The main headling on the front page of my local newspaper this morning was ‘300 Flee Every day from Ayvalık to Midilli.’ Well, that may not mean much to you – so let me tell you that Ayvalık is a holiday resort town on the northern Aegean coast of Turkey, about 450 km from Istanbul. Midilli is an island, possibly better known to you as Lesbos or Lesvos, belonging to Greece despite being situated about 15-20 km off the Turkish coast, depending on where you start from.
According to the article, crossing the narrow strip of water to a deserted beach on the 1,632 km2 island takes 20-30 minutes in a rubber boat, which is then discarded on the shore as asylum seekers trudge to the main town of Mytilene.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that, in the month of May alone, 7,200 Syrians, Afghans and Iranians made the crossing, with that number expected to increase over the summer months – and greater numbers still gaining entry to EU member Greece through the island of Kos, a short trip from Turkey’s south Aegean resort of Bodrum.
Needless to say, Greek authorities are unhappy with the influx of homeless, hungry people at least half of whom are children. Reuters reports that 77,000 have arrived in Greece so far this year – and in its present parlous financial state, the target nation is in no position to provide the necessities of life, never mind accommodation, health, education and jobs. The UN Commissioner called on the EU to step in ‘before the humanitarian situation deteriorates further.’
One Syrian spoken to said he and most of his companions were hoping to reach Germany. Well, I wish them luck. According to the United Nations, four million people have fled Syria alone since the outbreak of civil war, of which most are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Turkey alone is estimated to have two million, and that UN Commissioner (with his offsider Angelina Jolie) has been appealing for assistance to the international community for four years, with little to show for his efforts.
It may be a short boat trip from Turkey to a Greek Island, but it’s a long walk from Athens to Germany, and small chance of a welcome for those who do make it. Angela Merkel attracted some unwelcome publicity last week while speaking to a group of teenage students on the subject of ‘Good Life in Germany.’ A 14-year-old Palestinian girl, fluent in German, who has been in the country with her family for four years, begged the Chancellor to help her. The reply brought her to tears: ‘in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands and if we were to say you can all come … we just can’t manage it.’ In short – NO!
The European Union currently has 19 member states, and has been almost indecent in its haste to push its borders further into territory formerly the preserve of the Soviet Union. The expanding market and increased prestige comes with a cost, of course. Not only do richer members find themselves saddled with the expense of bringing struggling economies into the Euro fold, but the eastward extending border provides indefensible entry points for ‘illegal’ immigrants from the big bad outside world.
A law aimed at enforcing local responsibility on frontier states is referred to as the Dublin Regulations. Apparently these require immigrants to be ‘processed’ by the country through which they first gain entry to the EU. As recently as June this year the Hungarian government unilaterally withdrew from the EU agreement, objecting to having ‘foreigners returned there from other EU states for their asylum requests to be handled by Budapest.’ Up to that time, they said, 60,000 refugees had crossed into Hungary from non-EU Serbia – and they were planning to construct a 175 km razor wire fence to deal with the problem.
Going a step beyond fence-building, the same article reported that EU foreign ministers were discussing a naval operation to target so-called ‘people-traffickers’ ferrying asylum-seekers across the Mediterranean to Italy. Apparently they backed off a little after the National Salvation government of Libya threatened airstrikes against any intrusion into their territorial waters.
Far from the conflict zone, once-great Britain is also feeling the pressure of unwanted migrants. Apparently illicit hitchhikers are jumping on board trucks queuing to pass through the Channel Tunnel. Prime Minister David Cameron is reportedly concerned at the problem, and plans are afoot to: install fences around the port of Calais, the Eurostar and Eurotunnel entrance; ‘put more personnel and sniffer dog teams on that side of the Channel’; and establish a 90-strong taskforce to ‘gather intelligence on the trafficking gangs and their routes’. The British government has already invested twelve million pounds on ‘bolstering the border, and is happy to do more if needed.’
In the mean time, 18-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, marked her birthday with an appeal to world leaders to stop failing the Syrian people. ‘On this day,’ she said, ‘I have a message for the leaders of this country, this region and the world – you are failing the Syrian people, especially Syria’s children. This is a heartbreaking tragedy – the world’s worst refugee crisis in decades.’
Well, awarding a Nobel Peace Prize is one thing. Doing something serious about the problem quite another. It constantly surprises me how ready Western media are to criticise Turkey, listening avidly to reports about human rights abuses and questionable statistics about imprisoned journalists – yet turning a deaf ear to United Nations pleas, and leaving that country to deal virtually alone with the human cost of a problem not of its own making.
Incidentally, I read another article in our Turkish daily the other day comparing economic statistics of Turkey and Greece. It had nothing to do with refugees, but was commenting on the relative per capita wealth of the two countries. I checked the figures on the CIA website, and present them here without comment for your information:
Per capita GDP 2014:
Germany – $44,700
EU average – $38,300
UK – $37,700
Greece – $25,800
Turkey – $19,600