ATHENS – With the European Union shutting its borders to refugees and migrants, and a swap deal with Turkey suspended for 2 ½ years, the problem has been unfairly dumped on Greece at the same it’s dealing with a crushing economic crisis.
Greece’s Asylum Service, struggling to keep up with applications from the more than 64,000 refugees and migrants stuck in detention centers and camps, said the country in 2017 handled 8.5 percent of all the requests across the EU.
Those who reached other EU countries before the borders were shut were seeking sanctuary there although some could be returned to Greece as the bloc requires they seek asylum only in the country where they first land, almost always Greece or Italy.
Greece, with 11 million people recorded 58,661 applications in 2017, putting Greece “in first place among the EU member states when it comes to the proportion of asylum seekers to the inhabitants of the country,” the service said in a statement.
Nearly half of Greece’s 2017 asylum requests were received on five “hotspot” Aegean islands, the service added, Agence France Presse reported.
The islands, primarily Lesbos, Chios and Samos, are the first destination of refugees and migrants who first reached Turkey after fleeing war and strife in the Middle East, especially Syria’s civil war, but also those from other countries who want to find jobs.
Turkey has allowed human traffickers to operate even during the suspended swap deal with the EU which promised six billion euros, faster-track entry into the bloc and visa-free travel for Turks in return.
The number of refugees and migrants has been sharply curtailed under the swap deal but there’s been a continued smaller increase in reaching months, pushing overcrowded detention centers and camps on Greek islands past the breaking point, with officials and residents opposed to government plans to add to the capacity instead of moving people to the mainland.
There are more than 15,000 refugees and migrants in island camps and detention centers that secret video showed people living in tents and feces-and-garbage strewn conditions and complaints from human rights groups and even those within the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA saying Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas has been asleep at the wheel.
The agreement included measures to limit the number of migrants processed by Greece, but of 25,814 applications received on the Aegean islands last year, 20,377 were ruled eligible to be moved to the mainland, with 5,437 rejected, AFP said.
The greatest number of Greece’s applicants came from Syria, with 16,396, followed by Pakistan with 8,923, Iraq with 7,924 and Afghanistan with 7,567.
Some other EU countries hare reneged on pledges to help relieve Greece of the overload and said refugees and migrants aren’t wanted.