Migrants and refugees arrive on a dinghy on the coast of Skala Sikamias, on the island of Lesvos, Greece, 13 November 2019 | Photo: EPA/DIMITRIS TOSIDIS
Migrants and refugees arrive on a dinghy on the coast of Skala Sikamias, on the island of Lesvos, Greece, 13 November 2019 | Photo: EPA/DIMITRIS TOSIDIS

After 75,000 migrant arrivals on the Greek shores in 2019, the country's and international authorities predict that the refugee crisis in Greece will continue in 2020. It's a case of new year, same challenge for Greece and the country's authorities as they continue to wrestle with the ongoing migrant crisis.

New figures released by the Greek arm of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have confirmed that close to 75,000 (74,348) refugees and migrants arrived on Greek shores in the calendar year of 2019 and were absorbed into the various reception facilities on the mainland and on the North East Aegean islands. That represents a 47% increase when compared to 2018, an alarming spike considering that measures such as the Turkey-EU agreement and increased security has been put in place.

But that is only half of the story.

The real issues are on the North East Aegean islands of Chios, Lesvos and Samos, locations which are carrying much of the burden for Greece. According to the North Aegean's General Police Directorate, approximately 46,000 people arrived at the islands of the northern Aegean in 2019. That means the region is handling 62% of the total arrivals. This is what is causing desperate overcrowding at all facilities on the islands, which were designed to host much lesser numbers.

Severe overcrowding on Greek islands

The Greek government has stepped up its efforts in terms of the quicker transfer of vulnerable groups such as families, people with ailments and disabilities, as well as unaccompanied minors, from island camps to alternative accommodation on the mainland, but as fast as people leave, then more arrive. 

According to the data from the North Aegean's General Police Directorate, in 2019 a total of 27,148 migrants and refugees arrived on the island of Lesvos, another 8,076 persons arrived on Chios and 10,802 on Samos over the year. The number of arrivals on Lesvos was nearly double that in 2018 (14,906). 

Up until this weekend, the number of asylum seekers staying at the controversial and overcrowded Moria hotspot on Lesvos and the surrounding areas had reached 18,747, 1,150 of whom are unaccompanied children. The overall number of children in Moria has reached 6,500. The nationalities of the asylum seekers hosted at the Moria camp are as follows: 73% Afghans, 12% Syrians and 5% Somalis. The remaining 10% are from various other countries, but mostly African. 

Much work to be done 

It remains to be seen if the ongoing refugee crisis can be effectively handled by Greece's recently installed New Democracy government. While measures have already been put in place to speed up asylum application processes, transfers of people from the islands to the mainland, as well as tougher legislative measures and border security with the help of Frontex, the Greek state faces the same problems and as UN's High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi recently pointed out last month, needs help from international organizations as well as its fellow EU member states. 

Government declares "safe" countries 

In related developments the Greek government on Friday published a joint ministerial decision (Jmd) which outlines 12 countries that are considered safe to return rejected asylum seeker to. The JMD, which was signed by Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Citizen Protection Minister Mihalis Chrysohoidis, lists the following countries as safe: Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Gambia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Albania, Georgia, Ukraine, India and Armenia. And, based on article 87 of the recently-published 2019 law on asylum applications, a country can be judged safe for an asylum seeker if an examination of his or her application shows that they have not cited "serious reasons why the country is not a safe country of origin for the applicant." 

The new law provides for the fast-tracked consideration of asylum applications by individuals from safe countries of origin, allowing shorter processing times. Kyriakos Mitsotakis' conservative government introduced the stricter legislation on migration with the aim of limiting new arrivals as much as possible, increase deportations of failed asylum seekers, and establish more restrictive "closed" holding centers. This came into force on the back of a huge spike in migrant and refugee arrivals from neighboring Turkey in recent months, with tens of thousands of people crammed into the small identification and reception centers on the Aegean islands which have long exceeded their capacity.

Author: Graham Wood

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