Greece passed a new asylum bill last week that aims to make asylum procedures simpler and faster and help with overcrowding on its island refugee camps.
The bill “will not magically solve the refugee and migration issue,” said Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas, but will hopefully reduce the wait for thousands of asylum seekers. “What are we seeking to do with this bill? To carry out a speedy processing of asylum claims while respecting the rights of those seeking international protection.”
Additionally, the Greek Government plans to hire more staff to deal with asylum processing, including on the islands that house approximately 11,000 refugees – Chios, Lesvos, Kos, Samos and Leros.
Greece, along with Italy, offers refuge to more migrants than any other EU member states. And the number of new migrants and refugees arriving on the Greek islands has risen sharply this year, prompting the new bill.
In 2017, the number of asylum claims in Greece rose by 15 percent, according to the Greek Asylum Service, with its staff receiving more than 58,600 asylum requests – mostly from Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan – and awarding protection to just over 10,000 people.
Maria Stavropoulou, the former director of the Greek Asylum Service, told the newspaper Kathimerini in January that there was a backlog of more than 9,000 asylum cases at the time.
Even with a resurgence in migrants arriving to Greece and claiming asylum, the numbers are minimal compared to the height of the European refugee crisis in 2015, when in October alone, the UN recorded more than 200,000 migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece and bound for Western Europe. By the end of 2015, more than a million migrants had entered the EU – most fleeing from war zones in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Border closures followed, and by February 2016, thousands of migrants were stuck in Greece.
In March 2016, the EU-Turkey Deal was implemented in an effort to stem the flow of migrants to mainland Europe. The agreement states that any migrant crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands must qualify for asylum. If they do not, they will be returned to Turkey; and for every returnee, one Syrian refugee will be resettled in Europe. The deal is what turned the five Greek islands into refugee camps for more than 10,000 people (which is double the islands’ capacities) who have had to wait several months or years for their asylum claims to be processed.
The new Greek bill, passed on May 15th, is aimed at addressing the overcrowding problem on the Greek islands, which is also associated with heightened levels of violence. However, human rights groups have criticised the bill, saying that the quickened asylum process will lead to procedures that violate refugees’ rights.
The bill also allows for a ban on asylum-seekers traveling beyond the islands until their claims are processed. That ban had been lifted by Greece’s top administrative court in April to the praise of human rights groups and the consternation of Brussels, which feared that allowing travel to asylum-seekers could lead to another mass migration to Western Europe, like in 2015. Thus, the EU is likely pleased with the reimplementation of the ban.
The EU has allocated nearly a billion euros in migration aid to Greece and insists Greek authorities are responsible for managing its refugee camps adequately. But the former migration minister, Yiannis Mouzalas, repeatedly criticised the EU for failing to provide extra staff to the Greek Asylum Service and for taking too long to relocate refugees.
Already in February 2016, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was warning that Greece was becoming a “warehouse of souls” due to EU actions leading to refugees and migrants becoming trapped in Greece. Since the start of the European Forced Migration Crisis, the country has consistently defended its asylum procedures on both the islands and the mainland, ensuring that it is doing its utmost to manage an issue that is far larger than any one nation could hope to shoulder alone.