Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis participated in a discussion on Migration entitled “Resetting Migration: Moving Toward Opportunities”, in the context of the Munich Security Conference
The discussion was also attended by the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson and the US Congresswoman Veronica Escobar. Mina Al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of “The National” newspaper coordinated the conversation.
The Prime Minister’s remarks follow:
Well, first of all, thank you very much for inviting me to this discussion. Obviously, this is a topic of great interest, and has been discussed extensively within the European Union with a topic at the last European Council. And I think we can contribute something meaningful to this discussion because Greece is a frontline state, when it comes to our position on the external borders of the European Union. At the same time, we’re also a country of migrants. We have millions of Greek Americans living in the United States, many of whom left to seek a better future in various conditions, were welcomed by the United States and are active contributors to their local communities with very strong ties to Greece. I think the way you positioned it in your introductory remarks is very important.
What does it really mean to manage migration in these very, very challenging times? As far as Greece is concerned, in 2015, we were the country through which 75% of refugees and migrants coming into the European Union entered the territory of the Union. So we had a lot of experience in dealing with this problem and also a fundamental responsibility between managing the borders as a sovereign state, but also protecting the borders of the European Union, while at the same time making sure we protect the fundamental rights and make sure that we save people in danger.
And I can tell you practically this is not an easy balance to strike. I think we’ve been committed to a policy, which recognizes that at the European level, we need to be able to protect our external borders and we need to break this sort of dichotomy within the European Union, between those countries affected from secondary flows, either be those countries that place an emphasis on primary flows. And I think that as a European family, we’ve reached some conclusions which – I think – take us a step forward towards a common European understanding on how to manage this problem.
The need to protect our external borders and assist the frontline states, more understanding for what it means to manage secondary migration. The need to have a framework to return people who are not entitled to protection within the European Union. And how do we work with member states, with other countries, to actually ensure that these returns happen? We’ve agreed many times that we’ve spoken a lot about returns, but we have not been able to actually implement them to the extent that we would like. What does it mean to offer legal pathways to people seeking a better future in Europe and doing it in a managed manner?
Let me just give you one example. In Greece, we have signed two bilateral agreements with Bangladesh and with Egypt to offer people from those countries the opportunity to come and work within our countries, but in an organized manner. And of course, the most difficult challenge of all, the Holy Grail: How do we tackle the root causes of migration in the first place, be it Climate Change, be it conflict. And how do we help the countries, the real countries of origin, to offer their young people a better future? So this has been a very complicated problem.
The Commissioner has worked very hard to bring us towards what is a European agreement. We call it the European, you know, Pact on Μigration. We’ve made progress, but we’re clearly not there yet. But I’m more optimistic after the last Council. But at least there’s a better understanding and less distrust between those countries that point the finger at the frontline states and the frontline states arguing – and sometimes rightly so – that the countries which are further away from the border are not doing enough to help us in terms of solidarity. So my obligation is to understand when the Dutch or the Swedish Prime Minister talks to me about secondary movements and how much pressure this puts on their systems.
And I think the obligation of those countries is to understand my position, what it means to be on the border, having both a land and a sea border, having to deal with smugglers who instrumentalize human suffering. I’m sure we’ll talk about this in more detail because in my mind, it is a critical component of the problem. And we need to be ruthless, in terms of eradicating these smugglers networks and understanding that we also need assistance, we need solidarity, we need support, in terms of doing what is a difficult job. And we want to do it with discipline, but also with dignity.
Mina Al-Oraibi, Coordinator: When we’re talking about limited pathways, when you spoke about the agreements with Bangladesh and Egypt, so you have a legal way of getting work for those that need it and also serves a purpose for Greece. But it’s always going to be a limited number, so what other solutions are there that you would press for and think that we can expand further?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think you are right that, of course, the numbers will be initially limited, but it does send the signal. And the signal is that we are open to legal pathways from numerous countries. But we will also control the process, but give opportunities to people to come and live in Europe, work in Europe, at a time when we are growing older and we’re facing big demographic challenges and we’ll be facing already labor shortages. Greece is a country coming out of a profound economic crisis. Economy is growing. We still have an unemployment of 11%. It’s coming down rapidly. But we already have labor shortages. But this means a much more active engagement with the countries of origin. And the problem is that sometimes the countries of origin are not necessarily the countries that we would like to have bilateral arrangements with. But the Commissioner is right. You have an obligation to take back someone who has entered illegally, but at the same time, you also have to offer those countries something in return. So we have a carrot and a stick. We have development aid, we have geopolitical clout, but we need to offer those countries something in return because otherwise it will just make it very difficult for us to return people whom we have categorized as not being eligible to receive asylum status.
And of course, countries of transit are also rather important. I mean, we have a complicated situation with Turkey. And Turkey is both a problem and an opportunity in terms of dealing with migration. We did a deal with Turkey back in 2016. It’s called the EU-Turkey Statement. It hasn’t been fully implemented. Turkey is home to 4 million refugees now, that is a fact. At the same time, there is systematic smuggling taking place from the Turkish shore. I wouldn’t say with the support of the Turkish state, but certainly with the Turkish state being aware of what is happening and tolerating it. Visa regime is also very important. How do you fly, for example, into Turkey if countries that want to have a close relationship with the European Union need to streamline their visa regime, with our visa regime. Let me just give you an example. It’s pretty easy now, and this is actually a very lucrative business to get a fake student visa from Somalia, from Mogadishu. You jump on a plane on a one-way ticket. You fly to Istanbul, a bus is picking you up. It’s putting you in touch with a smuggler. The smuggler is in touch, unfortunately – and this is a truth, we have to point out – that certain, it’s a minority – but certain NGOs are part of this network, totally aligned. They know when the boat is going to leave. They know when the boat is going to arrive.
So working with the transit countries in our case is also particularly important. Because, again, for us, we’ve managed to reduce the number of people at sea. The fewer people we have leaving on an inflatable boat in horrible conditions, the fewer chances we will have that we actually have an accident at sea. And our Coast Guard has saved tens of thousands of people, because we are constantly faced with situations of distress. Because quite frequently these trips can become search and rescue missions and then you actually have to operate under very difficult conditions. But you pointed out something which I want to highlight: we never want to be in a position where numbers overwhelm us. If you are in that position, everything becomes extremely complicated.
When we came into power in 2019, we had both a stock and a flow problem. We had tens of thousands of people in horrible conditions. You remember, horrible conditions. We had exploited unaccompanied minors. We had asylum applications that took ages. There never was, you know, a final decision. And we had lots of people arriving. That is practically an unmanageable problem. What did we do? We reduced the flow, but we also addressed the stock. We built modern facilities. And, with the help of the European Union, now you go to our islands and there are state-of-the-art facilities or human facilities. But we also addressed the stock problem in terms of processing the asylum applications.
But the problem is that in a crisis situation, we will be overwhelmed. And if a frontline state is overwhelmed, then the incentive to just turn a blind eye and, you know, just let the people, you know, come through and go through, it will be there. And then you start having, you know, border sort of blockage. This is what happened in 2015. And then suddenly Schengen, which is such a big sort of asset for the European Union, will collapse. Because the countries will impose internal border controls within the Schengen area.
Mina Al-Oraibi, coordinator: Prime Minister, the question about those who themselves cannot cross. I mean there are the UNHCR resettlement programs but the quotas for most countries are quite small. But it’s also a lot to put the onus on countries to receive non-citizens who are unable to do protections for themselves. Shouldn’t it be the countries of origin?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I wish I had an easy answer to what is a very complicated question. But I do want to highlight something that was also pointed out by you, in the sense that the money actually spent by desperate people trying to make an illegal crossing is substantial. And there are many people who simply cannot afford to pay even $2000- $3,000 even if they wanted to try. So even that system on its own is profoundly unjust, because at the end of the day we’re talking about people who can take the trip, who have the physical strength to do it. If you’re a single mother with a young child and you’re displaced you may not even physically be able or you simply don’t have the money to pay the smugglers. So I wish I had an answer to what you described as being a real problem. But what I do know is that we’re scratching the surface of what I think we can do, as the European Union, in terms of offering sort of legal pathways, because these people will be required. It’s the same in the US. With record low unemployment and growing economies.
We will need to offer more people jobs and we desperately need those people. Even in Greece, even in sectors such as tourism, which is booming, we have difficulties finding the number of people to work. So it’s not just agricultural work. It could be construction, it could be tourism. So it is imperative to have this approach. And again there’s this constant discussion: fortress Europe, fences versus non fences. And the answer is maybe – I think – it was put well by your Time columnist when Tom Friedman wrote a piece about migration. He said: I want a big wall with a big door. And the answer is you mean both. I mean you need to be able to send a signal that you are protecting your border. So you don’t make it easy, you make it difficult. And of course the balance of making sure that you respect fundamental rights has to be there. But the big door that he was referring to is essentially substantial ability to welcome people, but in a legal and organized manner. Of course there’s a big complication going from what is a nice phrase to actually delivering on the ground that this is what we are all struggling with.
But what we know from our experience in Greece is, and I think the European Union is moving more towards that direction, is that border management is a part of the solution. It’s not the only solution. It cannot just be a fence, but border management has to be part of the solution. Otherwise you will just be swamped and you will be facing a problem which is going to become another humanitarian crisis. And at the end of the day, that’s the way you break the smuggler’s business model. Because if you make it difficult, people are going to think twice about engaging in the trip. Because a lot of this money is paid in advance. And if you don’t make it, there’s no guarantee that you will get your money back.
Question: My name is John Mahama. I am the former President of Ghana. At the Valletta Summit in 2015 we reached certain agreements. How far have we been able to achieve those agreements? And I like the fact that you said migration is as old as mankind. People will seek opportunity, whether you like it or not. In our own countries, we have our issues with migration. Lake Chad is 20% of what it was 30 years ago. All the families that have been displaced around Lake Chad and in the Sahel are migrating into the Gulf of Guinea countries. Our young people have no opportunities. The international economic order does not allow our countries to compete. The amount of money that flows out of Africa is far more than the amount of money that comes in. When you have a situation like this with a continent of 1.3 billion, by 2050 is going to be 2.5 billion. This challenge is going to get greater, not easier. How do we deal not only with building walls around our countries, but dealing with the issues that displace these people in the first place? What will make a young person want to go into a boat and cross the Mediterranean with the risk of losing his life if he can find opportunities in his own country? I think that we must look at all these in context. Thank you.
Question: Μy question is for the Greek Prime Minister. And this is something that’s quite close to my heart, because I have a friend who is an orthodox Christian that is wanting to move to Greece, and the question is from Turkey. And the problem with Turkey is, number one, Erdoğan is seen by many others as potentially getting more authoritarian, and number two, that Turkey is potentially pursuing a geopolitical agenda that is quite separate from Europe. Do you see or do you anticipate in the coming years that Turkey will leverage or use migration as a leverage increasingly against the EU and specifically Greece?
Question: Thank you very much. I’m Elena Lazarou. I work for the European Parliament’s Research Service. My question is in the same vein as some of the others, actually. But migration is a very tangible problem. And as we’ve heard here, it’s the issue of the day. The countries, the Commission, they’re fighting day to day to find a way to manage it, but it’s also a problem of the future. And you’ve mentioned climate change and its impact. But actually, if you think of the compounded impact of the war in Ukraine and COVID, if you look at the countries where you have concentrated socioeconomic implications, food and security implications and the climate change, you actually have sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. And these are countries of huge emigration and IDPs. So my question is mostly to Commissioner Johansson, but maybe for the whole panel. This commission has put a lot of emphasis on foresight. And I wondered, how are you thinking about the day after where we have, the likelihood is we’ll have more people in places like that than need to leave. And how are you working with the transatlantic partners but also with countries like I heard South Africa recently see migration, incoming migration as one of its major challenges.
Coordinator: Thank you very much. Okay, so we’ll ask you to take a question both the root causes and how there’s more of a global responsibility to deal with the issues that are driving people away from their homes. And also to answer the Turkey question.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think the the honest answer to what it I think is a very sort of fair assessment of what is happening in Africa is that we have not lived up to our commitments both vis-a-vis what we wanted to do with Africa in terms of real assistance and, of course, in terms of our overall ability to address the issue of Climate Change and in a difficult sort of domestic situation, when we are faced with, as a Prime Minister of a country that’s struggling with a cost of living crisis, when we’re looking at the budget to always try to find the last available euro to support our people. It takes a lot of vision and energy to understand that helping sub-Saharan Africa is actually in our long-term interest. And these are very difficult problems of domestic policy making. But at least we have the commitment, we have an agenda, as Europe. We had a summit with the African countries, which I think raised awareness. There is a lot more private capital that’s being deployed because of the huge opportunities in Africa right now as the fastest growing continent. But we also need to be honest that quite frequently there’s a lot of talk and not much substance.
And frankly, if I want to be brutally honest about it, in Europe we’re very good at putting labels and nice sort of titles to big programs. And we realize that sometimes we just repackage money which has already been committed to the budget. But this is a reality. So I would argue for less spin and more substance.
Now to your question on Turkey. What you described has already happened. It happened in March 2020, when President Erdogan actually encouraged, facilitated tens of thousands of people to cross into Europe. He was blackmailing us and threatening us for a long time that he would actually do it. And he tried to do it. And this was a time when we said, “No, this is not going to happen”. We protected our border. We had the whole leadership of the European institutions, President of the Commission, President of Parliament, President of the Council at the Greek Turkish border say that this blackmail is not going to materialize. We had the same problems with Lukashenko. So the playbook is there. You use desperate people and you try to push them to gain geopolitical leverage. I think there’s a better understanding now that these tactics don’t work.
And that is why I think we need to return to the fundamentals of our agreement with Turkey and try to work with Turkey, offer Turkey assistance. We had a discussion about safe countries. Turkey is clearly safe for Syrians. We have 4 million people living there. It’s safe for Afghanis. You have millions of people living there. Hopefully it won’t reach a point where it won’t be safe for Turks themselves, because it needs to remain a functioning democracy.
But you need to take a stand when you’re clearly blackmailed. We did it with Turkey. The EU and the Baltic countries did it with Belarus and Lukashenko. And we need to make it very clear that these types of practices won’t be tolerated. Plus, we need to fight fake news and disinformation. We suffer from this. I’m not saying that we do everything perfect. It’s a difficult job to manage the border, but it’s very painful as the Greek Prime Minister to suddenly find stories, fake stories, completely. There was a story about a dead girl on a little islet on a river, between the Greek and Turkish border. Suddenly we were bombarded with negative press.
And once we dig deeper, we find out a month later that all this was fake. It never happened. But we have suffered all the bad press in the first place. So there’s a big disinformation game also taking place by those countries that are trying to instrumentalize migration. We need to be aware of that dimension as well.
And there’s also the challenge of fake news and xenophobia being used by certain political parties in different parts of the world. That’s another side of the weaponization of these.
At least in Greece we’re happy that we don’t have an active sort of, we had a very xenophobic, neonazi extreme right party. They’re no longer in Parliament and we’ve actually been able to prosecute them as a criminal organization. And although people are always, it’s a problem when people see, for example, a facility in their neighborhood. I understand when you suddenly realize on an island, we had times when we had more migrants than permanent citizens on the island. So, of course, people get scared now that we’ve managed a problem, there is a much greater acceptance and a greater understanding that, look, at the end of the day, managed migration can be a plus and it’s not necessarily a minus.
And of course, there’s a big educational component. And there’s another aspect which in Greece we need to highlight, and that is a story of all the people who came from the Balkans after the wall crashed. We had hundreds of thousands of Albanians who came to Greece in search of a better future. Their kids are now going to Greek schools and can become Greek citizens. And it’s a great story whenever you go to these schools and you see how well the second generation has actually been integrated into Greek society. So I think we need to talk about the positive stories as well. It’s not all negative.
Coordinator: Prime Minister final word to you. We have some optimism. It can be done, but also politics often gets in the way.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Politics always gets in the way and I think no matter how difficult it is to get the sort of bipartisan consensus that you need… But again, let me end where I started: that at least within our political European family there seems to be a better understanding about the necessary balance between providing frontline states with support of managing the border effectively and making sure that we open up legal pathways to migration. But we also do returns, because there will always be a number of people who get to Europe and will not be entitled asylum. And if they know that they can find a way to stay, then there will be more people who know that they are embarking on a journey for economic reasons and not because their life is threatened, not because of fleeing war or persecution. So we need to get three aspects of the triangle, plus addressing the root causes which is of course a much more overwhelming, much more overarching, long term solution, not a solution, but at least an attempt to address the root causes of migration.