ATHENS – Overwhelmed by asylum applications and no end in sight to continuing arrivals, the number of refugees and migrants, now at 75,000, could surpass 90,000 by the end of 2019, Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas said, calling an “unbearable weight.”
He said the country can process only 20,000 applications for refuge a year but got 67,000 in 2018 as it has pleaded with the European Union – which closed its borders to refugees and migrants – for more aid.
“We are the third country in terms of absolute numbers of asylum applications, after Germany and France, and the first country in Europe in proportion to the population,” he said, Kathimerini reported.
More than 15,000 are on islands near Turkey, where they first went after fleeing war and strife in the Middle East and other countries in hopes of reaching more prosperous EU countries before being shut out.
Turkey has allowed human traffickers to keep sending them although the numbers have slowed markedly in the wake of a March, 2016 swap deal with the EU that’s largely been suspended and seen only a relative handful sent back.
They are being kept in detention centers and camps that human rights groups and activists said have inhumane conditions and are way over capacity, with the BBC calling the Moria camp on Lesbos “the worst in the world,” although Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras said he was proud of the centers and camps.
Despite all that, Vitsas said he still thinks the EU will create a relocation program to spread refugees and migrants around the block even though a number of countries, such as Hungary, said they won’t take any.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, a veteran New Democracy politician who is the EU’s migration chief, said he can’t make other countries abide by former pledges to help take some of the overload and won’t take them to court because it’s too politically sensitive.
The Dublin Regulation, which says refugees and migrants can apply for asylum only where they first land, almost always Greece or Italy since they can’t otherwise get to places like Germany which they prefer, will be revised, he said.
Greece has made several proposals, including the resettlement of refugees directly from Turkey and the contribution of other countries to processing asylum applications, Vitsas said, although there’s been next to no interest in helping Greece.
He said the number of refugees and migrants on Aegean islands has increased, with 1,485 new arrivals in February compared to 1,139 in the same month last year, with Samos “under particular pressure.”