European Affairs

The Refugee Crisis is not over for Greece     Print Email

katerinasokou.2016Greece currently hosts some 60,000 asylum-seekers – 10,000 on just three islands: Lesbos, Chios and Kos. Most will have to spend the winter in Greece, as asylum to their desired, northern European destinations is slow to be granted. To be sure, the number of new arrivals has dropped significantly after the EU-Turkey agreement, with more migrants diverting to the precarious mid-Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy. Yannis Mouzalas, the Greek Deputy Minister for Migration Policy, says that since the signing on March 19, new arrivals average 70-100 daily, which “proves the importance of the agreement with Turkey.” Without the agreement, he estimated that there would have been as many as 180,000 people arriving in the Greek islands during the same period. Lately, however, Greek officials are watching nervously as the number of asylum-seekers in the Aegean islands is rising once again—up by 76% since the July 15 failed coup in Turkey.

As new arrivals flow in, older ones are slow to move out – either to Europe or back to Turkey. According to Mouzalas, almost 30,000 have applied for asylum and were expected to relocate to other EU countries this year. However, only 3,500 have been relocated so far, and member states are slow to file applications for more. In the meantime, registering those already in Greece continues at a slow pace. Mouzalas notes that the EU promised 400 officers to help Greece with the asylum applications. Only 19 have arrived so far.

Based on the agreement with the EU, Turkey has agreed to readmit all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands starting 20 March 2016. It has also agreed that for every Syrian returned to Turkey, another will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. In return, the EU promised financial support to help Turkey deal with its own refugee population, and to speed up the visa-waiver program for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe. However, after the failed coup and the wide-spread purges being conducted by the government, Europeans are becoming increasingly unwilling to open new accession chapters with Turkey. Turkey is also hardening its stance, warning that without the visa-waiver, it will not honor the refugee deal. Relations with the EU are strained, as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan blames European leaders for not supporting him quickly enough amid the coup attempt. After the coup, migrant readmission to Turkey has been exceptionally slow, as the Turkish officers who were managing the process in the Greek islands were called back to Turkey.

Traveling to Greece to see first-hand the conditions on the ground this summer, both the Pope and the UN Secretary General praised the Greeks for their humane response to the crisis. But the challenges of hosting an increased number of people remain. Greek officials stress that Greece has exceeded its capacity.

In his first interview as the new ambassador of Greece to the U.S., Haris Lalacos told the Washington Diplomatthat he is looking forward to the Leader’s Summit on September 20 in New York, which U.S. president Barack Obama is co-hosting in an effort to attract funds for the refugees.  Greece will need 1.8 billion euros this year for refugee work but has received only 250 million euros according to ambassador Lalacos. A career diplomat, Lalacos’ previous post as ambassador in Skopje put him at the forefront of the refugee crisis, as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) all but closed its border with Greece to refugees, resulting in a make-shift camp of 10,000 people on the Greek side for much of last winter.

Having just come back from Greece, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi committed to strengthen cooperation between the UN and the Greek government. During his visit, he noted the need to improve the conditions in refugee sites ahead of winter, including security. And Minister Mouzalas, who was one of the founding members of the Greek chapter of Doctors of the World, recognized the refugees’ right to employment and education. Greece may be willing to give them employment permits, but with a quarter of its own working-age population unemployed, it cannot offer employment prospects without international support. Aware of the economic crisis in Greece, most refugees do not want to stay in the country in any case – only 3% do, according to another Greek official (George Kyritsis, government coordinator for the refugee issue.)

Plan B puts pressure on Greece, Italy

The Greek government hopes the EU-Turkey agreement holds up. But in case it doesn’t the Germans are already working on a plan B. According to Der Spiegel magazine, the German Finance Ministry is ready to push Greece to accept more refugees, as even bailout money seem to be conditional on Greek agreement.

At the same time, the so-called Dublin regulation is coming back to haunt Greece. The regulation states that asylum-seekers will be sent back to their first point of entry in the EU, where their application is processed. There is currently a moratorium for Greece as its facilities were deemed inadequate to receive more asylum-seekers back in 2011. However, this was recently challenged by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, while the European Commission also wants to bring Greece up to European standards and end the moratorium. 

From its part, the Greek government argues that this runs counter to the spirit of the EU-Turkey agreement, which aimed to stop the smuggling of refugees and migrants to Europe but also alleviate the burden on Greece. For the country and the refugees stranded there alike, it promises to be a long winter.

Katerina Sokou is Washington Correspondent for the Greek Daily Kathimerini

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