Following protests in Athens slamming the government for its treatment of migrants, the Greek government over the weekend said it would extend the COVID-19 lockdown on the migrant camps on Greek Aegean islands and on the mainland.
Greece has extended a coronavirus lockdown on its migrant camps for a further two weeks. On Saturday, Greece announced extension of the coronavirus lockdown on its overcrowded and unsanitary migrant camps on its islands in the Aegean Sea for another fortnight.
The move came hours after some 2,000 people protested in central Athens on Saturday to mark World Refugee Day and denounced the government's treatment of migrants.
The migration ministry said migrants living in island camps as well as those in mainland Greece will remain under lockdown until July 5. It was due to have ended on Monday, June 22, along with the easing of general community restrictions as the country has been preparing to welcome tourists for the summer.
The Greek government first introduced strict confinement measures in migrant camps on March 21. A more general lockdown was imposed on March 23; it has since been extended a number of times. No known coronavirus deaths have been recorded in Greek migrant camps
so far and only a few dozen infections have surfaced. Rights groups have expressed concern that migrants' rights have been eroded by the restrictions.
On May 18, the Greek asylum service resumed receiving asylum applications after an 11-week pause. Residence permits held by refugees will be extended six months from their date of expiration to prevent the service from becoming overwhelmed by renewal applications.
'No refugee homeless, persecuted, jailed'
During the Saturday protests, members of anti-racist groups, joined by residents from migrant camps, marched in central Athens. They were holding banners proclaiming "No refugee homeless, persecuted, jailed" and chanting slogans against evictions of refugees from temporary accommodation in apartments.More than 11,000 refugees who have been living in reception facilities for asylum seekers could soon be evicted. Refugees used to be able to keep their accommodation for up to six months after receiving protected status.
But the transitional grace period was recently reduced significantly: Since March of this year, people can no longer stay in the reception system for six months after they were officially recognized as refugees -- they only have 30 days.
Refugee advocacy groups and UNHCR have expressed concern that the people evicted could end up homeless. "Forcing people to leave their accommodation without a safety net and measures to ensure their self-reliance may push many into poverty and homelessness," UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said last week.
The government insists that it is doing everything necessary "to assure a smooth transition for those who leave their lodgings."
Moreover, UNHCR and several NGOs and human rights groups have spoken out to criticize the Greek government's decision to cut spending on a housing program for asylum seekers by up to 30%. They said that it means less safe places to live for vulnerable groups.
Asylum office laments burden, defends action
In a message for World Refugee Day, the Ministry for Migration and Asylum said Greece has found itself "at the centre of the migration crisis bearing a disproportionate burden", news agency AFP cites.
"The country is safeguarding the rights of those who are really persecuted and operates as a shield of solidarity in the eastern Mediterranean," it added.
Government officials have repeatedly said Greece must become a less attractive destination for asylum seekers.
The continued presence of more than 36,000 refugees and asylum seekers on the islands -- over five times the intended capacity of shelters there -- has caused major friction with local communities who are demanding their immediate removal.
An operation in February to build detention centers for migrants on the islands of Lesbos and Chios had to be abandoned due to violent protests.
Accusations of push-backs
Greece has also been repeatedly accused of illegal pushbacks by its forces at its land and sea borders, which according to reports have spiked since March.
On land, a Balkans-based network of human rights organizations said migrants reported beatings and violent collective expulsions from inland detention spaces to Turkey on boats across the Evros River. In the Aegean, a recent investigation by three media outlets claims that Greek coast guard officers intercept migrant boats coming from Turkey and send them back to Turkey in unseaworthy life rafts.
Athens has repeatedly denied using illegal tactics to guard its borders, and has in turn accused Turkey of sending patrol boats to escort migrant boats into its waters.
According to UNHCR, around 3,000 asylum seekers arrived in Greece by land and sea since the start of March, far fewer people than over previous months. Some 36,450 refugees and asylum seekers are currently staying on the Aegean islands.
With material from AFP