Athens – Greece’s government has cautiously welcomed a plan from Brussels to reform the EU’s shaky asylum system, but charity groups working with refugees on the ground have blasted a continued “outrageous containment policy”.
The “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” unveiled on September 23 calls for a tougher stance on returning migrants who do not have the right to stay in the EU, and ratcheting up border controls.
Such moves are music to the ears of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ conservative government, which has been operating a harsh migration policy since taking power over a year ago.
The only flaw from Greece’s perspective is the Commission giving up on quota-based redistribution of asylum seekers among EU countries — a plan first mooted during the migration crisis of 2015 but which foundered on opposition from several member states.
Wednesday’s pact “goes in the right direction, our main positions are included, but we’re disappointed on redistribution, we’d have preferred a different model,” Greek asylum service secretary Manos Logothetis told ERT public television.
Mitsotakis himself has reiterated calls for a “balanced asylum policy” and highlighted “the need to share responsibilities in a fair way”.
– ‘Enough is enough’ –
Like Italy and Spain, Greece’s position on the EU’s southern edge makes it one of the major points of arrival in the bloc for migrants.
Its geography has made it a relentless defender of the idea that asylum seekers — who arrive almost daily on the country’s Aegean Sea islands from neighbouring Turkey — should be shared out fairly.
The Greek government has long struggled to manage overcrowding in camps on the five islands most affected by the arrivals, especially since the Moria camp on Lesbos burned down on September 8 and 9.
Half of the 24,000 migrants packed into Greek camps remain on Lesbos.
Authorities rushed to set up a provisional site for those left without shelter by the blaze, but charity groups are already incensed at conditions there.
“The Commission promised “no more Moria’, while building a new containment camp in Lesbos, where conditions are dire,” tweeted the Legal Centre Lesbos, which provides legal information and assistance to migrants on the island.
Other groups working with migrants on the ground pointed out the arduous lines people must stand in to receive one meal per day, the lack of mattresses and the impossibility of respecting coronavirus infection control measures like social distancing.
“We have continuously exposed the human cost of this outrageous containment policy to leaders in European capitals, to commissioners in Brussels and to citizens through the media, but nothing seems to lead to a desperately needed radical policy change,” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) president Christos Christou tweeted.
“Enough is enough. No more lies,” he added.
MSF is one of only a few organisations allowed by Greek authorities to come to the aid of asylum seekers left to sleep by the side of the road after Moria was destroyed.
So far almost 9,400 people have moved into the new temporary camp on Lesbos, the Greek section of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said.
Spokeswoman Stella Nanou told AFP authorities must “put an end to the precarious situation for thousands of refugees in the Greek islands and… accelerate their safe and orderly transfer to suitable accommodation in the mainland.”
– Under pressure –
Greece has already transferred thousands off the islands since early 2020, but the camps remain under intense pressure.
On Wednesday, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said a camp hosting 1,000 vulnerable refugees on Lesbos would be closed, as well as a volunteer-run accommodation known as Pikpa.
Greece steps up refugee transfers from congested Lesbos
The Pikpa camp was founded in 2012 by migrant champion Efi Latsoudi, a joint winner in 2016 of the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award.
It currently hosts around 100 people, offering refugees access to medical care, education and legal assistance.
“Such alternative accommodation facilities should be maintained until a more viable solution is secured,” UNHCR spokeswoman Nanou said.
By Hélène Colliopoulou