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Hellenic Republic of Greece

Fact Box

In Greece, the environmental issues resulting from the Syrian crisis are linked to the displacement of people from this area. The impact is much more localized and milder than, for instance, in the Middle East, since the numbers of people arriving in Greece have been noticeably smaller than the migration to Syria’s neighbors. The main issues in Greece are related to the perilous passage that people have to take over the sea from Turkey, the resulting waste, and to the so called ‘hotspots’ that host asylum seekers when they arrive in the islands.

Size: 131 957 square kilometers

Population: almost 11 million (estimate in July 2018)

Number of refugees and migrants in the country: approx. 60 000 (2018)  

Number refugees and migrants that arrived in 2015–2016: 1 030 173

Number refugees and migrants that arrived in 2017–2018: 62 212

Sea arrivals, percentage of Syrians:

2015: 56%

2016: 47%

2017: 42%

2018: 26%

The other two countries of origin changing places at the top of the tree are Afghanistan and Iraq. The exception being 2016, when the second biggest group were Nigerians (10%).

GDP per capita: 18 613 US Dollars (2017)

Religions: Greek Orthodox (official) 81–90%, Muslim 2%, other 3%, none 4–15%, unspecified 1% (estimate in 2015)


Biggest Challenges of Greece

According to the available statistics asylum seekers and migrants make up only 0.54% of the whole population of Greece. Obviously, this has not caused system wide environmental issues: problems are much smaller, localized and also related to people traveling through the country.

Greece was a major port for arrivals in Europe for asylum seekers and migrants in 2015 and 2016. In those years, over a million people passed through the country. This is still nothing compared to Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, especially considering that only some of the tens of thousands of these people actually stayed in Greece, but it did have a noticeable social and environmental impact on some areas.

Mostly the migration was localized on the Aegean islands that lie close to the border of Turkey. These islands, especially Lesbos, Chios and Samos, were central entry points to Europe in those years. Since then – mainly because the EU-Turkey deal made it more difficult to pass through and blocked people from continuing straight through the islands – the flow has diminished, and more people also arrive by land through Greece’s Northern border. But thousands of people remain in the islands after the deal and new people still keep arriving at a steady pace.

Some of the problems are related to the vulnerable environment on the islands, but mostly they are a result of a response to the situation that did not take into account the environmental impact, and consequently did not invest in it.

One of the most visible, and one could say symbolic, issues is the mostly plastic waste that is left behind after people land on the islands. An estimate has shown that each person brings an average of around 8 kilograms of waste with them. The majority of this weight comes from plastic dinghies, but in terms of volume, discarded life vests were the most visible part that covered the shores during the peak years. Read more here.

The other issue is related to the hotspots that are on the islands run by the Greek government. They were created by the European Union on the borders of Greece and Italy after 2015. Hotspots are facilities that deal with the initial reception, identification and registration of asylum seekers and migrants. There hotspots are found on five Greek islands: Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos. 

There were about 17 500 asylum seekers on these islands in 2018, but the fact they have been mostly packed in these small camps created various problems. Severe overcrowding and lack of resources resulted in, among other things, problems with water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management. Some hotspots seem to bring the very real risk of sewage overflowing into the surrounding environment.

A good example is the notorious hotspot close to the village of Moria, which is in a space originally built for a maximum of around 1200 – 2000 people. At worst, in 2018 there were 8000 people living there, thousands of them outside the actual camp in an improvised tent area.

The sanitation inside the Moria hotspot is severely under capacity which has resulted in local pollution and health and hygiene issues, for example when the content of the toilets either overflow or people choose to use the streets as their toilets. The sewage system of the camp is not even close to sufficient in handling the amount of waste produced. The other hotspots suffer from similar problems. Read more here.

Other smaller issues that impact the environment on the islands result in, for example, people cutting down olive trees for firewood, since often the tents have no heating and need means of staying warm. Considering that it takes years for olive trees to grow and start producing fruit, this is a major problem for their owners. But with a lack of sufficient heating people have few options in the wintertime and some have even died of the cold in the camps.

Some islands, like Chios, have also occasionally had water shortages, which has meant keeping up the camps can be locally consuming. However most islands with hotspots do not have issues with water.