Turkey will be receiving migrants from Greece for years to come due to lack of experts handling asylum cases, say officials familiar with the situation on the ground.
Nobody knows exactly how long it will take for the island to be completely evacuated, said Emmanouil Chatzichalkias, a lawyer working with migrants on the island of Lesbos, located in the Aegean Sea.
“There are flows from Turkey at the same time. They are coming every day.
“I suppose [it will take] at least a year for the people currently on the island [to be deported],” he said.
Lately, tensions have been building in the Eastern Aegean islands due to the extended amount of migrants who remain stranded following an EU–Turkish deal signed six months ago.
Both locals and migrants have become restless, demanding that procedures be expedited.
-Not enough asylum officers
“We don’t have enough asylum officers. We have, I think, four or five officers, two of them went to hospital [for being overworked]. Not more. Those are the ones who make the final decision,” Chatzichalkias said. “These people had to examine 80 cases per year until 2015. Now they have to examine that number of cases every two days.”
A Lesbos-based tourism company employee, who asked to remain anonymous as he not authorized to speak to the media, told Anadolu Agency that the European Union border agency Frontex had requested a collaboration with ferry owners in Lesbos for at least two more years -- with the possibility to extend their contract for an additional two -- in order to use their boats to send migrants back to Turkey.
Eleni Petraki, communications director at the Greek Asylum Service, told Anadolu Agency that “the number of asylum seekers on the islands has gone up by at least 600 percent in comparison to 2015.”
“Matching processing capacity in terms of staff to examine asylum claims is by definition a gradual process,” she added.
According to Petraki, “the Greek Asylum Service has increased its staff to 45 (up from only 5 in 2015), and is also being supported by police officers and European Asylum Support Office (EASO)-hired staff.”
“EU member states have been asked to nominate more experts to conduct interviews and issue opinions on asylum seekers, but the number of experts remains much lower than required,” Petraki added.
From the European Union’s perspective, EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri, also clearly states that more staff is needed in Greece.
“Our calls for experts from the EU are not always fulfilled,” he said.
“It is a very challenging situation. The cooperation between Greek and foreign personnel is very good but if we increase our staff, Greece will have to increase theirs,” Schembri added, explaining that EASO personnel can assist with the interview process of asylum applications but they do not have the mandate to make the final call. “This is up to Greek experts,” he said.
-'Asylum is not something that can be outsourced'
Greek spokesman for the government's crisis committee on migration Giorgos Kyritsis acknowledged the problem but added it was important to remember where Greece started from.
Lack of EASO personnel adds to the issue of the delayed procedure, the SYRIZA MP told Anadolu Agency.
"The European Union is not living up to the circumstances, in terms of the amount of specialists deployed in Greece," he added.
"Unfortunately, asylum is not something that can be outsourced and the Greek public sector is extremely limited in terms of hiring additional personnel. Also, these personnel need special training and certification in order to handle asylum requests," he concluded.
Adding to the chaotic situation in Lesbos, which accommodates almost double the number of migrants and refugees than its capacity permits, Chatzichalkias said that human rights were commonly being violated when migrants are declined asylum.
“I have seen that after the rejection [of the asylum request] they are calling them and saying: ‘We inform you in your language with the presence of an interpreter that your case is rejected and you have five calendar days to make an appeal.’
“We are meeting Pakistanis who are not aware that they have a date to make an appeal because there was no interpreter. They were just giving them papers without any signature,” the lawyer said. “If you make a decision regarding someone, that person, first of all, should sign it. Secondly, you have to explain their rights,” he added.
According to official government numbers, nearly 6,000 migrants and refugees are currently stranded in Lesbos, awaiting a final answer on their asylum and relocation requests. The island is capable of accommodating no more than 3,500 migrants.
Greece suffered a huge influx of refugees and migrants starting 2015 and after the EU–Turkey deal was signed in March, more than 14,000 people are stuck on Greek islands. Turkey has vowed to keep migrants from entering Greece but the flows continue, even though the numbers are significantly lower.
The deal states that migrants entering Greece illegally have to remain at their point of arrival until their case is processed. The only thing that keeps them from being deported is to seek asylum. If they can prove that they are fleeing war, odds are their asylum request will be accepted and then a process for relocation to another EU country will begin.