Wednesday, 07 June 2023 03:12 GMT

Greece still needs help to face refugee crisis

(MENAFN- The Peninsula) TOPSHOT - A child holds a placard reading "Open the border" during a demonstration in support to refugees and migrants in front of Athens municipality building, in Athens, on August 29, 2016. AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI

By Vasiliki Mitsiniotou

ATHENS: 'The challenges are very serious, and we need to continue to address them together.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was speaking recently during his second visit in less than a year to Greece as the European country struggles with its chronic economic problems and an unprecedented wave of migration.

The senior UN figure – who only took on the role at the start of 2016 – said living conditions, security in refugee sites and overcrowding on Greek islands meant Athens needs all the help it can get, particularly from fellow European Union countries.

Greece";s shores and Aegean islands like Lesvos, Chios and Kos were the gateway to other EU countries for more than 856,000 refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan last year, according to UN Refugee Agency data.

As the refugee flows increased, Greece faced pressure from the European Commission to build refugee reception centers and put a halt to the massive influx going towards northern Europe.

Many migrants arrived during the summer when Greeks were going through painful negotiations with international creditors – talks which ended with an unforgiving bailout deal.

Cash-strapped Greece has been struggling ever since – and many in the country are unhappy at a perceived lack of support from Europe.

Back in Nov. 2015, the EU started a scheme to resettle 160,000 asylum seekers in two years"; time from the most affected first ports of entry to other EU member states.

This is about the number of migrants that have reached Greece so far this year alone.

In sharp contrast, just over 3,000 refugees have been relocated from Greece to other EU member states up to now, according to official data.

The UN has observed this impasse with frustration. Speaking in Athens last week, Grandi said: 'I will continue to advocate for these programs to be bigger and accelerated.”

'It can and must work,” he added.

EU/Turkey deal

Despite the fact the refugee influx has massively dropped due to a March 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey – which included returning arrivals from Greece back to Turkish soil – the Greek authorities say the situation is unstable.

Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas warned last week that another 180,000 refugees and migrants would have come to Greece in the last three months, if there was no EU – Turkey deal.

Speaking during a news conference Mouzalas told reporters the situation for migrants already in mainland Greece was now 'manageable” due to a large-scale EU-funded ‘pre-registration"; scheme.

Launched on June 8 this year, every migrant in temporary accommodation who completed the pre-registration process received an asylum-seeker card. This one-year document provides access to services while they await the outcome of their asylum application.

According to official data, between June 9 and July 30, almost 27,600 migrants living in camps on the Greek mainland pre-registered.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Aikaterini Kitidi, spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency in Greece, said the closure by Greece";s northern Balkan neighbors of their borders saw asylum applications 'piling up”.

This sparked a 'great will to preregister” among migrants who turned to the Greek asylum authorities.

Nevertheless, the scheme has only identified how many people are eligible to stay in Greece or other EU states – not how they will be supported. For that, still more EU support is needed – something which has frustrated Athens and the UN.

Mouzalas criticized an EU refusal to comply with a signed relocation scheme, saying '7,000 people are ready to relocate but there are no countries to accept them”.

Living conditions

Although Greece is still basking in August sunshine, thoughts of winter are not far away for those working with migrants – policymakers are also aware of looming difficulties.

'With the arrival of winter, there are still many thousands of people living in sites that are not yet at standard conditions,” Grandi on his final day in Greece.

'It is important to upgrade conditions to minimize the risk factors to which these people are exposed. And they will be increasingly exposed when winter comes,” he added.

Although conditions in reception centers are slowly improving, many people still live in inadequate or overcrowded sites.

Deputy Defense Minister Dimitris Vitsas whose department is responsible for the majority of reception centers, spoke about the government";s plans on Skai TV the same day. He said that between 30 and 33 of the current 50 centers operating on the mainland will remain and new ones will be created 'if the need arises”.

Vitsas also announced plans to unburden the congested camps on the Aegean islands.

'We are looking to build non-permanent structures which will function for a time period from one-to-three years,” Nikos Koutsis, spokesperson for Greece";s Refugee Crisis Management Coordination Body told Anadolu Agency. 'They will have a 1,000-to-1,500-person capacity and they will be located throughout the country.

'We don";t want ghettos,” he added.

Schooling migrant children

Back in March, Greek Education Minister Nikos Phillis first presented a plan to offer basic educational skills and psychosocial support to refugee children and immigrants. Now things are starting to take shape.

Ministry spokesman Giorgos Gilson told Anadolu Agency the department planned to hire 800 educators for Greek and English-language courses in schools, reception centers and 'at places where migrant children cannot reach schools”.

'No matter how long migrant children will stay in Greece, they should have a chance in education,” Gilson added.

At this point, there are almost 60,000 migrants in Greece according to official data and a relatively small number of new migrants arrive every day.

Perhaps the numbers are not as overwhelming as before but new challenges still lie ahead for the Greek authorities.


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