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Environmental Impact of the Refugee Crisis in Greece

Authors: Jahnavi Iyer and Ashna Gupta

Region Head: Sauradeep Bhattacharyya

Editor: Harsh Didwania


This article focuses on the impact the Syrian refugee crisis has had on European countries that have provided shelter to these refugees. In particular, it focuses on the high influx of immigrants to the islands of Greece. It is further explained with a case study on Lesvos, which currently hosts the majority of the refugees and has various organisations trying to inculcate prioritising the environment and the refugee crisis. It concludes with the future plan of action adopted by the European Union to manage this crisis.

Introduction and background on immigration policy in the EU

The Syrian Civil War that has displaced millions of people from their homes, marked its tenth year in 2021. What began as pro-democracy protests against the government turned into a full-scale war in 2011 leading to the “Middle East Refugee Crisis.”

A large proportion of these migrants sought shelter in the neighbouring countries of Europe which led to the European migrant crisis in 2014. Since then, the European Union has regulated and modified its migration policies to prevent the illegal immigration of refugees. Furthermore, in 2015 (BBC News, 2017) it set quotas for refugees to reduce the pressure of rising migrants in Italy and Greece. Under this policy, the European Leaders identified around 160,000 migrants “in clear need of international protection.” They were to be reallocated among all EU member states in a span of two years. However countries like Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania have taken minimal to no refugees in, keeping the pressure on Greece intact. This article focuses on the impact of migration on European countries, more specifically on the effect this has had on Greece’s economy and environment.

As of 2016, more than a million people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan crossed into Greece in the previous year. This continuous inflow of people has put extreme pressure on the country, especially in terms of waste management. Improper planning and anticipation for this large inflow of people, especially when there is no sustainable management plan in place to tackle the related problems intensifies this impact. There are risks of environmental and humanitarian hazards owing to inadequate collection capacity, shortage of manpower, lack of recycling sorting systems, poor treatment technology and uncontrolled landfills.

Case Study: Lesvos Island

Situated in the Northeastern Aegean, off the Turkish coastline, the Lesvos (or Lesbos) Island in Greece has always been a transit point for people travelling across the Mediterrenean (Pulitzer Center, 2016). With the Syrian war intensifying, there led to a surge in refugees seeking asylum in Greece. As of 2021, there are 119,700 refugees in Greece and 19,100 are on the Lesvos, Samos and Chia Islands(Rescue.Org, n.d). Lesvos, being the biggest, is the hardest hit by the influx of refugees. Those who seek asylum in Lesvos, aim to stay temporarily but unprecedentedly, have had to stay for a longer term. These growing numbers have exerted pressure on both the Greek government and the environment.

Refugee settlements add onto environmental degradation due to the poor waste management in the camps. This is common in disaster areas containing temporary camps and crowded conditions. Improper waste management in these refugee camps is creating a number of problems including disease transmission, contaminated water bodies and emission of air pollutants. Uncontrolled burning of waste within these areas presents additional environmental risks along with the disposal of plastic from life jackets and inflatable crafts. The volume of lifejackets collected until April 2016 was 16000 cubic meters. These items are left behind which end up creating landfills. Recycling efforts have also proven to be futile as the life jackets are made from non-recyclable materials (Skanavis, & Aristea, 2016).

However, in recent years, the government bodies along with several NGOs are working towards improving the living conditions of the refugees. The EU is said to be funding €121 million for three new reception centres in the Greek islands (Europa Press Corner, 2020). These centres are to follow the international standards set by EU law with regards to health, security, sanitation, food, information provision and counselling, clothing and non-food items, and common areas. Such funding would allow for the local organizations to also improve the conditions of the camps while prioritizing sustainability.

Starfish Foundation, a non-profit organisation with operations in Greece, has several community-driven projects. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the Moria camp fire in 2020 that displaced 13,000 refugees, they swept in to distribute masks, provide food and assistance to pregnant mothers (Starfish Foundation, 2020). Other organisations such as the Movement On The Ground are working towards building a new sustainable refugee camp, RIC Lesvos. Besides food distribution, shelter, electricity, sports and education, they are also prioritizing waste management to make the camp environmentally friendly. The camp will also include community gardens to make the settlements green (Movement On The Ground, n.d.).

Concluding this case study, the Lesvos island, Greece and external organisations are striving to handle the refugee crisis while also being concerned for the environment.

Future possibilities

A New Pact on Migration and Asylum 2020 (Europa Press Corner, 2020) was adopted by the European Commission to develop a long term plan to manage the refugee crisis. Its main focus is to provide a more humane and effective method to combat irregular migration, eradicate illegal migration pathways, better integrate migrants and strengthen partnerships with origin and transit countries. At the same time, the mechanism aims to achieve a more uniform distribution of responsibilities among member states to eventually establish a national migration management system throughout Europe. The flexibility and resilience this requires will be attained through better management of Schengen and borders.

In order to further strengthen the implementation of environmental policies whilst handling the refugee crisis, it could be included in the EU's Green New Deal. As part of the European Commission's climate action plan to fulfil Europe’s climate goals and other long-term environmental objectives (CRÉDIT AGRICOLE, n.d.), the Green New Deal aims to create sustainable actions towards tackling environment-related challenges. One of the two key components of the action plan includes issuing the EU Green Bonds. It is a practical and secure financing tool to ensure the real economy investments create environmental impacts. These bonds could be issued to investors who contribute in solving this crisis. They could do so by funding NGOs, working with EU governments in improving the refugee settlement’s living conditions while also ensuring that low eco-impact activities occur. As long as their activities are approved by the 6 Key Standardization measures (European Commission. 2016), the bonds will be valid. Issuing these bonds not only benefits the economy and private parties in the long run but also provides an incentive for genuine environment-related actions to take place while handling the refugee crisis.

In conclusion, the improvements in handling the refugee crisis due to the reformed Migrant Policy as well as future possible implementations of the Green Bonds, would be effective.


1. BBC News. (2017, 6 September). Europe migrant crisis: EU court rejects quota challenge. Retrieved from


3. Europa Press Corner (2020, 3 December) Migration: Commission and Greece agree joint plan for a new reception centre in Lesvos. Retrieved from

4. Europa Press Corner. (2020, 25 November). New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Retrived from

5. European Commission. (2016, November). Study on the potential of green bond finance for resource-efficient investments. Retrieved from


7. Pulitzer Center (2016, 4 January). Greece: The Ghosts of Refugees Past. Retrieved from

8. Rescue.Org (n.d.) Refugees in limbo: Greece, Crisis Watch. Retrieved from

9. Skanavis, Constantina & Kounani, Aristea. (2016). The environmental impacts of the refugees' settlements at Lesvos Island. Retrieved from'_settlements_at_Lesvos_Island

11. Starfish Foundation. (2020, 4 Nov). Long time, no speak! Retrieved from

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