ATHENS- Although the European Union has shut its borders to them, refugees and migrants are still so desperate to get out of their homelands in the Middle East and other countries that they are still being sent to Greek islands by human smugglers in Turkey, where they went as a jumping-off point for their perilous journey.
Alternate Citizens’ Protection Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos, who is responsible for migration policy for the new New Democracy government, said the problem belongs to the EU and that Greece can’t handle it.
Ironically, the EU’s migration chief is New Democracy’s Dimitris Avramopoulos, who has done little during his time in that position, including when his party’s bitter rival, the Radical Left SYRIZA was in power for 4 ½ years.
The refugees and migrants have been coming to Greek islands for more than four years although the numbers have slowed since the signing in 2016 of a now-suspended swap deal between the EU and Turkey which has seen only a relative handful returned there after being deemed ineligible for asylum in Greece.
There are more than 75,000 in detention centers and camps in Greece, including more than 22,700 on islands near Turkey and the numbers keep swelling if slower than before, leaving the government unable to handle the number of asylum applications.
The EU’s so-called Dublin Regulation means they can only seek asylum in the first country in which they land, almost always Greece or Italy and sometimes Spain because otherwise they can’t get off a boat in the Aegean and be in Germany or the United Kingdom, the favored destinations.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said his government would both speed the processing of asylum applications with the frustrations of people stuck in the camps and centers spilling over into violence between ethnic groups and in clashes with riot police.
A 15-year-old Afghan boy living in the juvenile unit of the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, attacked three compatriots of his with a knife the night of Aug. 24, killing one and injuring the other two.
The three victims, one of whom was seriously injured, were about the same age as their attacker, ANA-MPA news agency reported, adding that it is not known what caused the attack.
The juvenile unit of the camp houses minors who came to Greece unaccompanied by adults. Designed to host 160 persons, it currently holds over 600. The BBC, which visited the facility, called it “the worst in the world,” and all the island centers are overrun and over capacity.
In comments to BBC Radio, Koumoutsakos said the uptick in arrivals is not only because of the summer weather which allows people to take their chances on rickety craft and rubber dinghies to reach Greek islands but because Turkey is deliberately ramping up pressure on the EU in response to sanctions over its drilling for energy in Cypriot sovereign waters.
DOWN TO EARTH
He accused the former SYRIZA government coalition of creating a “closed system” of migrants and refugees entering the country without sending any back as required under the EU deal he said wasn’t being enforced.
Koumoutsakos said 15 asylum-seekers whose applications had been rejected were to be sent back to Turkey from a nearby Greek island, but gave no further details. He told SKAI TV that 75,000 migrants in Greece were currently having their asylum applications reviewed, including 9,000 whose applications had been rejected but were appealing the decision.
He said that camps on five eastern Greek islands, where movement is restricted, were up to three times overcapacity but didn’t say what the new government was doing to aid island officials who have been asking, demanding, pleading and practically begging for help.
Greece is the European Union’s busiest entry point for illegal migration, overtaking Italy last year.
In response, SYRIZA’s shadow migration policy minister Giorgos Psychogios said that New Democracy had “come down to earth” after its critical stance while in the opposition without explaining what that meant.
Conditions at the centers are getting worse, said Kathimerini, with hundreds of new arrivals every day in the rush to get to the islands for the autumn weather makes waters roughers in the sea where scores have drowned over the past few years trying to reach them.
On Aug. 22, at least seven boats arrived from neighboring Turkey, bringing a total of 297 people to Lesbos and equally overwhelmed Chios and the next day another seven boats landed on Lesbos, with another 325 people.
Human rights groups who said the camps conditions aren’t fit for humans said that more than 70 boatlands arrived so far in August on Lesbos carrying 2,700 people, half of them children, showing the continued plight of the refugees essentially abandoned by the EU and Avramopoulos, who said he can’t force other countries to live up to pledges to take some of the overload and that he can’t take them to EU courts because it’s too delicately political for him to handle.
Conditions are even worse on Samos, said the paper, where more than 4,000 migrants live in in a facility designed to handle only 650 and with workers saying it’s overrun with rats as officials try to figure some way to exterminate them without putting people’s health at risk.
According to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos alone have more than 22,700 people at facilities that are increasingly overcrowded and incapable of handling the numbers. Of the migrants, 42 percent are from Afghanistan, 11 percent from Syria and 10 percent from Congo. Nearly half (43 percent) are men, 22 are women and 35 percent are children.