Avramopoulos: Alleviating the situation on the Greek islands a ‘humanitarian imperative’

All Greeks and Europeans have a humanitarian imperative to alleviate the situation on the Greek islands, for the migrants as well as for the islands’ inhabitants, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said on Wednesday in Mytilene. The Commissioner had earlier visited the refugee and migrant camps in Moria and Kara Tepe on the island of Lesvos.

Avramopoulos visited the island with Greek Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, a senior official in the European Commission’s D-G ECHO service for humanitarian aid and Maarten Verwey, coordinator for implementing the EU-Turkey statement. They met with the head of the North Aegean regional authority Christiana Kalogirou, Lesvos Mayor Spiros Galinos, Chios Mayor Manolis Vournous and Samos Mayor Michalis Angelopoulos.

The Commissioner’s aim was to examine the problems that have arisen as a result of the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement at close hand. There are currently about 10,000 people stuck on the eastern Greek islands, pending the processing of their asylum applications.

Avramopoulos noted that Greece had already shown their humanity in the face of the refugee crisis and that no country should have to face such a crisis alone. “So it simply cannot be that refugees are left out in the cold, to brave the worst of winter without a roof over their heads. Solutions must be found today, not tomorrow, not next week, but now,” he said.

The EU will continue to stand by Greece’s side in providing those solutions, the Commissioner said, just as it has been doing till now. “With over 1.0 billion euros in financial support made available for Greece in the past two years, Greece is the biggest recipient of EU home affairs funding. And we are ready to provide more aid where needed,” he said.

“A lot of that financial support has gone to our international partners working within Greece and I would today call on those same partners to redouble their efforts to bring immediate aid to those in need here in the islands. This is not about politics. This is about responding operationally and pragmatically to a humanitarian imperative,” he added.

The Commissioner also called on all other EU Member States to continue stepping up the number of people they relocate from Greece and offer safe haven in their own countries. “The EU-Turkey statement is what allowed us put a stop to the tragic loss of life at sea, but managing the biggest refugee crisis Europe has ever seen, remains a collective European responsibility,” he noted.

He also pointed out the need to bring local populations on board and not alienate them:

“The reality is that solutions will only work in cooperation and with the assistance of the local authorities and the local populations here in the islands,” Avramopoulos said, expressing a message of gratitude for those dealing with the immediate impact of the refugee crisis and reassuring them that the situation was temporary.

“I am confident that space will be found for the winterised UNHCR tents, financed by the European Union, to be set up as a temporary, humanitarian action.

“This will not be forever. We will continue to stand side by side with you in working to decongest the islands, transferring the vulnerable people to the mainland, returning people who do not have a right to asylum and speeding up the processing of claims to return those people back to Turkey that can receive protection there.

“But in the meantime, we all have a moral duty to respond, urgently, to the humanitarian situation,” he said.

He also underlined the European Commission’s willingness to help islands overcome the problems and difficulties noting that every supporting measure that the government is discussing with the local authorities is welcomed.

Asked by the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) whether the “new space” concerned open camps or detention centres, Avramopoulos repeated that anything done would be temporary and the current situation will not last for ever.

“The detention centres will help in the better management of this issue. They will facilitate the processes for the returns, chiefly, with the proper functioning of the committees and services and the handling of phenomena of delinquency,” he said.

Mouzalas also commented, noting that the Commissioner had referred to the necessity of both new closed centres and open centres in order to tackle the crisis.

Referring to the need to support the islands, Avramopoulos said there would have to be action plans to promote growth and support islanders economically.

About non-governmental organisations working with the refugees and recent press reports about problems in the absorption of EU funding, Avramopoulos noted that a committee had been set up for the management of the funds, which was answerable to both Greece and Europe, while the issue was being monitored by the appropriate services.

“The NGOs must handle the money provided with transparency. There is control,” he said.

Mouzalas pointed out that the 1.0 billion euros referred to by Avramopoulos was available but had not yet been disbursed, while Greece had achieved a huge absorption rate of nearly 70 pct for emergency funds and roughly 12 pct for regular funding.

“We in Greece are doing our job and doing it very well. What must be highlighted in Europe is that of the 60,000 migrants and refugees that we were suddenly forced to accept when they were trapped here by the illegal closure of the borders, there are roughly 1,700 in tents,” he pointed out. The rest, he added, were in accommodation that was not luxurious but adequate.

He also noted that money had been given to the aid organisations and NGOs operating in Greece over the objections of the Greek government, which had stressed that it could not then have control over this money.

“We, with less money than that received by the NGOs and institutional organisations, have covered more than 70 pct of the needs. It is possible that the NGOs will be asked to undergo an audit,” he said.