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Greece’s asylum challenge – where is the EU?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016  | 

According to the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) latest statistics, there are 62,673 refugees and migrants currently in Greece.

Tensions on Greece’s islands continue to escalate as reception centers on Lesvos, Chios, Samos, and Kos are stretched well beyond capacity. While the number of migrants arriving to Greece dropped significantly since the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, the islands continue to see a steady number of arrivals, with approximately 1,970 people arriving in November alone. Greece’s Migration Minister, Yiannis Mouzalas, estimated the total number of asylum requests at 63,000 – 13,000 on the islands and 50,000 on the mainland.

Greece’s asylum service is understaffed and overstretched. Last fall, the European Union pledged to send staff to Greece to assist in processing the overwhelming number of asylum applications. Assistance from the EU, however, has failed to materialize. Out of the expected 400 EU staff, fewer than 40 have arrived. The slow review process means that Greece is unable to quickly deport migrants back to Turkey as envisioned in Europe’s migrant deal, thus preventing Athens from relieving pressure on its Aegean islands. Coupled with Europe’s stalled pledge to relocate refugees from Greece, this has left an increasing number of people stranded in dire conditions.

It is against this backdrop that the UNHCR recently presented the European Union with a paper – “Better Protecting Refugees in the EU and Globally” – slamming Brussels’ failure to effectively respond to the migration crisis. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said:

“Last year, Europe failed to implement a collective, managed response to the challenges posed by the arrival of over a million refugees and migrants…It is important that EU member states show, through collective action, that Europe is capable of engaging effectively and in a principled manner with refugee movements…Europe is stronger when it addresses its challenges together.”

The proposals presented in the UNHCR’s paper include faster and simpler asylum procedures, a common policy on unaccompanied and separated children, a distribution mechanism to fairly distribute the burden across the EU, and an efficient system of returning migrants not in need of protection.

The migration challenge facing the EU cannot fall on the shoulders of one or two front-line countries. Europe must step forward as a unit and demonstrate solidarity with countries like Greece and Italy that are bearing the brunt of the migration crisis. A good first step would be to provide Greece with the staff it needs to bolster its asylum service. As President Obama said during his recent visit to Athens, “Only a truly collective response by Europe and the world can ensure that these desperate people receive the support that they need. Greece cannot be expected to bear the bulk of the burden alone.”

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