.
In so many instances this was the bottleneck. Foreign and Greek NGOs alike have found it impossible to get timely or sensible answers on urgent issues.
The functional Migration Ministry foreseen under Law 4375/2016, passed in April last year, has remained a paper pretense. The bureaucracy needed to tap larger programmatic European funds is only now being built.
For the crucial months building up to winter last year there was no government plan laying out what to do with the archipelago of sites it had insisted upon. The failure until last month to appoint competent and sufficient camp directors compounded the mismanagement. The conditions at Moria on Lesvos are an illustration of what the legal confusion and broken chain of command looks like in practice.
Greece must now make the best of its miserable assignment to be a buffer for an increasingly xenophobic EU. Any calculation that the harsh conditions allowed to prevail would defend the country against the return of asylum seekers from other member-states was proven wrong. The relationship between the government and its international partners has been soured by mistrust. And somehow a government that was, on paper at least, the most refugee friendly in Europe has presided over this. None of this was inevitable.
* Daniel Howden is a senior editor at Refugees Deeply, formerly with the Economist and the Guardian.