Greek court rules migrants must no longer be detained on Aegean islands in ‘big worry’ for EU
Refugees and migrants who cross by boat from Turkey to Greece’s Aegean islands must be allowed to travel on to the mainland, a Greek court has ruled, raising concerns about a fresh wave of asylum seekers to Europe.
The ruling comes two years after border closures and a controversial deal with Turkey shut down the Balkan migration route.
It could act as an incentive for refugees, including Syrians fleeing recent attacks by regime forces, to head for Greece with the aim of reaching northern Europe.
The decision was met with fury, however, by the 15,000 asylum seekers who have been stuck in camps on the islands for up to two years. The ruling does not apply retrospectively and so they will not be allowed to leave until their applications have been considered – a tortuously long process. Under the new ruling new arrivals may be able to effectively jump the queue and go straight to the mainland.
Protests and riots have broken out in the camps in the past and container cabins and other structures have been set on fire amid rising tensions with authorities.
“These people have already been exposed to extreme levels of suffering and they have received this news with anger and indignation,” said Luca Fontana, a member of Medecins Sans Frontieres who works on Lesbos, where the Moria migrant camp holds three times more people than it was built for.
“This decision only applies to the new arrivals and not to the thousands of people who have been trapped for months, sometimes years, on the Greek islands. This may lead to further tensions in already tense places like the overstretched Moria camp.”
The ruling by Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, affects asylum seekers who reach the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Samos, Kos, Chios, Rhodes and Leros.
It was handed down in response to a challenge launched by the Greek Council for Refugees, which argued that it was illegal and inhumane to keep migrants and refugees cooped up on the islands, which lie just a few miles off the Turkish coast.
The court found no "serious and overriding reasons of public interest and migration policy to justify the imposition of restriction on movement” of asylum seekers.
The court said that newly-arrived refugees must not be detained in squalid, overcrowded camps on the holiday islands but allowed to continue by ferry to the port of Piraeus, near Athens.
Yiannis Balafas, a deputy migration minister, said the ruling would “create some difficulties” and “create a new situation” for migrants who arrive from now on.
Migrants and refugees who make it to the Greek mainland could try to reach Western European countries such as Germany, which took in nearly a million asylum seekers, although the journey will be much harder than in 2015.
Border controls have been strengthened and fences built along frontiers by countries like Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. There is also concern about whether migration centres on the Greek mainland will be able to handle a fresh influx of people.
“Without coordination, alongside systems in place to host these refugees in accommodation on the mainland, the risk is real that we would once again see thousands of refugees camped out at Piraeus port, homeless and with nowhere to go,” said Jana Frey of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organisation.
In Brussels, an EU official told Reuters the court’s decision was “a big worry”.
While the number of asylum seekers crossing to the Aegean islands is nowhere near as high as during the peak of the crisis in 2105, arrivals have increased in recent months
They are up 27 percent this year compared with the same period in 2017.
The court’s ruling, which may be subject to a challenge by the government, will do nothing to ease the suffering of asylum seekers living in metal containers and flimsy tents in the island camps, NGOs said.
“People there should be swiftly transferred to mainland Greece and out of such unacceptable living conditions,” said Irem Arf of Amnesty International.
“This ruling also highlights the disproportionate responsibility shouldered by some Greek islands compared to other European regions.”