On November 18th, 2015, noted Greek journalist John Psaropoulos delivered a lecture titled, “Open Door or Fortress? Greek and European Responses to the Refugee Crisis.” Combining anecdotal evidence, personal experience and hard facts, Mr. Psaropoulos discussed the validity and sustainability of the Greek and European responses to the refugee crisis. The lecture was hosted by the Einaudi Center and the Cornell Institute for European Studies as a part of the Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series. Click here to watch the video of his talk.
Mr. Psaropoulos put into context the severity and the magnitude of the current refugee crisis facing Europe. The flow of refugees has been consistently increasing since 2012 and according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this year the number of refugees and migrants in Europe has already reached 660,000. This figure is comparable to the number of refugees and migrants that entered Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Giving both legal and humanitarian reasons, Mr. Psaropoulos highlighted the need for action by European countries. According to the principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, which was signed by Greece, countries cannot turn away war refugees if they fear persecution. Mr. Psaropoulos painted a vivid picture of the plight of the refugees by deliberating upon his encounters with them. These included meeting a Syrian girl who was fighting to hold back her tears because the children she was entrusted to care for did not make it with her, an Afghan interpreter who was waiting for a number of years for an American visa and feared for his life back home, and a Syrian engineer of conscription age who did not want to fight for Bashar Al-Assad’s army or the Free Syrian Army.
Mr. Psaropoulos listed four EU responses, some of which are still being deliberated upon, to this unprecedented migration. The first, being the least controversial, involves giving one billion Euros to UNHCR which would enable countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to provide better care for refugees living in their camps.
The second proposal focuses on developing a deal to encourage Turkey to stem the flow of refugees into Europe. The deal would see Turkey getting more than 3.3 billion Euros to support its refugee camps, renewal of talks for Turkey’s EU-accession and possibility of visa-free European travel for Turkish citizens. This response has been somewhat controversial with countries including Greece opposing the payment to Turkey for what they consider are actions that are merely upholding international law.
The third response has been to create five internal hotspots and relocate refugees within Europe. According to current plans, more than 160,000 people will be relocated within the continent. There have been strong negative reactions to this plan, particularly from Eastern European nations led by Poland and Hungary which have created a discord between them and countries led by Germany, who have recommended a more humane response. Furthermore, even internally, Chancellor Merkel is seen to be facing staunch resistance from its Bavarian ally the Christian Social Union (CSU) over her approach towards the refugee crisis.
The fourth response has been to strengthen Europe’s external borders. Countries including Greece have been receiving support in form of equipment and intelligence from Frontex, Europe’s Border Protection Agency.
Mr. Psaropoulos ended his lecture on an optimistic note and hope that Europe would respond to this crisis with a more compassionate and sympathetic response. Mr. Psaropolous affirmed, “People are re-learning basic human rights, which are easy to forget when they are defined within national boundaries or within a racial or tribal context. Rights are now being thought of as questions of principle and equality before the law.” Recalling the words of the philosopher Karl Popper, Mr. Psaropolous concluded, “Humanity’s fundamental project is to transfer from tribal societies to open ones, that doesn’t mean we sacrifice identity but it means that we establish respect and equality. This is harder in Europe where countries are ethnically-based. Northern Europe has issues of integration and assimilation which it must address. Handing out passports is not enough, we have to get rid of tiered societies. While it is easy for individual countries, on the basis of their collective national consciousness, to slip in and out of civil liberties, it is much harder for an entire continent to do so. If Europe decides to hang together, to trust in its institutions, to respect international law, to do right by these refugees, they have a much better chance of integrating all their 28 countries and non-native populations as well.”