Greece managed refugee crisis with dignity, says migration minister


Greece managed the refugee crisis with dignity and continues the efforts to improve the living conditions of refugees and facilitate their integration, Greek Migration Policy Minister Yannis Mouzalas told Xinhua in a recent interview in Athens.

Two years after the start of the worst refugee crisis Europe faced in decades, the Greek official looked back to the Herculean task the debt-laden country achieved and the mistakes done, voicing determination to deal with the issues arising more effectively in the future.

Greece was at the frontline of the crisis. More than one million people crossed the Aegean Sea and continued their journey to central Europe from early 2015 until the closure of the Balkan corridor in the winter of 2016. The images of people sleeping in the open with inadequate water and food in the first months shocked the world. Athens and other European capitals admitted that they were caught unprepared.

Two years later, about 60,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece are hosted in camps and apartments in improved living conditions, while the flows from Turkey have been dramatically reduced following the March 18, 2016 EU-Turkey agreement. Before the agreement, some 15,000-17,000 people were landing on Greece's shores on a daily basis. Today the number has dropped to 60-80 per day.

The situation remains difficult, but manageable, Mouzalas said, noting that with 60,000 people trapped in Greece, the wager was big for a country with no previous experience in hosting so many refugees.

“I think we did well. I clarify that by saying we did well, I mean we managed a very difficult issue with dignity, but that does not mean we did not make mistakes, that everybody is happy now, that there are pergolas with flowers all around,” Mouzalas told Xinhua.

“Pain is all around. The migrant issue in its core includes pain and tears. The refugee issue includes even more. We managed a crisis. I think we did fine,” he said.

“Criticism regarding migration is the easy way. I said at the beginning of the crisis when a child drowned at Turkey's shores that it is indeed easy loving the dead refugee. The tough thing is to show love to the refugee and migrant who are alive,” the Greek official added.

“As a nation we overcame this difficulty. I know several nations who did not manage to do so. Therefore, we pay no attention to easy criticism and malicious critics. We proved them wrong,” he stressed, noting that Greece saved thousands of refugees who attempted to cross the Aegean Sea on boats provided by smuggling networks.
Greece made mistakes, but avoided the worst by beating xenophobia and racism, and embracing refugees, demonstrating solidarity, Mouzalas underlined.

“I have repeated many times that Europe delayed and this is easy for anybody to say. We also delayed. You know, two years later you are thinking how did we not see the crisis coming with wars in Syria, Iraq etc.? Now we know. Back then we didn't. We should have. Neither Greece nor Europe saw it. We were caught unprepared. Europe delayed in making decisions and the decision concerning the relocation program took time to be implemented,” Mouzalas noted.

Under the agreement EU members reached in autumn 2015, by September 2017 thousands of refugees should have relocated from Greece and Italy to other European countries. The pace is slow and the target will most likely not be met. So far about 12,500 people have relocated, the Greek official said.

Greece focuses on efforts to offer a better future to the refugees, he stressed.

“We will continue trying. The initial difficulty is that we do not know how many people will eventually stay in Greece. The second difficulty is that these people who will eventually stay in Greece did not start their journey to end up in Greece and they are forced to stay. This makes their integration more difficult,” he explained.

Greek authorities focused on integration from the start, Mouzalas underlined. As they were still struggling to find shelter for the refugees, in parallel they launched inoculation programs for the children before sending them to public schools and organized language lessons for the adults.

“Integration, you know, is something that concerns Greece, Europe and these people. Integration is dignity and security. It is dignity for the migrants and refugees. It is safety for them and in parallel security for Greece and Europe in the sense that this way one can tackle what they call radicalization in Europe and the rise of terrorism, although so far terrorism is not linked to migration,” he told Xinhua.

“Furthermore, when you recognize their rights with dignity, this reflects your dignity. So we will insist in this point,” he said.

Asked whether he sees the future with optimism or pessimism, Mouzalas noted that given that 90 percent of flows today concern migrants, Europe will face the challenge for years to come, therefore should have an effective policy framework in place. He highlighted a major gap in this framework so far.

“One cannot take measures for migrants or start thinking about human rights only from the moment they will step foot in Europe. Clearly from the moment they will step foot in Europe they should be acknowledged their rights under the international law. But before this?” he asked.

“How can one allow a smuggler taking a family which has sold everything in Afghanistan and leading them, beating them, chasing them, depending on the money they have given, bringing them to Turkey and then putting their lives at risk in the Aegean Sea and start considering their rights the moment they will reach Greece?”