“The future of Europe cannot be defined by xenophobia and Euroscepticism”.
One of the main topics of concern in the recent European Parliament elections, was the rise of populist parties across Europe, which feed from an increasing xenophobic and Eurosceptic sentiment among Europeans. In an interview with Apostolos Staikos, a journalist for Euronews Greece, who has extensively reported from the refugee camp in Moria on the island of Lesvos, Europa United discusses how justified are Europe’s sentiments towards immigration.
“From 2015 until today, I have carried out ten missions on the island of the northeast Aegean, with the first year coming as a huge shock. Approximately, 100 refugee boats reached Lesbos daily back then, with around 35,000 refugees living already on it. For the past four years, Greek and European authorities have proven unable to control the situation and to create decent conditions for refugees,” he explains.
The living standards in these camps are appalling as Apostolos describes. “I have met desperate people, but also seen a lot of smiling faces. Many refugees keep strong and optimistic about their future, but some are also shocked by what they are experiencing. I met volunteers who did their best, as well as some of them who went to Lesvos for a week to get some selfies and drink ouzo, helpful locals as well as those who exploited refugees and sold them orange juice for 20 euros”.
Dirt, mud and barefoot children walking and playing in them is in common view, yet the worst sentiment comes from the lack of hope. People feel imprisoned and fear that they will stay on the island forever.
In the island of Samos too, the situation is out of control. The refugee centre can accommodate 650 individuals but today, there are approximately 4,000 migrants ‘‘living’’ there. Greece has received significant funds, however four years later, the situation on the islands remains unacceptable. This is a crisis of an unprecedented scale and Europe was not prepared nor united in dealing with it. “All member states should have been obliged to accept several refugees. Currently still, only a few countries share the burden, while others defend the ‘‘Christian tradition of Europe,’’ Apostolos thinks.
“The closure of the Balkan route in March 2016, was a cruel decision that trapped thousands of refugees in Greece. At that time, I was reporting from Idomeni, at the borders with North Macedonia. People became desperate. The EU – Turkey agreement on the issue is also problematic. Basically, Brussels is paying Ankara in order to hold refugees, but until when and for how long Erdogan can keep three million people in Turkey,” he questions.
“The refugees are not a threat, nor they come to steal our jobs and distort or destroy our culture. Naturally, there are problems, as their integration poses a challenge. Most refugees try to escape from war and extreme poverty. It is simply that some media and far right parties spread fear. There are about 75,000 refugees living in Greece. Apart from the three islands where locals protest about the situation and in fairness, they do have a point, there isn’t really any major issues on mainland Greece,” he adds.
Fear of the unknown
“Xenophobia and racism can in no way be justified, nor can the future of Europe be defined by these concepts. I understand that in some countries, people are sceptical, angry and even afraid. This is what far-right parties exploit”.
However, Apostolos believes that we should try and distinguish the European citizens’ sensitivities on the issue of the refugees. “A local from Samos, where refugees try to survive in appalling conditions has every right to be angry with Greek and European authorities. Someone who lives in the centre of Vienna and is afraid of refugees, is a totally different story,” he says.
“Some “radical” political parties in countries such as Austria, France, Italy or Hungary, for example, use the immigration problem to attract voters. Euroscepticism has become not only fashionable in a sense, but opportunistic. Yet it is up to the citizens to realize that apart from some catchy slogans, what exactly do they propose for the future of Europe?”
“The question is how progressive political forces react and what do they counter-propose. We must accept that migration is here to stay; with wars that never end, extreme poverty and climate change, many more people will be forced to leave their countries. Closing the borders is not an answer; how can you control sea frontiers? Besides, we have experienced situations like these before in Europe. In the ‘50s Greeks were migrating to Germany in order to find work. Similarly, the refugees nowadays, don’t want to be illegal and they shouldn’t wait for years until their asylum case is examined,” Apostolos thinks.
“I read all the time that there are not enough workers in Germany or that locals reject certain jobs. In Greece for instance, many don’t want to work in factories or as farmers. Refugees can fill these positions, as they have much to offer. Europe was and will always be one of the main destinations for migrants, since it’s arguably one of the best places in the world to live,” he adds.
However, according to Apostolos, the populist parties have got one thing “right”; they have increased their influence, by claiming that refugees pose a threat. People nowadays fall for catchy slogans and false promises for quick solutions, but it takes time to understand and learn through experience and debate. For example, thirty years ago Albanians were considered ‘‘invaders’’ in Greece and many Greeks treated them almost as enemies. But by now they are fully integrated. Thus, job opportunities and time are the best solution which can defeat hate and suspicion.
“Ultimately, I don’t think that migration is Europe’s number one problem but unemployment or corruption, poverty and people who can’t pay their bills. Yet it’ s much easier for politicians to divert the focus on migrants, instead of presenting their proposals on education, culture or climate change,” Apostolos says.
He adds that media have put the issue on the top of the agenda. “Strong pictures and sad stories are bread and butter for us, that’s the truth. Therefore, the audience is familiar with the issue and possibly quite worried. Politicians are aware of that and behave accordingly”.
What we learn from people like Apostolos, who have worked and experienced the refugee crisis in the front lines, have spoken and met with people who we consider as a “threat”, is that a different approach is needed. Populism and xenophobia are not the solutions, nor are closed borders and Euroscepticism. They can only sooth and comfort our fear of the new and imminent change, that comes with the arrival of the refugees.
However, is it worth to risk what we have built so far in our continent, just to exclude others from our living standards and prosperity, instead of making them part of our success by giving them a chance to contribute to it?
Apostolos and his team will return to Samos in the future, when the new refugee camp is ready around September. He is currently working on a story about gay refugees. They will also probably return to Moria, as more arrivals are expected during summer.