How Will Migration and Covid-19 Impact Eastern Mediterranean Ferry Linkages?

By Chris Deliso

December 11, 2020

The European migration crisis peaked in 2015, but never really went away. Since then, it has become a particularly pernicious problem with political, security and economic aspects.

New complexities in the debate were created by the world’s Covid-19 experience of lockdowns and civil unrest, raising the issue of citizens’ rights and freedom of movement. The conflation of this right with the philosophy of open-borders advocates is just one of the many complexities that will animate the debate in future.


A fundamental but often overlooked aspect of the migration crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean concerns the logistical challenges Greece chronically faces in administering its territory. The same allure that is symbolized by owning thousands of islands can also be a headache, when it comes to keeping the often resource- and service-strapped residents of these islands in a fully functional situation.

While this has always been an issue, it became particularly acute following the 2008 financial crisis. In 2019 – even before the pandemic that destroyed the vital tourism industry and further hampered economic survivability – the government was considering ways to improve access to remote islands. In April 2020, a report estimated that ferry companies would need a 30 millon-euro monthly stipenfd to survive the blow Covid-related lockdowns meant that “ferry operators were forced to stop nearly 70 percent of all services as demand for transport dropped by 50 percent compared to the same period last year and revenue losses of up to 90 percent.” Other sources have said that even before the pandemic, the Greek government subsidies for the ferry industry reached 100 million euros annually.

Turkey has in its unique understanding of maritime law, and for historic reasons, always looked at the Eastern Aegean islands as falling under its control in an ideal future scenario. Turkey’s asymmetric warfare by use of illegal migrants at the Evros land border and Eastern Aegean islands is partly designed to damage the desirability of these areas as tourism markets, and partly to add to the service costs Athens already faces in its eastern hinterlands.

This is not a short-term game, though it may seem to be (for example, a one-off influx meant to get a reaction from Brussels and improve Ankara’s negotiating hand with the EU). While there is indeed some element of truth to this argument, it overlooks the ground-level and more long-term considerations at work of the asymmetrical campaign. It is actually a war of attrition designed to psychologically impact both local residents and the migrants themselves towards mutual distrust and dissatisfaction with the central government in Athens- as has been seen time and again with fires in migrant camps and violent events around them.

The underlying (and generally unstated) Turkish argument is that these islands are naturally better suited to administration from the nearby Anatolian mainland, rather than distant Athens. This is not an argument that will win over Greek hearts and minds, but the great risk is that by making an illegal migrant presence semi-permanent is that it becomes institutionalized.

This is already becoming the case, and it is dangerous because it draws in the political and financial interests of bigger players like the EU, UN and the Vatican, all with their own financial interests in sustaining the migration industry. The more institutionalized the migration industry becomes, the less incentive there will be for islanders to go back to their traditional tourism and agrictultural livelihoods in the long run. The migration war in the Eastern Mediterranean is thus an oddly complementary one for allegedly competing interests like those of Turkey and the EU/globalist system.


However, all is not lost for the Greek side, which looks to its EU membership as a way of keeping not only diplomatic allies, but also economic clout that it could not otherwise muster. And this even includes subsidies for its ferry services.

Indeed, in one turn of events that was actually expedited by the Covid-19 crisis, the EU gave its approval for subsidizing a long-haul passenger ferry between Greece and Cyprus. The European Commission Directorate for Competitiveness ruled in July 2020 that “the maritime passenger route between Cyprus and Greece is considered a general economic interest service under the current EU rules and can thus be supported with state/government funds.”

 Ironically, this same route “was discontinued in 2000 after a sharp drop in the price of airline tickets, which made the line obsolete.”

Nevertheless, with the Covid-19 economic destruction of the travel industry, and widespread popular distrust around the world regarding vaccines against the so-called pandemic, it will take some years to see air travel return to its former levels. And, if all air carriers follow the draconian lead of some and mandate vaccines for travel, it is certain that many people will simply choose not to fly. This tendency will benefit the ferry industry in general and, while it may not be enough to make a Greece-Cyprus ferry economically profitable, it will help to ease into the estimated 6 million-euro state subsidy agreed in July.

At the same time, the Greek-Cyprus ferry line can be seen as one of many moves and countermoves carried out by these allies on the one hand, and by Turkey on the other. Heading closer to the 2024 50th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion of the island, both sides will try to solidify their presence. The creation of an EU-sanctioned civilian ferry heading specifically through waters that Turkey claimed (in its deal with Tripoli) for its own obviously increases the likelihood of provocations from the Turkish navy.


Both the migration crisis and Covid-19 present unique challenges for the maritime infrastructure system of the Eastern Mediterranean, and have at different times exposed weaknesses in logistics and economic models. As states seek to exploit their maximal geopolitical advamtages, we can expect to see further events that seem random but actually make sense in the larger and integrated context.

Additional Reading on this topic:

 Funda Yercan and Michael Roe, Shipping in Turkey: A Marketing Analysis of the Passenger Ferry Sector

Roudi Baroudi and Debra Cagan, Maritime Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Way Forward

World Bank, COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens

Christopher Deliso, Migration, Terrorism and the Future of a Divided Europe: a Continent Transformed 

Brendan O’Malley and Ian Craig, The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, Espionage and the Turkish Invasion

James Ker-Lindsay, The Cyprus Problem What Everyone Needs to Kn

Lonely Planet, Guide to Greece 2020


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