The EU-Turkey refugee deal is not going to plan. That has less to do with Turkey, and more with Greece. The deportation and resettling of refugees has been sluggish. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.
Turkey has threatened to no longer adhere to its refugee deal with the European Union if its citizens do not receive visa-free entry into the bloc by October. The question officials in Brussels are now asking is: Do we need the refugee deal, and is it even working?
The answer to this question is not clear. The number of asylum-seekers and migrants who have traveled from Turkey to Greece has indeed dropped dramatically since March 20. But experts say that is because the EU's asylum policy relies on the closing of the Balkan route, which has a deterring effect on migrants.
The conditions in Greek camps like those on the islands of Idomeni and Lesbos have also acted as a deterrent. The prospect of being sent from those camps back to Turkey has clearly discouraged many refugees from making the expensive and dangerous crossing.
Few deportations thus far
The number of actual deportations from so-called "hot spots" - the registration centers on Greece's Aegean islands - to Turkey is thus far lower than the architects of the refugee deal had described back in March. From April to the end of July, exactly 468 people have been sent back to Turkey from Greece.
At the EU-Turkey summit, European officials who prepared the deal had spoken of thousands of deportations.
EU member states are set to send up to 4,000 officials to Greece to assist the country's overwhelmed government workers. The two responsible EU authorities, the Frontex border protection agency and the EASO asylum agency, are calling for the necessary personnel from the bloc's member states. Currently, 61 translators, 92 asylum experts, two deportation experts and 66 border protection officials have been sent to Greece.
The procedures in Greece, which are supposed to lead to Syrian civil war refugees and migrants who entered the country illegally being deported to Turkey, is taking much longer than expected. At the closing of the EU-Turkey summit, EU officials talked about a few days or weeks. It is four months later and the preliminary registration of asylum applicants has just finished. Now those seeking asylum can officially register and begin the interview process. Only then will authorities decide whether or not to grant asylum.
Waiting for Greece
Refugees have not been moved from the islands onto mainland Greece since March 20. Instead, they remain in the 9,399 so-called "hot spots." Greek authorities said on Monday that 57,115 people have completed their preliminary registration for asylum. In the first months of the year, Greek asylum authorities completed 588 applications - 410 were rejected, 178 were accepted.
If Turkey decides to no longer accept the rejected asylum applications, it would have little immediate impact on the ground. Only the psychological effect of such a decision on refugees and migrants currently waiting in Turkey would be of concern to the EU. They could feel encouraged and still head for Greece, even if they cannot continue to western Europe from there.
Sluggish resettlement within the EU
The direct resettlement of "obviously vulnerable" people from Greece to other EU states is only taking place to a limited extent. Just 2,681 people have been resettled since last summer. The resettlement of nearly 12,000 people had been assured. But it has been a sluggish process, because the accepting states' selection process for those in consideration for resettlement is very slow.
The mayor of Kos, capital of the island of the same name, warned in a letter to the Greek government of the consequences of a further wave of refugees. "It would be a disaster for our efforts to limit losses in the tourism industry," Giorgos Kyritsis wrote to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Greece's refugee minister, Yiannis Mouzalas, suggested a new plan to Germany's mass-circulation "Bild" newspaper, should Turkey renege on the refugee deal. "We do not need a Plan B," answered EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva. "We have a Plan A in action now."
Public health authorities: Close Greek camps
The conditions in Greece's temporary camps may act as a deterrent to future refugees. They are not up to international standards - that is not just according to NGOs, but to the Greek government itself. The Greek Center for Disease Control inspected 16 camps at the beginning of July. The authorities recommended all the camps be closed due to unsanitary conditions and water supply.
The situation in Greece would likely worsen if Turkey backs out of the refugee deal. Or would the conditions in Greece and the closed Balkan route serve as enough of a deterrent to keep migrants in Turkey? EU officials in Brussels are not the only ones asking themselves that question.