SVAP: “Immigration is a European issue”


•During our last International meeting in Paris the discussion was held around immigration problems in Europe nowadays.
•My country Greece, or Hellas as is its official name, is one of the European Countries that happens to be more affected by the immigration influx.
•Actually this is not something new. Greece has been a preferred destination for many nationals from all over the world including former east European countries and Russia for the last twenty five  years. They have been living peacefully along with native Greeks. As a result Greece´s today population is composed of native nationals but also a large number of long run immigrants at a percentage of about 25% of the total population. To give numbers according to the 2011 population count we have about 2.500.000 immigrants on a total population of 10.5000.000people. Out of those people 329.000 came in, in the last five years. 39% of them are of Greek origin 61% foreigners mainly from Albania 32%, Ukraine 13%, Romania 8%, Pakistan 7,5%, Georgia 3,5% etc.
•On the other side Greeks, Hellenes as we like to call ourselves, are a nation with a well established tradition of emigration mainly refugees from former ottoman (Turkish) empire. Less than a hundred years ago, back in September 1922, Turks decided to kick of Christian populations, mostly Greeks and fewer Armenians, from Asia Minor also known as Ionia. Ionia has been inhabited by national Greeks since as early as the 8th century BC. In the 1920´s there still was there a population of about 300.000 Greeks who have been forced to leave overnight not to be massacred and fled to the Aegean Islands where most of them established and live until today. Therefore people on those Islands are very receptive to war refugees no matter where they come from. That is why on the International news you can hear stories of old grannies nursing young refugee babies and their mothers, locals getting whole families home etc.

•Finally we have to consider that Greece happens to be the outer eastern  border of the European Union and the Schengen area. Furthermore This specific border is a maritime one as the Country´s east side consists of the Aegean Sea comprising about 6.000 larger or smaller islands dispersed all around. Out of these islands only 117 are inhabited with a population going from as little as 50 people to no more than 50.000 people in very few cases. More precisely 38 Islands have a population of less than 100 people. 26 have between 100 and 1000 people. 53 have more than 1.000 people.

    There are 4 Islands which make the preference of boat traffickers:
                     Lesvos 85330 people 1.630klm2
                     Samos 32974 people     476klm2
                    Kos       34280 people    290klm2
                    Leros     7919 people       54klm2

Under these conditions the border cannot be controlled by traditional control methods such as army protection or fence constructions {not to say this is not in our culture; Greek cities have always been open cities with no fences}. Therefore a permanent patrol system by boats is in place.

•However far and beyond the sentimental side of things there are factual conditions that have to be addressed. Numbers are now rapidly changing. Information received by the guard officials mentions that there are about 3.500.000 Syrian refugees in Turkish camps. From now on I will use the term illegal immigrants and/or refugees as there is no easy way to distinguish between the two categories. People arriving shipwrecked on Greek islands are Arabic speaking, with no papers therefore you need very experienced Arabic speaking personnel to make the difference if any.
•In the first trimester of 2015 we have received about 10.445 illegal immigrants through our Aegean Sea border 6.498 of them in March 2015, mostly on Lesvos, Chios and Samos Islands. In 2014 this same number for the first trimester was 2.863 people.
•In July 2015 alone, 50.000 refugees reached the islands according to the FRONTEX data, which is a far higher number compared even to the whole 2014.

•According to the Hellenic Coast Guard in June 2015 they arrested 31.318 illegal immigrants, 25 traffickers, 129 boats. They also rescued 517 ship wrecks.
•In September 2015 the number of illegal arrivals on the islands increased to 141.919 people. All of those held no documents at all and in 21 cases they did carry illegal substances with them such as 1.169.310 illegal cigarettes and 471.000gr of smoking herb.
•The daily flux of arrivals increases constantly and exceeds 1.000/day/island. On Sept 6 in the Lesvos Island alone there were 17.000 immigrants ie 20% of the local population.

•Here is a short extract from the diary of the mayor of Agathonissi.  Agathonissi  is an island of 80 permanent inhabitants, 185 in summer time. He writes: “………. March 12, 85 arrivals, all of them Somalis and Afghans.  2 women 6 children. March 29, 162 arrivals. The traffickers have sophisticated methods. They follow up the influx and send in new people once the previous ones have been moved to Athens. They destroy the boat when they see the coast guard approaching so that they can be considered shipwrecked. People drawn, get injured; they have no idea where they are going. They land on the island and they are looking around for Omonia Square which is in Center Athens. Local people exasperate and try to joke “we are Ellis island” * they say. However today´s morning arrival succeeded to upset them; disregarding the Police instructions newcomers tried to avoid the routine control and finger prints registration to embark on the liner to Samos Island. They attacked the police officers, coastal guards and locals who tried to stop them. Some anchored on the liner´s door.831 have been arrested…….”
•Today there are about 340 refugees on the Island, three times the local population. They cannot leave due to bad weather conditions. As there are no living spaces available on this tiny island they sleep wherever they decide; along the street, under a tree, anywhere.

•And now what? Once they are rescued on the Island they are nursed or hospitalized, depending the case, registered according to Schengen requirements, given provisional residence documents then sent for three months to Athens to wait for the Asylum grant. The overall number in Athens (a city of 1.000.000 inhabitants in center city) by now is about 350.000people. About 5.000 new arrivals per day. Our northern neighbors close their borders .Unfortunately these are of a completely different culture from local populations resulting to daily life problems; a majority refuses to go to the set places (which cannot afford such large numbers anyway) and prefer instead establish in the city parks and squares! Even those moved to the camps usually return to the parks within the next day. And though local people suffer from a long and well established financial crisis, immigrants are looked after by neighbors and local communities, fed, dressed, given medical assistance. However parks have no living facilities, especially sanitary and the epidemics are waiting in the corner. Winter is also fast approaching and though mild in Greece (compared to northern Europe) rain, freeze and snow are well on the agenda. Another issue reports to the way of living as Greece’s youngsters are modernized young people dressing and going out accordingly which is often confusing for the newcomers who are mainly groups of young men with a different social approach. Last but not least the increased need for  medical assistance and hospitalization of the immigrants in times of financial crisis dramatically burdens the social welfare program which already suffered substantial losses due to increased unemployment rates and economy slowdown.

•To make a long story, short. Greece and Greek people are well prepared to receive immigrants especially war refugees and coop with that issue. However our European partners must accept that this is not a local issue. It is a European one and each and all EU Countries must take their part of it to the equivalent of their possibilities in size and prosperity. As in all things in life a strong partnerships establishes in difficult times. Not in times of euphoria. Now is therefore the time for Europe to show to the whole world that what unifies us is, far and above financial issues, our common background in Civilization, in religion, in ethics.