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. Last week 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 14,100 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. 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, at 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.”