Fire at the Moria migrant camp on Lesbos in September 2019 | Photo: Getty Images/AFP/F.Perrier
Fire at the Moria migrant camp on Lesbos in September 2019 | Photo: Getty Images/AFP/F.Perrier

The Greek government wants to start returning thousands of migrants to Turkey following a deadly fire which broke out at an overcrowded camp. Officials called for action to ease pressure on overcrowded migrant camps.

Thousands of migrants at overcrowded migrant camps on the island of Lesbos in Greece should return to Turkey, the Greek government agreed a day after a deadly fire broke out at migrant camp Moria.

By the end of 2020 Athens wants 10,000 migrants to return to Turkey, in a bid to ease pressure on the overcrowded camps the government said in a statement following the four-hour cabinet meeting.

The move signals a significant change in policy, as conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis enacts a more hard-line approach to the migrant situation in the country.

In a statement, the Athens government stated that the 10,000 would be an increase from the "1,805 returned in the 4.5 years under the previous (left-wing) Syriza government."

Mitsotakis announced further measures including more naval patrols in the Aegean, closing centers for migrants refused asylum, and announced plans to overhaul the asylum system, including building camps for those deemed "illegal" or who have been refused asylum.

Read more: Huge migrant influx scares off Greek island tourists

The meeting convened after a fire broke out at Moria camp on Sunday in which one woman died and 17 were injured. Moria is Europe's largest migrant camp, which has facilities for 3,000 people but houses around 13,000.

EU, not Turkey the answer to overcrowding

However, aid agencies argued that the solution should be EU-wide. Aid group Oxfam argued that Sunday's fatal fire was a consequence of the EU's migration policy.  "People arriving in Greece should be relocated to safe accommodation across the EU, not crammed into dangerous spaces where their life is at risk," said Renata Rendon, Oxfam's head of mission in Greece.

European Commission spokesman Mina Andreeva said on Monday "the increased arrivals in Greece over the past weeks have put an immense strain on an already flawed system and are creating unsustainable conditions as we have already had the opportunity to point out in the past."

Read more: Greece's hospitals are ill-suited homes for kids

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos will visit Greece and Turkey this week with the interior ministers of Germany and France to discuss the crisis.

Earlier in September the  German government called on Greece to repatriate migrants to Turkey, in addition to pressuring Turkey to honor its 2016 EU-Turkey pact allowing visa-free travel inside the EU for Turkish citizens in exchange for receiving migrants who illegally enter Europe via Turkey.

kmm/rc (AFP/dpa)

First published: September 30, 2019

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