Summer Flood of Refugees, Migrants Overwhelms Greek Islands

Αssociated Press

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to reporters before leaving for Bosnia, in Istanbul, Monday, July 8, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

Already busting at the seams, Greek islands were overrun this summer with thousands more refugees and migrants that Turkey let human traffickers send, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warning he could send as many as 5.5 million unless the European Union fulfills terms of a suspended swap deal.

While the rate of arrivals is a trickle compared to what it was in 2015 after the Radical Left SYRIZA took power – ousted in July 7 snap elections by New Democracy – the numbers have been rising so fast again that the government said it would both speed the processing of asylum applications and deportations back to Turkey of those deemed ineligible.

That has human rights groups anxious that the applicants – most of the more than 75,000 in detention centers and camps, including more than 22,700 on the islands – could be pushed back without any appeals.

They've been housed in detention centers and camps that human rights groups said are unfite for humans and with minors at risk the most affected, the cries of the groups and island officials and residents unheeded until the Conservatives took power.

In August, nearly 10,000 arrived in all of Greece, said The New York Times in a feature on the surge, most by sea from Turkey but also at the northern land border between the countries at the treacherous Evros River where dozens have drowned trying to cross.

Erdogan is squeezing the EU hard, also demanding the bloc go ahead with promises to deliver 6 billion euros ($6.69 billion,) provide visa-free entry for Turkish citizens and speed the process of the country's European Union hopes that have all but dashed by his provocations and clampdown on the media and civil society after a failed 2016 coup against him.

“This either happens,” Erdogan said in a speech, “or otherwise we will have to open the gates.” That would overrun Greek islands as the EU has closed its borders to refugees and migrants, dumping the problem mostly on Greece during a long-running economic and austerity crisis.

Turkey has since completed a border wall and has imposed restrictions on Syrians fleeing their country's war and traveling from Lebanon or Jordan, the paper said, with Erdogan reluctant to be more lenient even to use his country as a bridge to get them to Europe.

Some 3.6 million Syrian refugees already live in Turkey, the world’s largest expatriate Syrian population, along with hundreds of thousands from other countries and he has the ability to unfetter them, a prospect fearful for Greece and making the EU reluctant to be tougher with sanctions over Turkish drilling for energy in Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ.)

“Erdogan’s recent comments on unleashing a new refugee wave are a product of his growing frustration with the huge number already in Turkey,” Bulent Aliriza, Director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research group.

“It is unlikely that there is a fully thought-through master plan ready for implementation,” he told the paper,  with the speed at which human traffickers are sending them to Greek islands making it seem likely they have the government's backing.

That included a wave on Aug. 29 with Turkey's Coast Guard not intervening to stop it, seeing them land on the island of Lesbos, which is housing 10,000 in a detention center meant for four times less than that.

“What we found weird was that this was a trend, and they didn’t change the way they operated to try to stop this,” said Finn Sands-Robinson, who leads Refugee Rescue’s land-based observation team told the paper.

But more than 80% of the migrants who landed in Lesbos in August were from Afghanistan, the other country that sends the most to Greece, people fleeing war and economic conditions and terrorist activity.

Though the EU has allocated provided about $1.9 billion in subsidies for the Greek camps, the government hasn't spent it, reportedly anxious better facilities would spur more to come, although that was under SYRIZa.

In September, through the 13th, some 3,469 more migrants arrived on Greece's northern Aegean islandsg, according to figures published by the region's general police directorate.

Breaking down the numbers, 2,078 foreign nationals arrived on Lesvos, 589 on Chios and 802 on Samos since September 1. In August, arrivals on the islands of the north Aegean totalled 5,813, of which 3,866 on Lesvos, 685 on Chios amd 1,262 on Samos.


New Democracy may be rethinking its plans for speed asylum and accelerate deportations, noted Greek journalist John Psaropoulos wrote for Al-Jazeera, after the government accused SYRIZA of creating an "absurd … unique, complicated" legal framework for asylum, leading to "endless recycling of asylum applications,” and vowing to simplify it.

That would pas the fate onto administrative courts which are already struggling with numbers so vast it takes up to two years and more to process, people kept in detention during that time, seeing ethnic clashes between groups and with riot police at the camps.

"The possible transfer of these cases to the administrative courts will … greatly overburden them, which has consequences for the speed and efficiency of their overall performance," a statement from the Administrative Judges' Union said, accoding to the report.

The Appeals Authority, created in 2016 as part of the Greek Asylum Service, has heard more than 36,000 denials, overturning about three percent of them but those now rejected could be unable to appeal under the reforms.

New Democracy created the Asylum Service while in power in 2013 and now essentially is rolling back its support, with human rights groups fearing the impact on those denied, left in limbo to flee and hide in Greece or try to get to other EU countries to avoid being returned to Turkey.

"Changing the system won't speed things up and it will probably lead to a lessening of rights for refugees," Vasilis Papadopoulos, head of legal research at the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR,) a leading legal aid charity told the news site.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Al Jazeera that "further clarification by the Greek authorities" was needed, but stressed "the right to appeal is a fundamental safeguard.”

Under the terms of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal, Turkey was supposed to take back who didn't get asylum in Greece with the EU's Dublin Regulation allowing refugees and migrants the right to seek sanctuary only where they first land.

The UNHCR also questioned the imperative of speeding up returns to Turkey. "In 2018, for the fifth consecutive year, Turkey was the country that hosted the largest number of refugees worldwide," it said, adding that Turkey needed "further support to develop its international protection framework".

"Mr. Erdogan needs to understand that he cannot threaten Greece and Europe in an attempt to secure more funding for refugee management," Mitsotakis told reporters on the day Erdogan spoke of repercussions.