The Greek and Syrian Conflict


The Mediterranean country of Greece lays sprawled across the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas.  Located in south-eastern Europe, it lays at the meeting point of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. Several hundred of its islands form steppingstones across the Aegean Sea to Turkey. Renowned for its natural beauty, high mountain ranges, pristine beaches, historical monuments and archaeological sites, Greece is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe. However, within this mountainous kingdom lies an ominous interior where there exist unspeakable truths. Faced with severe debts on an international level, unemployment numbers entering the millions, civil unrest and condemnation by the European Union (EU) for failure of debt repayments, Greece is attracting negative global media attention, damaging its historical reputation. Indeed, to complicate the scenario, Greece is now burdened with the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees, overcrowding its shores, searching for asylum. With Greece entering its seventh year of recession, xenophobia is running high. Deepened by budget cuts tied to billions of dollars in loans from the Euro and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and left with an unemployment rate of 27.2%, Greece is besieged by an unprecedented influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing civil war in Syria. (Petrakis, 2012). Unable to grant asylum and medical treatment to the Syrian refugees that are crossing into Greece from neighbouring Turkey, Greek authorities are preparing for a hostile welcome. With its long coastlines, numerous islands and mountainous areas, Greece’s borders are almost impossible to patrol entirely and with civil unrest engulfing the Middle East, Syria is at the mercy of its ruling party. As most of rural Syria is agrarian based, its economy has suffered disproportionately, due to a long drought in what is already an arid region. It is this geographical hardship, along with political instability that has promoted the Syrian uprising, dispersement and migration of its people. Against this backdrop, the key objective of this research paper is to analyze reasons for the Syrian migration into Greece and the consequential effects on its already burdened economy.

Immigration Concepts and Principles

For thousands of years, people have moved from one country or region to another. Many emigrate for different reasons. They may seek opportunities for new jobs or new wealth, may wish to escape from religious or political persecution while others still may not like the government or living conditions in their homeland seeking greater freedom or happier surroundings in which to live. Successive waves of newcomers or immigrants quickly change a country’s population. Emigration and immigration can cause problems for the immigrant, for the country they leave, and for the country to which they move to. There are many motives for emigration from a country of origin that must be considered before claiming refugee status. The reason people migrate would be due to push and pull factors. A push factor would primarily involve futile attempts at remaining in a country of origin. It would be imperative to find better living conditions elsewhere. Persecution, oppression, denial of religious freedoms, ethnic cleansing, genocide and civil war would be considered non – economic push factors urging emigration in order to escape. Such political motives traditionally produce massive refugee flows. For example; escaping poverty has been considered a traditional push factor. A pull factor holds strength in the lure of freedom. Climate, natural resources, industry and political conditions are dominant pull factors for emigration. Hence when considering refugee status, neighbouring countries offering freedom of persecution are sought.

The Making of Syria and its Civil War

The Arab Republic of Syria has been fighting a civil war for the last four years. Long considered an anomaly for the political policymakers, Syria’s weak economy, diverse population and vulnerable geographic position render it without influence in the greater Middle East. Since 2011 however, and under the long-time dictatorship of the Assad family, Syria has been and continues to be a major regional actor. (Lesch, 2012). It occupies an important strategic position in the Middle East and has established numerous clients and allies worldwide. But with the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, the head of the Assad family, and the transfer of power to his son Bashar, policy challenges have grown more pressing in its present security environment, posing difficulties for the League of Arab States. (Leverett, 2005). On a global scale, Syria is small, internally conflicted, economically underperforming and resource poor. (Erlich, 2014). Historically it has been viewed as a state of terrorist activity, producer of weapons of mass destruction and a repressor of its people. Now, faced with a mass exodus of its citizens who are opposed to civil war, Syria is faced with a domestic political uncertainty.

With a population of about 18 million people, the country of Syria is located in the Middle East, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the west. (Leverett, 2005). Landlocked with most of its borders, Syria is considered a minor player on a strategic level due to its size, internal cohesiveness and wealth. Often marginalized and ignored by greater world powers, Syria nonetheless has achieved its title as an independent modern nation state. Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria for 29 years, between the years of 1971 until his death in 2000. Hafez gained the loyalty of the Syrian people by bringing stability to Syria through improved relations with Western Powers and by stimulating the Syrian economy through foreign trade and financial aid. (Lesch, 2012). Following Hafez’s death, his oldest son Bassel was the next successor in line for presidency. However, due to an unforeseen automobile accident that claimed his life, Hafez’ second son Bashar, was now given the title. A licensed ophthalmologist living in London, England, Bashar al-Assad never entertained the idea that he might one day become president. (Leverett, 2005). Much to his surprise, and without any personal political background, he nonetheless returned to Syria and accepted the title of president. (Leverett, 2005).

The political climate was one filled with hope and optimism for Syria as Bashar al-Assad began his political reign. Young, well – educated, influenced by a western urban upbringing, Bashar willingly entered a political stage promising that democracy would eventually envelope Syria. (Leverett, 2005). With promises of reforming corruption on governmental levels, Bashar eluded to Syria entering to the 21st Century through the introduction of cell phones, internet and computer technology. Declaring that bureaucracy was the current obstacle to modernization and development, he laid a foundation and a unique approach that differed from the rule of his father. (Leverett, 2005). At the current time, Syria was characterized by a stagnate economy, political repression and bureaucratic corruption. With a political instability and war on Syria’s borders, Bashar brought into government reformists who were tasked with the job of implementing administrative reform, examining weaknesses and correcting them and modernizing Syria. Faced with many international conflicts with his bordering neighbours, Bashar seized an opportunity to provide direct support to militant groups. A hardnosed approach ensued where Bashar was reported to have tortured, imprisoned and killed those opposed to his militant rule. (Jones, 2010).

Serious trouble for Syria began in March 2011, when locals captured school children, aged between 9 and 15, arresting and torturing them for writing anti-government slogans on city walls. (Lesch, 2012). As no other avenue to express anger existed, protestors, many of them family members and relatives of the imprisoned children, took to the streets proclaiming anti – regime sentiments. Calling for the release of the children as well as for the reform of the current corrupt and repressive government allowing such heinous acts of excessive force, several protestors were shot in an angry response from the government. Daily, anti – governmental slogans and chants ensued and damages were inflicted on governmental offices. Bashar’s authority was challenged when demands were made to end an authoritarian and dictatorial rule. Thus, the foundation was laid which eventually led to the current civil war faced by Syrians today. Implicated in an uprising against President Bashar and his government, the Syrian people became embroiled in a wave of demonstrations and protests which became known as the “Arab Spring”. (Jones, 2010). This form of suppression was a major contributor to the Syrian Civil War rendering Syria among the least peaceful countries in the world. Condemned by the Arab League and United Nations, the Syrian population explored options of evacuation and migration. Knowing that this type of migration may not be legal, an international crisis had arisen and a crime was recognized. The option of pursuing asylum in a different country because of war and conflict was a viable solution. There was no time to liquidate assets, no time to inform family members, friends and support networks. With a threat of persecution on the rise, Syria experienced a mass migration to the first country across the Mediterranean Sea, Greece, through neighbouring neutral Turkey.

A Hostile Welcome

Getting to Greece was fraught with hurdles. With Turkey forming a natural bridge between Asia and Europe and bordering both Greece and Syria, it became a popular region for passage to Greece. Greece was the gateway to the rest of Europe. Due to Greece’s geography and spatial proximity, Syrians began to seek asylum by the thousands. Turkey emerged as the favourite point of entry for smugglers taking migrants by boat to Greece because of its geographical location. Relatively easy to enter Greece’s permeable borders, once in Turkey, Syrians hired Turkish smugglers to transport them into Greece. (Vradis & Dalakoglou, 2011). Syrians arrived in Datça, a small district in south-west Turkey, strategically located between the Greek islands of Rhodes and Kos. (Erlich, 2014). Another heavily used crossing point was located in the northern part of Turkey, where it bordered into mountainous Greek terrain. Most recently, Europol, the European Union`s law enforcement and Greek law enforcement authorities caught and dismantled a criminal group suspected of facilitating Syrian immigrants into Greece from Turkey. (Lloyd-Roberts, 2015). Greek coastguards patrolling Greece`s numerous islands against asylum seekers showed no mercy as most refugees were held at gun point and escorted to the already overcrowded jail cells. EU officials are alerted to this type human smuggling of refugees and are beginning to eliminate this type of illegal migration into Greece. This is primarily due to the fact that Greece is known as a central access point. Geographically speaking, Greece can be accessed by sea, land and air. With many forms of access, and many unpatrolled coastlines and border crossings, Greece is a natural asylum haven.

To cope with the rise of illegal migrants and asylum seekers from Syria, Greece turned many of its facilities into detention centers. This hostile welcome had been criticized by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) where numerous cases of abuse have been recorded by asylum seekers. (Ari, 2014). With Greek unemployment around 27.2%, thousands of Syrian refugees are working in the shadows of undocumented care givers, domestic workers and planting and harvesting crops in fields. Greece is not opposed to employing immigrants; however, they want them for very specific jobs. Greece’s economic woes can be traced to before the conception of the Euro. After adopting the single currency, Greece continued enjoying a liberal economy, overspending on the 2004 Olympic Games, allowing public sector wages to increase by 50% and never addressing wide spread tax evasion. (Vradis & Dalakoglou, 2011). Most recently, Greece is facing widespread corruption and debt, arguing it has limited resources to fight the growing problem of Syrian refugees and has appealed to the European Commission for additional funds to do so. (Lynn, 2011). With austerity measures currently in place, Greek officials are in fierce debate as to how Greece should approach the refugee explosion. Arriving at Greek islands, refugees are detained for days in overcrowded cells. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and receive no government assistance. Condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for mistreating and illegally deporting political refugees, Greece was ordered to pay thousands of Euros to many asylum seekers. (Ari, 2014). Clearly, impoverished Greece is facing a refugee crisis. Undoubtedly it has transitioned to a country of destination for the Middle East. More recently, it has become a country of entry and transit for hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants. As a result, Greece is now laden with issues related to its entry points, its permeable borders, rising refugee applications for asylum and severe allegations of human rights violations. (Hill & Smith, 2011). Not only is it confronting the worst economic crisis of modern times but its current refugee problem is now impacting innocent Syrian refugees scrambling across its borders. Huge public debt and an ill – conceived decision to borrow from the IMF have changed the entire economic, political and social policies governing immigration in Greece. With incomes and opportunity employments dwindling for even native – born Greeks, a competitive aura has arisen in the social climate resulting in lower wage remuneration, a shrinking labour market, and fewer allowable applicants for immigration landed status. All these attributable factors have threatened Greece to the point where the EU is required to intervene.

Greece’s Response

Greek reports are disclosing an annual spending of $13.3 million to maintain detention centers housing approximately 1,800 detainees. (Petrakis, 2012). It is currently asking the EU to pick up 75% of the tab. Analysts report that Greece is of two minds in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis. The question remains as to whether the immigrants can stay or not. Again, Greece would like to fill the blue collar employment opportunities, such as agricultural work, and use the refugees in that capacity. However, with a maximum legal time limit of 18 months in Greek detention centers, today hundreds of Syrian immigrants still remain jailed as suspects of a crime and await trial for security reasons – many of whom broke the law simply by arriving on Greek shores without visas. (Lynn, 2011). With riots erupting in the detention centers, refugees are demanding better treatment. In addition to security and health concerns, these camps have now given rise to legal issues in which the European Court of Human Rights is now implicated. (Schattle, 2012). International immigration experts and human rights defenders have set their sights on Greece and are monitoring the situation with horror. The blatant disregard for international conventions, of which Greece is a viable member, has the international community reviewing their objectives. Greece is a member state of the EU and a long – standing member of NATO. It is fully aware of where it stands internationally and what its international obligations are. Greece has always functioned in an exemplary manner within the framework of international law.

Options and Recommendations

With the Middle East in crisis, and as Greece is a close neighbor of this region, it is undoubtedly monitoring these movements and has an obligation and a role to work towards peace, stability and security. But the situation in Syria is rapidly deteriorating. As part of the international community and international law, Greece in pursuance of the Geneva II conference, is solely capable of shaping a permanent viable solution in Syria. (Jones & Menon & Weatherill, 2012). Greeks are concerned about the Greek citizens who are currently living in Syria. It is participating in all the discussions taking place in the European Union and NATO. It is in contact with all the European countries, all the Gulf countries and with the Arab League. But a heinous crime has been perpetuated in Syria: the use of absolutely prohibited chemical weapons. Not only is this crime condemned by the whole of the international community, by the EU, but also by Greece. Always ready to assist in creating conditions that will lead to a wider region and to an environment of safety, Greece is ready to stand by the peoples of the region who are fighting for democracy. It is the Syrian Civil War that has painted a negative picture for Greece, attacking its international community standing, its allegiance to Eurozone, the EU and NATO.

As many Greeks have taken up the cause for the refugees, it is a Greek MP, Yiannis Michelogiannakis who has joined with the Syrians in a hunger strike protesting the government’s refusal to help deport and reunite Syrians with relatives in other European countries. (Ari, 2014). Michelogiannakis, a lawmaker with the left wing political party SYRIZA, is intent on bringing not only global attention but also national. Using his political contacts, he has managed to find shelter for refugees through the representatives of the Orthodox Church of Greece. (Vradis & Dalakoglou, 2011). The issue of accommodating refugees for Syria must be addressed because it is certain that their numbers will increase in the future. Having voted against an early bailout for Greece, MP Michelogiannakis is one of many Greek MPs and prefects who have banded together to support and defend the Syrian refugees. (Vradis & Dalakoglou, 2011). Most Syrians are in a transitory state. Greece is but a stepping stone on their grand immigration route. Most do not want to remain in Greece, however, due to their unauthorized entry, most are held in failing detention centers awaiting trials. This travesty of justice is simply delaying the Syrian departure and at the same time affecting the Greek economy. Michelogiannakis has taken on the task of reuniting Syrian migrants with their families who have escaped to northern European countries.


The Syrian Civil War has declared many atrocities on its country and its people. For four years, Syrians have been constantly on the move, distancing themselves from their homeland and their families. With immigration laws differing from country to country, every Syrian was responsible for his or her own destiny. The lure of freedom through Europe, most especially Greece, seemed the most promising and attainable. Greece’s geographical location made it most receptive as an immigrant receiving nation. With its many coastlines and easily crossable borders, Greece became a heavily used migrant route for Syrians seeking entry into Europe. However, illegal immigration to Greece through the Greek – Turkish borders has been a topic of discussion at many official conventions. With proposals to set up a wire fence across the most porous land borders between Greece and Turkey, border patrols will strengthen. (Hill & Smith, 2011). With Greece entering its seventh year of an economic crisis, how can this weakened country expect to assist Syrian migrants if it cannot support its own citizens? Beset with its own economic crisis, xenophobia and an underlying hatred for immigrants, Greek officials are constantly battling the stigma of racism and the subconscious struggle of their commitment to stand by those who fight for democracy.

What has life become in Syria since the refugee exodus? It is an excruciatingly sad picture. Almost every Syrian knows someone who has been killed, arrested, tortured or bullied during the uprising. (Jones, 2010). Stores are empty of both people and products, walls of buildings have evidence of shelling and bullets. Homes have been abandoned as families have fled. The airport is almost devoid of people and planes. Tourism has ceased. Factories have closed; trade and commerce have declined sharply. Credit cards do not work and workers are routinely laid off. Food and fuel prices are higher. Basic food items are scarce and schools are closed. (Lesch, 2012). This is the perception that many Syrian refugees have of their homeland, some having spoken with relatives still there, reciting only dark and desolate events. Bashar al-Assad was perceived by most who met him as a relatively ordinary person who suffered a crackdown under the pressure of power and delusion. (Ismael & Ismael, 2011). Different from the typical Middle Eastern dictator, Bashar had intentions of leading his people to hope for the best in Syria. However, either through arrogance or a sense of authoritarianism, Bashar convinced himself that his actions were just and that Syria was experiencing a cleansing stage necessary to promote growth and stability. (Erlich, 2014).

Greece pushed for a dramatic economic reform from a system that was not built for it. While the Euro acted as a catalyst it was also meant to be an instrument for transforming failing economies. The Syrian refugee crisis impacted negatively on the already ailing Greek economy producing unacceptable solutions from both countries. The link that is currently being experienced between Syria and Greece is a primary example of how economics plays an integral role in geography. Factors such as immigration, war and carrying capacity have figured prominently on every level: economic, political, social, demographical and environmental. With its chronically disorganised state and debt-stricken economy, Greece became an unwilling pawn in a Middle Eastern conflict wrought with corruption and greed. With civil war destroying all chances of hope and optimism for a united Syria, the resulting mass exodus has only aggravated and provoked dissension among Syria’s military and governmental offices. For most policy makers, the Syrian uprising could have had a preferred outcome: Bashar al-Assad could have fallen from power and the Arab Spring might have seized the opportunity for a military coup. With the Syrian migration a reality, what would have happened if Greece refused the Syrian influx? If Greece’s borders remained open, how would another million illegal immigrants find sustenance in this turbulent economy? Europe’s history has been shaped by migration. Policy issues and debates on immigration continue to affect governments on all levels. With the constant threat of civil war and economic instability, immigration will continue to be a trend that may have both positive and negative influences on regions.

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About Chameleon

-Multi-Sport Athlete, Coach, Geographer/Cartographer, Linguaphile, Statistician, Vexillologist
This entry was posted in Corruption and Power, Geography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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