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In an interview with InfoMigrants, Greek Minister of Migration Notis Mitarakis spoke about plans to get tougher on migration, new asylum laws and tighter border controls. He denied allegations of migrant pushbacks.
The Moria camp on Lesbos burned down close to two months ago, focusing the world's attention on the Greek island hosting the largest number of asylum seekers of the migrant hotspots. The situation appeared chaotic, with more than 12,000 people sleeping on the streets and in a supermarket carpark for days before the majority of them were moved to a new tent camp.
Marion MacGregor, InfoMigrants: What was the role of the Greek army in providing essentials like food and medical services to the asylum seekers?
Notis Mitarakis, Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum: When we had the fire in Lesbos we were successful to have an uninterrupted supply of food, water and medical (supplies) even in the four days that people had to sleep rough in the streets before they moved to the new camps. Unfortunately, the camp was burnt by people residing within the camp. The police have arrested six residents of the camp for causing the fires, fires that could have put thousands of lives at risk. And I think it’s important to note that. When people come to our country and apply for asylum, they need to respect the country they’re in, they need to respect our laws and our regulations.
I have to say that this is one of the first instances in global history that within four days a new camp for 10,000 people was created from scratch to minimize the number of days people had to stay outside the camp. I think it’s important to note that the evacuation happened with no injuries and no casualties.
The new facility in Lesbos doesn’t provide sufficient protection against the winter weather. We saw this after the first heavy rains after the summer: there are not enough toilets for the number of people and there are still no showers. We’re in a global pandemic in which personal hygiene is more important than ever, so when will these problems be addressed?
We have enough toilets, according to international standards, for a temporary camp. We do have shower facilities, they're already working. The European Union is about to award the contract for additional investments in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, ed. note). We have awarded the contract for additional anti-flooding work.
You have to understand that when some people burn a camp there are no stand-by camps available. Countries do not come with stand-by camps of this magnitude. I think the ability to construct it within days has been admirable. The ability to have a properly operating camp within two months has been a very successful attempt by the Greek government and international organizations in tackling the crisis.
Some people caused the fire because they thought that, because of the fire, they would automatically get transferred to other European Union countries. Obviously that couldn’t work.
Refugees must take the initiative
In the camps and in Victoria Square in Athens we saw a lot of people who were very ill, including children. Doctors have told us that the situation is critical. What are you doing to improve that situation?
There is no one in Victoria Square today and there is no situation which is critical. There have been some people that were unable to find work and housing. These people have been offered some form of temporary accommodation.
Greece does not provide social housing. That does not just affect the migrants, it affects the entire population. We don’t have a social housing policy. We do provide recognized refugees with the ability to find a house and apply for rent subsidy which is available to them. But they also need to apply and find a job and work. We don’t provide life-long benefits to people not working.
So does that mean that the people from Victoria Square have been moved to the camps?
They have been moved, some of them, to the temporary camps. But we don’t provide social housing, as I mentioned. It is their responsibility to find a house. And we are supporting them with rent, but they need to take that initiative.
When you say you’re supporting them with rent, do you mean through the HELIOS program, with the International Organization for Migration (IOM)?
The HELIOS project, the IOM project which is funded by the European Commission, on our approval is providing rent subsidies for 12 months for people finding their own independent housing. And there are 19 centers in Greece, which provide adequate help in finding and securing a property, and adequate help in finding a job.
But isn’t the HELIOS program unable to cope with the large number? Because Greece has granted tens of thousands of asylum seekers protection. The HELIOS program can’t help them all.
The HELIOS project is not full, people can still apply. Yes, I think it’s a reality of life, we don’t have unlimited capacity. My country is going through an economic crisis. We are unable to provide more.
Will the people who’ve been moved out of Victoria Square, who’ve been given other accommodation, receive a tax number then, so that they can enter that system?
They can receive a tax number on the day, and they have a social security number, and now we’re actually automating the tax number so people will be able to get it automatically. But people who don’t have it now, they can go to a tax office and they get it on the same day.
Asylum law on 'safe countries' under review
Also, for people who cannot stay in Greece, it is always open to them to apply for voluntary return to their country of origin with financial support that the IOM is providing. Maybe some people thought that they will come to Greece and they will find a big house, a job for life and unlimited support. Maybe that’s not the reality. Maybe some people may choose to go back. There are people that are choosing to go back.
Well, the fact that Greece has granted protection to so many people, that suggests I guess that the majority – more than half at least – are fleeing persecution and they can’t return to their countries. Wouldn’t you agree?
No, Afghanistan -- for example -- has many safe areas and there is a government there and people can choose to go back to their country, not necessarily to the village where they were born, but maybe to other parts of the country. Many countries have problems but not throughout the country. And many people have come through safe countries of transit where they were very safe before coming to Greece. And we’re actually reviewing our legislation, whether we should be providing asylum to people who come through countries where they’re very safe.
Closed camps on the islands
There’s been some confusion as a result of different reports about plans for the islands over the past 12 months or so. Could you clarify: Will there be closed camps on Lesbos, Samos and Chios?
There will be closed controlled centers in all the camps. These camps will have double fencing, they will have a secure gate. Asylum seekers will be allowed to exit and enter using a card and a fingerprint at a dedicated time through the day. Camps will be closed at night – it’s a policy we are already implementing in the temporary camp in Lesbos. And also the camp will have a fully closed ‘pre-removal section’ for the people that have had final decisions and need to be returned to their countries of origin.
So will lawyers, will NGOs, will journalists be allowed to go into the camp? What’s the definition, more precisely, of a closed camp?
The camps will have rules, so if you are a lawyer, you have an appointment and you register and there’s a specific person waiting for you, you will be admitted. If you are an NGO and you have a card which identifies you as a member of the NGO and you have been through the register, of course you can go in.
And if you as a journalist want to visit the camp, you have to tell us, we will give you a day pass and you will visit the camp. But not anybody walking in or walking out would be allowed without a control, like you would expect in any building in the European Union.
And why is the security necessary?
Because first of all, we had a lot of violence within the camps. It’s very important to protect the residents of the camps and also it’s very important to provide the rules in an organized community.
Are your constituents, the local people of Greece, the people of Chios, becoming impatient because of the social problems that migration has caused for them and for the country, and does this put you in a difficult position?
There is a fatigue. We have been through a very big wave of migratory flows since 2015 and Europe needs to understand that there have been five islands that took most of the pressure in the last few years, not for Greece but for the entire European continent. And the capacity of islands with 50,000 people to host 5-10,000 refugees, you understand, it’s not easy.
For hospitals that were created for the local population, for them to have 20, 30, 40 percent more population, for the schools that were built for the size of local communities, to be expected to cope with double the number of students, that’s not very easy for any community to cope with.
What are you going to do to resolve this antagonism, this 'fatigue' as you call it?
We have taken a stance, that we have increased our border protection, we don’t want to be the gateway for Europe for traffickers and smugglers to bring people into Europe. And therefore our police, our army, our coastguard, in full compliance with what you would expect from a Western European country, we are protecting our sea and land borders.
No pushbacks from Greece
Allegations that Greek authorities and Frontex staff have been involved in so-called pushbacks of migrants have been backed up now by video and satellite imagery and numerous eyewitness accounts. Frontex is investigating the claims. I understand that Greece has launched an internal inquiry. Are you still ruling out that Greek authorities were involved?
I do rule out that Greek authorities are involved. We have cost the smugglers around 100 million euros this year because of the fact that we’re protecting our borders and there’s a lot of money to be made in creating propaganda. It’s clear that we are protecting our borders – yes, absolutely we are protecting our borders, but we are protecting our borders in line with what international law and European law expects us to do.
Actually I think there is already a letter dated October 27 from Frontex saying there is no allegation of pushbacks from Greece. And I am very happy that further investigation is taking place so that we can finish with this debate very soon.
However your Prime Minister has pointed out that Turkey is a safe country. Does that assessment change the issue of whether migrants can be turned around justifiably?
It has changed the approach which we will be having with regard to asylum decisions. People that are coming to Greece from a safe country, under the asylum law, their claims could be inadmissible. This is something we’re exploring.
But how seriously does Greece take its obligations to first examine the application for asylum before deciding on that?
It will, but the inadmissibility test questions whether somebody should be applying in Greece or not, subject to whether he’s at risk in the neighboring country. And if somebody comes from the east and he comes to Turkey and he’s not at risk in Turkey, then he should not be applying to Greece for asylum.
Greece has been calling for solidarity from European Union partners. Are you happy with the new EU Pact on Migration?
There’s still a lot of work to be done. I think it’s positive that there’s an emphasis on border protection, there is an emphasis on common European returns. I think it’s very critical to discern between economic migrants and refugees under the Geneva Convention, I think that’s very important to do. I think there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done on the level of solidarity. We cannot expect all the frontline states to take all the pressure of migratory flows.
InfoMigrants is a news and information site for migrants to counter misinformation at every point of their journey. It is a collaboration led by France Médias Monde, Deutsche Welle, and the Italian press agency ANSA.