This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
ATHENS - Greece, Germany and the European Commission on Friday called on Turkey to fully implement its migration agreement with the EU, by speeding up the return of asylum-seekers that crossed onto EU territory from Turkish soil.
“The European Council and Commisison are here to reassure Greece of their unstinting support to bring to fulfilment the EU-Turkey statement,” said German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
The EU-Turkey Statement came into force in March 2016, and stipulates that Turkey must readmit third-country nationals who “illegally and directly entered the territory of the Member States after having stayed on, or transited through, the territory of Turkey.”
“Our aim is the full implentation of the EU-Turkey Statement,” said European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, who was on the return leg of a trip to the Turkish capital.
“Without doubt, Greece is under pressure. Arrivals are up and conditions on the islands are tragic for the people who are there,” said Avramopoulos. “The Statement continues to apply and all sides are obliged to follow.”
There were an estimated 50,000 asylum-seekers in Greece when the Statement came into force. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Greece had 88,750 at the end of August. Returns to Turkey during that time have numbered a mere 1,806.
On Monday, the Greek cabinet announced that it aims to speed up deportations dramatically, returning 10,000 asylum-seekers back to Turkey next year.
Refugee reception camps on Greek islands in the Aegean have filled to overflowing. Moria camp on the island of Lesvos was originally built for 1,200 and was later reconfigured to house 3,100. It now has a record 13,000, as the rate of arrivals from Turkey picked up last month. A fire that broke out in the camp on September 29 killed a woman and her newborn, and caused a riot that had to be put down with water cannon. Greek citizens’ protection minister Mihalis Chrysohoidis said Moria would “continue to stigmatise europe” unless returns were increased in line with arrivals.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “flood Europe” with refugees if he did not receive more financial support from Europe. Erdogan also seeks international support for a plan to resettle 3.6mn refugees on Turkish soil in a 30km-deep buffer zone in northern Syria.
Europe’s internal divisions
Europe also has internal problems with burden-sharing. According to Europe’s current asylum rules, refugees must apply for international protection in the first EU country they reach. Ever since a Relocation programme ended in September 2017, there is no mechanism to relieve these frontline states of asylum-seekers arriving on their shores.
“If we don’t help Greece and the countries at the external borders we will have an uncontrollable migration policy which will be a dead end,” said Seehofer. “If we don’t face it in a n organised way the immigrants will appear in a disorganised way all over europe,” he said.
His remarks were directed towards Austria, Hungary, Poland and Denmark, who have refused to take any refugees off Greece’s hands. Slovakia relocated 16 and the Czech Republic 12.
“We’re not helping Greece now, we’re helping Europe. It’s a big problem and it’s everyone’s problem,” Seehofer said.
Chrysohoidis also renewed calls for a common European asylum policy as a vital component of managing refugee flows towards the continent. “We need solidarity and proportional burden sharing,” he said.
One of the reasons Greece has so many asylum-seekers is that it has played by the book when it comes to asylum interviews, resisting European pressure to exclude anyone from the process on the basis of nationality.
Monday’s cabinet meeting suggested that this may change. A briefing note said that an upcoming revision of asylum law will include “induction into the asylum system only of those who have a refugee profile”.