Greece said on Nov. 22 it’s deploying more border guards to “shut the door” to migrants not entitled to stay, the latest sign of a hardening stance against asylum-seekers since a new surge in the number of arrivals.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament he had approved the hiring of 400 guards at Greece’s land border with Turkey and another 800 guards for its islands. Greece will also upgrade its sea patrolling operations, he said.
In an interview with the German newspaper Handelsblatt, Mitsotakis talked about the current refugee and migrant crisis that Greece faces, blaming Turkey, the European Union, and Eastern European countries for creating the crisis, according to Greek Reporter.
“The European Union views Greece as ‘convenient parking for refugees and migrants,’” Mitsotakis said.
In the interview, Mitsotakis blamed those Eastern European EU members that refused to take their share of refugees and migrants from Greece and Italy.
Turkey uses refugees and migrants as an argument in bargaining with the European Union, said Mitsotakis.
Greece was the main gateway into the European Union for more than a million people fleeing conflict in 2015–16 that involved Syria and Iraq. At that time, 211,000 migrants crossed the border in a single month, the Voice of America reported.
The Greek island of Lesbos, as well as some others, are the main destination for migrants. They’re also natural barriers preventing migrants from crossing to Europe’s mainland.
Migrant and refugee arrivals from neighboring Turkey have risen again, and more than 37,000 people are crammed into facilities on Greek islands that operate far beyond their capacity.
This year, about 44,000 refugees arrived from Turkey to Greek islands, which represents a 30 percent increase compared to the previous year, according to The New Humanitarian.
The agency reported that “there are now more than 96,500 refugees and migrants in Greece, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR.”
To alleviate the situation, the Greek government, which took office in July, enacted a new asylum law in October that will accelerate processing asylum requests as well as return to Turkey those whose who are denied asylum. The basis of returning refugees to Turkey is the 2016 EU–Turkey deal.
The main purpose of the EU–Turkey deal was to prevent migrants from crossing from Turkey and to reduce human trafficking. The deal was partially successful as the influx of migrants entering European countries dropped in the beginning. However, Greece was able to send to Turkey only a small number of its refugees.
There are currently 3.5 million refugees in Turkey. The European Union provides financial help to Turkey to cover its costs of hosting refugees. The EU–Turkey deal is set to expire at the end of 2019, and a new agreement is being negotiated.
On Nov. 20, the Greek government announced plans to shut overcrowded refugee camps on islands and replace them with more restrictive holding centers. Among them is Moria refugee camp on Lesbos that was built to accommodate about 3,000 people, but now as many as 15,000 people live there, according to EuroNews.
According to the Greek government, the majority of refugees arriving in Greece are economic migrants, while the UNHCR claims that “85 percent of people arriving are from Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, or other countries experiencing violent conflict,” according to The New Humanitarian.
“Welcome in Greece are only those we choose. Those who are not welcomed will be returned,” Mitsotakis said. “We will permanently shut the door to illegal human traffickers, to those who want to enter although they are not entitled to asylum.”
The government wants to move up to 20,000 people to the mainland by the end of the year and expects that new facilities will be ready by July 2020.
Doctors Without Borders raised concerns over the new centers on Nov. 22, saying they may provide better living conditions but could eventually turn into prisons for people who seek safety and are already trapped “in an endless drama.”
People detained there won’t have the freedom to exit the facilities, they said, while nongovernmental organizations will have no access inside.
Reuters contributed to this report.