March 13, 2020

The migrant crisis in Greece is likely to worsen in the coming weeks after Turkey allowed thousands of refugees and other migrants to move towards the Greek border, Turkey’s border with the EU, late February. Further security disturbances are likely near border crossing points over the coming weeks; recent attempts to enter the country led to clashes between Greek border guards and migrants. In addition, anti-immigrant demonstrations are likely to intensify in the medium term in major cities and near facilities processing, housing, or supporting migrants. Locals and anti-immigration activists could target workers associated with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working directly or indirectly with refugees and migrants.


New Wave of Migrants  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is possibly using the refugees as a bargaining chip to demand NATO support for his military intervention in northern Syria. Shortly after a Syrian government airstrike on Turkish forces, Feb. 27, Turkey declared that it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the EU. Since Turkey relaxed border controls Feb. 29, preliminary information indicates that Greek border patrols have thwarted at least 27,823 illegal attempts to enter the country, including 5,000 March 2-3. Authorities have closed the Kastanies-Karaagac border crossing, where most of the migrants had been attempting to enter Greece; a similar closure – as well as disturbances involving migrants and security forces – is also possible at the Kipoi- İbriktepe crossing. Greek authorities have also increased land and sea border patrols along the entire Turkish border, including around the port of Alexandroupoli and the Aegean Islands. The government has temporarily suspended asylum claims, and officials have stated their intention to deport anyone who enters Greece illegally.


Authorities’ Response to the Crisis

Migration through the Balkans

Countries located along the so-called Balkan Route, which migrants use to enter Western Europe, including North Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, have increased their border security in preparation for dealing with possible waves of migrants, which will likely increase border processing times for travelers and transporters. In addition, EU officials have pledged EUR 700 million in aid for Greece and are setting up a European intervention force through EU’s border agency FRONTEX, which will be deployed to Greece to assist authorities in managing the crisis. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stated that the agency will provide around 100 border guards and several patrol vessels and aircraft.


Anti-immigrant Demonstrations to Increase in Frequency

Anti-immigrant activists held a major demonstration in Thessaloniki March 8, and further anti-immigrant rallies are possible, including in Athens and Thessaloniki. These demonstrations could become violent, and clashes between demonstrators and migrants, police, and counterdemonstrators are all possible. Due to border shutdowns at the Greek-Turkish border, and heightened security at other borders in the region, freight delays are possible. Increased congestion at Bulgarian-Turkish border crossings is possible, as passengers and transporters seek alternative routes to circumvent the Greek border. There is a risk of attacks by anti-immigrant activists and locals on NGO staff working with refugees, particularly on the Aegean islands of Chios and Lesbos. The possible influx of an additional several thousand refugees into Greece will likely further exacerbate the situation in the country.

Locals on Lesbos and Chios have held several major demonstrations against the government's policy of hosting migrant reception centers on the islands for extended periods. More than 40 officers and 10 locals were injured in clashes during protests Feb. 26. Demonstrators also reportedly attacked mainland security force reinforcements in their hotels. It has also been reported that groups of locals had vandalized the premises of several NGOs that work with refugees on the island of Lesbos. On Feb. 26, local authorities declared a 24-hour public sector strike for nonemergency services, in solidarity with the protesters.  

In addition, refugees within Greece protested early February and March over their living conditions. Further protests by migrants are likely in the short-to-medium term. Despite the spike in the number of migrants attempting to reach Greece via Turkey, Greek authorities seem to have the situation generally under control and are determined not to allow any illegal immigration. Heightened security and clashes at the border crossings will likely persist over the short and medium terms, though will, for the most part, likely be contained to the vicinity of the border. The most likely impact for people and businesses operating in Greece will be disruptions arising from an increased number of demonstrations by anti-migrant groups and locals on the Greek islands of Chios and Lesbos, and counterdemonstrations by pro-migrant groups. Individuals not involved in the protests and not working directly with migrants are unlikely to be targeted.


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