In mid-July, just days after New Democracy was elected to power, the government held a meeting on the immigration crisis with officials from the Greek Police, Coast Guard, Armed Forces and the Reception and Identification Service.
The meeting was called by the new general secretary for migration policy, reception and asylum, Patroklos Georgiadis. The Greek Police (ELAS) was represented by Police Lieutenant General Zacharoula Tsirigoti, inspector general for aliens and border protection, who retired shortly after, on July 23.
Addressing the meeting, Tsirigoti warned that a significant increase in arrivals in the coming months should not be ruled out.
“Turkey is exploiting the migrant crisis as a form of leverage in its relations with the European Union, but also on a bilateral level, with our country,” she stressed.
She also revealed that three meetings between Greek and Turkish officials that had been scheduled to take place in April, May and June at the Evros border between the two countries had been canceled by Turkey.
“This is a development that is of concern, as we consider these meetings an important tool of bilateral cooperation,” she told the gathering of officials in Athens.
Today, the first woman to reach the highest rank of the Greek Police speaks to Kathimerini about the complexity of the issues involved in managing migration.
“There are over 3 million refugees and migrants from Syria in Turkey today. The dismissals of state officials after the failed coup of 2016 and the staff shortages in Turkey’s public administration have resulted in deficient guarding of its sea and land borders with Greece,” Tsirigoti tells Kathimerini.
She adds that the recent spike in arrivals to Greece from Turkey is also related to Ankara’s demands for the creation of a “safe zone” inside Syria and the recent transfer of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Istanbul to towns across the sea from Lesvos and other islands in the eastern Aegean.
Ankara’s rhetoric has also escalated in recent days, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening earlier this month to “open the gates,” and release a new wave of refugees into Europe unless Turkey gets more international support, and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu recently confirming the removal of 100,000 refugees from Istanbul and their relocation on the coast further south.
According to Tsirigoti, “Turkey will open the floodgates just enough to cause problems for us but not to the extent of upsetting its relationship with Europe, from which it hopes to extract funds for managing the refugees and migrants on its territory.”
The retired lieutenant general argues that the migration crisis today is different to that in 2015. “We started with between 500 and 700 arrivals a day and reached 10,000 in 2015.
There were no reception and identification centers and there wasn’t an EU-Turkey agreement, and the Balkan route was open,” she says. “Today, the main problem is delays in the asylum process, which results in migrants becoming trapped on the islands.”
One of the biggest mistakes of the existing system, Tsirigoti adds, is that asylum seekers receive the paper informing them whether their application has been accepted or rejected only when their temporary residence permit expires. “That can take up to two years,” she says.
Commenting on growing unrest over conditions at the Moria “hot spot” (as the reception and identification centers are known) on Lesvos, Tsirigoti stresses that the camp is hosting three times more migrants and refugees than the 3,500 it was designed to accommodate.
“The living conditions are determined by the pace of arrivals on the island. However many improvement are made, conditions deteriorate as soon as arrivals increase significantly,” she says.
Tsirigoti is also skeptical of a proposal to abolish the appeals process for rejected asylum applications, arguing that this will not necessarily speed up the procedure.
“The initial thought was, perhaps, that abolishing one stage of the procedure would speed up the processing of asylum applications. However, I am not at all certain that the administrative courts are structured in such a way so as to speed up the appeals,” she says.
Tsirigoti also dismissed recent reports of misappropriated catering funding, saying that the tenders for supplying camps with food were drawn up for an estimated number of migrants and refugees.
“Inflows are not steady. When you’ve put in an order for, say, 9,000 portions of food and the camp is hosting 8,500 people, you will still pay for 9,000 portions. Likewise, the following day may see the number of people grow to 10,000,” she argues.
Citing an unofficial briefing by officials from the former ministry for migration policy, she adds that a relevant investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) found no grounds for accusations of mismanagement.
On the subject of the slow pace of returns to Turkey, Tsirigoti explains that Greece has put forward a proposal for the creation of a European mechanism that would be better equipped to deal with the issue. She reveals that only between 900 and 2,000 migrants have been returned to Turkey since the 2016 deal with the EU was signed.
“Greece has the largest number of returns compared with the other member-states,” she adds, explaining that representatives of the Greek Ombudsman accompany the expelled migrants to the airport and very often take fresh asylum applications “from the airplane’s steps.”
“Just two weeks ago, there was a flight to return 30 Pakistani nationals to their country; 15 of them applied for asylum again before boarding,” says Tsirigoti, explaining how deportations are also held up by similar incidents.