While the U.S. grapples with illegal immigration there's an uncanny, parallel debate going on in Europe. European countries that opened their arms to a flood of mostly Muslim migrants in 2015 quickly found themselves overwhelmed. Today, much of Europe has pulled in the welcome mat, but the refugees are still coming. And that's left a growing number stuck in the first place they land Greece where the immigration minister told me they're nearing the breaking point. Today's cover story is: the Greek Burden.
We begin on the Greek island of Lesvosas night falls, I’m boarding a Greek Coast Guard ship for an overnight expedition.
Right now we’re in Greek waters. But back there where you see those lights, that’s Turkey. At its closest point it’s just a couple of miles away from us. And we’re sitting in a hot spot for picking up refugees.
Sharyl: How many immigrants would you estimate you picked up?
The smuggling pipeline is so well established and predictable the Captain tells me they know exactly where to go and when.
Captain: More or less we’ll have 100 – 150 people tonight.
Sharyl: Tonight you think we'll have 150 people?
Captain: Yes. Every night. The last three weeks is like that.
The captain says Greek Coast Guard has all but abandoned its job of border protection and has turned into the Welcome-to-Europe rescue brigade. And sure enough, around three in the morning—we spot a raft.
Captain: Welcome to Europe – this is Hellenic Coast Guard, this is Hellenic Coast Guard. For your safety, stop your engine.
Sailor: No, go to the side. Easy Easy Easy
There are more children and babies than either men or womenmore than 50 people stuffed in a raft made for 9 to 12. The new arrivals are from Afghanistan— where the U.S. is in its 18th year of fighting a war against Islamic extremists. Despite more than $135 billion dollars in American tax money spent to rebuild Afghanistan, many, like these people, with the means to pay the criminal human smugglers are still fleeing. This woman tells me she paid smugglers to leave Afghanistan months ago.
Sharyl: What did you do between then and now?
Refugee: We are just in home and nothing, we are doing nothing because there was a lot of bomb blasting and killing people. Sharyl: Did you pay somebody to arrange –
Refugee: Yeah yeah
Sharyl: to arrange the trip?
Sharyl: What did they tell you they could do for you?
Refugee: Nothing, he said that you are going and then nothing.
For the raft trip alone, they are said to pay $2000 for an adult, $1500 for each child. One overstuffed raft can bring criminal traffickers up to $140,000 on the black market, whether it sinks or not. Days before we arrived, one raft went down and 12 refugees drowned.
The flood started in 2015— when more than a million people crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece in order to reach Central and Northern Europe. More came through other routes. Now Europe’s once-warm welcome has been replaced with an icy— “We’d like to help, but we’re full.” So these refugees we just picked up, and 75,000 others, are stuck in Greece where they first touched down. And Greece, stuck with its own economic crisis, is stuck with them.
Dimitris Vitsas: The problem is, you understand is that everybody that comes to Greece stays in Greece. Most. 90%.
Dimitris Vitsas was the immigration minister when the we picked up arrived in Greece. He tells me they are proud that Greece has helped so many, but now much of Europe has stopped accepting those who are seeking asylum, leaving Greece holding the bag.
Vitsas: The first thing I need is to have a common policy about the asylum. To share the burden of the refugee issue.
Camp supervisor: This is Section A, one of the minor sections – minors above 14 years old.
And Greece is running out of space. Once ashore, the refugees we picked up were brought to this camp on the island of Lesvos. The camp has grown so big, it’s now the second largest city on Lesvos. There are 5,300 people living here.
Supervisor: We have section B also for minors
and 968 employees working to give them free food, clothes, health care, school, housing, WIFI—and cash payments. The equivalent of about $400 per month per family, tax free. The result: resentment in Greece’s Orthodox Christian culture where there aren’t enough jobs for their own citizens. Lesvos was a tourist hot spot before it was an immigration hot spot. But no more.
Local worker: There’s only one word I can use to describe the situation: chaos.
This local Greek worker on Lesvos told me business has dried up because of the refugees.
Local Worker: The refugees continue to disrespect us. Their behavior is just unacceptable. We have suffered a great deal. This establishment has been attacked five times. The last time they smashed the front door; Took the cash register.
After some months here, many are sent from the island to camps on the Greek mainland.
Supervisor: We have 13 tents here.
860 live at this one outside of Athens.
Sharyl: Where are you from?
Ghazal: I’m from Afghanistan.
26-year old Ghazal was a teacher in Afghanistan. She says she and her husband paid smugglers more than $22,000 for passage to Greece through Turkey. They’ve been here for 18 months.
Ghazal: Going to another country is a problem, so I want to stay here and find a good job for me and for my husband and I want a good future for my child.
Many speak of wanting to go to other European destinations.
Sharyl: Where do you want to go?
Refugee: I want to go to Germany.
They don’t realize that Germany has quietly closed the door to refugees and is ramping up deportations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the borders to one million asylum-seekers in 2015. That came with a $6.6 billion price tag that year alone. There was a backlash after refugees launched multiple attacks in Germany. An Afghan refugee injured five in an axe attack on a German train. A Syrian refugee suicide bombing injured 15 outside a German music festival. Another Syrian refugee stabbed to death a woman and injured five. And a Tunisian refugee killed 12 by plowing a truck into a German Christmas market – all in 2016.
Greece has filled up 26 camps on the mainland, more on the Islands these are pictures of just a few and the country is putting up 30-thousand people in rented apartments and hotels. One rescue worker described Greece as “a storage facility for the rest of Europe.” The immigration minister says Greece is quickly reaching its breaking point.
Dmitri: If we pass 100,000 people in Greece, it will be a problematic situation.
Sharyl: When do you think you'll get to 100,000 without help?
Dmitri: Without help? The first month of 2020.
Back on our rescue mission, we spot a second raft.
Captain: This is Europe, we are here to save you. Stop the motor. Stop the boat.
At first, they try to outrun us, afraid that we’re a Turkish ship that will take them back to Turkey.
Captain: Welcome to Greece, this is Europe! Welcome to Greece, please stop your engine for your safety.
The refugees who are already aboard call out and tell them it’s safe. They’re brought aboard the Greek Coast Guard ship 618—and like thousands before them— and will be sent to Greece’s overwhelmed refugee camps indefinitely.
Since our visit, more than 2000 additional immigrants have arrived in Lesvos, dramatically adding to the overcrowding in the camp there.