In 2015, more than one million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, sparking a crisis as countries struggled to cope with the influx, and creating division in the EU over how best to deal with resettling people. Since then, Greece – a frontline state – has borne the brunt of this burden.
Migrants continue to arrive on Greek shores despite the EU-Turkey migrant deal of 2016. This resurgence is alarming and has resulted in tens of thousands of migrants stranded throughout the country, and living in “critical” conditions at overcrowded reception centers on Greece’s islands. Cyprus is also seeing a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving on its shores, giving it the largest number per capita in Europe.
Greece is Europe’s frontline
123,700 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe via the three Mediterranean routes in Europe in 2019. While routes in the broader Mediterranean saw a decrease in numbers, Greece and Cyprus are struggling to deal with a renewed surge in arrivals. According to the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, arrivals to Greece in 2019 increased 48% compared to 2018, and of 151% compared to 2017. At the end of 2019, UNHCR estimated the number of refugees and migrants in Greece at 112,300.
The Greek islands are bearing the brunt of the arrivals, with Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos, and other islands facing Turkey’s coast hosting over 40,000 migrants and refugees. 36,000 people currently live in dangerously overcrowded reception centers that have a total capacity of 5,400 people, with roughly 19,000 of them living in Moria reception center on Lesvos – which has a capacity of 3,000. Over half the people arriving are women and children. The arrivals have placed a huge strain on the local population of the islands. The government in Athens is currently working to implement emergency measures to relieve overcrowded facilities with closed reception centers on the islands.
The migration crisis in Cyprus
With 11,900 entering in 2019, the number of asylum seekers in Cyprus is five times what it was in 2015, giving it the largest number per capita in Europe. With other routes closed off, smuggler networks are taking advantage of Cyprus’s proximity to the Middle East. The crisis is accentuated by the continued occupation of the north of the island by Turkey. An overwhelming number of migrants are taken to the occupied north, where they then cross through the Green Line to enter the internationally recognized southern part of the island. In 2021 over 80% of asylum seekers entered Greek Cypriot through the Republic of Cyrus buffer zone.
Europe must step up to the plate
Greece and Cyprus have repeatedly asked for support from their European partners. Whether it’s streamlining the asylum process, stepping up assistance for border security, or taking steps to alleviate the pressure on the Greek islands, the EU has failed to exhibit the necessary leadership and solidarity on this issue. Some EU members simply refuse to share the burden, while others have shut their borders to refugees and migrants. Europe must present a plan that not only deals with this crisis, but also stops treating Greece, Italy, and other frontline states as dumping grounds for refugees.
By failing to address the burden that the migration crisis places on Europe’s frontline states like Greece and Cyprus, European leadership has given way to Turkey and its continued use of refugees as a means of promoting its own agenda. Turkey’s weaponization of asylum seekers is being used to get more money, assistance, and other political concessions from Europe. As a result, not only are the local populations in EU states like Greece and Cyprus negatively affected but so are the migrants themselves. Each day of delay simply puts more lives at risk.
- A Balancing Act for Europe: Stop the Migrants, Support Greece, Assuage Turkey, The New York Times, March 4, 2020
- EU pledges aid to Greece as migrants mass on border with Turkey, Reuters, March 3, 2020
- Cyprus sees surge in migrants after Turkey opens border, Associated Press, March 3, 2020
- Asylum Seekers Find a New Route to Europe, Flowing Into a Divided Cyprus, The New York Times, Jan 28, 2020