A group of refugees standing outside their tents at the camp of Ritsona, north of Athens, Greece. Photo/Archive/EPA
A group of refugees standing outside their tents at the camp of Ritsona, north of Athens, Greece. Photo/Archive/EPA

Greece's Council of State has made what could be a landmark decision by ruling that new refugee and migrant arrivals in the country will be able to move around the country freely. They are no longer restricted them to the islands of the eastern Aegean upon arrival from neighboring Turkey.

The surprising decision was revealed on Tuesday and drastically alters a 2016 decision by Greece's asylum service that forced migrants to remain at reception camps set up on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos and other Aegean islands until their asylum application was processed. This procedure has been heavily criticised by human rights groups, who labelled it a "containment policy". But now, according to the leaked ruling from Greece's highest administrative court, there are no valid reasons in the public interest or for migration policy to justify their geographical restriction to the islands.

 Migration Ministry 'will study decision'

 Greece's Migration Policy Minister Dimitris Vitsas told reporters that he would comment on the ruling only after he had been informed of it officially. The Migration Ministry confirmed his stance in a brief statement. "The Ministry of Immigration Policy will study the decision of the Council of State, 805/2018, according to its rationale and its enacting terms," the statement said. According to the Council of State's ruling, as soon as it is published, new refugees and migrants who apply for asylum will be allowed to reside in any part of the country they choose. In its ruling, the Council of State said the imposed restrictions on movement have resulted in a disproportionate concentration of migrants in specific areas rather than equitable distribution of the migrants throughout Greece, bringing "significant burdening and decline of those regions" hosting more migrants. The court said that due to the large number of arrivals to the country overall, the ruling will not have a retroactive effect. Thus it will not apply to the thousands of refugees who are already languishing in reception centers on the Northeast Aegean islands. 

Overcrowding continues 

A total of over 60,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have been stuck in Greece for more than 12 months after border shutdowns across the Balkans stopped their planned onward journeys. Around 12,000 of those migrants are staying at so-called hotspots on the islands, which have been operating beyond capacity for months on end. To make matters worse, Greece is now experiencing a fresh spike in arrivals of refugees trying their luck in desperation on battered and ill-equipped boats to cross from Turkey. Although the agreement between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016 has significantly curbed the flow of arrivals, Greek authorities claim that the recent spike in arrivals is due to the loosening of security measures in Turkey as tensions between the two countries continues to cause concern. 

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