Angela Merkel, and Europe in general, had hoped they had managed to move beyond the unprecedented wave of refugees unleashed on the content in 2015 courtesy of the German Chancellor’s open door policy, with the fragile March 2016 refugee deal signed with Turkey. Sadly – for both Europeans who have suffered a surge in terrorist attacks as a result and for Merkel, whose approval rating has subsequently plunged – Europe is once buckling under the weight of a new wave of migrants.
According to Reuters, some 3000 migrants were saved in the Strait of Sicily in 30 separate rescue missions just on Tuesday, the Italian coastguard said, bringing the total to almost 10,000 in two days and marking a sharp acceleration in refugee arrivals in Italy. The migrants were packed on board dozens of boats, many of them rubber dinghies that become dangerously unstable in high seas. No details were immediately available on their nationalities.
Data from the International Organization for Migration released on Friday said around 105,000 migrants had reached Italy by boat in 2016, many of them setting sail from Libya. An estimated 2,726 men, women and children have died over the same period trying to make the journey.
The reason for the surge are favorable weather conditions, which this week have seen an increase in boats setting sail. Some 1,100 migrants were picked up on Sunday and 6,500 on Monday, in one of the largest influxes of refugees in a single day so far this year. Italy has been on the front line of Europe’s migrant crisis for three years, and more than 400,000 have successfully made the voyage to Italy from North Africa since the beginning of 2014, fleeing violence and poverty. So far this year, some 116,000 migrants—many of them from sub-Saharan Africa—have arrived in Italy. That compares with 154,000 for all of 2015, a phenomenon overshadowed by the surge of migrants arriving in Greece via Turkey.
The closing of European borders to the migrants means that, unlike, in previous years, the vast majority are stuck in Italy, unable to reach Europe’s north as they had hoped. Italian reception centers now host 145,000 migrants, according to the interior ministry in Rome.
And while North African refugees are fleeing the chaos in their native lands by boat, hoping to reach Italy in a perilous voyage across the Mediterranean, Greece is once again the target of those refugees from Syria who find themselves in Turkey as an intermediate step.
According to the WSJ, the number of people landing on Greek islands has risen to about 100 a day in August, up from fewer than 50 a day in May and June. About 460 people landed on Greek islands on Monday, a number Greece hasn’t experienced since early April.
The traffic is still far below daily peaks of 6,800 in October last year. But the rising numbers are making Greek and EU officials worried that the fragile deal with Turkey—aimed at returning almost all who land on Greek shores—could break down.
It could get much worse: as we have reported over the past few months, as Turkish officials, angered by what they see as a lack of European support for Turkish democracy as Ankara roots out alleged supporters of July’s failed coup, have threatened to scuttle the migration deal if the EU doesn’t grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel to the bloc by October. Turkey says it was promised the concession.
“We cannot independently verify an uptick, but even if it were true it is related to the increasingly popular view among illegal immigrants that the Turkey-EU agreement is on the brink of collapse and that there will be no legal mechanism to return them to Turkey once they cross the Aegean Sea,” a senior Turkish official said. “If the European Union fails to honor its agreement with Turkey, no matter how strong the enforcement, there will be greater incentives for more migrants to risk their lives at sea.”
As we have further said, Turkey continues to have most of the leverage, something the WSJ confirms: “The tough talk from Turkey has alarmed Athens, which knows that any sharp increase in migration would mainly affect Greece. “We will be tested very hard if the agreement with Turkey collapses,” Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said this month.”
Greek officials say they suspect the recent uptick in migrant arrivals partly reflects a manpower issue: Numerous Turkish military and police personnel were suspended as part of the Turkish government’s postcoup crackdown. Turkey says it is assiduously keeping up its end of the migrant deal and that its security forces’ operational ability hasn’t been hampered in the wake of the coup attempt.
The closure of the Balkan migration route into the heart of Europe earlier this year has left nearly 60,000 refugees and other migrants trapped in Greece. Mr. Mouzalas said that if it weren’t for the deal with Turkey, which has slowed arrivals since March, 130,000 to 180,000 more people might be stuck in Greece.
Unlike in Italy, in smaller, poorer Greece, the numbers arriving on Aegean islands don’t need to reach 2015’s high levels to cause problems. The five islands that receive most of the newcomers—Lesbos, Leros, Chios, Kos and Samos—are already struggling.
Chios is currently sheltering about 3,300 migrants and refugees, three times its camp’s capacity. In the camp, built around an abandoned aluminum factory, migrants live in overcrowded containers with unsanitary conditions. Six to eight people, often from two different families, typically share a room designed for four. “We live like animals here,” says Wassim Omar, a 34-year-old English teacher from Syria, as he waits in the line for his family’s dinner of potatoes, olives and bread.
Many complain there isn’t enough food or access to doctors. Women say they and their children are afraid to leave their rooms after dark, as fights often break out among migrants of different nationalities.
Because of the overflow, many stranded on Chios are sleeping in two open camps closer to the island’s port. The razor fence around the official center also has holes in it, allowing people to walk in and out. Locals have complained of a surge in thefts and damage to their crops. To ease the situation on the islands, the Greek government will transfer a few hundred people to a new camp on the mainland, starting from Chios. Officials fear, though, that the move may encourage more people to come.
Vournous, the mayor, says he fears tensions between locals and migrants could easily escalate.
What is probably most vexing for the Greeks and the Italians, is that the influx of refugees was unleashed as a result of German, and specifically Angela Merkel, policies. However, as a result of border closures, Germany has largely succeeded in isolating itself from the refugee flow. The losers, once again, Europe’s poorest, peripheral nations.