A serious obstacle to the European Union-Turkey deal to return refugees has emerged as a growing number of migrants are applying for asylum in Greece, overwhelming the system.
The deportations from Greek islands that were due to take place Wednesday are not likely to go ahead as authorities try to get to grips with the rising rate of asylum applications. Police sources said that 95 percent of the 3,149 refugee and migrants on Lesvos have applied for asylum. Also, nearly 80 percent of 751 people on Samos have sought asylum status, as well as around 30 percent of the 1,776 on Chios.
Under the terms of the EU-Turkey agreement, which was passed into Greek law on Friday, local authorities have to process applications swiftly and can limit the appeals against rejections to just two weeks.
However, the personnel to deal with such a large number of applications is not in place at the moment, especially as it is expected that more applications will be filed by many of the roughly 52,000 refugees and migrants at around 31 reception centers around the country who are gradually realizing that their hopes of moving on from Greece are vanishing.
“On a daily basis, the Asylum Service has to register thousands of people, which is something that is far beyond its abilities,” said the government’s refugee crisis coordinating body.
Some help is expected to arrive on Monday, when 30 employees of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) are expected to travel from Athens to the islands. Greece is also expecting the EU to send more interpreters who can help interview asylum seekers.
Also next week, the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is expected to visit Lesvos to draw attention to the plight of refugees. Given the humanitarian nature of the visit, the Church of Greece’s Holy Synod did not raise any objections. It also invited Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, to accompany the pope when he visits the Aegean island. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is also due to be part of the group.
The pope is expected to visit on April 14-15, Greek government officials said.