An image taken with a drone shows the refugee camp of Moria, on Lesvos island, Greece | Photo: EPA/DIMITRIS TOSIDIS
An image taken with a drone shows the refugee camp of Moria, on Lesvos island, Greece | Photo: EPA/DIMITRIS TOSIDIS

Nearly 100,000 asylum applications are still pending in Greece with thousands of people stranded in overcrowded camps, according to the latest official data.

Newly released official figures confirmed that there are currently almost 100,000 asylum applications pending in Greece, with thousands of people stranded in overcrowded camps. 

While the government continues to speak about big reductions in the influx of refugees and migrants from Turkey, the figures show a massive backlog and slow progress with transfers -- especially in moving people from the island camps to the mainland. 

According to the latest data, pending asylum decisions (first and second degree) decreased by 3.6% in July this year compared to June but there are a total of 98,279 decisions pending.

During the trimester of May-June-July 2020, first degree asylum decisions increased by 106% compared to the same period of 2019, the data showed. 

High number of pending asylum decisions, slow progress in transfers 

However, despite the significant decrease in migrant flows from Turkey to the Greek islands in recent months, which is mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the high number of pending asylum decisions and slow progress in transfers from the overcrowded island camps on Lesbos, Chios, and Samos are a major source of concern for both the government and local communities.

Arrivals in those North Aegean islands did show a 90% decrease in the previous quarter (May-June-July), versus the same period of 2019, but only 9,929 people were transferred to alternative accommodation. 

From January to July 2020, 21,686 people were moved to the mainland.

It is still unclear whether Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis can help speed up the transfer of people from those islands camps. 

Despite the dip in arrivals over the spring and summer so far, the number of total asylum seekers (not just those with asylum decisions pending) in Greece is still significant, totaling 120,000 people, according to the latest data released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They include 39,700 people on the islands and 80,300 on the mainland in various locations stretching from Athens to the northern land border at Evros.

The decongestion of the islands is continuing through a combination of voluntary returns and deportations to the countries of origin, as well as through the utilization of relocation programs in EU countries.

"Implementing a balanced immigration policy with a specific plan, we are turning the page on the migration issue," Mitarakis told reporters. "Already, the decongestion of all the islands of the North Aegean that for years have been bearing the brunt of this crisis continues at a steady pace." 

Mitarakis added that those who are entitled to international protection "are being separated from illegal economic migrants. Those who are not entitled to international protection will be deported, while voluntary returns have also begun. Now, the main priority is the reduction of accommodation spaces, as we will close 67 structures within the year." 

'We are not building prisons', deputy minister 

Meanwhile, Mitarakis and his ministry have also been criticized by human rights groups and NGOs claiming that a new plan to build several 'closed' camps hampers the rights of asylum seekers. Deputy Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos rejected such claims. He told reporters: "There will be stricter controls but (the facilities) are not prisons. Greece does not build prisons. It is a democratic, European country that protects its borders as well as human rights." 
 

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