Published on People Move

Refugee stories from Idomeni and Europe’s baffled response

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A newborn baby receives its first shower with cold bottled water, outside the tent where it was delivered, in the make-shift tent city of Idomeni, Greece. At the same time, two patients diagnosed with Hepatitis A, one of them a 9-year old Syrian girl, are removed from the camp in order to be hospitalized. Meanwhile, three people drown in attempt to cross the flooded river and continue to the Western-Balkan migration route.

Since Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia sealed off Greece’s northern borders into Macedonia and Bulgaria by aiding with fence construction, 14,000 people have gathered in Idomeni, the border-crossing point. More than a 1,000 lack shelter and sleep in the open, despite the heavy rain of the past week. The Greek military has constructed a nearby camp, with a capacity to hold 12,500, and leaflets reading “Greece will offer you accommodation, food and health care” in Arabic Pashto and Farsi are circulated.  Nonetheless these migrants are unwilling to relocate. To them going to the camp means abandoning their dream to continue their journey to Europe. Therefore, they remain at the border, waiting for an opportunity to attempt a crossing.

Within the first three months of 2016, 153,158 have entered the EU by the Aegean Sea, while another 448 drowned in the Mediterranean. These figures are significantly higher compared to last year. In January, 73,146 people crossed from Turkey to Greece, as opposed to 5,500 that arrived during the same month in 2015. But who are these people? According to the latest UNHCR data, almost half of the migrants who arrived in Greece since January 2016 come from Syria (46%), 25% are Afghans and 16% come from Iraq. This, in turn, means that 9 out of ten migrants have a legitimate claim to asylum seeker status. 67 percent of the Afghans and 70 percent of the Syrians are women and children; while 3 percent of the Afghan women and 8 percent of the Syrians are either pregnant or lactating.

Human smugglers, who run a $3.6-$6.6 billion dollar business, are exploiting this opportunity. They already advertise their new products in Idomeni: a fake European ID costs €8,000, a false visa for EU entry €4,500, a sea crossing to Italy costs €2,500, while for €1,000 the migrants are promised to be smuggled through the Macedonian forest.

Contrary to media portrayals, this is not “an influx of people unlike anything Europe has seen since World War II”.  Indeed, in the 90’s Europe was able to accommodate more than 1,000,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia, the majority of whom were Muslims. However, a mix of xenophobia, lack of solidarity and slow growth evoke a different response during the current migration wave. While the OECD, the IMF and European Commission have forecasted that the influx of people could benefit Europe’s economy in a medium to long-term horizon, there is a fiscal cost associated with the initial processing and integration of refugees. The Greek Central Bank revised upwards its estimate for the cost associated with migration, to 600 million euros ($670 million). For 2015, the IMF reported that the fiscal cost of refugees to Greece amounted to 300 million euros, or 0.17% of GDP. Nonetheless, this figure still dwarfs Sweden’s (0.5% of GDP) and Denmark’s (0.47%).

After undergoing unimaginable perils to arrive, few of the 40,000 people currently stranded in Greece are willing to forfeit their dream to reach Northern Europe. UNHCR estimates that the average length of major protracted refugee situations has increased from 9 years in 1993 to 17 years at the end of 2003. 

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