The Greek islanders in the eastern Aegean who have helped thousands of refugees under adverse conditions are “heroes,” according to the European Commission’s First Vice President Frans Timmermans.
In an interview with Sunday’s Kathimerini ahead of his visit to Greece on Monday, Timmermans said that, despite being under immense pressure, the mayors and residents of the islands are doing everything in their power to help refugees.
Timmermans, who has described the situation on the islands as “unacceptable,” expressed concern over the difficulty the Greek government has in absorbing EU funds – around 1 billion euros – for infrastructure to shelter some 50,000 refugees.
“We are faced with a series of problems,” he said, adding that that the Commission’s experience “has shown that it’s hard to get the support we provide in the spot where it is needed most.”
Timmermans, who was one of the main architects of last year’s deal between the EU and Turkey to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, said that people whose asylum applications have been processed should be returned to Turkey as stipulated in the agreement.
But with just 1,600 returns having taken place since 2016, Timmermans said that “this doesn’t happen enough.”
He refrained from placing blame on either Greece or Turkey but insisted that the system must not be changed.
Migrants, he said, must stay on the islands, despite the difficulties, because their transfer to the mainland would send a wrong message and create a new wave of arrivals.