Mouzalas Says Some Refugees in Greece Could Die This Winter

Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas. Photo: Eurokinissi, File

ATHENS – Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said some refugees and migrants living in tents on islands could die this winter in the cold even though his own party warned him to do something to prevent it.

Mouzalas told Germany’s Spiegel Online that he cannot guarantee that no one will die in the camps as the weather gets colder without explaining why he hasn’t done more to prepare for it, such as bringing in heaters or providing better housing.

“What we can do,” he said, “is try the utmost to prevent death,” he said although he didn’t provide any details on why that wasn’t done in the lead-up to winter and after he was blistered by hard-core elements in the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA party for being unprepared, and as human rights groups said conditions in detention centers and camps housing on islands housing more than 15,000 people weren’t fit.

Mouzalas said that authorities were making preparations to ensure that island camps are ready to deal with plunging temperatures and promised it would be done by Dec. 15 without explaining why he waited all year to do it.

“The key though is the number of new arrivals,” he said, adding that if there is no large increase in numbers “then we are well prepared.” Authorities might reserve some rooms at local hotels if necessary, he said.

During previous winters, he said that people living in snow-covered tents weren’t cold, seeing himself ridiculed for the remarks. He has been the target of constant criticism but has kept the backing of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who said he was “proud” of the living conditions for refugees and migrants before Mouzalas said some could die.

ERDOGAN DEALS

Tsipras got visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to agree to speed the return of migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected, Kathimerini said. Turkey has been similarly overwhelmed by people fleeing war and strife in the Middle East and who want to get to more prosperous European countries but wound up stuck in Greece.

During a joint press conference with Erdogan, Tsipras declared that “new measures have been agreed for cooperation in the context of the European Union-Turkey agreement,” referring to a deal in March 2016 to curb human trafficking across the Aegean.

That was suspended because so many refugees and migrants couldn’t move on to other countries and buried Greece with asylum applications as the EU mostly looked the other way.

Tsipras didn’t explain what he meant about “new measures,” but the paper said they would involve speeding the return of migrants to Turkey without explaining how that could be done and why it hasn’t before.

With the details secret and no word on whether the EU has agreed, speculation arose that it could break the deal and that Tsipras has gone off on his own with criticism over his administration’s handling of the refugee crisis growing as winter comes on.

The Netherlands Ambassador to Greece, Caspar Veldkamp said he was anxious about mass relocations to the Greek mainland if returns are not being made to Turkey because he said it could encourage human smugglers to send more.

DOORS OPEN, CLOSE

Meanwhile, the transfer of 1000 at-risk refugees and migrants from Greek islands to the mainland is being offset by continuing arrivals from Turkey, which is letting human traffickers operate in defiance of a suspended European Union swap deal.

Mouzalas had refused to allow transfers, saying it would break the deal with Turkey.

Greece has been stuck with more than 64,0000 refugees and migrants with the suspension of the swap deal and as Europe closed its borders to them, dumping the problem on a country more than 7 ½ years into a crushing economic crisis.

More than 15,000 are on islands where officials and residents have been pleading and screaming for help and as they came to Athens last week to protest outside Mouzalas’ office where he did not meet with them, staying hidden.

While the wave of arrivals has diminished markedly with the deal, few have been returned to Turkey and the Greek islands are seeing constant trickles of newcomers, boosting the swelling ranks in the centers and camps slowly but incessantly, with the transfers seen as doing nothing to ease the tension and violence that has broken out frequently on Lesbos, Chios and Samos.

In its latest report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that 17,764 people were transferred from the islands to the mainland in the period from July 2016 to November 2017, Kathimerini reported.

UNHCR sources clarified, however, that the number of those removed from the islands is significantly higher than the official figure with most of them seen as vulnerable, such as children and women, who are allowed off the islands.

But the same time, in the period between early April 2016, when Turkey and the EU reached a deal to limit migrant flows into Europe, until late November 2017, some 48,600 people arrived in Greece.

In November, 3,800 people arrived on the Greek islands from Turkey, while 2,128 asylum seekers were transferred to the mainland in the same month, the paper said.

The Migration Policy Ministry said there were no plans for the immediate removal of some 1,000 people from the Vial hotspot on Chios and that the removals will take place gradually.