Pope Francis takes 12 refugees back to Vatican after trip to Greece

The New York Times reports: Pope Francis made an emotional visit into the heart of Europe’s migrant crisis on Saturday and took 12 Muslim refugees from Syria, including six children, with him back to Rome aboard the papal plane.

The action punctuated the pope’s pleas for sympathy to the plight of the refugees just as European attitudes are hardening against them.

Those taken to Rome were three families — two from Damascus and one from the eastern city of Deir al-Zour — whose homes had been bombed in the Syrian war, the Vatican said in a statement as the pope departed the Greek island of Lesbos.

”The pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees,” the statement said, adding that the Vatican would care for the three families.

The announcement capped a brief trip by the pope to Greece that again placed the plight of migrants at the center of his papacy.

“We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution,” Francis said during a lunchtime visit to the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, where leaders of Eastern Orthodox Christian churches joined him.

“As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf,” Francis continued. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

Francis’ first papal trip in 2013 was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, to call attention to the refugees who were arriving there from Libya — or drowning before they reached shore. During his February visit to Mexico, Francis prayed beneath a large cross erected in Ciudad Juárez, just footsteps from the Mexican border with the United States, and then celebrated Mass nearby, where he spoke about immigrants. [Continue reading…]

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Endgame for the IMF-EU feud over Greece’s debt

Yanis Varoufakis writes: The feud between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European side of Greece’s troika of creditors is old news. However, Wikileaks’ publication of a dialogue between key IMF players suggests that we are approaching something of a hazardous endgame.

Ever since the first Greek ‘bailout’ program was signed, in May 2010, the IMF has been violating its own “primary directive”: the obligation not to fund insolvent governments. As a result, the IMF’s leadership has been facing a revolt from its staff members who demand an exit strategy arguing that, if the EU continues to obstruct the debt relief necessary to restore the solvency of the Greek government, the IMF should leave the Greek program.
Five years on, this IMF-EU impasse continues, causing a one-third collapse of Greek GDP and fuelling hopelessness to a degree that has made real reform harder than ever.

Back in February 2015, when I first met Poul Thomsen (the IMF’s European chief) in a Paris hotel, a fortnight after assuming Greece’s finance ministry, he appeared even keener than I was to press for a debt write off: “At a minimum”, he told me “€54 billion of Greece’s debt left over from the first ‘bailout’ should be written off immediately in exchange for serious reforms.”

This was music to my ears, and made me keen to discuss what he meant by “serious reforms”. It was a discussion that never got formally off the ground as Germany’s finance minister vetoed all discussion on debt relief, debt swaps (which were my compromise proposal), indeed any significant change to the failed program.

What new light does the leaked dialogue between Thomsen and Delia Velculescu (the IMF’s Greek mission chief) throw on this saga? [Continue reading…]

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After WikiLeaks revelation, Greece asks IMF to clarify bailout plan

The New York Times reports: Greece called on the International Monetary Fund on Saturday to explain whether it was seeking to usher Athens toward bankruptcy ahead of a pivotal referendum in June on Britain’s membership in Europe. Greece’s comments came after I.M.F. officials raised questions in a private discussion published by WikiLeaks about what it would take to get Greece’s creditors to agree to debt relief.

The transcript, which captures what WikiLeaks said was a teleconference conversation in March between Poul Thomsen, the head of the I.M.F.’s European operations, and the I.M.F.’s Greek bailout monitor, underscored a widening rift between the I.M.F. and Greece’s European creditors that could jeopardize Greece’s new 86 billion euro bailout. It also exposed the fraught behind-the-scenes political machinations that have led to a deadlock on how to deal with a country still regarded as Europe’s weakest link.

The I.M.F. declined to comment on the WikiLeaks transcript, but said in a statement that Greece needed to be put “on a path of sustainable growth” supported by reforms and further debt relief. The document touched off a fresh political frenzy inside Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government, which accused the I.M.F. of trying to “politically destabilize Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Amid clashes, Greece presses on with plan to deport refugees

The New York Times reports: Violent clashes erupted in Greek refugee camps among panicked migrants as Greece and the European Union pressed ahead on Friday with their intention to expel them from Europe and deport thousands back to Turkey, despite strong objections from rights groups and United Nations relief officials who say the plan is illegal and inhumane.

Hundreds of migrants broke out of an overcrowded detention center on the Greek island of Chios and began walking to the port to protest a European Union deal that went into effect in March, authorizing Greece to return them to Turkey if their applications for asylum in Europe were not accepted. The deportations officially begin on Monday.

Video clips in the Greek media showed migrants streaming away from the camp unhindered by the police, hours after a brawl broke out at the camp’s registration center. Several refugees were taken to a hospital after the riot police used stun grenades, and a help center run by Doctors Without Borders was destroyed, forcing the aid group to abandon its work. More than 1,500 migrants were being held at the center, designed for 1,200. Three people were also reported stabbed during a migrant riot on the island of Samos, where another detention facility operates. [Continue reading…]

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Refugees lament as deal with Turkey closes door to Europe

The New York Times reports: Smoking cigarettes and huddling against the midnight chill, a group of Syrian men sat outside a mosque waiting for a smuggler’s call. It was their last chance, they said, to reach Europe.

It was late Friday, hours after they watched news reports from cafes and hotel lobbies that the Europe Union and Turkey had struck a deal that would send refugees from war-torn countries back to Turkey, from the shores of Greece. Time was running short: Officials said the deal would take effect Sunday.

“One hour ago,” said Milad Ameen, 19, when asked when he decided to set off for Europe. He had a life jacket, an inner tube and small bag containing his passport and school certificates he hoped would help him land a job in Europe.

As the men waited, they lamented a deal that they believe shuts the door on the last way out of their misery. “It’s for Turkey’s good, but not for the good of the Syrian people,” Mr. Ameen said.

A man standing next to him, who gave only his first name, Raafat, said he was from Aleppo, Syria. Raafat said he was demoralized that Europe no longer seemed to welcome Syrians. When he heard news of the pending deal, he rushed from Istanbul, where he had worked in a textile factory, to this coastal city. “We aren’t going to Europe to destroy Europe,” he said, explaining that he wished to assimilate and learn the language in whichever country would take him. “We are going in peace. [Continue reading…]

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More than 44,000 refugees are already trapped in Greece, a number rising each day

The New York Times reports: Taha al-Ahmad’s family is sleeping in mud. His youngest daughter, age 1, lies beneath wet blankets, coughing inside their soggy tent. It has rained for days. Portable toilets are overflowing. Men burn firewood to stay warm. A drone circles overhead. Television trucks beam images of misery to the world.

It is primeval, and surreal, this squalid, improvised border camp of 12,000 refugees, a padlocked waiting room for entering the rest of Europe. Mr. Ahmad, barely two weeks out of Syria, does not understand why his family cannot cross the Macedonian border — roughly a football field away — and continue toward Germany. Hundreds of thousands of migrants passed through last year, but now Macedonia is closed. Europe’s door is slamming shut.

“I am in a very high degree of miserable,” Mr. Ahmad told me, speaking in a singsong English he learned in Syria, as our shoes sank into the muck.

“I ask my friends in Germany and Turkey: ‘What is happening? Tell us,’” he said. “We don’t know what is happening outside.”

To Mr. Ahmad, “outside” is the world of politics and policy beyond the wretchedness of the Idomeni camp. In Idomeni, refugees exist in a decrepit suspended animation. Disease spreads. Grandmothers sleep beside train tracks. Outside, specifically in Brussels, the leaders of the European Union, under public pressure to stop the migrant flow, will begin discussing the fate of refugees on Thursday, and a disputed plan to deport them to Turkey. [Continue reading…]

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No way out: How Syrians are struggling to find an exit

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Eleonora Vio reports: Over the last five years, close to 4.8 million Syrians have fled the conflict in their country by crossing into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But as the war drags on, neighbours are sealing their borders. Forced from their homes by airstrikes and fighting on multiple fronts, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers now have no legal escape route.

Earlier this week, EU leaders reached a hard-won deal with Turkey aimed at ending a migration crisis that has been building since last year, and that in recent weeks has seen tens of thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece. But the agreement turns a blind eye to the fact that even larger numbers of asylum seekers are stranded back in Syria, unable to reach safety.

Syrians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe first have to physically get there. EU member states closed their embassies in Syria at the start of the conflict, and even embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries have been reluctant to process visa and asylum applications.

When Syria’s war erupted in March 2011, it was initially relatively easy for most refugees to leave the country. Those without the means to fly poured out in waves of tens of thousands across land borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But one by one, these exits have been restricted or closed off entirely. [Continue reading…]

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Outsourcing a humanitarian crisis to Turkey – is that the European thing to do?

By Marianna Fotaki, University of Warwick

European countries plan to send thousands of refugees back to Turkey in a deal aimed at preventing people from trying to reach the EU by sea.

In what is being described as a “one in, one out” deal, anyone washing up on the shores of Greece will be sent back to Turkey, with one person being transferred from a Turkish refugee camp in their place.

But the deal, which is yet to be finalised, is flawed from the outset. Denying refugees the right to apply for asylum as they reach the EU is against international humanitarian law. And refusing protection to unarmed people fleeing war and persecution by sending them back to Turkey, a country under threat of a civil war, is unconscionable.

European Union leaders must be both desperate and clueless to pursue this. If the goal is to save the European Union from implosion, the question is on what terms will its unity be maintained?

[Read more…]

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Refugee crisis magnified by European divisions

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Der Spiegel reports: A rickety gate of galvanized wire is all that separates desperation from hope. The gate is part of the fence erected in the farming village of Idomeni on the border between Greece and Macedonia. At this moment, some 12,000 people are waiting for it to be opened.

It’s the gateway to Europe and the gateway to Germany.

A woman in boots and a blue uniform stands guard in front of the gate. Her name is Foteini Gagaridou and she is an official with the Greek border police — and she looks exhausted. All it would take for her to open the border would be to pull a thin metal pin out of the latch, but she’s not allowed to.

If it were up to her, she says, she would let every single one of these people pass through, just as they were able to do just a few weeks earlier — across the border to Macedonia and on through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to Austria, where they could continue their journey to Germany on what is known as the Balkan Route. It’s the same path chosen by hundreds of thousands of refugees last year, but the Balkan Route is now closed. It ends at Gagaridou’s wire gate.

This is where Fortress Europe begins, secured with razor wire and defended with tear gas. Desperate scenes played out here on Monday, reminiscent of those witnessed in Hungary back in September. A group of young men used a steel beam as a battering ram to break down the gate. Rocks flew through the air as the gate flew off its hinges, prompting the volleying of tear gas cartridges and stun grenades from the Macedonian side. Men could be seen running and children screaming. One woman lay on the ground with her daughter, crying.

This frontier has become Europe’s new southern border, with Greece serving as Europe’s waiting room — and the possible setting for a humanitarian disaster. Around 32,000 migrants are currently stranded in the country, a number that the Greek Interior Ministry says could quickly swell to 70,000. The aid organization Doctors Without Borders is even expecting 200,000 refugees. Greece’s reception camps are already full, and the highly indebted country is stretched well beyond its capacity.

The decision as to whether and how many refugees will be able to cross the border isn’t one for border guard Gagaridou to make. Rather, it will be taken by the Macedonian government. Macedonia, for its part, is pointing fingers at countries further to the north, noting it is they who have tightened their borders, especially Austria, which created a chain reaction of border closures last week. The countries apparently felt they could wait no longer for the broader European solution German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised will result from a special EU summit scheduled for March 7.

Merkel wants to see Turkey stem the flow of refugees and put a stop to the exodus to Europe. European leaders agreed on Feb. 18 that this plan remains the “priority.” But Austria and the Balkan states nevertheless moved ahead and closed their borders.

Idomeni has become a symbol of the current political chaos in Europe and the crumbling of a joint European refugee policy. The town is emblematic of the new Europe of fences. It is here that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open border policies have met their end. Under Austria’s leadership, the Balkan Route has been closed in the precise move Berlin had hoped to avoid.

Merkel has begun warning of the EU’s disintegration “into small states” that will be unable to compete in a globalized world, as well as of the possibility that border controls might soon be reintroduced all across Europe.

Were Europe in agreement, it would be unproblematic to accommodate 2-3 million refugees, given the Continent’s population of a half billion people. From such a perspective, the current spat actually seems somewhat ridiculous. But in the run up to next week’s EU summit, Europe is gripped by strife. Europe’s greatest achievement, the opening of its borders through the Schengen agreement, is at stake, and the increasingly toxic atmosphere between countries has reached alarming dimensions. [Continue reading…]

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The EU risks major ructions if Greece is offered no help with its refugees

Costas Lapavitsas writes: he current influx of refugees into Greece has major humanitarian implications but it also poses a direct threat to the European Union. Together with the neverending eurozone crisis and the Brexit referendum, it could throw the EU into an existential crisis in 2016. Visionary leadership is called for, which at present looks in short supply.

According to the UNHCR, in 2014 Syria was the main source of refugees in the world, and 95% of Syrian refugees were located in surrounding countries. Turkey held the largest number at roughly 1.6 million. It is worth noting that developing countries took 86% of the world’s refugees in 2014. The poor proved more compassionate and generous than the rich yet again.

In 2015 Greece became the main point of entry into the EU of refugees and migrants from Turkey; it is believed 850,000 people undertook the perilous crossing of the Aegean. In January and February more than 120,000 have arrived – far more than the same period last year. At this rate there will be millions of men, women and children who will risk their lives in shoddy rubber dinghies between Turkey and Greece in 2016. Up to 90% are likely to be from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

These are not economic migrants. There is absolutely no doubt that the wave of refugees and migrants into Europe is a direct result of the destruction of the three countries largely due to western intervention during the last three decades. [Continue reading…]

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Most of the refugees stuck in Greece are now women and children

The Washington Post reports: In a cold drizzle, Aziza Hussein, a 30-year-old Syrian widow traveling with her four children, stood amid a surge of migrants trapped at the northern Greek border. Her way forward blocked by armed Macedonian troops, police dogs and a razor-wire fence, she stood in the middle of the chaotic scrum of refugees, clutching her 5-year-old son.

“What are we going to do?” she said, shielding her eyes with a trembling hand as she cried.

In recent days, European nations have moved more aggressively than ever to shut down the route used by more than a million migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond. Yet even as they do, the region is confronting a new kind of migrant flow — waves of women and children.

Last year, most of the asylum seekers fleeing to Europe were men, many of them young and single. But in the past several weeks, the balance has shifted, with women and their children, as well as unaccompanied minors, now accounting for roughly 57 percent of asylum seekers. [Continue reading…]

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Brexit has the potential to destroy the EU

Wolfgang Münchau writes: There is now a real possibility that the EU system for border and immigration controls will break down in about 10 days. On March 7, EU leaders will hold a summit in Brussels with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister.

The idea is to persuade Ankara to do what Greece failed to do: protect the EU’s south-eastern border and halt the flow of immigrants. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy going on between Germany and Turkey. The mood in Berlin, however, is not good.

The action taken by Austria, Hungary and other countries to protect their national borders has shut the western Balkan route along which migrants had made their way to Germany.

Refugees now find themselves trapped in Greece. Some may leave for Italy by boat. When those who survive the journey arrive there, I would expect Slovenia, Switzerland and France to close their borders. At that point, we should no longer assume that the European Council of heads of government is a functioning political body.

A refugee crisis that spins out of control could tilt the vote in the British referendum. There is no way the EU will be able to deal with two simultaneous shocks of such size. Coming at a time like this, Brexit has the potential to destroy the EU.

I do not expect such a doomsday scenario, but it is not implausible either. The EU is about to face one of the most difficult moments in its history. Member states have lost the will to find joint solutions for problems that they could solve at the level of the EU but not on their own. The EU’s population of more than 500m can easily absorb 1m refugees a year. No member state can do this alone, even Germany. [Continue reading…]

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Refugee arrivals in Greece exceed 100,000 in less than two months

The Guardian reports: More than 100,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe so far this year, at triple the rate of arrivals over the first half of 2015.

At least 102,500 have arrived on the Greek islands of Samos, Kos and Lesbos, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Another 7,500 have reached Italy, and in the first six weeks of the year 411 people are known to have died attempting to make the journey.

In 2015 the threshold of 100,000 arrivals was not reached until the end of June. As spring approaches and the weather improves, the rate of arrivals this year is expected to climb further.

The IOM said 20% of the arrivals were from Afghanistan and nearly half were Syrians. On Monday the US and Russia agreed to organise a partial truce involving the Assad regime and most of the Syrian armed opposition, but not Islamic State or the Nusra Front. There are widespread doubts about how effective the ceasefire will be and how long it will last. [Continue reading…]

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European states deeply divided on refugee crisis before key summit

The Guardian reports: Europe’s deep divide over immigration is to be laid bare at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, with German chancellor Angela Merkel struggling to salvage her open-door policy while a growing number of countries move to seal borders to newcomers along the Balkan routes.

A debate on the migration crisis over dinner on Thursday evening will do little to resolve the differences, senior EU officials predict. Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, has avoided putting any new decisions on the agenda in an attempt to avoid fresh arguments.

The leaders of four anti-immigration eastern European countries met in Prague on Monday and demanded alternative EU policies by next month. Their plan amounts to exporting Hungary’s zero-immigration razor-wire model to the Balkans, sealing Macedonia’s border with northern Greece, and bottling up the vast numbers of refugees in Greece unless they are deported back to Turkey. [Continue reading…]

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‘These countries [in Europe] prefer that we drown than live on their lands’

The New York Times reports: As NATO dispatches warships to the Aegean Sea in a new effort to contain the flow of refugees coming through Turkey and on to Europe, the deaths keep piling up: at least 400 so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Already in 2016, more than 76,000 people — nearly 3,000 a day — have arrived in Greece from Turkey.

Increased patrols by the Turkish coast guard, plummeting temperatures and stormy seas — all factors that officials believed would lead to fewer crossings — have seemed to have little effect on the numbers.

If anything, there has been a surge in departures in recent weeks, as desperate refugees have taken advantage of the lower prices that smugglers typically charge during winter, when the journey is riskier than it is in summer. Those numbers could rise further, with a new wave of what Turkish officials say is now at least 100,000 refugees fleeing heavy Russian bombing raids and a Syrian government offensive near Aleppo this week.

“We have no choice but to leave now,” said Mahdi, 36, a Syrian refugee and former teacher who prepared to make the journey with his wife and two children, ages 11 months and 3. “It’s already hard to get to Europe, and it’s going to get harder because these countries prefer that we drown than live on their lands.” [Continue reading…]

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