Vassilios Kikilias, a member of the Greek parliament, served as Greece’s Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection between June 2014 and January 2015 during which time he oversaw Greece’s police and intelligence agencies. He is currently the Special Coordinator of Immigration Policy for the New Democracy political party and a member of the parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Administration, Public Order and Justice. Kikilias also works as an orthopedic surgeon in Athens and was a member of the Greek national basketball team between 1990 and 2004.
CTC: You assumed the position of Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection on June 10, 2014. A few days later, the Islamic State declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. How did that change things for you?
Kikilias: It was clear that Greece, because of its geography, had become a transit country for foreign fighters traveling to Syria and that fighters would try to travel back in the opposite direction. Greece has 16,500 miles of maritime borders and 8,000 islands, which is not easy to guard. So I realized we needed to work with our European colleagues because Greek borders are European borders. From the start I stressed to senior Greek police and intelligence officials the importance of exchanging information with our allies and agencies such as Europol and Interpol.
The other challenge was trying to maintain the effectiveness of Greek police, security, and intelligence agencies during an unprecedented economic crisis. We have 55,000 individuals working in Greek police and a significant number working in our intelligence services, and it was critical to inspire them to do their job because, quite frankly, I did not have the financial tools to adequately pay them.
Another thing I tried to do was to anticipate rather than react to threats. One example of this was following a trip to meet with senior U.S. intelligence officials in 2014. I stated at the European security meeting in Milan that it was essential for us to have access to passenger name record (PNR) data for our flights much like the United States. Unfortunately, at the time, many European nations felt that it would be a blow to civil liberties. It was only after the attacks in Paris and Brussels that the European Union finally adopted PNR.
CTC: How has Greece dealt with the migrant crisis?
Kikilias: During the six months that I oversaw Greek security and police agencies until there was a change in government with the election of the Syriza party, I believe our government took the appropriate measures to limit freedom of movement of the irregular migrants streaming into Greece, while adhering to the Geneva Convention for Refugees. We made a distinction between refugees, who were processed according to international protocols, and illegal immigrants, who were sent to detention centers and returned to their country of origin. When the left-wing political party Syriza came to power in January 2015, they had a significantly different approach toward border security, national security, and collaboration with our international allies. In my view this sent a message to illegal human-smuggling operations to expand their business. Between when the Syrian conflict began in 2011 and 2014, only 80,000 migrants passed through Greece. Since then more than a million have come through our borders. While the worsening civil war in Syria contributed significantly to the rise in the number trying to enter Europe, in my view, the crisis was aggravated by the initial policies of the Syriza-led government.
CTC: Do you believe that the government has now come to terms with the migrant crisis?
Kikilias: Yes, they were obliged to change their policies under European pressure. The European Union understood the difficulty of controlling the high volume of refugees moving through our borders, and in response they worked to close the northern corridor that runs from Thessaloniki to Skopje in FYROM to Rijeka in Croatia. Together with the E.U.-Turkey agreement on migrants in March 2016 and NATO ships stepping up patrols and assisting the Greek and Turkish coast guard in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea, it has significantly ameliorated the situation. With the northern corridor now effectively shut, 55,000 refugees and illegal immigrants are stuck in northern Greece and the Attica area around Athens. This has created its own set of problems, but it has sent a message that it’s pointless to pay people smugglers to cross the Aegean Sea as you will not be able to reach northern Europe through Greece.
Kikilias meets with Greek police officers in 2014.
CTC: What is the concern about potential radicalization of irregular migrants who are currently living in the transient camps in Greece?
Kikilias: Despair and hopelessness can change the psychology of a person, so there is, of course, concern about radicalization. The illegal camp that has emerged in Calais is a case in point because it has created significant issues for France’s internal security. Similar camps have sprouted up in Greece. I have had serious concerns about knowledge gaps that have emerged in recent months about the people in these camps, including the illegal camp at Idomeni in northern Greece, which swelled to over 10,000 people before it was shut down in late May. As well as providing necessary food and shelter, mechanisms need to be in place for Greek police and intelligence services to screen those inside the camps.
CTC: As has been well documented, several of the Paris attackers posed as Syrian refugees when they entered the European Union through the Greek island of Leros. Three days before the Paris attacks in November 2015, there was an unannounced on-site inspection by European Union officials at six Greek border sites. Their conclusion was there were “serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border control by Greece, in particular due to the lack of appropriate identification and registration of irregular migrants at the islands, of sufficient staff, and of sufficient equipment for verifying identity documents.” How can things be improved?
Kikilias: I was not in office then, but it was chaos back in the summer and autumn of 2015. You have to understand, we’re talking about small communities of 10,000 to 20,000 residents on the Greek islands in the northern Aegean close to Turkey to which many migrants were flocking. Suddenly it was D-Day, and they were dealing with thousands of migrants coming in per day on plastic boats that were getting ripped apart, resulting in people drowning. The Greek government had two courses of action: keep all the migrants on these islands with no food or shelter, which would have been an absolute disaster, or to try to relocate them. But because of the urgent need for relocation it was very difficult to check their documents.
To deal with these issues, we need modern communication systems to be able to screen people who pass through Greek islands and land borders. We need to be able to put that information into a database and compare it with the intelligence services of other countries. We need to deepen our cooperation with Western intelligence agencies. We need to be able to communicate quickly at moments of crisis. We need to be able to identify illegal immigrants who pose a security risk. We need proper training and specialized personnel from the European Union to help our border security agency, Greek police, and intelligence services.
We need E.U. help to fund the necessary modernizations. Greece is in its seventh year of recession and in a very difficult financial position. The financial crisis and migrant crisis were a perfect storm. European Union countries need to share the burden by accepting the relocation of refugees, and they also need to develop a unified strategy to deport illegal immigrants. Europe has economic agreements with developing countries, including Nigeria and Cameroon, but some of these countries will not re-accept the deported illegal immigrants. While there are some bilateral agreements, including an agreement between the United Kingdom and Pakistan for sending illegal Pakistani immigrants back home, this needs to be done at the E.U. level.
One positive development has been the proposed introduction of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which could help protect Greece’s borders. This is something that we should move toward, provided it is done in such a way that respects Greece’s sovereignty.
Another point worth making is that recent Islamic State plots and attacks in Europe have tended to involve European citizens. One of the problems we’ve faced is that only if there is an arrest warrant or Interpol red-flag warning will we in Greece be able to apprehend a European citizen suspected by one of our European partners of ties to terrorist activity. So it’s a difficult task because if you can’t make arrests, you have to monitor these suspects. That is why it is essential that we share information across Europe and work closely together. The Brussels attacks demonstrated we have a long way to go.
CTC: How can the international community ultimately resolve the migrant issue?
Kikilias: It can only be resolved if there is a resolution to the conflict in Syria and Iraq. This isn’t an easy task. Some intelligence services predict it will last another 10 years, but the West needs to concentrate all its effort on this. It will also be necessary to convince Turkey to maintain its agreement on migration with the European Union. Given the current political climate in Turkey and the departure of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, there are some questions about the future of this agreement. If President Erdogan decides to change their policy and allow the freedom of movement for the irregular migrants to pass into Greece through the Aegean Sea, there is a high probability of the migrant crisis returning. We could also see surging flows if there are further security breakdowns elsewhere in the Middle East, for example Egypt.
CTC: What was the nature of your security cooperation with the United States while you were in office, and how do you see the relationship evolving in the future?
Kikilias: When I was overseeing Greek security agencies, we had a very positive relationship with the U.S. government, which understood the strategic need to assist Greece. The partnership grew from our common interests and our ability to have honest conversations and deliver on agreements. We built the relationship through joint operations and sharing intelligence. Such cooperation is the most important component of combating the security threats we face. Terrorism is attacking democracy’s weaknesses, and we have to mobilize democracy’s strengths by working together to anticipate problems rather than to react to them. Intelligence is the most precious commodity for governments, and it is essential to share it rather than keeping it in silos.
CTC: In recent years the Greek government and security services have been focused on ‘leftist’ and ‘anarchist’ terrorism. Should the focus now be on Islamist terrorism?
Kikilias: For Greece, domestic terrorism from leftist/anarchist groups has been the cause of a lot of bloodshed, so it has been appropriate for us to focus on that. But the rise of ISIS [Islamic State] and Islamist terrorism has changed the threat picture for the whole of Europe, and it’s important to bring in new expertise to build up capacity in the intelligence services in order to understand the threat and how to deal with it.
CTC: What is the concern about home-grown radicalization in Greece and the threat of an attack by Islamist terrorists inside Greece?
Kikilias: Home-grown radicalization is not a major problem in Greece, although we are not immune to some of the currents across Europe. We have a significant, moderate, Muslim minority that is well-integrated throughout Greece. Greece has not been a target of Islamist terrorist plots, but it cannot have any sense of complacency. We are well aware there are American, British, Russian, and other international interests in Greece that Islamist terrorists might seek to target. The Islamic State is more focused on attacking countries like the U.K., France, and Germany, and it is important for Greece to do everything possible to share intelligence on threats with our partners in this regard.
Five years ago, no one would have predicted the scale of these attacks in the heart of Europe. Many of the attackers were not first-generation immigrants but second- or third-generation that many assumed would have integrated into Western culture. While Greece has recognized the importance of integrating minorities, we have to learn from lessons we’ve seen in Europe.
CTC: You were a famous basketball player in Greece that represented your country at the national level. What were some of the lessons you took from your basketball career in overseeing Greece’s police and intelligence agencies?
Kikilias: I was not the best basketball player as far as my individual skill level, but I was the best teammate. That helped win championships. Michael Jordan was a phenomenal basketball player, but he wouldn’t have been able to win championships without the help of his teammates. That is something I had to do in office. I had to find the right team and build the relationships with the right people both inside the Greek government as well as with other allied nations. In basketball, we would study and analyze our opponents prior to the match to understand who they are, the tools they use, and what their goals are. This is the same strategy we can apply to our fight against ISIS. During my visit with the U.S. intelligence agencies, I was most impressed with the younger analysts who spent countless hours conducting deep analyses on various global issues. This culture and desire is something I would like to see replicated in Greece.
 “Council Implementing Decision setting out a Recommendation on addressing the serious deficiencies identified in the 2015 evaluation of the application of the Schengen acquis in the field of management of the external borders by Greece,” General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, February 12, 2016, p. 4.