Thousands to be moved from Greek island camps to make space in case of mass arrivals.
Children walk past the remains of burned-out tents after an outbreak of violence at the Moria migrant centre on Lesbos. Aid groups say conditions at the camps on Greek islands are ’shameful’ © Reuters
Michael Peel in Brussels September 14, 2018
Thousands of migrants will be moved from Greek island camps within weeks to ease chronic overcrowding and make space if Syrians flee from an assault on rebel-held Idlib province, under plans being discussed by Brussels and Athens.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s migration commissioner, is due to meet senior Greek officials next week including Alexis Tsipras, prime minister, to hammer out a plan to move an initial 3,000 people.
The proposal is primarily aimed at dealing with what 19 non-governmental groups on Thursday branded “shameful” conditions at the island migrant centres. The strategy also dovetails with contingency planning in case Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed regime launches a full-scale offensive to retake Idlib and triggers an exodus of refugees to Greece via Turkey.
The numbers in the planned first Greek migrant transfer would go only partway to easing the island overcrowding — and they are just a small fraction of the several million people estimated to be gathered in the Syrian opposition enclave on the Turkish border.
“It’s important to get those numbers down,” said one EU diplomat of the Greek island camps. “If we have mass arrivals in Greece, it’s going to be very tough. There is no spare capacity.”
Syria’s Idlib awaits major assault The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said this week that 30,000 people had been displaced from their homes by air and ground attacks by the Syrian regime and its allies in the Idlib area, while a full assault could drive out 800,000.
Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, this week warned that the “impending humanitarian disaster” in Idlib must be a “deep and direct concern to us all”.
17,000 Number of migrants crammed into camps designed for 6,000 The European Commission wants to help Athens accelerate an existing programme to send migrants to the Greek mainland and provide accommodation there to ease the island overcrowding, EU diplomats say.
The commission said it was working with the Greeks to move 3,000 “vulnerable” people whom Athens has made eligible for transfer, in many cases because they have already applied for asylum and are awaiting the results of their claims.
Migrant numbers in the island camps have climbed this year, in part because of the time taken to process asylum cases. More than 17,000 are crammed into facilities with capacity of barely 6,000, the NGOs said on Thursday, adding that Moria camp on the island of Lesbos was awash with raw sewage and reports of sexual violence and abuse.
“It is nothing short of shameful that people are expected to endure such horrific conditions on European soil,” the NGOs said in a statement.
Mr Avramopoulos, the EU migration commissioner, told reporters on Thursday he knew there were “problems right now, especially in the camp of Moria”. The commission was doing “everything in our power” to support the Greek authorities operationally and financially, he added.
Recommended The FT View The editorial board The high price of Syria’s next disaster “Money is not an issue,” he said. “Greece has had and will continue having all the financial support to address the migration challenges.
” The Greek government has already transferred some asylum seekers to the mainland. It has urged the EU to give it more funds and support.
EU diplomats say the effect of the Idlib conflict on the Greek situation is hard to judge. One uncertainty is whether Ankara would open its frontier to allow people to escape. Even if civilians do cross the border, it is not certain that they would try to move on to the EU: Turkey already hosts more than 3.5m Syrian refugees.
The EU secured a 2016 deal with Turkey under which Brussels agreed to pay €6bn in exchange for Ankara taking back migrants who cross from its territory to the Greek islands. The agreement has helped drive a sharp fall in Mediterranean migrant arrival numbers to a fraction of their 2015-16 highs.