Several days after DW aired a video showing appalling conditions Moria’s migrant camp in Lesvos, Greece, the EU coordinator for the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement on migration Maarten Verwey responds to New Europe’s questions, blaming the opposition of the competent authorities.
“The Commission has made the funding available to ensure appropriate accommodation for all. However, the Commission cannot order the creation or expansion of reception capacity, against the opposition of the competent authorities,” said Verwey on Christmas Eve. According to the above, the EU coordinator puts the blame on Athens and the local authorities in the islands of Lesvos and Chios.
The EU executive admits that the key problem in Greece’s migration problem remains the “severe overcrowding of the hotspots”, suggesting that “a sustainable solution requires a more effective return policy”.
According to the latest report published by the Greek Ministry for Migration, 7,373 migrants and refugees are currently stranded on the island of Lesvos. The official capacity in the island is less than half, of 3,253 persons, with Moria camp hosting 5,485 migrants that keep being hosted in unacceptable conditions of poor hygiene, as the recent reports show. Pregnant women and small children keep being hosted in unfit conditions.
Enough money, not enough done
According to the official data provided by the Greek authorities on 22 December, 13,663 migrants are currently on the islands, while Brussels has secured funding for bigger numbers, 15,000 migrants – 2,000 of which should be able to use the beds provided by apartments and hotels under the UNHCR rental scheme.
Just three days ago, the European Commission has awarded an additional €7 million in emergency assistance to Greece under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund to serve immediate needs for shelter, catering, hygiene and cleaning services in the Aegean islands and in mainland Greece.
But even if the money is there, the Greek government struggles with the creation of the positions funded, due to local opposition. Even the 2,000 positions of the UNHCR scheme, they are still 600 short of the target, even though the touristic season is well over at the moment for these islands.
In December, the Greek government extended the ability to post workers of the public sector or recruit staff under private law contracts against derogation from any other legislation until the end of 2018, but asylum application procedures are still not accelerating.
The Greek government is instead speeding up the transfer process of the migrants to the mainland, as a solution to overcrowding. Since August 2017, more than 15,000 asylum seekers and refugees have been transferred from the islands to the mainland, according to the data made available. 5534 were transferred from severe crowded Lesvos, while more migrants and refugees are expected to be moved from all islands.
Moreover, internal transfers within Lesvos are taking place as the accommodation capacity of the Kara Tepe camp has been extended by 56% since August 2017 and can now host up to 1250 migrants and refugees.
At the same time, Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros, the five islands most affected by migratory waves, will maintain their lower VAT regime for another six months, until the end of June 2018, as the finance ministry announced on December, after talks with Greece’s international creditors. The change came at the very last minute, as the Greek government had already legislated to raise the CAT on all the islands from 17 to 24 percent as of January 2018, aligning with the VAT regime in the rest of the country.
What was meant to be last winter’s biggest failure, the camps and facilities throughout Greece that were have not been prepared for bad weather on time, is not a “lesson learned” for 2017. The Greek authorities have been placing new containers, improving electricity connections and providing additional heating appliances and blankets. However, work is not even half done: In Moria 65 additional containers have been transferred of which 26 have already been placed; In Vial 34 new containers have been transferred of which 8 have already been placed, while the rest are expected to be placed following the recent court decision.
In Kos 17 additional housing units have been placed and in Leros 9 additional containers have been transferred and placed, while in Samos the solution chosen was the replacement of pop up tents by winterized family tents.
More capacity is difficult to defend against islanders
The creation of more pre-removal capacity in the islands has proved to be very difficult to convince the local population, but the lack of effective return policy and the slow asylum procedures especially at the appeal stage could be the only sustainable solution in the context of the EU-Turkey Statement.