Greece ill-prepared for EU asylum returns
The EU is putting pressure on Greece to start accepting returns of asylum seekers from other EU states, but Athens remains ill-prepared.
On Wednesday (28 September), EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said there "would be a gradual return" to the EU asylum system of returns under the so-called Dublin regulation.
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But an understaffed Greek Asylum Service in July said it would take three years to clear the backlog of existing asylum claims.
The prospect of receiving even more asylum seekers from other EU states has also met with incredulity from some NGOs.
Manos Moschopoulos, an migration expert from the Open Society Foundation, says Greece is already struggling.
"Most people are living in camps for months with no or little information. The Greek Asylum Service is overwhelmed. We are talking about more than 60,000 people in Greece at the moment," he said on Thursday.
Fewer people may be arriving on the islands from Turkey under a migrant swap deal between the EU and Ankara in March. But September arrivals still averaged 102 per day on the Greek islands compared to 111 per day in August.
A total of 18,618 people landed on the Greek islands between the launch of the EU Turkey deal and the end of September. The islands, which can house 7,450 people, are now home to just over 14,000.
"The situation on the Greek islands is quite dire at the moment," said Moschopoulos.
Young people are particularly vulnerable. A 16-year-old Pakistani boy was allegedly raped by others his own age at the Moria migrant camp on Lesvos island this past Sunday.
Meanwhile, fewer than 600 people have returned to Turkey under the deal. And only 51 are Syrians.
The gap poses a major headache for EU officials who want to see returns picked up. But the Greek courts are refusing to return anyone whose safety is not guaranteed once they go back to Turkey.
To add to the problem, Greece received 28,700 new asylum claims this year alone. In June and July, it pre-registered another 27,000 on the mainland. It means their claims still have to be lodged. Around 15,000 were also pre-registered on the islands.
To handle the case loads, Greece plans to hire another 177 people by mid-November to add to the current Greek Asylum Service staff of 350. But the EU commission remains unimpressed.
"It is clear that the current and planned staffing levels for the Asylum Service still fall far short of what is required to process the current and likely future case-load in an adequate manner," it said in a report out Wednesday.
Greek authorities say they are working to create 39 permanent settlements in an effort to house 32,700 and move people out of the camps.
On top, only a few thousand people have been relocated from Greece to other EU states under a two-year scheme launched last September.
With the Western Balkan route closed and nowhere else to go, some are turning to smugglers in a desperate bid to leave.
Spyridon Voulgaris, an asylum expert at the Greek diplomatic mission to the EU, says people are also losing hope due to delays. It takes on average 101 days to relocate someone, he said at an event hosted by the Brussels-based think tank, the European Policy Centre.
"We have more people to be relocated than pledges. And then it takes too long," he said.
Figures released by the EU commission on Wednesday show that only 4,455 out of a 63,300 target have been relocated from Greece.
The issue is toxic among the Visegrad Group of countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.
Earlier this week, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico declared the idea of migration quotas “politically finished”.
Slovakia, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, is challenging the distribution scheme along with Hungary at the European Court of Justice.
The Hungarians claim the scheme is a lure for more people to enter the EU.
"We believe by principle that the quota system is a bad idea," a Hungarian government spokesperson told reporters earlier this month.