A year of loneliness on Greek Islands: The EU-Turkey refugee agreement

However, apparently the process has been a shambles and the Greek authorities are overwhelmed.

A man holds up a Greek national flag during a demonstration in support of Greece (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man holds up a Greek national flag during a demonstration in support of Greece
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Today marks almost the first anniversary of the highly controversial refugee agreement, signed on March 18, 2016 between the European Union (EU) and Turkey. The aim was to replace disorganized, chaotic and irregular migration flows by implementing controlling measures to create safe and legal pathways toward Europe from Turkey.
What has really happened until now? Undoubtedly, the EU-Turkey agreement has significantly slowed refugee flow into the Greek islands. Still, it would be far-fetched to claim that it effectively and fully stopped them. In fact, the agreement has turned the Greek islands into an “open air prison” where more than 15,000 people have become stuck. Despite the agreement, the Greek islands still see many refugees arriving on a daily basis. Since the beginning of 2017 alone, authorities have registered almost 2,000 refugees on several islands. However, neither the Greek government nor the EU seem to be capable of or willing to provide a minimum level of infrastructure for the refugees as they promised.
In April 2016, the EU confirmed that the procedures for refugees on the Greek islands would be completed within a few days. According to the plan, the Greek authorities would decide on the asylum applications together with the European officials in the fast-track procedure and then, while applicants eligible for refugee protection would be dispersed within the EU countries, the rest would be returned to Turkey.
However, apparently the process has been a shambles and the Greek authorities are overwhelmed.
One year after the completion of the deal, thousands of refugees in Greece are still waiting to be registered.
Greek courts refuse to recognize Turkey as a “safe third country” despite this being required by the EU. For this reason, only 745 migrants and refugees have been returned to Turkey between March and December 2016. So far 2,761 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Turkey to Europe. But according to a previous announcement of the EU, made in 2016, actually 18,000 genuine refugees were supposed to be given asylum and resettled in other European countries.
The increased number of migrants arriving on the Greek islands is putting pressure on overcrowded camps. According to the Save the Children, the camps had already doubled in number and were overcrowded in the autumn of 2016. Among the 15,000 refugees held on the islands of Kos, Samos, Lesbos and Chios in closed camps, around 5,000 are children. For the most part, children face depressing and unsafe conditions and are deprived of education opportunities.
On the other hand, the escalation of the refugee crisis on the islands can further aggravate economic problems for Greece, whose economy has just started to recover from debt crisis. Particularly, the tourism sector on the islands of Samos, Kos and Lesbos, which are close to Turkey, are suffering. In addition, that can create a suitable environment for the acceleration of social unrest. Needless to say, Greece by itself is not able to sustain all these people.
Will the Turkey-EU agreement collapse? Currently the situation is fragile, and the agreement might collapse any time due to the tension between the two sides. Hence, the EU should take a comprehensive approach to tackle the current crisis on the Greek islands and eventually the mainland, if possible refugee flows carry on in case of a collapse of the agreement.
Greece urgently needs to increase the capacity of its asylum service to process the claims of the current refugees and migrants on the islands.
Such an increase can also contribute to the improvement of the horrifying living conditions on the islands.
Furthermore, the EU needs a distribution scheme within the member states to act in solidarity with Greece and Italy and share their economic and humanitarian burdens.
Thus, a potential racist backlash against the refugees and a dramatic rise in right-wing populism, both of which are indeed threatening core European values, can be averted.
The author is a lecturer at the University of Mainz, Germany.