Greece has announced it will shut a number of its overcrowded refugee camps on its outer islands, and set up closed holding centres as the country on the forefront of the migration crisis in Europe hardens its stance towards asylum seekers.
The changes come amid growing scrutiny from aid agencies over the conditions many refugees are living under in the camps. One of the camps to be closed will be Moria on the island of Lesbos, where a nine-month-old baby died of “severe dehydration” last week.
Last month the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights said people were in a “struggle for survival” in the camps on the Aegean islands, following a five-day visit to the facilities.
At the time Dunja Mijatović called on the Greek government to urgently move asylum seekers out of the camps.
The government has said it wants to move 20,000 people to the mainland by the end of the year.
The numbers of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece this year have been the highest since the 2015-2016 influx when more than a million people fleeing conflict arrived in Europe.
The Greek government said on Wednesday it would tighten controls at the borders and speed up vetting procedures, as well as closing camps and opening new closed facilities to process new arrivals and those whose applications have been rejected.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the “closed pre-departure centres” would make it easier to control the movements of asylum seekers and prevent them from slipping across to the mainland undetected.
“A clear message should be sent to those planning, or thinking of coming to the country illegally when they aren’t entitled to asylum,” he said.
“They should realise… if they give money to a trafficker to bring them to Greece they will lose it.”
The centres that will close or be converted into detention centres are Moria on Lesbos, as well as camps on Samos, Chios, Kos, and Leros.
Created to accommodate 3,000 people, more than 15,000 people are now crammed into Moria.
Deputy Defence Minister Alkiviadis Stefanis said the facilities would be ready by July 2020. He said authorities want to move up to 20,000 people to the mainland by the end of the year and create a single agency tasked with border protection.
The government also announced it is recruiting 500 people to speed up asylum processing and will set out a new framework of obligations and criteria for NGOs – only those that comply will be allowed to operate in the country.