Greek asylum claims spike due to backlogs
Greek asylum applications registered a massive jump late last year, but experts pin it mainly to a backlog.
The Greek Asylum Service noted a 593 percent increase of asylum applications in November alone, or around 7,600 claims, compared to 2015's monthly average of 1,100.
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The spike appears to be broadly linked to a large-scale pre-registration programme launched over the summer and a doubling of staff at the Greek Asylum Service.
"We are now seeing the process of all those people trying to get a foothold in the asylum system actually formally being registered", Minos Mouzourakis, a migration expert at the Brussels-based European council on refugees and exiles (Ecre), told EUobserver on Thursday (5 January).
Tens of thousands were stranded in Greece after Western Balkan borders were closed early last year.
With people no longer able to get further north, many ended up in ad-hoc camps on the mainland, with luckier ones finding accommodation in hotels or in apartments.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) set up some 21,000 accommodation places in apartments, with host families, or in other buildings. Government built camps were also established around the country.
Greek authorities, along with the EU asylum agency EASO and the UNHCR, had also carried out a pre-registration exercise in June, with those claims now being processed.
"Since people were pre-registered around June and July, it was expected that the first claims register would not start until October and November because people had to be given an appointment. This is kind of a slow process until its full completion", said Mouzourakis.
The Malta-based EASO agency drew similar conclusions.
"The applications lodged in Greece indeed increased during the course of the year," said EASO spokesperson Jean-Pierre Schembri.
Schembri linked the increase to both the large group of candidate-applicants after the June pre-registration campaign and the work of the Greek authorities, along with its various partners.
Double the staff
An increase in staffing at the Greek Asylum Service also likely played a part in the November spike.
The service had around 300 staff at the end of 2015, now up to 617. It is also now present on the Greek islands, where people continue landing after crossing from Turkey.
Fewer people are arriving following last year's EU-Turkey migrant swap deal, but the islands remain overcrowded and in poor conditions.
Frontex, the EU border agency, on Thursday reported a 79 percent drop in arrivals to Greece, when compared to 2015.
But around 182,500 migrants, mostly Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis, still arrived on the Aegean islands and mainland last year.
Some 15,687 people seeking asylum are now on the islands, with Greek government structures only able to accommodate just over half.
"Even with recent efforts to improve matters, conditions at many sites on the islands remain very poor", UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said in a statement.
Edwards said conditions on Samos, Chios and Lesvos islands are particularly bad given the cold weather. In Samos, many have no heating.
Authorities are still struggling to transfer those on the islands to the mainland. Greek asylum minister Yiannis Mouzalas in December vowed to improve living conditions in the camps on the islands.
On Thursday, he told reporters that the government had completed processes to keep migrants and refugees out of the cold.
“There are no refugees or migrants living in the cold anymore. We successfully completed the procedures for overwintering”, he said.
Mouzalas also reportedly said the vast majority of people now arriving from Turkey to the islands are economic migrants, not from war-torn places like Syria or Iraq. He also said NGOs that don't register with the government ministry by March will be banned from working on the islands.