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Cash-strapped Greece struggles against overwhelming tide of refugees

As the E.U. debates what to do with a steady flow of migrants and war refugees, Greece remains Ground Zero for refugee arrivals, and fears are growing that resistance to migrants in central and northern Europe will lead to refugees being stranded in Greece. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, CORRESPONDENT:

    The glorious sunset over the island of Lesbos is misleading. The Aegean Sea is anything but tranquil these days.

    This night, an inflatable raft is in trouble. People on shore have shone a light on this pile of lifejackets to guide the distressed boat into land.

    On this occasion, fate is kind, this rescued group of migrants and refugees is taken to the harbor on the northern side of the island. These families, wrapped in thermal blankets, are lucky to have survived.

  • RON REDMOND, SPOKESMAN, UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES:

    The numbers of people coming through here are so huge, and the resources to cope with it so small that Greece cannot do this alone, which we've been saying since the beginning.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Ron Redmond has worked with the United Nations' refugee agency since the early 1990s.

  • RON REDMOND:

    I mean, until now, since the beginning of the year, they've had over half a million people come through these islands, up through Athens, then they get on buses, they go up to the border, and they leave Greece and go North.

    But just the week they spend in Greece, is putting a huge strain on, particularly, the eastern islands.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The authorities on Lesbos are already overwhelmed as their population surges by the boat load. Aid agencies cannot provide the number of shelters needed.

    The refugees come here, because the island is Greece's nearest point to Turkey — just five miles away at its closest shores.

    Traffickers charge these desperate travelers anywhere between $1,000 and $2,500 per person for the short, dangerous trip.

    The week I was there, 45,000 migrants crossed into Greece. In fact 80 percent of the migrants and refugees who've arrived in Europe this year have come through Greece.

    Nikos Kostandaros is the managing editor of a leading Greek newspaper, Kathimerini.

  • NIKOS KOSTANDAROS, MANAGING EDITOR, KATHIMERINI:

    Greece is not able to protect is borders, and that's not because it wouldn't try. It's impossible. The islands are a lacework across the sea. You cannot stop it.

    And how do you stop it? Do you sink the boats with people on board? Do you shoot at them?

    Do you bomb Turkey before they leave, which was one of the issues that was raised in Libya, for example — that they would bomb the smugglers boats before they left. These are crazy ideas. There is no stopping it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the challenges of keeping migrants from entering Greece is behind me. The country has more than 6,000 islands. That's more coastline than Mexico.

    This ship — docked in the main town on Lesbos — belongs to Frontex, the European agency that's supposed to help nations protect their external land and sea borders.

    But in practice, Frontex is acting as a rescue service for refugees in peril on the sea.

    In some ways, so is this Greek warship anchored in a cove off Lesbos. These days it works as much in a humanitarian capacity as it does dealing with security.

    Above the bay, every day, thousands of migrants line up for food provided by aid agencies, while waiting to catch a bus to a ferry provided by the Greek government that will take them to the mainland.

    Security experts worry that blending in among the masses of these unscreened refugees could be trained militants from groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS.

    That's a concern of Theodoros Panas, a retired Greek intelligence officer who oversaw counter-terrorism efforts during the last Athens Olympics, in 2004.

    THEODOROS PANAS, MAJOR GENERAL (RET.), GREEK ARMY: One of the easiest ways to infiltrate in Europe or other countries is through this problem.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    While some countries in the E.U. see the weak borders in Greece as part of the problem. Panas says the problem begins in Turkey.

  • THEODOROS PANAS:

    We can see, for example, in Turkey, that daily they are crossing the border — more than 10,000 people. I cannot believe that this is done without the local authorities of Turkey to know it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Every day, a ferry from Lesbos docks at the main port in Athens, and it is filled with refugees who are anxious to embark on the next stage of their journey north.

    Even Syrian medical student Mohammed Ghunaim, who is recording every step of his journey, understands the resistance.

  • MOHAMMED GHUNAIM, SYRIAN REFUGEE:

    They have the right to close their borders or open it, because it's their, their countries.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Some refugees land at weigh stations like this park in Victoria Square in Athens, waiting for days till they can get money wired to them from their relatives in order to continue their journey onward.

    Given this border crisis in Greece, how do you reverse this?

  • NIKOS KOSTANDAROS:

    I don't think you can reverse this — not in the sense of stopping the flow of people, once they are on the road.

    All the efforts in Syria are piecemeal and often at odds with each other. This is an opportunity now for everybody to press for a vital solution.

    Pushing all of the parties involved in the Syrian conflict towards a compromise somewhere that can give people the hope of returning.

    That will also help deal with the problem in Europe — once we know that it's not permanent; once we know that we are helping people in their hour of need rather than changing our own society in a way that that no one has been prepared for.

  • RON REDMOND:

    Primarily you've got to end the conflicts, and we don't see that happening in Syria.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When you have one country that wants to build a razor wire fence and another country that wants to treat migrants differently, what are you going to have in six months to a year? A patchwork of quasi-borders?

  • RON REDMOND:

    I think, initially, what you are going to see and what I think people upstream fear, for example, here in Greece, that they're going to be left holding the bag — that you're going to have a backup going all the way to Greece and beyond even.

    I mean you build a dam, you end up with a reservoir behind it, and I think somebody may get stuck with a reservoir or refugees.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Greece has avoided becoming that reservoir by managing to funnel the new arrivals up to its border with Macedonia and then they march on through the Balkans– and beyond.

    Amidst a profound economic crisis of its own, Greece is struggling with the burden of being the refugees' main port of call.

    And if its neighbors decide to shut down their frontiers and refuse to admit more asylum seekers, these refugees could be trapped in a country they do not want to be in and one that cannot afford them.

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