EU states begin returning refugees to Greece as German reunions slow
European countries are poised to begin the process of returning refugees to Greece, as migrants seeking reunification with their family members – mostly in Germany – step up protests in Athens.
In a move decried by human rights groups, EU states will send back asylum seekers who first sought refuge in Greece, despite the nation being enmeshed in its worst economic crisis in modern times.
Germany has made nearly 400 resettlement requests, according to officials in Berlin and sources in Athens’ leftist-led government. The UK, France, the Netherlands and Norway have also asked that asylum seekers be returned to Greece.
Greece’s migration minister told the Guardian the first returns were expected imminently.
“The paperwork has begun and we expect returns to begin over the next month,” said Yannis Mouzalas. “It will start with a symbolic number as an act of friendship [towards other EU nations]. Greece has already accepted so many [refugees], it has come under such pressure, that to accept more would be absurd, a joke if it weren’t such a tragedy.”
Mouzalas said he had no idea where the returnees would be placed or whether they would ever leave Greece. “I don’t know where they will go. It could be Athens, it could be Thebes … they are accommodated in an apartment scheme,” he said. “Whatever [happens], conditions will be good, they have improved greatly and will meet EU criteria.”
Officials say privately that acceptance of the transfers has been non-negotiable given Greece’s EU membership and receipt of funds from Brussels. Resettlement will not affect asylum seekers who arrived in the EU before March this year.
Greece was at the centre of the 2015 migrant crisis, when close to a million men, women and children entered the country as part of onward journeys that often took them to Germany. Most were arriving from war-torn Syria.
The number of people arriving dropped dramatically when the EU reached an accord with Turkey 17 months ago to help accommodate refugees from Syria. But hundreds are still arriving each week.
On Monday a reported 330 migrant arrivals were registered on Greece’s eastern Aegean isles, piling the pressure on overcrowded and vastly overstretched reception centres in Lesvos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Samos. An estimated 14,335 people are currently in limbo in accommodation centres on the Greek islands, according to figures released by the country’s interior ministry on Thursday.
Conditions in the centres are described as deplorable, and protests and riots are commonplace. Human Rights Watch recently said self-harm and suicide attempts along with aggression, anxiety and depression were all on the rise. Local services complain about being unable to cope.
A camp for refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Chios. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters
Against such a backdrop, the spectre of more people being sent back to the debt-stricken country has been met with derision by organisations that have also denounced the EU-Turkey deal as deeply flawed. In 2011, returns of refugees to Greece were suspended after the European court of human rights intervened citing harsh conditions and poor treatment by Greek authorities.
“It is incredible that a country like Germany, which now has so many camps standing empty because of the decreasing number of arrivals [since the Turkey-EU agreement], is demanding that people be sent back to Greece,” said Salinia Stroux, who heads the NGO Refugee Support Aegean. “It is not an argument to say they have too many or that they are not ready to accept any more when there are places that are there, ready and waiting, to host people whose rent has been already covered and paid for by the German state.”
Angela Merkel’s administration has been criticised for putting the brakes on refugees being reunited with family members in Germany. Protests by Syrians demanding resettlement have mounted amid complaints that family reunions have been reduced to fewer than 100 per month, around a fifth of the number seen in the spring.
The German government denies the existence of a formal cap on the number of reunifications from Greece. However, in a response to a parliamentary query submitted by the German Left party, the interior ministry admitted that “up to 4,339” mostly Syrian asylum seekers whose application for reunification had been approved were currently living in Greece.
“What we have seen is a concerted effort to slow down the process of asylum seekers being reunited with their families in time for the German elections” next month, said Ulla Jelpke, a Die Linke MP. “The very same party which is running a family-friendly campaign is practising a policy which hurts families, only to gain a few votes from the rightwing spectrum.”
Under EU asylum procedures popularly referred to as the Dublin regulations, refugees are required to lodge requests in the member state that is their point of entry to the bloc.
“We don’t want to be here, we want to be in Berlin with our father,” said Nour Waez as she demonstrated in the sweltering summer heat outside the Asylum Service in Athens, 18 months after her family fled the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.
“We don’t want to wait any more. We want to continue our education, live normal lives. My father is a doctor. He joined my brother in Germany last year,” she explained. “Every day, me, my two sisters and my mother learn German from the books he has sent us. So much time has been lost. Why all this waiting when they have told us we can go?”
Pushing his toddler son in a pram under the shade of a tree, 20-year-old Mohammed al-Mahamid, also from Syria, said: “We applied to go to Hamburg, where my brother lives, over a year ago. We are looking after his daughter here because she is ill and he could not take her. Every day we are told ‘wait until tomorrow’. Why? The conditions in Greece are very bad. We live in an old school building in Athens, there is no work, the food is not good and there is nothing to do.”
Frustration has not only been limited to the slow pace of family reunions. In June 2015 the European council agreed to relocate more than 66,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU member states. Mouzalas said a fraction had been resettled so far. “Around 17,000 have been relocated and around 7,000 reunited with their families. It is happening, but if I were them I would want the process to move faster,” he said.
This month the minister told Germany’s state-run TV channel ARD that electoral calculations had probably played a role in the demand for refugee returns before federal polls in September.
“There was pressure from several EU countries to resume returns,” he said. “I understand that governments want to show some results to their voters.”
About 62,000 refugees are scattered across Greece. Outside of Athens where nearly 20,000 are now housed in rented apartments thanks to a scheme set up by municipal authorities and the United Nations refugee agency, the vast majority are hosted in facilities established in former army barracks and factories. NGOs say they struggle to access basic supplies including healthcare.
Greek port and police authorities have noted a surge in the numbers of men, women and children trying to flee over the summer. Ever more refugees travelling on fake passports have been stopped at island airports. Rising numbers of irregular migrants have been trying to slip into Italy by boat.
“About 50% of those entering the country are economic migrants, they are not fleeing persecution or war,” added Mouzalas.
Though the numbers of people heading to Greece are dwarfed by those in Italy, which has seen almost 100,000 arrivals so far this year, Mouzalas said the migration crisis in his country was far from over.
“They continue to arrive, albeit in much smaller numbers, on the islands, across the Evros river, across our land border with Turkey, wherever they can,” he said. “To say the crisis is over depends on the war [in Syria], on Turkey, on Europe. In Greece, we remain very concerned.”
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