EPA/ Orestis Panagiotou
EPA/ Orestis Panagiotou

In a move designed to decongest its overcrowded island camps, the government in Athens is trying to defuse its migrants emergency - an act that was criticized by humanitarian NGO's. The Greek parliament have approved a new law designed to speed up the country's notoriously slow asylum process for refugees and migrants in an effort to ease the pressure on overcrowded camps on the North Eastern Aegean islands.

 With the so-called hotspots on the islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos - among others - well past bursting point with thousands of people living in squalor, the government has finally took legislative action. Under the new legislation, more staff will be recruited at Greece's asylum service to handle the thousands of requests, while the appeals process for rejected applications will be shortened. On top of that, the scope includes some travel restrictions which can be imposed on asylum-seekers who get moved from the islands to the mainland. In addition, the new law should also speed up, and increase the number of, deportations of people back to Turkey who are no eligible for asylum. As the law currently stood, restrictions on asylum-seekers were limited mainly to the five islands near the coast of Turkey, as this is where strained refugee camps are still trying to cope with up to three times more residents than existing capacity. A total of over 16,000 migrants remain stranded there. 

A group of 15 Greek and international human rights organizations, however, have accused the government of once again "ignoring refugee rights" and urged the state to "immediately reverse" the part about shortening the appeal process. "This new policy is the latest in a series of steps being taken to make access to asylum in Europe more difficult, as outlined in numerous NGO reports," said a joint statement led by Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

Mainland migrant camps set to be expanded 

On Tuesday, it was revealed that Greece's Migration Policy Ministry is reportedly examining the possibility of increasing the capacity of refugee and migrant centers on the mainland as the country struggles to cope with a recent spike in arrivals on the islands and via the northern Evros border with Turkey. According to the latest data released a total of 6,632 migrants crossed into Greece in April alone, while since the turn of the year the figure is 16,478, adding to the already 60,000 which remain stranded waiting on decisions on asylum applications. From the 16,478 which have arrived in 2018, 7,103 arrived from the Evros border while 9,375 landed on the shores of the Northern Aegean islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos, among others. And now, as well as the new legislation, as a first step in managing the deepening an ongoing crisis, the government is set to put together a plan within this week, in parallel with a visit of European Union officials, to expand existing camps on the mainland. Migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan protest against deportations in the hotspot refugee camp, formerly a detention centre, in Moria, Lesvos island, Greece. 

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