As pressure due to overcrowding continues to build at reception centers for migrants on the islands of the eastern Aegean, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepted a request by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that Turkey take back migrants from the Greek mainland as well as the islands, Kathimerini understands.
During a joint press conference with Erdogan on Thursday, Tsipras declared that “new measures have been agreed for cooperation in the context of the European Union-Turkey agreement,” referring to a deal signed between Ankara and Brussels in March 2016 to curb human trafficking across the Aegean.
Tsipras’s comments spurred much speculation about what those measures might be.
It appears that they would involve triggering the return of migrants to Turkey, a process that has largely halted as new arrivals often lodge applications for asylum, a lengthy process.
Thousands of migrants, particularly those deemed to be the most vulnerable such as children, pregnant women and the elderly, have already been transferred from cramped facilities on the islands to the mainland. But conditions remain overcrowded at the island camps amid a constant stream of new arrivals from neighboring Turkey.
What remains unclear is whether officials in Brussels have approved the deal; as it stands, it would basically undermine the basis of last year’s EU-Ankara agreement, according to which migrants should remain on the islands until a decision has been reached on their status (whether they are considered to belong to vulnerable groups meriting priority treatment, to be granted asylum etc).
In recent comments, Dutch Ambassador in Athens Caspar Veldkamp expressed concerns about the prospects of mass relocations to the mainland if returns are not being made to Turkey, noting that this could undermine the EU-Turkey deal and encourage human smugglers rather than averting them.
For the leftist-led government, however, moving migrants from cramped facilities to mainland camps would appease those in the party concerned about inhumane conditions on the islands.
As winter looms, and hundreds of migrants continue to live in tents around the reception centers, Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas has conceded that he could not rule out the risk of people dying from hypothermia.
In an interview with Der Spiegel that was published on Friday, Mouzalas said that authorities were making preparations to ensure that island camps are ready to deal with plunging temperatures. Everything should be in place by December 15, he said.
“The key though is the number of new arrivals,” he said, adding that if there is no large increase in numbers “then we are well prepared.” Authorities might reserve some rooms at local hotels if necessary, he said.