No end in sight to wave of refugees into Europe

Bitter cold, biting winds, and rough winter seas have done little to stem the seemingly endless flow of desperate people fleeing war or poverty for what they hope will be a brighter, safer future in Europe.

As 2016 dawns, boatloads continue to reach Greek shores and thousands trudge across Balkan fields and country roads heading north.

More than a million people reached Europe in 2015 in the continent’s largest refugee influx since the end of the Second World War — a crisis that has tested European unity and threatened the vision of a borderless continent. Nearly 3,800 people are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean last year, making the journey to Greece or Italy in unseaworthy vessels packed far beyond capacity.

The EU has pledged to bolster patrols on its external borders and quickly deport economic migrants, while Turkey has agreed to crack down on smugglers operating from its coastline. But those on the front lines of the crisis say the coming year promises to be difficult unless there is a dramatic change.

Greece has borne the brunt of the exodus, with more than 850,000 people reaching the country’s shores, nearly all arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast.

“The flows continue unabated. And on good days, on days when the weather isn’t bad, they are increased,” said Ioannis Mouzalas, Greece’s minister responsible for migration issues. “This is a problem and shows that Turkey wasn’t able — I’m not saying that they didn’t want — to respond to the duty and obligation it had undertaken to control the flows and the smugglers from its shores.”

Europe’s response to the crisis has been fractured, with individual countries, concerned about the sheer scale of the influx, introducing new border controls aimed at limiting the flow. The problem is compounded by the reluctance of many migrants’ countries of origin to accept forcible returns.

Along the Balkan migrant route, an undetermined number of men, women, and children considered economic migrants have found themselves stranded, their hopes of reaching prosperous northern EU countries dashed by recent border closures. Greece, with thousands of miles of coastline, is the only country that cannot feasibly block people from entering without breaking international laws about rescuing those in distress at sea.

“It’s a bad sign, this unabated flow that continues,” Mouzalas said. “It creates difficulties for us, as the borders have closed for particular categories of people and there is a danger they will be trapped here.”

Battered on one side by a wave of people risking their lives to reach its islands and on the other by border laws, Greece is struggling.

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