SKOPJE, MACEDONIA—It was during another Greek seaside vacation that I came face-to-face with the problem. From the lounging sunbathers, laughing, splashing children, and half-depleted cups of freddo cappuccino, you would never know that a full-blown migration crisis was on, and not very far down the road. Plying the rows of lined umbrellas were sweaty Greek donut-sellers, Bangladeshi men with bags full of cheap plastic toys, and the Chinese foot massage lady with her unguents and conical hat (I recalled her from the year before).
There was also a Nigerian fellow with an Old Testament name, which is how you knew he was Christian. His job was to weave colorful bracelets, like the kind that might be worn to a reggae concert or by an American middle schooler. I let him make two for my little boys, mostly because he seemed like a nice man and I wanted to dissuade him from going to Germany.
“But Germany is inviting everyone to come! They say we will have a good life and money,” said the Nigerian, expertly weaving the tiny strands into something cohesive and strong. “And the Greece people, they are very racist.”
Having spent much time in Greece over almost twenty years, I tried to explain that while, yes, Greek society can be somewhat closed, it is generally not intolerant. That all in all, life here is a pretty safe bet, considering what you could expect further north in Europe in terms of costs, housing, and, well, racism. But the Nigerian man, who like so many others had lived in Greece for years, had been inspired by Angela Merkel’s reckless welcome.
And that captivation marked the problem. Even then, it was obvious that Northern Europe would not welcome these newcomers indefinitely. Such things have never happened anywhere absent some form of coercion. Yet the power of politicians, the press, and social media to manipulate the public imagination sadly remains as strong as it ever has been, and a lot of people are suffering now because of it.
Europe’s migration crisis has mostly been covered from the “human interest” perspective, with the perverse proliferation of tragic images and emotive narratives amplified by social media. This collective content stream has made it seem primarily a humanitarian crisis. But that is false.
Instead, what we are seeing is the unending monetization of human misery, a phenomenon as complete as it is cynical. By necessity, it has been complemented by an infectious institutionalization of irresponsibility–something that has not failed to affect geopolitics. This is why the ramifications of the migration crisis are so serious for Europe, America, and many other countries.
Countless reports have shown ways in which migration is monetized. Everyone gets something: the human trafficking networks that provide transport; the criminal networks that sell forged (and real) travel documents; the governments and humanitarian NGOs that receive handsome donations from both public and private funds; the media that attract huge audiences (and advertising revenue) by publishing images of human despair; the clever villager who sells a bottle of water for fifty cents extra.
Another money-generating scheme—and one that has been particularly associated with the Islamic State–is antiquities smuggling. Slovenian police recently discovered three small figurines dating from 3000 BCE in a migrant camp. They had been smuggled in from the Middle East on the “Balkan route” from Greece into Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia. While there are no reliable figures for the amount or value of cultural treasures exported via illegal migration, one thing is clear: the end destination. Such valuable antiquities inevitably reach the private collections of wealthy people, most often Europeans and Americans.
A more disturbing sort of smuggling abetted by the migration crisis involves the most vulnerable part of the migrant population: children. Some 10,000 “unaccompanied minors” disappeared within the welcoming EU last year. An official at a major international charity in Macedonia tells me the real figure is probably higher. “Many times at the border [with Greece], our team could see unaccompanied children attaching themselves to families, in order to be registered,” said the official. “But since none of them have official documents, there is no way of knowing who is who.”
As noted elsewhere, this humanitarian official believes some “disappeared” children have been kidnapped by organ-harvesting gangs. Again, the end customers for such hard-to-find commodities would be law-abiding Westerners.
But beyond the billions in criminal proceeds associated with the migration game, and the invisible cash floating around between fly-by-night NGOs and internet-based “assistance” groups, there is the larger monetization of migration on an institutional and international basis. This is the factor that will have the greatest future ramifications, and precisely where the issues of responsibility and geopolitics converge.
In October 2015, the European Union pledged three billion euros in aid to Turkey, which has hosted 2.5 million Syrian refugees and ushered another one million refugees and migrants onward to Greece, the Balkans and Northern Europe. At the recent inconclusive EU-Turkey summit, that asking price rose to six billion euros. Not only did the EU accept that demand; it consented to a “migrant swap” in which Europe would have to accept one refugee for each economic migrant sent back to Turkey, leaving the problem of numbers in no way ameliorated. It is clear that neither Angela Merkel nor her fellow EU luminaries have spent much time haggling with the polite men in the carpet shops of Istanbul.
Simultaneously, the EU (and its Greek home affairs commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos) has offered some 700 million euros in emergency aid to Greek NGOs. More than any other country, Greece has allowed the migrant situation to deteriorate, failing to properly register incoming migrants and passing them on as quickly as possible to Macedonia, where police have noted marvelous coincidences (like hundreds of Pakistani migrants all born on January 1, according to their Greek registration forms).
Yet while claiming to care about the newcomers’ wellbeing, Greek leaders continue to bus thousands of migrants every day to a Macedonian border that everyone knows is very much closed, a wilderness without proper public services. The suspicion that they are deliberately trying to create a humanitarian disaster in order to gain sympathy, money, and political support is now shared in many European capitals.
“I believe that for the first six to seven months [of the Tsipras Administration] there was a strategy to consciously do nothing,” said Angeliki Dimitriadi, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in Deutsche Welle. “They had the opinion that if they let the irregular flows move on, then it would become a European problem and it would have to be solved at a European level.”
However, as with the same leftist government’s disastrous game of chicken with the EU last summer over the Greek bailout package, this plan has badly backfired. Greece is now stuck with 60,000 migrants and counting, and has yet to take any meaningful actions. “They took a political risk,” continued Dimitriadi. “They didn’t realize that other European countries would offer financial support much easier than they would relocate people. Especially now that the discourse is focused much more on security than humanitarian concerns.”
Greece’s irresponsibility stands in stark contrast to the actions taken since June by its “northern neighbor”—the term Athens often uses to avoid saying the word “Macedonia” in a context not referring to its own province of the same name. The intractable “name issue,” which has seen Athens block the Republic of Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership for the past 25 years, has finally come back to haunt it. This is because, unlike Greece, Macedonia retains sovereignty over its borders and national security.
On August 20, even before we had returned home to Macedonia from the above-mentioned seaside vacation, leaders had declared a crisis situation (and not a state of emergency, as media carelessly reported then). This resulted from months of deliberate non-cooperation from Greek authorities at the border, resulting in unpredictable influxes of refugees and migrants who continue to be shipped north by Greek authorities and traffickers as soon as they arrive from Turkey.
Macedonia’s “crisis situation” declaration opened a clear institutional and legal path forward. (For the nuts-and-bolts of this crisis management process, see my Balkanalysis.com article here). To summarize, the security services created a risk assessment report for a crisis management Steering Committee, which then gave its proposal to President (and Commander-in-Chief) Gjorge Ivanov, the government, relevant ministries, and local communities affected by the crisis. President Ivanov then convened his National Security Council, and finally tasked the army with protecting the borders and helping the police to counter illegal entries there. At the same time, police had to keep processing the constant flow of migrants heading north to Angela Merkel’s land of wonder. This all happened within a matter of weeks and without any request for outside assistance. In other words, while clueless Austrians were still waving their “refugees welcome” placards and Greek officials were pushing everyone through with minimal checks, little Macedonia had developed a forward-looking action plan based on critical evaluation of security risks.
This calculation was based on two simple observations. One, that eventually Germans and others would revolt against Merkel’s open-door policy, possibly forcing migrants back southward down the Balkan corridor; and two, that an internally divided European bloc would try to force the establishment of large migrant camps in non-EU countries along this corridor to cover for its own failures in crisis management.
Indeed, the November 13 Paris terrorist attacks marked the beginning of the end for Merkel’s open-door policy. In Macedonia, local media had already started to suggest the EU was pushing for the construction of camps. This was confirmed for me in late fall, when a senior UNHCR official in Skopje confided that the organization, together with the EU, wanted to “temporarily” settle some 30,000 migrants in a country of two million. But unlike Greece, which had chosen to neglect its own security in taking the path of least resistance, Macedonia was not about to become the subject of experiments. As security officials noted, the constant (and sometimes violent) attempts by migrants to illegally enter from Greece constituted a direct security threat from a Schengen Zone country. This was more than ironic. For years, Eurocrats have warned that Balkan countries present security risks to the EU; with the migration crisis, the potential security threat was coming from the European Union itself.
In the past few weeks, Macedonia has acceded to the wishes of countries further north, led by Austria and the Visegrad Group, and has now closed the border to all illegal migrants. Protestations of shock and outrage from Greece notwithstanding, this is neither sudden nor a surprise: Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz stated it would happen on February 25. Yet Greece continues to send thousands of migrants to the border, leaving them in squalid conditions, all the while complaining about the unfairness of it all, about how Europe has no heart, no “solidarity” with either Greece or its huddled masses.
Don’t buy it. There are very good reasons for what is now happening at what was, in World War I, known as the “Macedonian” or “Salonica Front” (named after the port city of Thessaloniki, one hour south of the border). These reasons involve money, the desire to get sympathy and assistance from Brussels, and a very dangerous geopolitics.
In February 2015, Germany’s Zeit Online reported on the rather unusual new coalition between two Greek parties that had nothing in common except a shared aversion to austerity measures. However, as the investigation revealed, both the left-wing Syriza party of Alexis Tsipras and the right-wing Independent Greeks of Panos Kammenos had close ties at senior levels to Russia. The most prominent on the Left was academic-turned-foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, whereas Kammenos himself was the hard Right’s leading admirer of Vladimir Putin.
It is no secret that Russia has systematically infiltrated and used Europe’s far-right parties, but the degree of influence Moscow has had also on the Greek left makes the country a remarkable case study for the future of Europe. The migration crisis has caused, and will cause, increasing polarization along partisan lines throughout the continent, making similar dynamics likely elsewhere. Now, as I reported on March 7, Germany’s BND is concerned that Greek officials backed by persons involved in the Ukraine and Crimea adventures may be trying to destabilize the Balkans, and thus Europe, by having migrants attempt to violently breach Greece’s northern borders. There is otherwise no logical or humane reason for Greek police to be re-routing migrants to an empty, muddy field at a border they know will remain closed, when there are nearby cities with fully functional services.
Hopefully, the EU will manage to convince Greece to stop this siege tactic and create more humane quarters for the migrants, as it was supposed to have done by now. Macedonia, which has fortified its borders and is supported by police from Austria, Visegrad, and the Balkan countries, is not taking any chances. Neither are Bulgaria and Albania, which also neighbor Greece and which have also sent security forces to their borders.
Russia is not the only state that can benefit from strategic migration games. As the EU-Turkey summit reaffirmed with absolute clarity, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has all the leverage. But haggling over money or refugee exchanges is hardly the main concern for Europe’s geopolitical future here.
This is simply because Erdoğan’s ability to close and open the migrant floodgates at will gives him absolute power over Brussels. Greece may want some free money, logistical assistance, debt relief—and ideally, some instability for its troublesome “northern neighbor”—but Turkey’s demands could go far beyond the topics discussed at the recent summit, which include visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens and a fast-tracked EU membership process. Turkey has issues regarding its minority populations in Europe and has historically contested the extent of its territorial waters with Greece. It also has that little lingering military presence in the divided island of Cyprus. Then there is the issue of the Kurds and Turkey’s proxy war with Russia and Assad in Syria.
At present, Turkey has essentially no incentive to cooperate with the EU, and it will forcefully pursue its national interests. Any doubters might note how in recent weeks these old issues have suddenly reemerged. First, Bulgaria expelled an anti-Russian Turkish diplomat, one allegedly trying to influence a local Turkish minority party on Erdoğan’s behalf. Then the European Parliament held a rare discussion on the Turkish minority in Greek Thrace, organized by the German-led EPP party–and unsurprisingly attacked by Greek neo-Nazi European parliamentarians. Finally, the Cypriot President begged Brussels to recognize Turkish as an official EU language, while announcing that “intensive” negotiations with Ankara started in May 2015 (that is, when the migration crisis began).
Thus while most media attention (and political indignation) have focused on Turkey’s carpet-shop haggling over money, Turkey’s strategic goals in the migration war—which directly also strengthen Russia’s opposing role—could well include making demands that will incur huge resistance in Greece and other EU countries. Greece could be faced with the unenviable choice of accepting millions more migrants or giving in to Turkey’s maximalist demands.
And this leads to the most important conclusion—one that the EU, lost in its recriminations and bickering over refugee quotas and aid sums, has failed to really appreciate. For while war in Syria and Iraq might have fueled the migrant crisis, Chancellor Merkel’s open door policy (and the EU’s more recent negotiations with Turkey) has ensured that the crisis will continue indefinitely. Plenty of poor countries are observing Turkey’s hard bargaining with keen interest, as it presents a new national business model that can be used widely. All human trafficking and other “business” interests aside, there is no reason why African, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian countries should not encourage their citizens to migrate, if they believe they can scare the EU into coughing up funds in a similar way. The genie is out of the bottle, and full-scale extortion of the EU cannot be far behind.
In the end, the union that started out as a humble coal-and-steel outfit may finally have encountered one challenge too many. Very soon it will be springtime for Merkel. Expect a lot to be clarified soon.