At the end of October the Ministry of Migration Policy has decided to decongest 2000 people from overcrowded hot-spots in the Greek islands after weeks of pressure from civil society organisations’ warning that forthcoming winter will again claim lives due to dire conditions.
It was an unpopular decision that caused immediate reaction on behalf of European Union authorities. Soon after Vice-Commissioner Frans Timmermans made a swift visit to Athens where he proclaimed that Greek islanders are heroes but also warned “migrants must stay on the islands, despite the difficulties, because their transfer to the mainland would send a wrong message and create a new wave of arrivals”.
Despite Timmermans’ instructions against a possible pull factor, and amid political stalemate and acute managerial inefficiencies, decongestion has been the only realistic choice at the hands of Greek government. Approaching the end of November the Ministry has upgraded numbers to be removed from hot-spots to an extra of 5000 and at the beginning of November more than 3000 had already been transferred to Greece mainland and Crete island.
The Commission, surely informed on these developments, has not acted to stop transfers and the reason might be that as AFP reported during Erdogan’s visit in Athens on Dec 7th an agreement was reached “to accept migrant returns, including Syrian refugees, from the mainland and not just from the Aegean islands as previously agreed under a 2016 EU-Turkey pact”. No formal/public confirmation on behalf of the government has been delivered.
Still decongestion roll out has faced various difficulties mostly due to persistent absence of an administrative frame governing procedures and facilities. Furthermore because of the simple fact that arrivals in Greek islands still surpass removals from hot-spots. The slow pace of decongestion has force the Commission’s humanitarian branch DG ECHO to finance again hotel accommodation, an expensive and temporary measure, despite Timmerman’s negative remarks regarding transfers to the mainland.
Meanwhile the Ministry’s relation to hot-spot islands Mayors has hit an all time low during a crucial period, when improvement interventions at hot-spots can make a difference between life and death, as the Minister himself admitted in an interview with Der Spiegel on Dec 8th. Most important Chios, Lesvos and Samos, have taken initiatives to obstruct Ministry’s actions demanding that islands are not transformed to a buffer zone for EU externalization policy. Mayors seem to be mobilized by extreme negative sentiment and pressures on them within local communities as well as their negative political prospects due to forthcoming local elections in about a years time.
On Dec 11th Mayor of Lesvos took publicly and head on the Minister of Migration Mouzalas blaming him for delays and ineffectiveness that have caused intolerable conditions in Lesvos hot-spot Moria. “The Ministry announced that from 9/10 to 27/11, 3.515 have been transferred from Lesvos and other islands, choosing to hide arrivals on Lesvos only for October were 2260 and November 1983” he said. Mouzalas responded that the Mayor doesn’t allow actions to improve Moria by blocking pre-fab houses destined for Moria to exit the port of Mitilini. The Mayor and locals allowed those to arrive to Moria after they were reassured the equipment was not going to be used for creating a new facility on the island.
Chios municipality has taken the Ministry to court demanding the return of the property, which it owns, offered to the Ministry for the creation of local hot-spot Vial. The court has ordered suspension of the expansion works in the hot-spot until the hearing. Chios County Court rejected the request for the revocation of the decision to temporarily suspend the expansion works in the hotspot. Finally the court turned down Chios municipality interim measures request on Dec 19th. Still crucial time has been wasted.
On Dec 12th Greek media reported that a meeting between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Minister for Migration as well as a few other high rank government officials involved in the management of this stalemate has produced a decision to curb asylum procedures to minimum instances in order to accentuate deportation pace back to Turkey under EU-Turkey deal arrangements. Currently no Syrian found inadmissible has been forcefully returned to Turkey under EU-Turkey deal provisions.
This decision appears to reflect on a low profile document with proposals of the General Commission of the Administrative Courts sent to the Ministry of Migration Policy and other competent authorities, around mid of November, aiming to speed up asylum procedures. Proposed amendments, that the Ministry might push forward as legislation anytime, include re-determining the final ruling after which the removal/deportation of an asylum applicant from the country is permitted/allowed, to be the one upon the dismissal of the appeal by the Appeal Committees instead of the procedure before the Administrative Courts as it is today. It would be the second time the government slashes an effective legal remedy in order to protect viability of the EU-Turkey deal. First time on June 2016 the Ministry for Migration sidelined second instance committees when their composition proved unwilling to conform to political pressures aiming to influence towards a high quantity of inadmissible decisions.
The General Commission also proposed to remove the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a characteristic that provides access to vulnerability recognition due to frequent invocation by applicants. Further proposals include the President of the Appeal Commission to be given increased powers such as the power to dismiss appeals which he/she considers to be manifestly unfounded and the capacity to publish decisions with his / her signature only without the involvement of the other members and without necessarily including a detailed description of the minority opinion. Finally, it is proposed to abolish the individual information of the applicant for the notification of the decision and to replace it by simply publishing the decisions in public place, thus virtually abolishing the right to information and judicial protection.
The amendments are going to lead to a further decrease in the asylum seekers’ rights and guarantees in the asylum procedure. The aim of the proposed amendments is clearly the fast-tracking of asylum procedures and increase of deportations and removals to the detriment of individual’s rights and Greece’s international protection obligations.