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With Winter Closing In, Greece Wants to Speed Asylum, Migrant Returns

December 18, 2017

ATHENS – With more than 15,000 refugees and migrants living in squalid conditions in island detention centers, Greece’s beleaguered government said it’s finally trying to accelerate the return to Turkey of those deemed ineligible for asylum.

The refugees and migrants, most fleeing civil war and strife in the Middle East, especially Syria, came to Turkey which let human traffickers flood Greek islands with those hoping to move on to more prosperous European Union countries before the borders were shut.

That dumped the problem mostly on Greece, as well as Italy, the first arrival points for those also fleeing from north Africa, but it’s most acute in Greece which has been stuck with more than 64,000, including those on the islands as EU countries have reneged on promises to help take some of the overload.

Under terms of a suspended EU swap deal, ineligible migrants were supposed to be returned to Turkey but only a handful have, and human rights groups said people living in the island centers and camps are in inhuman conditions.

But Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he’s “proud” of those conditions even as news agencies, including a video report by Germany’s Deutsche Welle, showed people living in rubbish, feces and summer weight tents as Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said he couldn’t guarantee none wouldn’t die this winter.

The ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, in a coalition with the anti-migrant, marginal, pro-austerity, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) is drafting a law push the the process of granting asylum to refugees with a bill expected to go to Parliament as early as this week, Kathimerini said.

Arrivals of migrants from Turkey dropped drastically after the deal that was subsequently suspended because Greece couldn’t deal with the number of asylum applications from people blocked from moving on to other EU countries but have started to pick up again.

The return of migrants has been slowed, the paper said, because of opposition from within SYRIZA where dissidents want everyone who’s come to Greece to be allowed to stay in defiance of the swap deal.

“The only way to deal with the problem on the Greek islands is for the EU-Turkey agreement to be effectively enforced and for there to be a significant number of returns to Turkey,” an official at the Citizens’ Protection Ministry told the paper without explaining why it hasn’t happened already.

Since the deal was signed in March 2016, around 48,600 migrants have arrived on the Greek islands, according to the United Nations refugee agency. During that time only some 1, 500 people have been returned to Turkey.

Thousands of asylum applications are pending, chiefly because migrants generally appeal rejected claims to buy time.

At a meeting of EU leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledged to bolster Greek efforts to accelerate the asylum process and add more staff on frontiers with Turkey and Bulgaria from the Frontex border patrol, more than two years after the problem began to build.

Mouzalas said he couldn’t move refugees and migrants to the mainland, where there are already more than 50,000 being housed, because that would break the deal with Turkey and encourage human smugglers to send more but he’s agreed to transferring the most vulnerable, such as some women and children.

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