Greek Lawmakers OK Plan to Speed Refugee Asylum, Ease Camp Overcrowding

FILE - In this photo dated Friday, May 4, 2018 migrants and refugees wait outside UNHCR offices for their papers, inside the camp of Moria on Lesbos, Greece. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS – Blasted by human rights groups for conditions at detention centers and camps housing 64,000 refugees and migrants, including more than 15,000 on islands near Turkey, Greece’s Parliament approved a bill to pick up the pace of languishing asylum applications.

Delays up to two years have made the camps and centers pushed way over capacity and led to a series of violent incidents between different ethnic groups and with riot police frequently called in to restore order.

A suspended European Union swap deal requires Turkey, which allows human traffickers to flood Greek islands with waves of refugees and migrants, to take back those deemed ineligible for asylum but only a relative handful have been returned, with the bill directing more deportations.

The EU has closed its borders to the refugees and migrants and reneged on promises to help take in an overload, dumping the problem largely on Greece during an eight-year-long crushing economic and austerity crisis.

Under the bloc’s regulations, refugees and migrants can only apply for asylum in the country where they first land, almost always Greece or Italy as they can’t get from the Middle East, from where most have fled, to Germany or the United Kingdom directly, countries many prefer.

Under the new law, staff will be added at the office that handles asylum requests, the appeals process for rejected applications will be shortened and travel restrictions can be imposed on asylum-seekers who are moved from the Greek islands to the mainland.

In this Tuesday, May 2, 2018 photo a Syrian woman cooks food on an open fire at a makeshift camp outside Moria on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

That, however, violates a Greek court order that newly-arrived refugees and migrants are free to move around the country, a ruling ignored by the Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who had said he was “proud” of conditions in squalid camps.

Currently, restrictions on asylum-seekers are mostly limited to five islands near the coast of Turkey, where strained refugee camps are trying to cope with up to three times more residents than planned. More than 16,000 people are stuck there.

A group of 13 Greek human rights organizations, however, has accused the government of ignoring refugee rights.

The number of newly arriving migrants and refugees has risen sharply this year at the islands and Greece’s land border with Turkey, prompting the change in policy.

Police cleared out two abandoned factory buildings used by migrants in the city of Patras in western Greece early on May 15. More than 600 people will be moved from there to refugee camps on the mainland, police said.

The same day, nine people were injured outside Thessaloniki after police pursued a car with an alleged smuggler and 12 suspected migrants crammed inside. The car crashed during the chase, and rescuers had to use hydraulic tools to free the passengers.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)