The Greek Government’s Chaotic Plan for Relocating Migrants

The Greek Government’s Chaotic Plan for Relocating Migrants

The Greek Government’s Chaotic Plan for Relocating Migrants

Thousands are being moved from the camps on the islands—and into far-flung hotels, with little access to services.


At 6:30 am on November 12, the Greek passenger ship Diagoras docked at Athens’s Piraeus port. As the sky slowly brightened to pink, cars, bikes, and pedestrians streamed haphazardly out along the ramp. The ship usually carries foreign tourists and Greeks traveling to and from the island of Lesbos. But among the passengers that day were 400 migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, who had until then been sequestered at Moria, Lesbos’s now-infamous migrant camp. Most of them had arrived on Greece’s shores in small boats from Turkey, where they had journeyed over land to escape conflict and poverty in their home countries. Now they were being relocated once again, to the Greek mainland—numbering among the 20,000 people that Greece’s government aims to transfer to new temporary housing by early 2020.

But the relocation plan faces a major obstacle: Although it’s been more than four years since Greece’s migrant crisis began in 2015, the country still doesn’t have enough facilities to house new arrivals on the mainland. So when the Greek government—under the center-right prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis—first started this wave of relocations in early September, privately owned hotels and apartments on the mainland were contracted to house migrants instead.

Camps like Moria, as well as those on the neighboring Aegean islands of Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos, have become international symbols for Europe’s failure to build a sustainable common asylum system. In the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016—during which more than 2 million undocumented migrants entered Europe’s borders—deals were struck between EU member countries and others to alleviate the pressure on border countries such as Greece and Italy. One of those deals, from 2016, authorized transfers of refugees from Greece back to Turkey—an arrangement that has since been deemed ineffective, in part because Greece’s asylum and appeals system is too slow to implement it.

As a result, 38,800 refugees and migrants have been forced to wait on the Aegean islands in squalor. And the rate of migration is creeping back up: According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 53,000 people entered Greece by sea this year—a 62 percent increase from the same time last year. Chronic overcrowding, protests, and a fire at Moria, in which at least one person was killed, have forced the state to begin emergency relocations.

The Greek government started using hotels as migrant housing as far back as October 2018, under the previous ruling party; run by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) and funded by the European Commission, the initiative began with a public call to hotel owners across Greece to accommodate vulnerable migrants on their premises. The program ran for six months and housed a total of 2,000 migrants, according to the IOM’s public relations officer. But since Mitsotakis was elected this summer, these efforts have been ramped up: Greece’s Ministry of Citizen Protection says 10,000 migrants have been moved from the islands to the mainland; the IOM’s public relations officer told me that more than 5,500 people were moved into hotels in October 2019 alone.

Late last month, Greece’s New Democracy government—which ran on a platform of curbing the influx of migrants, and says it hopes to deport thousands in coming months—announced that when transfers to the mainland were complete, it would shut down the island camps and replace them with closed detention centers. “They want to show the system is controlled,” said Phillippe Leclerc, the UNHCR’s representative in Greece. “But it’s more rhetoric than practicality. It will be extremely difficult to enforce completely closed centers.” This latest plan has been widely condemned by aid groups including the International Rescue Committee, the Greek branch of Amnesty International, and the UNHCR, who have said that closed camps would amount to jails and violate migrants’ rights.

Not only that, but the intermediate accommodations in hotels may not be much better than Moria: A visit to some of the hotels housing new arrivals last month revealed limited access to health care and other crucial resources.

“The whole thing is chaotic,” said Angeliki Dimitriadi, a senior research fellow specializing in migration at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), of New Democracy’s plans. “They criticized the former government, and now they are repeating their mistakes.”

After the arrivals from Moria debarked in Athens on November 12, coordinators from the IOM shepherded them into six buses lined up at the water’s edge. I got the phone number of Najeeb, an Afghan man in his early 30s. (His full name and those of other migrants I interviewed have been omitted to protect their privacy.) He seemed relieved to be off Lesbos, but his family’s future was deeply uncertain. Twelve hours later, Najeeb messaged me via WhatsApp to say that his bus had arrived at an isolated chalet in the Pindus Mountains, close to the Albanian border.

In a worried voice message, he said he didn’t know how long he and his family would have to stay in this new location. “My mother is sick, my daughter also,” he said. “But we are far from a hospital. I don’t know what I should do. What should I do?”

In their statement about the hotel program, the Ministry of Citizen Protection stipulated that the facilities must be “in a convenient location that allows access to services.” Hoteliers across Greece are paid €12 per person, according to the IOM, and the locations of the hotels have not been publicized. But Najeeb was not the only one who told me that their accommodations were far from adequate.

In the village of Agia Anna—a four-hour bus ride north from Athens, along winding mountain roads—I met a group of Afghan women and children picking wild garlic by the side of a deserted road lined with vacation homes, stuffing it into already bursting plastic bags. These women had been relocated from the Vathy camp on the island of Samos two weeks before, where they had spent a year after fleeing Afghanistan. They agreed to lead me to their accommodations. Of the conditions inside, they said in English, “Very bad. No school, no doctor, no clothes, no money.”

Agia Anna is on Evia, the long landmass stretched along the northeast side of central Greece that is a popular holiday destination for Athenians. These women had been placed at Club Agia Anna, a summer resort and campground for which the peak season—as in the rest of Greece—runs from April to October. The women told me that people were being housed in bungalows, huts, and cabins that had been refitted with bunk beds to accommodate more people.

The migrants I met in Agia Anna told me they felt completely isolated. Mustafa and Hamida, a young Afghan couple who preferred not to share their last names, had previously sought refuge in Iran, where Hamida started to pursue an architecture degree. But they say that their future in Iran felt desperately unsure, so they made the journey to Europe to seek safety and prosperity for their child. Upon arriving in Greece, they were housed at Moria for two months—until they lost their belongings in the fire and were transferred to a hotel outside Athens, and then, eventually, to Agia Anna.

“The biggest problem here is that we are far from the city,” said Hamida, who speaks fluent English. On Lesbos, they had made an appointment with the UNHCR to receive a cash aid card—but the move to the mainland forced them to miss the appointment, leaving them with no money to buy medicine, formula, or diapers for their baby, who has stomach problems. Once a week, the Club Agia Anna residents with generous relatives or access to cash aid can pay €10 for a same-day return bus ticket to Athens, where they can stock up on supplies. But many are forced to go without. According to the migrants here, only adults are granted food subsidies, meaning most must share their own small portion with their children.

The previous government had allowed asylum seekers to receive Greek social security numbers, giving them access to doctor’s appointments and discounted prescription medicine. But within a week of taking office, Mitsotakis’s government rescinded that right. Now, blocked from receiving state-funded social services, migrants must rely on NGOs to provide prescriptions and procedures. The UNHCR helps fund primary and mental health services in Moria, the Attica region, and Thessaloniki, while charities such as Doctors Without Borders provide health care at the camps on Chios, Lesbos, and Samos. Accessing health care has become more difficult for the migrants being transferred to far-flung locations.

When I visited Agia Anna, in November, the owner of Club Agia Anna told me there were no doctors or medical facilities at the site. Another recent arrival from Moria named Nissar told me that his wife was nine months pregnant. She had suffered complications after their first child was born by caesarean section in Afghanistan, including two stillbirths during their journey to Europe. No hospital on Evia was equipped to carry out a C-section, so his wife would have to travel to Athens for the procedure. He said he had been told it would cost him around €3,000. “But I don’t have any money,” said Nissar. “I lost two babies. If I lose another baby, I cannot continue my life.” Their only hope was to receive cash aid from an NGO.

Dionisis Vrachnis is a doctor at the nearest health care center a few villages away from Agia Anna; he has been treating migrants since they began arriving in the area last year. The center covers only primary care, so for more serious issues, migrants must travel to the nearest city, Chalkis—a two-hour drive away. Vrachnis said that, under the previous government, most migrants had social security numbers and could receive public services. None of the recent arrivals have that luxury. “We told [the owner of Club Agia Anna] that these people need a doctor in the camp. But we already don’t have so many doctors, even for local people,” he explained.

In the years since Greece’s 2009 debt crisis and through the ensuing austerity, the government has struggled to provide public services such as law enforcement, education, and medical care in rural areas. In holiday destinations such as Evia, Greeks have become reliant on tourism to sustain local economies—putting them in tension with the government’s plan to turn hotels into ad hoc refugee camps.

Growing resentment toward migrants from Greeks living in the same areas as the hotels has been exacerbated by an alleged lack of communication between the national government and local officials. Both the IOM and Greece’s First Reception Service—the government body that manages migrants—insist that they have coordinated relocation efforts with local officials and kept them informed. But in October, Agia Anna’s mayor, George Tsapourniotis, published an open letter to the Greek government in a local newspaper, claiming that he had only learned of October’s migrant arrivals through a news report—that he and his officials had never been consulted about the transfers. Although Agia Anna has happily welcomed refugees in the past, the mayor wrote, “the secret and sudden transfer…given the prevailing refugee situation in the eastern Aegean islands, raises many problems and questions.”

Tensions have been expressed in more violent ways as well. In October, villagers in Vrasna, near Thessaloniki, threw stones at buses bringing migrants and refugees to a hotel in the region that had arranged to house them. The nine buses were forced to turn around, never reaching the hotel. Reports said the migrants were instead transferred to Agia Anna. In early November, a far-right group held a barbecue next to a migrant camp in northern Greece, cooking pork souvlaki and drinking beer to protest what they called, in a group statement, the “colonization of Greece and Europe by…Islamists.” IOM spokesperson Christine Nikolaidou told me that these were isolated cases.

Around the same time as the far-right barbecue, rumors that further migrants would be transferred to hotels in the Evia town of Amarynthos prompted its mayor to publicly announce that the town would not accept government plans at the expense of the local community. (He declined to be interviewed.)

According to Manos Logothetis, the Greek government’s Special Secretary for Reception, municipalities do not have the right to deny hospitality to migrants transferred from the islands. “We can understand their distress. But we have to persuade them,” he said. Logothetis—a former doctor who screened migrants for vulnerability at the Vathy camp on Samos—felt that the frenzied Greek media coverage of Moria and other island camps was making Greeks “worry they will have Moria in their backyard.”

When summer comes, the hotels housing migrants in Evia and elsewhere will need to reopen their doors to tourists. The migrants will be moved to existing camps on the mainland while the state builds more facilities; Logothetis said they had procured 60 conference tents to make up the difference.

Aid groups, EU leaders, and countless others have called for greater solidarity among European states to share the burden of irregular migration to Europe. An emergency relocation mechanism established in 2015 saw migrants distributed across Europe—but the mechanism expired in 2017, and negotiations around a permanent system remain blocked to this day.

Meanwhile, Greece is attempting to manage the flow of migrants using measures built in reaction to the previous crisis. Angeliki Dimitriadi, the research fellow at ELIAMEP, pointed out that heavy reliance on non-state organizations like the IOM and UNHCR has helped the Greek state dodge accountability. More concrete systems are required. “The same way we have a mechanism for earthquakes and fires, we need an emergency response mechanism for migrant flows. And we need it irrespective of the EU,” said Dimitriadi.

The number of people arriving on Greek shores is still a fraction of what it was at the crisis’s height in 2016, but the fact that arrivals are increasing once again has only toughened the government’s stance. On November 1, the Greek parliament passed a controversial bill to amend the country’s asylum system, aimed at speeding up asylum processing and facilitating the return of more people to Turkey. The UNHRC’s Philippe Leclerc explained that the new bill would allow people to be detained for up to 36 months.

“We need a mechanism that would allow transfers to other EU member states if that level [from 2016] is reached again,” said Leclerc. “Relocation mechanisms are needed now, and it cannot wait.”

Migrants in Greece have become accustomed to an unimaginable level of uncertainty, after months, even years, of living in limbo at the mercy of Europe’s flawed asylum system. Mustafa and Hamida, the Afghan couple, said that when they left Moria, they had asked the IOM representatives how long they would have to stay at the Club Agia Anna. They were told it could be anywhere from 20 days—to six months. “They told me they would transfer me to a better place,” Mustafa said through a translator. “But Moria is better than here. In Moria, we could always visit a doctor.”

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