As pressure remains high on the Aegean islands – with thousands of migrants continuing to arrive and few leaving – European officials are urging the Greek government to accelerate the processing of asylum applications.
A handful of islands in the eastern Aegean – Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros – continue to bear the brunt of daily arrivals from neighboring Turkey.
And although those arrivals have decreased by 97 percent over the past year, after Ankara signed an agreement with Brussels to crack down on human smuggling across the Aegean, the pressure on those islands, and the local communities, remains high as thousands of migrants remained cooped up in substandard reception centers, many for months on end.
The growing despair of migrants at such centers has been highlighted recently by the tragic deaths of two Syrian men – one found hanging at the port of Piraeus last month and another who died on Monday from burns sustained when he set himself on fire on March 30.
A total of 30,565 migrants landed on the Greek islands from Turkey between March 20 last year and April 4 of this year, according to European Commission figures. In the same period, only 944 migrants were returned to Turkey in line with the Ankara-EU deal.
The average waiting time for migrants appealing against the rejection of their initial applications is six months. Of the 2,580 appeals that have been lodged by migrants on the islands over the past year, only 1,300 have received decisions (and of those decisions fewer than 100 are positive).
To accelerate the process, the European Commission has asked Greek authorities to increase the number of panels examining migrants’ appeals to 20 from the current 12, up from just five in January.
The pact signed between Ankara and Brussels in March last year foresees that number of panels as well as the creation of adequate reception centers on the Greek islands.
Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas has been underlining the need for “closed” centers on the islands to host migrants facing deportation while refugees awaiting the approval of asylum applications are to remain in the existing reception centers until their status is approved.
However, those plans have faced fierce opposition from local communities on the islands, particularly on Chios.