WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren, in the midst of a six-day trip to Europe focused largely on economic issues and the Syrian refugee crisis, spoke in vivid terms Tuesday about the despair she viewed on the shores of Greece.
The bottom of the rafts that refugees use to travel from Turkey to Greece are “paper thin.” The life preservers are children’s pool floaties. There are areas where children are being held alone, without their parents, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts said.
“Think about what it means to live in a world where parents would send young children off on their own because they were [living in an area] regarded as so dangerous,” Warren said in a joint telephone interview with Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire during a stop in Germany.
“The desperation of people fleeing Syria is something you can touch,” she said. “Everything you read about the number of people trying to get out of Syria, who are trying to make it to a place of safety, changes when you see them in person.”
During the trip to Ukraine, Greece, and Germany, the senators visited the Greek island of Lesbos, holding meetings with Greek and United Nations officials in the location where many refugees first arrive from Syria. Warren said refugees were told by traffickers that if they encounter the Greek Coast Guard, they should cut the bottom of the raft with a knife so they begin to sink and the Coast Guard is forced to rescue them.
“Traffickers are getting paid outlandish sums of money to put people in those boats,” Shaheen said. “It’s such a human tragedy, we need to look at what we can do.”
President Obama has announced an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria would be allowed into the United States over the next year. Shaheen said the vetting system needs to be done more quickly, but it’s a challenge when refugees are coming from a volatile region filled with terrorists who want to target the United States.
“We met civil engineers, we met PhDs. We met people who in any ordinary time could build a strong future for themselves and for their country. But they have no opportunities in Syria,” Warren said. “We are all deeply concerned about security issues and the importance of vetting people. It’s clear that good procedures are not yet in place. But it’s also clear that there are many people here who could benefit Europe, the United States.”
Warren and Shaheen said they met one man Tuesday at a Berlin refugee center who recently fled Kobanî, a city in northern Syria that has been taken by the Islamic State, and is trying to connect with his uncle in Boston so he can continue his profession as a teacher.
“First we started talking teacher to teacher,” said Warren, a longtime college professor. “He wants to teach English literature. He talked about teaching as a calling. But his uncle is an engineer in Boston. He has a plan. That is, to try to join his uncle to try and teach again.”
In addition to the Syrian refugee crisis, the trip is aimed at discussions on the Greek debt crisis and eurozone economic policy. Warren, who has built her political career largely on her policies on the domestic economy, diagnosed some of the issues she sees with the European financial crisis.
“In Greece and Ukraine there are problems with corruption, weakness in the rule of law, the lack of a strong civil society, that completely undermine the economic system,” she said. “I taught commercial law for many years and I understand, it’s not possible to build a strong functional economy without rules . . . most business will follow.
“But instead much of the economy in Greece is run by oligarchs. In Ukraine, 50 percent of the economy is black market now,” she added. “Reforms are urgently needed.”
The problems are compounded, in her view, by the austerity measures being pushed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Those measures, she said, “provoke political backlash, making it much harder for the leaders in either country to develop the kind of countermeasures to corruption that they need to develop.”
“My message to the officials in Greece, to the government of Ukraine, is to focus on transparency, of ridding the country of official corruption,” she said. “But my message in Germany was not to undermine those goals by insisting on unrealistic austerity measures that will ultimately make it much more difficult for either country to grow.”
The senator added, “Change isn’t easy. But people demand it, the economy requires it. And the United States will stand with those who fight for it.”
When the Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Las Vegas on Tuesday night for their first debate, Warren — who resisted calls by supporters to launch a presidential bid of her own — and Shaheen were in a Berlin hotel next to the Brandenburg Gate.
They were literally halfway across the world. And they said there would be no debate-watch party in Berlin. They didn’t even plan to tune in.
“It’s going to be in the middle of the night,” Shaheen said.
“I look forward to reading about it in the morning papers,” Warren added.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.