Greek island officials have begun letting migrants leave detention centres where they have been held, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) heaped criticism on a wave of EU-sanctioned deportations to ease the crisis.
As the European Union pushed ahead with a controversial deal with Turkey to send back all migrants whose asylum claims were rejected, Pope Francis took fresh aim at Western indifference to the plight of people fleeing war, bloodshed and abject poverty.
“Forgive us the closure and indifference of our societies which fear the changes to our way of life and our way of thinking that your presence requires,” Francis said in an address to refugees, just days after bringing home three Syrian families from the Greek island of Lesbos.
“Treated like a burden, a cost, in reality you are a gift ... a bridge that brings together people who are far apart.”
The video message was recorded to mark the 35th anniversary of the Astalli Centre, the Italian headquarters of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
The service is an NGO established by the religious order the Pope belongs to.
As he did during his high-profile trip to Lesbos, the Argentinian Pontiff reiterated his belief that it is wrong to draw arbitrary distinctions between so-called economic migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing war or persecution.
“Those who have fled their own land because of oppression, war, an environment degraded by pollution and desertification, or the unfair distribution of the planet’s resources are all brothers with whom to share our bread, our home and our lives.”
Days after the 79-year-old Pontiff travelled to Lesbos in a powerful gesture of solidarity, Greek officials said they had begun allowing people to leave the island detention camps where they have been held while their asylum requests are processed.
Since an EU-Turkey deal went into force on March 20, around 7,500 people have landed on the Greek islands where they have been kept in holding centres while waiting to be processed to determine whether they can legitimately claim asylum.
But yesterday the SOMP agency which is co-ordinating Greece’s response to the crisis said those who had spent 25 days inside the holding centres and who had filed an asylum claim would be “allowed to leave” the camps.
The decision aims to ease pressure on the registration centres.
A SOMP spokesman said the “the vast majority” of new arrivals had submitted an asylum claim, and that a new round of deportations would only resume when there was “a sufficient number of people” to warrant it.
Under terms of the EU-Turkey deal, Greece began sending back irregular migrants from the islands on April 4, with more than 320 people expelled in the first week, most of them Pakistanis.
The expulsions are aimed at easing the pressure on the European Union which is straining to cope with its worst migration crisis since World War II.
But the EU-sanctioned deportations have drawn sharp criticism, with Human Rights Watch describing them as “abusive” and expressing concern about the fate of the deportees.
“In the mad dash to start the deportations deal with Turkey, the European Union and Greece tossed rights to the wind, including for people who wanted to seek asylum,” said HRW’s Fred Abrahams. “The abusive deportations expose the fundamental flaws in the EU’s expedited mass returns to a country that cannot be considered safe.”
It said that the deportees had not been informed they were going to be expelled, were not told where they were being taken and some of them were not allowed to take their personal possessions.
Once in Turkey, they were unreachable on their mobile phones and the Turkish authorities had not allowed humanitarian organisations access to them, the HRW said.
With the help of around 100 European experts, Greek officials have begun examining hundreds of asylum requests under an expedited procedure which takes 15 days, the SOMP said.
Those who fail to make a claim, or whose application for asylum is rejected, face being sent back to Turkey.
Since the deal went into effect, new arrivals on the Greek Islands have stabilised at around 100 a day – a tenth of the daily figure last year.
Despite the reduction, the arrivals would still amount to “more than 3,000 a month” which would be difficult for Greece to manage “if, in parallel, the European plan for redistributing refugees who have arrived since March 20 doesn’t pick up pace”, the spokesman said.
Some 50,000 people, many of them fleeing the war in Syria, have been stranded in Greece since the closure of the migrant route through the Balkans in February.
More than 10,000 of them are stuck in a slum-like camp at Idomeni on the Macedonian border, which has seen a growing number of violent incidents sparked by desperate attempts to break through the frontier.