ATHENS – With migrant and refugee arrivals to Greek islands doubling since August, 2017, conditions at the detention centers and camps holding them are getting worse although a mild winter has kept people from freezing.
Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said as many as 180 are arriving daily despite a European Union swap deal with Turkey, which has allowed human traffickers to operate and is supposed to take back those declared ineligible for asylum.
The arrangement was suspended almost as soon as it began two years ago after the EU closed its doors to the newcomers, dumping the problem on Greece during a crushing economic crisis, leading most of the more than 64,000 abandoned, including some 15,000 on the islands to seek asylum, overwhelming the authorities.
While most are refugees from Syria’s civil war, arrivals from other countries such as Pakistan and Africa and Iraq and Afghanistan generally fall into the category of economic migrants who aren’t welcome in Europe.
The increase in arrivals from Turkey has resulted “in a bad situation again” on the islands of the eastern Aegean that host migrant reception and processing centers, Mouzalas admitted, saying he’s still trying to improve conditions.
Overcrowding, and anger and frustration at the long-delayed asylum process has led to violence and clashes with riot police guarding the facilities and led island officials and residents to demand all the refugees and migrants be moved to the mainland.
Mouzalas, who has allowed thousands of the most vulnerable to be moved, said he can’t allow wholesale transfers without jeopardizing the EU-Turkey deal even though it isn’t working and only a relative handful have been sent back to Turkey, where they landed in a push to get to Europe.
Mouzalas told Thema radio that the EU is at fault for not honoring commitments and doing too little to help although European officials said Greece has received more than enough aid and isn’t using it right, relying on non-governmental organizations and volunteers to help run the detention centers and camps and medical facilities.
Mouzalas also blasted local officials who had criticized him for not doing enough. “On the one hand, they prevent moves to improve conditions and on the other they are hysterical about dissolving the deal with Turkey at any cost so as to transfer the migrants to the mainland,” Mouzalas said, referring to reactions toward ministry plans for increasing the number of housing units at certain island camps, Kathimerini reported.
“Whoever says that emptying the islands will improve the situation is wrong,” Mouzalas said, reiterating his worries moving all migrants and refugees to the mainland will simply encourage more arrivals.
“In 2017, we transferred 27,000 people to the mainland and 19,000 arrived on the islands,” he added.
Meanwhile, there were reports about increasing incidents of mental health problems at the detention centers and camps where secret video showed people living in flimsy tents and among feces and garbage and without enough blankets or medical facilities.
The overcrowded and dirty conditions, and the uncertainty, are taking their toll on the mental health of many camp residents, Gavriil Sakellaridis, the head of Amnesty International’s Greek chapter, said after visiting camps on Lesbos and Chios.
He said many living there were suffering from depression and called for the transfer of asylum seekers to the mainland.
“The living conditions of asylum seekers at Moria and Vial (on Chios) are an open wound for Greece and Europe and for human rights,” Sakellaridis said, the paper reported.
“The lives of those people have been put on hold for a period of up to two years in some cases and as a result the cases of despair and mental distress are growing,” he said.