Refugees on Leros, Greece | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/T.Stavrakis
Refugees on Leros, Greece | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/T.Stavrakis

The migration expert Gerald Knaus and the German refugee rights organization Pro Asyl are warning that the situation on the Greek islands is becoming insupportable, both for migrants and the Greek authorities. Their calls are backed up by the latest UNHCR figures.

"At the moment we are witnessing overcrowding in the five reception centers on the Aegean islands," says Stella Nanou, Communications Officer at UNHCR Greece. "We are talking about a total of 21,000 people in the five reception centers. The problem is more acute on Samos, which hosts about 7 times above its capacity; Lesbos and Kos host populations at about four times their capacity. […] The situation is very grave."

The increase started in May 2019, explains Nanou. But numbers started rising significantly in July, when about 5,000 people arrived by sea. In August, the number rose again to 8,000. Weekly numbers for September show further increases.

"It is important to put this all in context," cautions migration expert and director of the think tank the European Stability Initiative (ESI), Gerald Knaus. Knaus and the ESI were among the architects of the EU-Turkey deal on migration which was signed in March 2016. Speaking to the German TV channel ZDF, Knaus noted that in February 2016, around 2,000 asylum seekers and migrants were arriving in Greece from Turkey every day. Since the deal has been in place, those numbers have dropped to around 119 per day.

Nanou notes that there were several factors which could have caused this drop in arrivals. As well as the EU-Turkey deal, at the same time the Balkan route was closed or became more difficult to navigate. After a couple of years of lower arrival numbers, the situation on the Greek islands has now become "insupportable," both for the Greek government and the migrants themselves, Knaus says.Refugees in Morias identification center on Lesvos island Greece  Photo EPAPanagiotis Balaskas

Increase in arrivals

According to the UN refugee agency, in the week of September 2-8 2,239 people arrived on the Aegean islands. That’s an increase from the previous week’s 1,924 arrivals and an even bigger increase on last year’s 1,028 people in the same period. UNHCR says the average daily arrival rate is now 350.

The German refugee rights organization Pro Asyl and UNHCR say there are about 25,700 refugees and migrants on the Aegean islands: 40 percent of them are from Afghanistan, about 13 percent from Syria and about 10 percent from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More than one third of those people are under the age of 17. UNHCR estimates approximately 19 percent of those are unaccompanied or separated children, mainly from Afghanistan. Nanou says the situation of these young people is most acute. She hopes that the EU can do more to help resettle the children and create adequate facilities for them when they do stay in Greece. The procedures of resettlement need to be accelerated so that children can join their families as soon as possible, she says.

It is on this issue that Nanou believes other EU countries need to step in."Greece cannot provide adequate support for all these unaccompanied children. There is not the luxury to wait for the system to be ready. Right now three out of four unaccompanied children in Greece do not have a shelter appropriate for their age to stay. Greece should be creating more appropriate accommodation places for these children to stay but other EU member states should help Greece and relocate at least some of these children to other EU states."

Refugees play football in the Moria refuge camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece  Photo EPAPETER KLAUNZER

System close to breaking

In the week of September 2-8, UNHCR notes that 1800 asylum seekers were transferred from the Aegean islands to the mainland. In total this year, says UNHCR, 36,386 people have arrived in Greece. At the moment that is about 14,000 below the totals for the whole of 2018 but already more than the totals for 2017.

Knaus warns that there are about three times as many people in Greece as the authorities can cope with and that asylum decisions are not being taken quickly enough. He fears the system could start to break under the strain in the next few months.

Greece has the highest proportion of asylum seekers relative to its population within the EU, and only Germany and France have registered more applications for asylum. "There are several challenges in the refugee response in Greece and this includes the asylum process," agrees Nanou. The Greek asylum service has been operating autonomously since 2013, she explains.  Since 2013, the service has received 240,000 asylum applications. "There are serious delays, this is a fact," says Nanou.

Pressure from Turkey

Most refugees arriving in Greece are arriving from Turkey. Knaus says internal political tensions in Turkey have prompted President Erdogan to declare that his country can no longer accommodate all the refugees and asylum seekers they have, let alone take any more. Currently Turkey has 3,6 million Syrian refugees.

Knaus notes that this year alone, an additional 200,000 Syrians arrived in Turkey. With Turkey putting up resistance, Knaus thinks there could be significant increases in the numbers trying to make their way to Greece and on through the southern Balkan countries in the hope of reaching states like Germany. North Macedonia soldiers patrol next to the razor wire fence at the Macedonian border with Greece near Gevgelija  Photo EPAGeorgi Licovski Possible solutions?

Knaus thinks the solution is to get the EU to provide Greece with more resources to process asylum decisions more quickly. In addition, those who do not qualify for asylum should be sent back more quickly to Turkey.  "An efficient system of returns for those who have had their asylum claim refused helps to build credibility in the system overall," agrees Nanou. But she says each individual case must be examined separately, and there must be no mass returns.

On one of the Greek islands, asylum seekers who showed their papers to ZDF reporters said that they would be waiting several years for decisions. One woman had a stamp which said her claim would be assessed in March 2020. She said that her brother-in-law was told he would have to wait until 2021. Nanou knows of some people who have been told they will be waiting until 2023 or 2024.Map of Turkey Greece  Credit InfoMigrants

The new Greek government has announced several measures which will both toughen up, and speed up, the asylum process in Greece. One of those measures, says Nanou, was to abolish the appeal process for asylum claims. "The problem is they have not really clarified what they mean," she says, explaining that UNHCR are awaiting clarification on this point. But Nanou says that the right to appeal is one of the fundamental tenets and a safeguard in the asylum procedure and it "secures the legality and fairness of the asylum process."

Nanou says that the asylum process should be faster. People need to have a decision so they can start their process of integration and building a new life, she says. EU funds have already significantly helped build Greece’s refugee reception system. But she says more support is needed, to be translated into tangible programs, especially the transfer of unaccompanied minors from Greece to other EU countries.


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