Greece is poised to transfer thousands of refugees from overcrowded camps on its Aegean islands amid escalating tensions in the facilities and protests from irate locals.
The leftist-led government said unaccompanied minors, the old and infirm would be among the first to be moved as concerns mounted over the viability of a landmark EU-Turkey deal to stem migrant flows.
“The situation on the islands is difficult and needs to be relieved,” deputy minister for European affairs, Nikos Xydakis, told the Guardian. “Accommodation on the mainland will be more suitable. We will start with transfers of those who are most vulnerable always in the sphere of implementing and protecting the EU-Turkey agreement.”
Acknowledging that camp conditions were far from ideal, Xydakis blamed the backlog in asylum applications on the EU’s failure to dispatch promised staff and push ahead with an agreed relocation scheme to other parts of the continent.
“We were promised 400 experts in asylum procedures but so far only have around 29 on the islands. We are continuing to recruit and look for more staff but it is not easy,” he said. “The deal is not only in the hands of Turkey but Europe … some EU states are not respecting but neglecting their responsibilities.”
In the three months since Britain voted to leave the EU, the bloc had become ever more fractious, with central European and Balkan members increasingly pursuing their own agenda. “In the post-Brexit debate of how Europe will work, ‘flexible solidarity’ has become the new key phrase,” he said. “If, in so many EU summits it has been agreed that the refugee crisis is a European problem then the solution to resolve it should be collective … allowing Greece to become [a holding pen for refugees] is absolutely unacceptable.”
The operation, expected to be put into motion this week, comes as Ankara warns the pact will not hold if Brussels fails to honour its pledge to allow Turks visa-free travel to the bloc. In a fiery speech before the newly reconvened parliament at the weekend, Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave his clearest signal yet that the six-month-old agreement was in danger of collapse because of continued stalling of visa liberalisation. Under the plan, Turkey’s 80-million strong population was to be given access to Europe’s border-free Schengen travel area in October.