A first contingent of 134 Iraqis took off from Athens on Thursday, August 6, in Greece’s first voluntary returns flight. The scheme, funded by the European Union is aimed at relieving pressure on Greece, which is struggling to cope with the amount of migrants and asylum seekers who have reached its shores.
This is the "biggest voluntary return our country has ever carried out, and the biggest in Europe this year," said Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas to reporters on Thursday, August 6, according to Al Jazeera.
The 134 Iraqi migrants on board were each offered €2,000 to return home. The flight launched the scheme for migrants, who are unlikely to receive asylum. Applicants need to have arrived in Greece "prior to January 1, 2020," wrote Al Jazeera, and need to still be "present on the islands of Leros, Samos, Lesbos, Kos and Chios."
Among the returnees, reported Greek newspaper Ekathimerini, were 38 children. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) are in charge of implementing the return program. The Greek government hopes to return 5,000 migrants from camps on the island, who have decided not to wait for asylum but rather return home.
Potential applicants to the scheme have a month to apply; the Greek government said that they would also extend the scheme by an additional month "in the event of a low turnout." The money for the scheme was pledged by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson in March.
Ekathimerini said, however, that people from Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Gambia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Georgia, Ukraine, India and Armenia are exempt from the scheme.
According to the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR’s latest figures, there are 122,000 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees currently in Greece. About 30,400 refugees and asylum seekers are residents on the Greek islands, often living in overcrowded and unsanitary camps. The majority of the islands' migrant population comes from Afghanistan (49%) with about 18% from Syria and about 6% from the DRC.
Women make up about 22% of the population and children 32%. About 12% of children present are unaccompanied or separated, according to the UNHCR. Most of those also reportedly come from Afghanistan.