Greece punished for its border while Turkey plays cynical game

Greece Letter: The EU is using migrants as a stick with which to beat a member state

In 1922 the Greek army invaded western Turkey (the area known as Anatolia) and was humiliated in defeat. The aftermath was an exchange of populations: 1.5 million Greeks living in Anatolia were sent to Greece – a country most of them had never seen – and 500,000 Turkish Muslims living in northeast Greece were sent to Turkey. The lesson of this story is that the exchange has reverberated down to the present day.

This month’s tentative agreement that Syrian and other refugees in Greece are to be sent back to Turkey (where they never wanted to be in the first place) postpones the possibility of any solution to the overall crisis while maintaining the sense of displacement. Where are they supposed to go? And how will they get there?

However, behind the human trauma and tragedy of disorientation lurk some brutal facts of realpolitik.

There are five major Greek islands within spitting distance of the Turkish coast: Lesbos, Chios, Symi, Tilos and Kos (as well as the much smaller island of Kastellorizo). They have been claimed for many years by Turkey as part of its continental shelf for one reason only: they sit on huge mineral deposits of gas and oil.


Kastellorizo is so small that it seldom appears on maps of the eastern Mediterranean, yet at present its population of 200 is swelled by 700 migrants.

The islands cannot cope, but they are strategically important not only for their oil and gas but because they straddle the route through to the Middle East. On a clear day you can see the ayatollah.

Turkey’s claim for €6 billion to accommodate the transitive refugees was underpinned by an attempt to accelerate its eligibility to join the EU, which has been resisted, on many grounds, by its centuries-old enemy, Greece. Behind that is another aim: to have its continental shelf recognised in international law so that it can exploit the mineral deposits.

Lucrative trafficking

A brutal fact: it does not matter how many Greek coastguards or


vessels patrol the Aegean, they cannot stop the illegal lucrative trafficking by Turkish-based smugglers which has already exacted an appalling death toll.

Another brutal fact: Greece has porous borders which are also Europe’s borders, but the EU puts the onus on Greece to protect them.

Imagine if, in the course of one year, a million people appeared on Inishbofin. The county council couldn't cope. The Dublin government would appeal for international aid. And because Ireland is the good boy of the EU economy, it would probably get it.

Brutal fact number three: the EU has told Greece that its continuing economic bailout is dependent on setting up refugee centres (“migrant warehouses”, as they have been called) with minimal help from international agencies. In effect, the migrants are being used as a stick with which to beat Greece.

The European integration so dearly espoused by the central states enables freedom of movement across internal borders through the Schengen agreement, which is obviously threatened by the presence within the EU of migrants who in many cases have no papers at all, let alone a Schengen visa.

Therefore the EU uses yet another stick: if Greece does not solve this crisis unilaterally by May, Greeks may not be able to avail of Schengen mobility.

Crisis meeting

Greece was not invited to a crisis meeting of west Balkan states on March 2nd on the grounds (stated by the Austrian foreign minister) that “Greece has expressed no interest in reducing the influx and wants to continue waving them through”. This ignored the fact that it was Greece alone that had to cope with the numbers. It is being punished for having too many islands in the wrong place.

In 2010, when only 45,000 people illegally crossed the Greek-Turkish land border, it was already acknowledged by the UN that Greece was incapable of handling the situation without EU support.

During the 1990s the then president of Turkey Turgut, Özal, provocatively boasted: “We do not need to make war with Greece. We just need to send them a few million immigrants and finish with them.”

So it was no surprise that cynics saw the Turkish U-turn as coming at a price: a speeded-up Turkish admission to the EU, which the Greeks have consistently opposed.

“Over my dead body” may come horribly true.