ATHENS – Already planning to speed asylum applications and deportations of those deemed ineligible, Greece wants Turkey to take 10,000 refugees and migrants by years’ end to ease overcrowding at detention centers and camps on Greek islands holding more than 28,000.
They were sent to Greek islands by human traffickers that Turkey lets operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union which closed its borders to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece during a long-running economic crisis.
They had gone to Turkey, fleeing war and strife in the Middle East, particularly from Afghanistan and Syria’s civil war, hoping to use Greece as a pathway to more prosperous countries before the door was slammed shut on them.
Greece’s plan runs smack into Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to send as many as 5.5 million more through Greece unless the EU fulfills the rest of its deal, including sending him 3 billion euros ($3.27 billion) after having already given Turkey that much.
He also wants visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens and a faster track for his country’s admittance to the bloc which has stymied by his crackdown on civil society and the media in the wake of the failed July 201 coup attempt against him, and as he has jailed scores of journalists.
Greece’s new New Democracy government wants Turkey to take back more refugees and migrants after only 1,805 were returned under the previous ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, accused by critics of letting them fester in unfit detention centers and camps, including some 50,000 in mainland facilities.
The government is also planning mass transfers off islands near Turkey, including the notorious Moria center on Lesbos holding more than 10,000 in a facility designed for 3,000, and where a riot and fire there killed a woman and her child, drawing howls of protests from detainees and human rights groups.
Mitsotakis announced further measures such as more naval patrols in the Aegean, closing centers for migrants refused asylum, and plans to overhaul the asylum system, including building camps for those deemed “illegal” or who have been refused asylum, media reports said, including from Deutsche-Welle, Agence France-Presse and Deutsche Presse-Agentur as well as the Greek newspapers Kathimerini and Naftemporiki.
Mitsotakis met Erdogan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly annual opening in New York and asked him to slow the flow to Greek islands after thousands more arrived over the better weather summer months.
The EU has done little to help although it’s migration chief the last five years was New Democracy’s Dimitris Avramopoulos, who will be replaced there by another veteran of the Conservatives, Margaritis Schinas.
Human rights groups said the EU should do more. Aid group Oxfam said the fatal fire was a consequence of the EU’s migration policy. “People arriving in Greece should be relocated to safe accommodation across the EU, not crammed into dangerous spaces where their life is at risk,” said Renata Rendon, Oxfam’s head of mission in Greece.
European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said, “The increased arrivals in Greece over the past weeks have put an immense strain on an already flawed system and are creating unsustainable conditions as we have already had the opportunity to point out in the past,” but didn’t offer any help beyond those words of reassurance.
Avramopoulos, whose tenure ends on Oct. 31, will visit Greece and Turkey with the interior ministers of Germany and France to discuss the crisis as that’s what the EU has mostly done the last four years since the crisis began, talk about it.
Earlier in September, the German government called on Greece to repatriate migrants to Turkey, in addition to pressuring Turkey to honor its 2016 EU-Turkey pact allowing visa-free travel inside the EU for Turkish citizens in exchange for receiving migrants who illegally enter Europe.