ATHENS – Getting even tougher as a refugee and migrant crisis worsens with more arrivals almost daily on Greek islands, the New Democracy government plans to create at least five closed detention centers to house those ineligible for asylum before trying to send them back to Turkey.
There are more than 78, 000 of them in Greece, including more than 33,700 on islands where Turkey has allowed human traffickers to send them during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union, which closed its borders to them.
They had gone to Turkey fleeing war and strife in their homelands, especially Afghanistan and Syria’s civil war but also poor economic conditions in areas such as sub-Saharan African and the government wants to sort refugees fearing for their lives from migrants looking for work, who would not be allowed sanctuary.
The government plans to speed asylum processing but also deportations and wants to send 20,000 back to Turkey – without saying how that would happen if Turkey refuses – and is moving thousands to the mainland, which has drawn opposition from local residents in some towns who don’t want them housed in hotels.
“Those (migrants) that have entered illegally and are not entitled to asylum cannot move around the country uncontrollably and have no other choice but to return (to Turkey,),” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said.
According to reports, said Kathimerini, the centers will be located on the islands and the mainland and will most likely be former military camps that can handle big numbers with some 40,000 more having arrived over the past four months, most after New Democracy ousted the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA in July 7 snap elections.
Petsas said the migrant and refugee worsening crisis is a matter of “national significance,” and that the plan was to decongest island camps with the transfer of 4,000 refugees to shelters on the mainland by the end of November.
He blamed SYRIZA which did little to deal with the crisis during its 4 ½ year-reign and began months after the Leftists took power in 2015, with human rights groups constantly complaining that detention centers and camps were inhumane, Petsas saying the former government left behind “chaotic situations and anarchy.”
Citing data from 2019, he said there were 68,000 pending asylum applications when the new government came to power and that just 1,806 migrants had been returned to Turkey over four years.
But opposition from local communities to having refugees and migrants in their midst, he said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ plan to deal with the crisis instead of letting it fester as critics said SYRIZA did will limit the number of asylum seekers to only 1 percent of the local population in regional units to which they are transferred.
He said residents had a right to complain – although island officials have been barking for the past few years about getting help – but he added he was confident most Greeks would join in helping deal with the problem.
Regional units in Central Macedonia, northern Greece, and Epirus, northwestern Greece, are hosting asylum seekers whose numbers exceed 1 percent of the local population but he didn’t explain what would happen in those cases beyond saying the intent is to reduce the numbers.
Activists said Mitsotakis’ plans are too harsh and put migrants at risk, as they would be returned to Turkey and an unknown fate for them.