The European Union's executive said on Thursday that member states should be allowed to send some asylum-seekers back to Greece from mid-March, in a step Brussels hopes will help restore the bloc's migration policies, which collapsed under a mass influx last year.
Under EU rules, the first country of entry is responsible for handling an asylum claim, but that system broke down last year in Greece, the main gateway to Europe for more than a million refugees and migrants.
Unable to cope, Greece let many of them pass through on their own to Germany and other wealthy EU states in defiance of the bloc's rules. That led countries along the route gradually to close their borders, stranding many in Greece, which struggled to offer them proper shelter.
The European Commission on Thursday said Greece has improved in hosting and registering arriving asylum-seekers.
It recommended that EU states be allowed to send back to Greece asylum-seekers who enter the bloc that way and make it deeper into Europe from mid-March onwards. The recommendation does not apply to those who have already made that journey.
“This will provide further disincentives against irregular entry and secondary movements, and is an important step for the return to a normally functioning … system,” the Commission's deputy head, Frans Timmermans.
The bloc's asylum policy and its zone of internal free travel both collapsed last year as an uncontrolled flow of migrants and refugees triggered bitter disputes between EU states on how to handle them.
These disputes remain unresolved and more than 62,000 people are still in Greece, even though an EU agreement with Turkey in March reduced the arrivals to a trickle.
The failure is in large part due to reluctance by EU states to take in people from Greece and Italy to help process their asylum requests and ease the burden on the two frontline states.
So far, fewer than 8,200 people have been moved from these two Mediterranean countries to other EU states under a plan that was supposed to cover 160,000 people and which expires next September. The Commission called on EU states to step up.
“Our aim is to relocate all those in Italy and Greece who are eligible for relocation within the next year,” said the bloc's migration chief, Dimitris Avramopoulos.
Brussels put additional conditions on returning people beyond March, saying Greece should give individual assurances of fair treatment for any returnees and that unaccompanied children not be sent back at all.
Obligatory quotas on refugees are now the focus of a tug of war between EU states seeking to reform their troubled common asylum rules.
The Commission said arrivals from Turkey to Greece stood at an average of 92 people a day since March, compared to thousands that were making at times making it in a single day before the deal with Ankara. It said 1,187 people have been deported from Greece to Turkey since March 2016.
Under the deal with Turkey, which looks fragile now due to a breakdown in ties following Ankara's crackdown in the wake of a botched military coup in July, Brussels also said it had spent 677 million euros of the 3 billion promised to help Syrian refugees living on Turkish soil.