ATHENS – Even as he said a suspended European Union swap deal has cut the numbers of refugees and migrants landing in Greece by 97 percent, the block’s migration chief, Dimitris Avramopoulos said his country is taking too long to process asylum applications.
Europe has closed its borders to the refugees and migrants, abandoning some 64,000 of them for Greece to handle during a crushing economic crisis, including more than 14,000 on islands near the coast of Turkey, which allows human traffickers to operate.
Avramopoulos, who hasn’t forced other EU countries to live up to their pledges to take in more from Greece – and as Germany and others say they want to return many to Greece who managed to get out – said the processing of asylum applications needs to be accelerated.
Those who don’t qualify, particularly economic migrants who, unlike refugees fleeing war and strife in Syria and other areas, are to be shipped back to Turkey but appeals are slowing the process as the refugees and migrants remain packed in detention centers and camps with growing tension and frustration.
Nevertheless, Avramopoulos, a veteran of the former ruling New Democracy Conservatives, said that “the EU-Turkey statement continues to work and deliver results,” even though the overwhelming number of asylum requests has bogged down the system and seen almost all the refugees and migrants remaining in limbo in Greece with nowhere to go.
He said that more than 8,800 Syrians in Turkey had now found homes in Europe, scores of thousands less than other EU countries promised to take in, leaving it to Greece to handle the problem on its own essentially.
While praising the pact he acknowledged it’s not fully functioning because “significant additional efforts” are needed to cut the asylum application backlog and improve processing in Greece so more people can be returned to Turkey even though his office has offered relatively little help, as Greece has complained about.
Turkey agreed to stem migrant departures for Greece in return for fast-track EU membership talks, visa-free travel for Turkish systems and at least 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees in that country but much of that has been on hold.
Meanwhile, Greek asylum service employees on short-term contracts began a two-day strike Sept. 6 to protest months-long delays in their salary payments, a common practice in Greece where workers can even wait years to be paid but keep working in the hope they will.
Their union said they have not been paid for two or three months. A statement said several employees living in rented accommodation face the threat of eviction, having fallen behind in their rent payments.
Together with the strike, the union was planning a protest in central Athens on Sept. 7 but will be barred under the no-demonstration order. The government promised Sept. 6 to pay the workers “within the next two days.”
The Migration Ministry said that the “significant” delays were due to “technical bureaucratic difficulties, which, we would like to believe, will not emerge again,” although they almost always do.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice rejected legal action by Hungary and Slovakia seeking to avoid accepting refugees under an EU-wide plan.
Welcoming the verdict, Avramopoulos warned that those countries could face legal action if they do not live up to their obligations “in coming weeks,” but he’s said that before and done nothing about it.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)