European member states will be able to return migrants to Greece from mid-March 2017, the European Commission has announced, in a bid to unpick recent changes to the bloc’s migration rules.
Under European Union (EU) rules, the first country of entry is responsible for processing the asylum claims of migrants arriving within its borders. But unable to cope with the scale of the migrant crisis last year, Greece simply allowed migrants to pass through.
As more than a million migrants swept northwards internal borders were rapidly closed, effectively trapping the later arrivals in Greece.
The Greek islands are already struggling to accommodate twice as many migrants as they have the capacity for, leading to human rights agencies to warn that the country will not to be able to cope with returnees.
But on Thursday the European Commission insisted that Greece has improved in both hosting and registering arriving asylum seekers, the Independent has reported. It has decided therefore that from mid-March EU states will be able to return asylum seekers who landed in Greece back for registration.
“This will provide further disincentives against irregular entry and secondary movements, and is an important step for the return to a normally functioning… system,” said Frans Timmermans, the commission’s deputy head.
The European Commission had intended that European member states, in solidarity with Greece and Italy, would accept a quota of relocated migrants from those two countries. It aimed to relocate 160,000 newly arrived migrants across the member states.
But a year on, Commission figures show that just 8,162 people have actually been relocated – a mere five per cent of the target figure.
Despite the poor performance, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner in charge of migration, has declared it possible to hit the target by September 2017.
“Our aim is to relocate all those in Italy and Greece who are eligible for relocation within the next year,” he said, adding: “Asylum seekers need to know they can’t relocate themselves and that if they do so they will be sent back.”
Eva Cossé, Human Rights Watch’s Athens-based Western Europe researcher, has warned that the facilities in Greece are not robust enough to process any more migrants.
“Despite some positive reforms to its asylum and reception system, in a time of deep economic crisis the exceptional number of arrivals by sea, border closures along the Balkans route, a flawed EU-Turkey deal, and a lack of EU solidarity are putting a strain on Greece’s ability to effectively deal with the mass arrival of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees,” she said
“The dire situation leaves over 62,500 refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers – including women, children, and people with disabilities – effectively stranded in Greece.
“Thousands of asylum seekers have been kept on islands and forbidden from moving on, often living for months in overcrowded and abysmal conditions in EU-sponsored facilities while their claims are processed.
“There are now more than 16,295 asylum seekers on the five main Greek islands that are hosting asylum seekers and migrants – double the capacity of the facilities on those islands.
“Due to lack of space in dedicated shelters, unaccompanied children are often detained, sometimes with adults, for lack of a better alternative.”
She said that reinstating the returns “would not only be unfair for Greece, but above all it would be catastrophic for the rights of asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution and seeking refuge in Europe”.