Athens (AFP) – Greece’s top administrative court has ruled that asylum seekers should be allowed to move freely around the country, a decision that could alleviate pressure on overcrowded island refugee camps.
A justice source on Wednesday said the Council of State ruling only applies to asylum seekers who arrive from now on, and is not applicable to over 15,000 people already on the islands.
It was published Tuesday following a complaint by the Greek council of refugees concerning dramatic conditions in the camps.
After crossing over from Turkey, migrants and refugees can spend months in the camps until their asylum claims can be processed, fueling despair and leading to protests and outbreaks of violence.
Hundreds of Afghan migrants demonstrated on Lesbos island over the fate of one of their fellow nationals, who was recently hospitalised with a heart ailment.
The Greek government is keen to reduce tension on the eastern Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos, especially as the busy tourist season is about to begin.
Local authorities have long protested to Athens over the issue and have blocked state efforts to expand capacity in the camps in retaliation.
The court ruling comes amid an increase in migrant and refugee flows compared to last year.
According to the ministry, arrivals doubled in the first three months of the year, compared to the same period in 2017, from around 60 persons daily to around 120 on average.
“Flows from Turkey have increased but they are still manageable,” deputy migration minister Yiannis Balafas told Sto Kokkino radio on Wednesday.
So far, only ailing and vulnerable refugees such as unaccompanied minors have been allowed off the islands without full asylum approval, a process that can take many months owing to the sheer volume of applications.
Until now, the migration ministry has refused to allow larger numbers of refugees to cross to the mainland, arguing that it would only encourage people smugglers to send more over.
A person with knowledge of the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP the government is likely to seek legal avenues to set exceptions to the court ruling.
The immigration ministry said it would study the ruling and that it had tabled a new law addressing the issue.
A ministry source said the bill will be approved by parliament by the end of the month.