Asylum conditions on Greek islands 'untenable'
Conditions for asylum seekers on Greek islands are "untenable", says the European Commission, amid a heavy snow fall that has left many exposed to the freezing weather.
Refugees woke up to snow covered encampments, such as Moria on Lesbos island, without heating over the weekend despite recent assurances from the Greek government that nobody would be left out in the cold.
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Asked to comment by reporters in Brussels on Monday (9 January), the commission said it was ready to help fund accommodation centres but that the Greek government was responsible for the camps.
"We can no more dictate policy in Greece than we can in any other member state," said commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud.
"I have to be quite clear here, the commission is aware that the situation is untenable but we also have to be clear as I was saying that ensuring adequate reception conditions in Greece is a responsibility of Greek authorities,” she added.
Lesbos island has borne the brunt of the refugee inflow into Greece.
Brawls between Afghan and Syrian detainees, fires, and clashes with Greek far-right protesters are among the struggles faced by those who fled war to get to the islands.
The number of migrants on the islands now counts over 15,600 people.
Bertaud's comments follow statements made last week by Greek asylum minister Yiannis Mouzalas, who promised that everyone would be kept warm.
“There are no refugees or migrants living in the cold anymore. We successfully completed the procedures for overwintering," he said at the time.
Greek figures from earlier this month say over 6,000 are stuck on Lesbos, an island designed to accommodate only 3,500, with many sleeping in thin UN refugee agency (UNHCR) tents. Around 1,000 are living in tents.
Dublin returns to Greece
Bertaud's comments also follow internal moves by Germany to start sending back asylum seekers to Greece as part of a broader EU commission plan to resume so-called Dublin returns to the country in mid-March.
Germany's interior minister Thomas de Maiziere, in a letter sent last week to his administration and seen by EUobserver, wants them to start working out plans how to dispatch people back to Greece following the EU commission's 15 March deadline.
Dublin is an EU asylum law that largely places the burden of processing asylum seeker claims on the country where they first entered.
Returns to Greece were banned in 2011 following two judgments by the European Court of Human Rights and another by the European Court of Justice, due in part, to the poor treatment of people by Greek authorities.
With many asylum seekers having entered into Greece before heading further north, many EU states are piling on the pressure to start sending them back.
Some 180,000 arrived on the Aegean islands from Turkey last year alone despite an EU-Turkey deal that curbed flows, when compared to 2015.
The Turkey deal was struck shortly after borders were closed along the Western Balkan routes. It means tens of thousands are now stuck on the Greek mainland.
Dublin returns to Greece, under the EU commission plan launched last December, will only apply to those who arrive after March and has warranted major concern among human right groups.
"From our perspective, our partners and members in Greece, the situation in Greece is simply not adequate for returns to be reinstated," Catherine Woollard, who heads the Brussels-based European council on refugees and exiles (Ecre), told this website.
The Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog Council of Europe is probing the issue of returns to Greece.
Last month it warned against the resumption of Dublin transfers.
A lead member of the Council of Europe, Tineke Strik, had described the EU commission's Dublin plan and March deadline as "astonishing."
Ecre's Woollard drew similar conclusions.
"To prematurely reinstate Dublin transfers is not going to ensure compliance with EU law, it is just going to lead to the suffering of people concerned," she said.
But the commission argues that the resumption of transfers is partly justified given pledges by EU states to relocate at least 3,000 per month from Greece as of April.
Latest figures provided by the EU commission in early December projected some 900 would be relocated for the last month of 2016.