Greece’s Investment in Migration Control Yields No Returns

While now most of the people arriving through the Aegean are entitled to international protection, the problems caused by extensive detention of undocumented migrants remain.

Greece has spent over half a billion euros in the last five years on migration control measures. New research by the Migration and Detention Assessment (MIDAS) project argues that the strategy followed by Greece, with wide financial support from the European Commission, should yield to a less costly and less severe policy. If administered properly, this would help Greek authorities manage migration better, and remove pressure from the state budget.

Greece’s approach to irregular immigration has gone through different phases.

During summer 2012 the incoming government sought to both discourage new migrants and send others back to their countries of origin.

This tough rhetoric emerged after incoherent immigration policy from the previous government had left Greece’s urban centers with many homeless and vulnerable migrants. Petty crime and a sense of insecurity among Greeks spiked—around this time, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party scaled up its violent racist attacks in central Athens. The government faced dire political consequences if it stayed quiet on migrant policy.

So it responded with harsh measures.

Operation Aspida (“Shield”) effectively reinstated and secured the territorial border with Turkey at the river Evros. This cut the flow of migrants, turning them initially towards Bulgaria. Bulgaria quickly copied the Greek border management plan, pushing the migrants back to the Aegean. The approach did reduce numbers; this year migrants coming via the Aegean have already surpassed 22,000, but 55,000 crossed the Evros in 2011.

Operation Xenios Zeus, run at the same time as Aspida, boosted policing of migrants inside Greece, mostly focusing on large urban centers. Detention came for many migrants, and much of the irregular population started moving for safety to the Western Balkans.

The final plank involved apprehending migrants everywhere, using detention and its threat to convince people to go back to their countries of origin. But there are still many more people coming in than heading out, and Greece has failed to return many of those detained due to lack of bilateral cooperation with countries of origin.

So now Greece is politically stuck and violating European directives that cap detention at 18 months for irregular migrants. By the end of 2013 many detained migrants were already approaching this limit. Greek authorities took another step towards harsher treatment of irregular migrants by announcing a policy of indefinite detention until repatriation.

At the end of May 2014, a Greek court said this decision was against national and European legislation and asked for it to be revoked. Authorities have yet to act. The reasons why they should are clear.

The aim of Greece’s overall strategy was to persuade population flows to avoid Greece altogether. But war in the Middle East has produced a big new wave of refugees. While now most of the people arriving through the Aegean are entitled to international protection, the problems caused by extensive detention of undocumented migrants remain. On top of this very often authorities fail to differentiate between immigrants and refugees.

The failure of returns has meant locking up several thousand people in detention centers and police department compounds that are inappropriate for long-term detention. Economically, this is a loser. In effect, Greece has imprisoned thousands of people for committing an administrative offense, entering and residing in the country without permission.

The MIDAS report proposes clear recommendations to help ease the crisis:

  • Cut down on detention places and increase the budget for voluntary and assisted voluntary returns.
  • Replace detention camps with open or semi-open centers.
  • Consider bilateral agreements for seasonal work so that workers can keep their residence outside the EU but come every year for the same season. This can reduce the costs of controlling irregular migration, but also diminish economic loss from illegal employment.

To be sure, voluntary returns that begin in detention centers may be the result of coercion. So a new focus on voluntary returns will not solve everything regarding irregular migration and Greece.

Migration issues still occur in a haze of xenophobia. A new political agenda will help implement practical changes to spending, hopefully creating space for efforts to change the culture that has enabled punitive migration controls.

Add your voice