Greece Will Sift Refugees from Migrants to Speed Asylum

Refugees and Migrants carry their belongings as they disembark on a ferry with destination the port of Piraeus, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Varaklas)

ATHENS – Trying to deal with camps so overwhelmed they’ve been the scene of frequent violence – and two deaths from a fire set during a riot – Greece’s new New Democracy government is planning to separate refugees seeking asylum from migrants ineligible for sanctuary.

Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis sent a bill to the Cabinet which draws a distinction between the groups, said Kathimerini, aimed at speeding the process of asylum but also deportations back to Turkey, where millions have flocked from their own countries.

Turkey has let human traffickers keep sending them to Greek islands during an essentially-suspended swap deal with the European Union which closed its borders to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece during its 9 1/2-year-long economic crisis.

The numbers coming had abated after the deal was signed in 2016 but picked up again during the summer as New Democracy took over after winning July 7 snap elections from the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA that critics said had let frustrations simmer and boil over in the camps.

The new scheme is also designed to prevent people whose asylum applications have been rejected – who would then be sent back to Turkey and an unknown fate – from repeatedly appealing or resubmitting them.

The government is also going to make mass transfers from the more than 28,000 refugees and migrants in far-over-capacity island camps and detention centers, to mainland facilities, although that technically is a violation of the EU-Turkey swap deal.

The new law will require those eligible to seek asylum, such as those fleeing the civil war in Syria and strife in other countries, to meet certain criteria.

At the same time, the government said it will step up patrols in the Aegean to be on the lookout for the rickety craft and overfilled rubber dinghies that bring refugees and migrants to the islands, seven drowning recently trying to make the perilous trip from Turkey.

Turkey has also beefed up its Coast Guard presence in the sea and reported it had stopped 16 vessels carrying 631 foreigners on board heading for Greece where the government is scrambling to deal with an emerging new crisis, the paper said.

The government said “closed centers” will be built for migrants and rejected asylum seekers who are to be deported and officials will determine whether the country of origin is safe for those rejected to be sent back, although it wasn’t said how that would be figured.

Deputy Citizens’ Protection Minister Lefteris Economou telling reporters on Lesbos that “we are really going through a national crisis,” after the fire and riot at the Moria center that has been holding more than 10,000 people in a facility designed for less than 3,000.

“Based on an analysis of the statistical information regarding the nationality of those entering the country, it is our common belief that this is a migration, and not a refugee crisis,” a government release stated, said the business newspaper Naftemporiki.

The government also promised to build closed “pre-repatriation” centers for third country nationals judged as undocumented migrants who filed for political asylum after landing or entering Greek territory but whose applications have been rejected.

The plan also set a goal of deporting back to their home countries, or Turkey, 10,000 people by the end of the year, still a relatively small amount of the more than 70,000 being held in camps on islands and across the country. The report said only 1,806 were returned under SYRIZA.

Other measures include the compilation of a list of “safe countries”, whereby people that illegally entered Greece from a country in the list will be returned. The government repeated that it will move “at risk” groups from congested island camps to the Greek mainland at the same time Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has also asked for more international help.