The official statistics say 13 asylum seekers enter Australia every day, by air, nearly 5000 in a year. So far 1300 people have arrived this year by boat but there’s something troubling about the way our media and politicians are playing on the image of fleets of boats invading Australian territory full of queue-jumpers who may carry disease and arms that might jeopardise our safety.

The fact that it’s a global problem and Australia hasn’t been picked out as a special destination doesn’t seem to resonate.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) says there are 37.4 million refugees worldwide. Australia’s annual quota is 12,000. Over the past 20 years more than six million asylum seekers have sought refuge in Europe. For Australia (and New Zealand) the equivalent figure is 107,000. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission just over 6000 were granted refugee status in FY 07/8. 95% of asylum seekers arrive by air in Australia. Rather than self-righteous indignation, we need to regain our sense of perspective and resist the panic.

For example, think of a country that’s an archipelago and imagine the difficulties trying to manage or police the refugee traffic.

I’m not thinking Indonesia (17,000 islands) but the islands of Greece — 6000 altogether (227 inhabited). Turkey is the nearest neighbour, closer to the source of the traffic from the Middle East and not inclined (or able) to manage or prevent its passage through to Europe. To the travellers, Turkey is a gateway to Europe, and Greece the antechamber, for people en route to a better life they hope awaits them in Germany or the UK.

Nothing is easy in the lives of asylum seekers, but compared to the sea journeys made to get to Australia, it is a relatively short trip from the Turkish mainland to the islands of the eastern Aegean. But people do die in the water. Last month a boat foundered on the rocks near the pretty tourist village Skala Sikaminia in north-east Lesbos and about half the company of 18 Afghanis were drowned.

Most of the Greek islands near Turkey are familiar with a constant stream of refugees from the Middle East, Asia and the horn of Africa. The EU’s border-monitoring agency, Frontex, reports a 47% increase in the numbers entering Greece by sea this year, whereas Italy and Spain, have seen a drop of 60%.

Lesbos — eight nautical miles away from Troy and not far south of Gallipoli — is the third biggest island after Eubea and Crete. Further south the Dodecanese include largish islands such as Rhodes, medium-sized Kalymnos, Kos and Leros and tiny Symi, Patmos, Agathonissi, (with barely 100 residents), which also have to deal with refugees throughout the northern spring and summer. With islands that don’t have their own coast guard vessels, dinghies with refugees might be intercepted by a Frontex patrol boat.

Until November, those who scramble on to the fabled Lesbian shore ended up in Pagani, a squalid prison camp outside the capital Mytilene. The UNCHR, Amnesty International and Médecine Sans Frontières have had harsh words about Pagani — over-crowding, children behind bars, poor hygiene (a few taps and buckets among hundreds of people) and ill treatment. At the beginning of October there were 700-900 prisoners in there, about 150 women and the same number of children, and some unaccompanied minors.

Several times this year, Pagani’s inmates staged hunger strikes and burned their beds — even children got involved in wild protests. When the new PASOK government vice-minister for internal affairs (and citizens protection) Spyros Vougias paid a visit on October 23, he said it was a “concentration camp” with “wretched and inhumane conditions” and the smoke and fire of revolt reminded him of Dante’s Inferno. He promised to “upgrade infrastructure and curb bureaucracy” to speed up the processing of refugees’ applications for asylum.

At the end of October he closed Pagani and most prisoners were released and sent either to another centre on the neighbouring island of Chios or to Athens. I say “closed”, but technically Pagani was opened — the doors unlocked and people allowed to come and go. Not all were removed to Athens or Chios and now there is talk of refurbishing and expanding the camp because for the foreseeable future the flow of asylum seekers will not cease.

European countries are guided by an EU agreement made in Dublin, which sanctions a Europe-wide fingerprint database of all refugees and decrees they must be returned to the country where they first landed (and were fingerprinted) but Greece’s reputation in the rest of Europe has been negative; migrants trying to enter Britain at Calais have been known to try and remove their fingerprints with fire, knives or acid so they won’t be sent back there. Human Rights Watch wants European governments to stop sending migrants and asylum seekers back there.

In the middle of 2009, Human Rights Watch estimated there was a backlog of at least 30,000 refugees waiting to be processed in Greece but of the several hundred thousand who arrived in Greece over the past decade, relatively few applied for asylum (and a tinier percentage got it) — and 200 died at sea or were killed by land mines along the northern land border with Turkey.

So far the new Greek government has released several hundred migrants from detention centres such as Pagani but they must all leave Greece within 30 days — but where to go? Getting out of Greece is almost as bad as getting in — in July this year the police burned down an informal refugee camp built by Afghanis at the western port of Patras — where the ferries to Italy depart.

It seems unlikely that Greece and Lesbos are capable of sorting out Europe’s ongoing migration problem. The PASOK governed has “softened” its methods and yet continues the “zero tolerance” policy against “illegal immigrants” proclaimed by the conservative New Democracy government defeated on October 4. Australians are familiar with the hard line-soft touch approach but not the scale of the problem.

Significant though Greece is in Europe, it is only one small country on the front line and it can’t cope. While our politicians argue about whether or not refugees are being pushed or pulled out of their countries, they still keep coming and nobody talks much about policies that could help fix the issue of people movement at source.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey