Almost 30% fewer migrants in the Greek islands: “Tensions are reduced but camps remain overcrowded”

As a result of transfers to the mainland, deportations and increased border controls, the migrant population in the Greek islands decreased by 29.6% in the first six months of 2020. However, this figure, which Athens welcomes, hides, according to NGOs, is a reality. “still so sordid” in overcrowded camps.

For the Greek islands, it is time for many asylum seekers to go. More than 12,000 migrants, who previously lived in unhealthy conditions, left the five Aegean islands where there are camps (Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Chios) for six months, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi announced on Friday, August 7.

From 42,007, the migrant population, who mainly live in severely overcrowded reception and identification centers, increased to 29,579, the minister said. That is, a population decrease of 29.6% between January and July 2020. As of August 9, the number had further decreased according to official figures to 28,904 migrants (living in camps, but also in centers). detention centers, High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or other non-governmental organizations, etc.).

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To the authorities, this announcement sounds like a success, while the catastrophic living conditions in this part of Greece, stemming from tensions, violence and incidents, have been pointed out for several years by NGOs. ”Thanks to [notre] “We are turning a page on the migration problem,” Notis Mitarachi said, adding that this population decline was the result of a “balanced migration policy”, according to reports. by the English-language medium Greek City Times.

“Reduced tensions with locals”

These departures are felt on the ground. “There has indeed been a significant reduction in the number of migrants since January,” confirmed Astrid Castelein, UNHCR’s representative at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, who nevertheless assured that the occupants would remain well. beyond the acceptable limits: 13,603 migrants, in the Moria camp alone, while the sites were originally planned for 2,800 people.

“The positive point is the reduction of tensions with the local population,” says Astrid Castelein. In February, the Prime Minister’s announcement of the creation of closed centers had ignited the powders. Terrified by many years of coexistence with unhygienic camps in a narrow territory, the residents demonstrated against these centers, which led to the project ceasing. “The fact that there are fewer people helps to calm relations with the locals, even though there are still underlying tensions,” she adds, referring to the situation as a pressure cooker ready to explode at the slightest opportunity.

Puzzle for Athens, the issue of migrants has been the subject of strict action in recent months. The “balanced migration policy” praised by Minister Notis Mitarachi consists in particular of strengthening the Greek arsenal in the fight against illegal migrants. Starting with the strict control of the country’s borders, elevated to priority: “” Since March 1, it has been much more difficult to enter Greece illegally, “comments Astrid Castelein. In fact, the Greek Coast Guard no longer hesitates to use large means to shoot back the migrants’ boats that venture near the coast, some even perform “warning shots” with rubber bullets.

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These controls were stepped up in response to the opening in late February of the Turkish-Greek border crossing, which was unilaterally decided by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as blackmail against the European Union. In response to an influx of migrants in this area, the Greek authorities blocked it and have not released the pressure since.

New regulations were also applied by Athens to migrants already present in the territory. “The obligations to leave the territory of those who are denied asylum rights are more frequent and the deadlines shorter,” explains Astrid Castelein.

In July alone, about 1,030 migrants were expelled from Greece, either by force, “voluntarily” or as part of a European program aimed at relocating hundreds of refugees to minors in different countries, according to figures from the Ministry of Migration. Eighteen unaccompanied minors thus arrived in Belgium last week.

In particular, this population decline is explained by the long-awaited implementation of the camp’s decongestion plan, which experienced further delays following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictive measures imposed by the authorities. In June, authorities said they had transferred nearly 14,000 people from the islands to mainland Greece.

“You do not solve one problem by creating another”

While these transfers are welcome, NGOs on the ground condemn a major drawback: in order to make this policy feasible and welcome these people on the continent, in June the Greek authorities called on some 11,000 refugees to leave their current homes to requisition them. home for The new ones are coming.

“Many of them had no choice but to take to the streets,” explains Faris Al-Jawad, communications manager for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Greece. “Families and the sick are now in Victoria Square”, a park in central Athens.

The government can move people to the mainland, this way of removing the camps is not a viable solution. We do not solve one problem by creating another. ”, Takes offense against Faris Al-Jawad, who often travels between the capital and the camps on the islands, especially Moria’s “ where the situation is still so miserable. ” “Inclusion [qui ne cesse d’être prolongé dans les camps, NDLR] has worsened the mental state of many migrants. In addition, the 6,000 children who live there have disturbing attitudes: they wet the bed, they have nightmares and some have even attempted suicide “, reminds Faris Al-Jawad, uninterested in the authorities’ efforts. . “No, the situation has not improved.”

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The Greek authorities have also accelerated the treatment of asylum seekers, which amounted to 126,000 at the beginning of the year. Almost 100,000 files are still being processed.