Greece: The Syrian migration invasion

20 September 2012

Portrait of Dr Hein De Haas

by Dr Hein De Haas
Co-Director and James Martin Fellow, International Migration Institute

Dr Hein De Haas is Associate Professor in Migration Studies, Oxford Department of International Development and Professor of Migration and Development, Maastricht University. Hein De Haas' research focuses on the linkages between migration and broad...

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Last Monday, Greek authorities announced that Greece should fortify itself against a massive wave of illegal migrants from Syria.

"A migration wave is starting to show, it has not yet reached Greece in large numbers, currently it is heading to Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, but the country must be ready", warned. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias. He also announced the government's plans to "fortify the Aegean Sea".

Back in August, Dendias had already warned that "The country is about to perish . . We are facing an invasion". This week, Greek Prime Minister Samaras added more to the doom and gloom:

"I wake up every morning and say, 'Has anything happened to Syria today?', If something happens in Syria, thousands of people would be flowing into Greece. Illegal immigrants are already a very big problem for us. We are already taking big steps to disallow illegal immigrants from coming in. Imagine if that number is multiplied by 10," Samara warned.

These statements are classic examples of migration fear mongering which lack any factual basis. The whole idea that Syrian refugees would be massively "underway" to Greece is simply ridiculous.

It seems another variant of the scaremongering by Italian authorities in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya in the Spring of 2011, when they predicted that a migration wave of [sic] "biblical proportions" was about to hit Europe's Mediterranean shores.Italian politicians boldly claimed that the violence in Libya would force up to 1.5 million sub-Saharan migrant workers to take the boat to Europe. In previous blogposts, I argued hat such predictions were not based on any facts, and that it should therefore not come as a surprise that this invasion never happened (for a more comprehensive overview, see also here).

The reasons were simple: Most migrants had gone to Libya to work, not to go to Europe; The vast majority of migrants workers fleeing the violence wanted to go back home; Most Libyan refugees preferred to stay in Tunisia and Egypt to return as soon as the conflict was over. Only a tiny fraction of refugees ended up in Europe. Although the temporary falling away of border patrolling in Tunisia led to a certain increase of 'normal' boat migration to Italy, which had already been going on for decades, these concerned several tens of thousands of people, a relatively modest number compared to the invasion of "biblical proportions" that was envisaged.

Rather, such immigration fear-mongering fulfils the domestic political purpose of creating an external threat. By doing so, politicians create a common cause and rally people behind them, which handily defects the attention away from internal problems and their own policy failings. The "creation" of such external threats (terrorism, migration, Islam, or, ideally, a combination of these) has become particularly important since the demise of the Communist threat in the late 1980s.

Usually, if we look at the facts on the ground, such imagined migration deluges shrink to a trickle. This also holds for Greece. The vast majority of the more than 250,000 Syrians refugees have fled to neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and, particularly, Turkey, in the same way as the overwhelming majority of Libyans fled to neighbouring countries last year.

According to this news report, more Syrian migrants are appearing in the Aegean Sea islands. Although several hundreds to a few thousands of Syrian refugees may have crossed into Greece the past few months (see for instance here), and more may follow as long as the conflict continues, these numbers are a tiny fraction of the total refugee population, and there is no reason to assume that the Syrians masses would be heading towards Greece.

The whole assumption that Syrian refugees would massively use Turkey as a staging ground to move on to Greece seems flawed. First, most refugees prefer stay to close to home, either in Arab countries or in relatively safe and stable Turkey. Second, most refugees want to go back as soon as possible. Why would Syrians all of the sudden want to go to crisis-ridden Greece?

Greek officials recently said that nearly 15,000 Syrians will try to enter Greece by the end of September. However, this number seems to come out of the blue and lacks any factual basis. But even this "guesstimate" would be right, it would be ridiculous to compare this to an "invasion". The routine portrayal by Greek authorities of refugees as "illegals" is even more outrageous.

The Greek authorities should be ashamed to use Syrian refugees as scapegoats. It is also a myth that Greece would not be able to host refugees. There are many poorer countries in Africa and Asia which have hosted hundreds of thousand of refugees. Tunisia, for instance, generously received hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Libya last year, while it was facing economic hardship and political instability in the wake of its own revolution.

There are really no excuses. Greece has a dismal record of refugee protection, which goes back way before the crisis. It has an asylum approval rate of 0.05 percent (probably one of the lowest rates in the world) and many asylum seekers and refugees (and other immigrants) live in appalling conditions and they frequently fall victims to violent attacks by anti-immigrant, neo-fascist groups groups (see for instance this video).

While the fabrication of a national emergency around an imaginary Syrian migration invasion may serve short-term political goals, such rhetorics are harmful as they fuel racism and anti-immigrant feeling. Ironically, by reinforcing the insane idea that the Greek nation is in peril because of immigration, the Greek government actually strengthens extreme right-wing parties such as Golden Dawn. This is a dangerous game, of which migrants will be the first victims.

Photo:By Philly boy92 via Wikimedia Commons

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.