LESBOS, Greece (AP) — Signaling a shift in policy, Greece's government said Monday it would accelerate efforts to move thousands of refugees and migrants from Aegean Sea islands to the mainland following a deadly fire at the country's largest camp on the island of Lesbos.
The decision was announced after Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis chaired a four-hour cabinet meeting, a day after a fire at the Moria camp left one asylum-seeker dead and 17 injured.
More than 12,000 people — more than four times the site's capacity — are currently housed in the camp and just outside its perimeter following a spike in migrant arrivals over the summer.
Police said the fire gutted eight container homes in the camp and triggered rioting by camp residents who were dispersed by riot police using stun grenades. No sign of arson was found at the site — contradicting earlier statements by authorities on the island who said the fires may have been started deliberately by camp dwellers.
Government officials unveiled plans Monday to evenly distribute camps nationally in all 13 regional authorities, mostly on the mainland, replacing a three-year-old practice of containing new arrivals on Lesbos and four other eastern islands facing the Turkish coast.
"This is a national crisis and it must be addressed with a spirit of responsibility," said Eleftherios Oikonomou, a deputy public order minister. "The number of people on the islands will be reduced in an orderly way that is proportionate and involves the 13 regional authorities."
Other decisions include the creation of detention centers for migrants who do not have the right to apply for asylum, high-level contacts between the Greek and Turkish governments to restart deportations to Turkey, and continued military support for coast guard patrols in the eastern Aegean.
The containment policy on the Greek islands was part of measures under a 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey to fight illegal immigration into Europe.
But Mina Andreeva, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said the EU executive supported the latest Greek measure and was ready to provide additional support. She described the fire on Lesbos as a "truly tragic event."
The interior ministers of France and Germany are due to visit Greece and Turkey this week with outgoing EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, a Greek.
In Berlin, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government backed Greek efforts to increase the number of migrant deportations to Turkey.
INTERMINISTERIAL MEETING ANNOUNCES UPDATING OF ASYLUM LAW,
MEASURES TO CONTAIN MIGRATORY INFLUXIssues concerning the increased migratory influx of refugees and asylum seekers on Greek shores prevailed at an interministerial meeting chaired by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Monday.
After the meeting, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said that the latest developments in migratory and refugee flows were extensively discussed, as was the draft law on toughening the criteria for both applying and approving asylum status applications.
An analysis of nationality statistics of those entering the country has reportedly given rise to an understanding that migration is at the root of the problem, not refugees.
Troubleshooting the issue, therefore, requires a combination of the following measures, as per the meeting's conclusions:
- Strengthening of border security, specifically by increasing sea patrols at maritime borders. An additional 23 patrols are currently being carried out daily in the eastern Aegean islands.
- Construction of pre-deportation centers for those who have entered the country illegally and are not entitled to asylum status or whose application has been rejected.
- Increasing migrants' returns to home countries from 1,806 recorded in the 4.5 years of the previous SYRIZA government to 10,000 by the end of 2020.
- Compiling a 'safe countries' list so that those who have entered Greece illegally can be immediately returned to these countries.
- Continuing the decongestion of eastern Aegean islands by transporting refugees to mainland facilities.
- Internationalizing Greece's migration issues with four actions, especially after PM Mitsotakis highlighted the issue at the 74th UN General Assembly in New York, with four actions:
a. Initiative on the migration route in the eastern Mediterranean, with a relevant document to be presented jointly by Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece to the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council on 7-8 October.
b. Visit by Deputy Minister of Citizen Protection Giorgos Koumoutsakos to Turkey on 2-3 October for talks on the issue with his Turkish counterpart.
c. Talks during the visit of the French and German interior ministers to Turkey and Greece within the current week.
d. Greek initiative to raise the issue at the European Council on 17-18 October.
Concerning asylum applications and approvals
Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis introduced the bill to both speed up and toughen asylum application procedures, with the following main objectives:
- Update the Greek asylum system to deal with increased migratory flows and with the fact that the Balkan so-called 'corridor' to Europe remains closed.
- Set clear and precise rules to end the so-called 'anarchy' at refugee facilities and also better control the application procedures therein.
- Eliminate the consequences of legislation which has led to an undetermined number of foreign nationals who remain unidentified by the authorities and therefore cannot be returned to their home countries.
- Develop a new asylum system, compact, structured, rigorous, fair, designed in the spirit of exceptional circumstances.
Moreover, the basic principles of the bill are:
- To show full respect for the rights of asylum seekers, as provided for in EU law.
- To require applicants to cooperate with national authorities.
- To only allow applicants who have an approved refugee profile in the asylum system, and only keep those who comply with their obligations.
- Rapid removal of asylum seekers from the system if they employ delay tactics during the application process.
The purpose of the above interventions is to complete relevant procedures within three months.
On draft laws of the Ministries of Health and Justice
Apart from the extensive consideration of refugee-related issues, the meeting looked into draft laws of the Ministries of Health and Justice.
Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias presented a bill soon to be submitted to parliament for approval, which includes the universal application of anti-smoking law in all public places, the modernization of the Hellenic National Public Health Organization (former KEELPNO) and the Ambulance Service (EKAV).
Minister for Justice Kostas Tsiaras presented the proposals for changes to the penal codes, as well as proposals for the post of president of the Court of Auditors and five vice-presidents of the Supreme Court, the establishment of two inter-ministerial committees on strategic investments for energy and climate respectively, and the approval of two legislative acts.
Measures to tackle the impact of Thomas Cook's bankruptcy
Two legislative acts were introduced with urgent provisions to deal with the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook Group PLC, for employees and businesses of the Greek tourism industry affiliated with the international travel agency.
These will exempt hoteliers from turning over to the government the overnight hotel fee, and suspension of VAT payments until 31 March 2020, under specific terms.
Other measures include the end to energy auctions (so-called NOME) for the Public Power Corporation, an extension to the operation licences of renewable energy source (RES) plants, and extension by seven days of the deadline for applications on settling tax and social insurace debts in the 120-installements plan.
(Material from Associated Press and Athens-Macedonia News Agency was used in this report)