ATHENS – With videos showing refugees and migrants in detention centers on Greek islands living in miserable, inhuman conditions, the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA is under intense pressure for its handling of a crisis, even within the party.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he was “proud” of the conditions those in the centers and camps on the islands, primarily Lesbos, Chios and Samos, were living in before secretly-filmed video by the German news site Deutsche Welle showed many living in feces and garbage strewn conditions, toilets not working and violence growing between groups, some waiting more than two years for asylum applications to be processed and finalized.
Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas has been especially blistered by some elements in his own party for his reaction to the crisis that has seen more than 64,0000 refugees and migrants, including more than 15,000 on the islands, stuck there with the suspension of a European Union swap deal with Turkey, which allows human traffickers to operate.
Turkey is the jumping-off point for those fleeing war and strife in the Middle East and economic migrants from other countries who wanted to reach more prosperous countries in the EU before the borders were shut, leaving them in Greece as well as Italy.
Mouzalas, who said people living in summer tents covered with snow in freezing conditions weren’t cold, although he said he couldn’t guarantee none would die as winter set in, had refused to allow transfers, saying that would break the EU deal and encourage more refugees and migrants to come to Greece.
He has relented somewhat to allow the most vulnerable, particularly women and children and those with serious health problems, to come to the mainland and be housed with more than 50,000 in other centers and camps.
But mayors, officials and residents on the island are still pressing for more to be taken off but Mouzalas’ response has been to add capacity to centers and camps there instead of
Under the deal signed by the EU and Ankara in March 2016, all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greek islands are supposed to be returned to Turkey, but only a relative handful have and more are arriving on Greek islands weekly.
During a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov earlier in December, Tsipras requested that Turkey also accept migrant returns from the mainland in order to ease overcrowding at camps but he didn’t push the issue when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Athens.
Merkel avoided endorsing the Greek proposal which essentially violates the core of the EU-Turkey deal, the newspaper Kathimerini said, adding it was told by sources it wouldn’t identify that she wants the EU border agency Frontex to add more people along the Greek-Bulgarian border to cut off that route.
Greek officials earlier said Erdogan had gone along with that but the matter was pushed down to ministers to handle. Mouzalas went to Ankara for further negotiations but Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias reportedly said the Turkish President wouldn’t help.
Speaking to SYRIZA officials, Tsipras vowed that asylum seekers past the first stage of their application process would be relocated to the mainland, contradicting Mouzalas as criticism has mounted over the government’s response.