Across the Mediterranean - © davide bonaldo/Shutterstock

Across the Mediterranean - © davide bonaldo/Shutterstock

Driven by economic difficulties, European public opinions have taken increasingly skeptical positions on migrants and asylum seekers in recent years, an extremely visible phenomenon in "front line" countries such as Greece and Cyprus

10/07/2024 -  Mary Drosopoulos Thessaloniki

It took years of debate and disagreements for the European Union to finally adopt the new Pact on Migration and Asylum  on 14 May 2024, just three weeks before the EU elections, which took place from 6 to 9 June 2024.

The timing couldn’t have been more critical. For many analysts, the passing of this landmark scheme shortly before the elections can be seen as an attempt by the EU to respond to voters’ concerns regarding European migration policy, but also to make the ultimate effort to appease the anti-immigrant tide that has been taking over Europe lately.

The Pact introduces a set of rules to manage migration on the basis of a common European system. In simple terms, it foresees stricter border control and screening procedures, tightening the criteria for granting international protection.

A key element of the Pact is the introduction of a “solidarity” mechanism to support member states facing overwhelming waves of asylum seekers. In practice, this means that the countries under pressure have the possibility to request support from the EU and other Member States in the form of “migrant relocations, transfers, financial contributions, or deployment of support staff”.

Over the last years, parties running on anti-immigration agendas have been gaining popularity all over Europe. Several factors have contributed to European societies’ resentment towards asylum seekers and migrants, with economy being a catalyst.

According to findings of the European Parliament Eurobarometer survey, in 2023 “the rising cost of living was the most pressing worry for 93% of Europeans”. It is worth emphasizing that the peak results of the survey were in Greece (100%) and Cyprus (99%), followed by Italy and Portugal (both 98%).

Analyses show that the EU’s failure to address the housing crisis has fueled the rise of right-wing platforms which have been using this social gap to blame outsiders. Grappling with inflation that has reached the highest levels in decades, Europeans struggling to make ends meet are looking askance at EU spending on supporting asylum seekers. Moreover, following the Moscow attack on 22 March 2024, the re-emerging fear of extremist terrorism has had a negative impact on the way Europeans perceive migrants.

Greece and Cyprus: from solidarity to fatigue

In recent years, both in Greece and Cyprus, solidarity wuth refugees and migrants has slowly turned into fatigue, skepticism and xenophobia.

Amid soaring prices making the cost of living unbearable, the two countries have been receiving large numbers of asylum seekers and dislocated persons from war-afflicted regions.

Both the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the Cypriot president, Nikos Christodoulidis, have been quite active within the European People’s Party (EPP) and have often received the appraisal of Ursula von der Leyen for their leadership.

The president of the EU Commission has been a key source of support for the two countries in addressing migration challenges and counterbalancing the voices of the far right.

Now, with a renewed mandate, Ursula von der Layen is expected to play a pivotal role in assisting the two countries in developing a more efficient migration strategy.

Cyprus: Lack of resources, ‘unpleasant’ measures and the deal with Lebanon

In April, the President of Cyprus, Nikos Christodoulidis, declared that Cyprus was “in a state of serious crisis” due to the rising numbers of migrants arriving to the island and called for the EU to intervene.

Ever since early spring, favourable weather conditions have facilitated the uncontrollable arrival of Syrian asylum seekers via Lebanon. With Lebanese authorities shifting their attention to the military escalations on the Lebanese-Israeli border, human traffickers have been exploiting these conditions to take the 10-hour sea journey needed to approach Cyprus, the closest EU country to Lebanon, with boats carrying mainly Syrian men.

This situation has only added to the already challenging conditions on the island, as Cyprus has been struggling for months to accommodate asylum seekers due to the lack of resources and facilities.

In this delicate monent, ahead of the European elections, socio-political tensions have re-emerged, fueling the anti-migratory narrative of the far right.

Responding to public pressure, Christodoulidis announced migration-related measures that, as he said, might be "unpopular both at home and abroad".

On 7 April, during a meeting with Ursula von der Leyen in Athens, on the sidelines of the New Democracy party congress, Christodoulidis requested, among other things, the declassification of Syria as an unsafe country and further financial support for Lebanon to keep the two million Syrian refugees in the country.

The two high-ranking politicians, who were invited by the Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the occasion of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the New Democracy ruling party, agreed firstly, on an EU-backed up plan to support Cyprus in stopping migration flows and secondly, as to the content of the messages that would be conveyed to the Lebanese leadership by Christodoulidis, a question of great diplomatic importance.

A few days later, the Cypriot president paid an official visit to Beirut with the confidence of a leader voicing the positions not only of his own country, but of the EU as well.

As per monthly figures published by the UNHCR , in May 2024, the top arrivals in Cyprus were from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. With a press release published on 12 June, UNHCR expressed its concern over the impact of “a spate of actions which are effectively shrinking the protection space of Cyprus”.

The announcement referred to the aforementioned measures taken by the Cypriot government, namely the suspension of the processing of asylum applications as of mid-April, and the resumption of arrests of asylum-seekers attempting to submit a subsequent application, as a mechanism to subject them to return proceedings.

Greece: delays, gaps and post-election reforms

Following the striking abstention rate marked at the European lections in Greece, the Greek premier Mitsotakis commented that “we got the message” and promised to undertake all necessary actions to regain public trust. The voters’ abstention – soaring to 60% - was a clear indicator of the discontent of Greek society with the existing political landscape. Migration has undoubtedly been one of the hot potatoes in the hands of the Greek government.

The latest figures released by the Hellenic Ministry of Migration are those referring to last April, when most arrivals were from Afghanistan, followed by Syria and Egypt. In the meantime, the humanitarian situation remained critical, with NGOs supporting refugees blaming the government for serious delays in the deposit of EU funds, sabotaging their operations.

In particular, since mid-May hundreds of asylum seekers in Greece have been affected by serious gaps in processes related to their asylum cases and reception, as a result of the halting of operations provided by “Metadrasi”, a leading organization providing refugees interpreting services.

The organization made a public announcement claiming that the Hellenic Ministry of Migration has been holding back EU funds that are meant to be allocated to organisations working with refugees. Apparently, long delays have been a result of bureaucracy, but also of miscommunication between the Ministry and organisations operating in the field.

The interpreters working for Metadrasi are, for the most part, refugees and asylum seekers, who have been especially trained to provide cultural mediation in their mother tongue. Metadrasi’s inability to pay their salaries due to the Ministry’s delay means that humanitarian workers enter a state of limbo by losing their main - and sometimes only – source of income, while beneficiaries remain “lost in translation”.

Vowing to keep the promise of listening to the Greek people, the Greek PM proceeded to a reshuffle right after the elections. The minister of Migration, Dimitris Kairidis, was one of the four ministers sacked by Mitsotakis.

It is worth mentioning that Kairidis has hailed 2024 as the “year of legal migration”: In December 2023, he introduced an amendment that offered the possibility to migrants (even those who entered the country illegally) to be granted residence permit, provided that they had been residing and working in Greece for the last 3 years and that they had a clean criminal record.

This landmark amendment, which passed with 262 votes in favor, promises, on the one hand, to meet local employers’ need for workers, and on the other hand to facilitate significantly migrants’ access to the labour market.

The new minister appointed is Nikos Panagiotopoulos, a politician with an education background in law and international relations.

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