ATHENS — The European Union's home affairs commissioner on Monday stressed the need for solidarity among the bloc's member states in tackling migration, and called on Turkey to resume accepting the return of people whose asylum applications are rejected in Greece after arriving from Turkish territory.
Ylva Johansson and Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi spoke on the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos after visiting migrant facilities there and on the island of Samos.
Johansson's visit comes amid continuing accusations against Greece of illegal summary deportations, and as EU countries discuss a new migration pact to deal with the issue of people seeking asylum in Europe.
The vast majority of asylum-seekers arrive by sea in the countries on the EU's southern and southeastern borders: Greece, Italy and Spain. Those three, along with the also affected island nations of Malta and Cyprus, have joined forces to lobby for a more equal distribution among the bloc's other members.
"What we have been seeing in Europe the last six years is the lack of a Europeanized migration policy, and that means that member states at our external borders have been under huge pressure," Johansson said during a joint press conference with Mitarachi. "And especially some islands have been under huge pressure in the absence of a European solution."
Johansson said she understood "that everybody has a limit to their patience, and I understand that this limit is close" in some areas, such as Lesbos.
In Greece, the main brunt of migration has been borne by the eastern Aegean islands, which are close to Turkey and thus a favored route for people-smuggling gangs. Local residents on both islands held protests during Johansson's visit.
A 2016 EU-Turkey deal stipulates that new arrivals must remain on the islands pending return to Turkey unless their asylum application is successful. The agreement reduced arrivals but did not stop them entirely, leading to massively overcrowded island camps
Johansson noted the situation had greatly improved recently, with a faster asylum procedure and relocations to other European countries.
In 2019, she noted, there were 42,000 people in island camps in "totally unacceptable conditions for the migrants and the local population." That number is now down to 14,000, which the commissioner said was still too high.
"We are addressing the shortcomings in the European migration system. One of the most important things is to avoid irregular departure," Johansson said, referring to asylum-seekers leaving Turkish shores.
Mitarachi once again rejected accusations by refugee rights organizations and numerous migrants that Greece conducts pushbacks at sea — the illegal deportation of migrants who haven't first been allowed to apply for asylum.
"We strongly deny that the Greek coast guard has been ever involved in pushbacks. Greece is fully adhering to international and European law," Mitarachi said. "But at the same time, we need to be clear that countries have borders, and there are rules and regulations how the competent authorities must exercise and execute their constitutional obligations to protect the borders of the country."
Mitarachi said Greece's border protection was costing smuggling networks "tens of millions of euros … and that could have played a role in the kind of fake news we hear about the coast guard."
Johansson said the protection of borders and of fundamental rights "goes hand in hand, it's not a contradiction."
Mitarachi said reports were investigated and that so far no specific case had come to light that proved a pushback.
Asked however about such allegations raised by the UN refugee agency, Johansson said she was "very concerned about the UNHCR reports, and there are some specific cases that I really think need to be looked into closer."
The commissioner said "Greek authorities can do more when it comes to investigate these alleged pushbacks."
Johansson also stressed Ankara should resume accepting those who have been slated for return. Turkey suspended that part of the EU-Turkey deal about a year ago.
"I call now on Turkey to urgently resume the returns of migrants from Greece," she said.
Mitarachi said the EU's new migration pact "will never allow facilities such as Moria," the notoriously overcrowded, squalid camp in Lesbos that burned down last year in a series of blazes Greek authorities said were set deliberately by a group of residents angered by coronavirus lockdown measures.
A new facility is to be constructed on the island, and in the meantime the roughly 10,000 people left homeless by the Moria fire have been rehoused in a temporary camp set up on a former military firing range.