Three Years After EU-Turkey Swap Deal, Greece Awash With Refugees

FILE - In this early Saturday May 5, 2018 file photo, the moon rises above piles of discarded life vests and dinghies used by migrants and refugees crossing from the nearby Turkish coast, at a dump on the Greek island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

ATHENS – With human rights groups and activists complaining it hasn’t worked, a deal to swap refugees and migrants between the European Union and Turkey has marked its third anniversary, seeing Greece trying to deal with more than 70,000 of them.

In March 2016, with hundreds of thousands who fled civil war and strife in the Middle East using Turkey as a jumping-off point to get to the EU, primarily through Greece, the deal was reached to slow the numbers.

But the EU then shut its borders to them and reneged on promises to take some of the overload from Greece, including near 15,000 on islands near Turkey, which continues to let human traffickers operate.

That has left most in Greece where they are seeking asylum, penned up in camps and detention centers for two years and more in conditions the activists said was inhumane, urging the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA to do more, and with the EU blaming Greece.

FILE – In this Wednesday, May, 2, 2018, file photo, children play inside the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File).

One of the main provisions of the deal, which came into effect on March 20, 2016, was that all those arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast would be detained and returned to Turkey unless they successfully applied for asylum in Greece, but only a relative handful have so far.

Instead of waiting to apply for asylum in their preferred European country, new arrivals applied when they arrived on the islands, which delayed deportations and created a massive backlog in Greece’s asylum system.

On a very basic level of reducing the number of asylum-seekers heading to other European countries, the deal was very effective, unless you’re one of those in the camps where there aren’t enough toilets and violence frequently flares, with women and minors at risk.

More than 1.2 million people registered for asylum in EU member states in 2015 and again in 2016, at the height of the crisis. That number fell by half the following year, with just over 654,000 new asylum applications in 2017 and even fewer — just over 580,000 — in 2018, according to the EU’s statistics office Eurostat.

FILE – In this Friday, May 4, 2018 file photo migrants and refugees wait outside the European Asylum Support Service offices inside the camp of Moria on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

Germany continues to be the most popular country for those seeking refugee status, followed by France and Greece. The main countries of origin of the applicants are Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the reduction in numbers has come at a cost with the BBC calling a detention center on the island of Lesbos “the worst in the world,” although Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had said he was “proud” of the conditions in which refugees and migrants were living.

Aid groups have repeatedly slammed the deal as inhumane, noting it has left thousands stranded in miserable conditions. On the eve of its third anniversary, 25 human rights, medical aid and volunteer groups signed an open letter calling on European leaders “to take immediate and sustained action to end the unfair and unnecessary containment policy.”

It has also not completely stopped arrivals on Greek islands, although the numbers are far lower than the thousands per day in 2015 and early 2016.

Samos island has seen the worst overcrowding, with around 4,000 people vying for space in a camp with a capacity of 648. The largest camp in the eastern Aegean, Moria on Lesbos which holds more than 4,800 people in facilities designed for 3,100, has been ripped by criticism from rights groups and local officials over poor living and security conditions.

FILE – Refugees and migrants carry their belongings after they disembark from a ferry, at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. About 400 migrants and refugees arrived at the port from the island of Lesbos as authorities have been moving hundreds of migrants deemed to be vulnerable from the overcrowded Moria camp to camps on the mainland. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Greek authorities note that the terms of the EU-Turkey agreement prevent them from moving people off the islands en masse. Instead, they have tried to ease overcrowding by sending to the mainland those designated as vulnerable — such as the sick or very elderly, families with young children or single parent families.

As of March 18, a total of 14,742 people were being held on the islands, most of them on Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos.

“Greece has become a dumping ground for the men, women and children that the European Union has failed to protect,” Emmanuel Goue of the Doctors Without Borders medical aid group said in a statement on the third anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal.

“What was once touted as a ‘refugee emergency’ has given way to inexcusable levels of human suffering across the Greek islands and on mainland Greece,” Goue said. “The EU and Greek authorities continue to rob vulnerable people of their dignity and health, seemingly in an effort to deter others from coming. This policy is cruel, inhumane and cynical, and it needs to end.” It hasn’t.

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