Migrant crisis: Greece urges EU support for Aegean camp reduction plan

A boy rides a bicycle at the Souda camp for refugees and migrants, on the island of Chios (07 September 2016) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Greece argues that over-population is a big problem on islands such as Lesbos and Chios in the Aegean Sea

Greece has appealed to the EU to support its plans to reduce the population of overcrowded migrant camps on the Aegean islands.

The plea follows an EU announcement on Thursday that member states should be allowed to send some asylum seekers back to Greece from March 2017.

Under EU rules, the first country of entry usually handles an asylum seeker's claim.

But that system collapsed in 2015 when Greece was overwhelmed by new arrivals.

Most of the more than one million people who entered Europe last year did so through Greece, travelling from Turkey.

The numbers were so large that thousands were reported to have been allowed into the country without having their documents properly processed.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Greece says that emergency action is necessary to 'decongest' the islands

Other EU countries in response closed their borders, stranding about 62,000 migrants in Greece, which has found it difficult to provide them all with proper accommodation.

In a letter to the EU interior ministers and the EU Commission on Friday, Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said that migrant over-population remained a big problem on islands such as Lesbos and Chios in the Aegean Sea.

The letter said the Greek government believed that migrants from countries where there is a slim chance of getting asylum - Pakistan, Morocco and Algeria - should be transferred to "pre-removal centres in the mainland" where they will be kept under tight security before being returned to Turkey.

It says that such action "will only be short term" and will not affect those who have refugee status.

"Your support is requested to make the... emergency action possible, to help decongest the islands smoothly, effectively and immediately," the letter says.

Precise figures are difficult to obtain, but in November it was estimated that about 16,000 asylum seekers were living in camps on Greek islands.

There has been a dramatic fall in the numbers of migrants making hazardous boat journeys across the Aegean from Turkey to the Greek islands since March, when the EU signed a deal with Turkey to curb the influx.

But the processing of asylum claims is very slow and tensions have risen between migrants and local residents. In many cases, migrants are sheltering in squalid conditions in Greece.

A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

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