Germany has slammed Greece for its lack of progress in processing the asylum requests of thousands of refugees stuck on its islands and its foot-dragging in sending failed asylum-seekers back to Turkey.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, bluntly conveyed her concerns to Alexis Tsipras, the Greek premier, at a migration summit this weekend of European leaders from 10 central and southeastern countries, according to officials present at the meeting.
The criticism was reinforced by Steffen Seibert, Ms Merkel’s spokesman, who on Wednesday said Greece “has to do better” at deporting back to Turkey those Syrians whose requests for asylum have been rejected — a key element of the EU-Turkey migration deal from earlier this year.
He also said there were “big difficulties” with a key plank of the deal that envisages the EU resettling one Syrian refugee from Turkey for each one that is returned.
“There’s certainly a lot still to be done in the implementation of what is still an important part of the EU-Turkey agreement,” he said.
Ms Merkel’s rebuke at the weekend summit in Vienna is a change of tack that reflects growing frustration in Berlin. Through the course of 2016, Ms Merkel had largely sought to support and encourage Greece as it grappled with its unique position as the gateway for hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing into Europe from Turkey.
“She was tough,” said one diplomat present at the summit. “She has had enough of the excuses.”
More than 60,000 asylum-seekers are currently stranded across Greece in camps with poor facilities. In the east Aegean Islands overcrowding in reception centres has triggered clashes between inmates of different nationalities and tensions with local residents.
Greece’s leftwing Syriza government is insisting on strict compliance with international regulations on asylum, which means that each individual is granted a hearing and can appeal. But critics say these are causing unacceptable delays.
Number of asylum seekers estimated to be stranded across Greece
Part of the problem, according to experts, is that Greece’s migration laws do not recognise Turkey as a safe third country for refugees, meaning they cannot be sent back there.
“The fact that people are not being sent back [to Turkey] is the single biggest threat to the EU-Turkey deal,” says Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative.
This is not the first time that Germany and Greece have traded blows over refugee policy. Greece reacted angrily earlier this month when German interior minister Thomas de Maizière said Berlin would soon start sending refugees back to Greece under the so-called Dublin process, which allows migrants to be returned to the first country they entered when they set foot in Europe.
In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, Greece’s Europe minister Nikos Xydakis said that since the EU-Turkey deal came into force, 99 per cent of refugees arriving in Greece were claiming asylum, compared with 3 per cent before March, “in order to gain time and not be sent back immediately to Turkey”.
There has also been little progress in relocating refugees from Greece to other EU countries. The EU agreed to move around 65,000 of them earlier this year, but so far only about 3,500 have been relocated, according to Mr Xydakis.
Asylum seekers relocated from the country to other states in the EU
Greek officials say the situation has been made worse by the EU’s failure to make good on a promise from March to send asylum experts who could help clear the backlog. Mr Xydakis said EASO, the European Asylum Support Office, had offered to provide 400 officials to help the Greek authorities register and process refugees. But only 26 had so far been deployed. ”We urgently need more support from EU countries,” he said.
German officials reject that criticism. Johannes Dimroth, spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, said Greece had not taken up aid offered by Frontex, the EU’s border agency, and EASO. For example, he said, Germany had offered 200 policemen and 100 asylum experts to Greece to help it deal with the migrant influx, but of these, Athens had only accepted 20 policemen and 18 experts.
“For a long time, Greece did nothing to build up an asylum system,” said Luise Amtsberg, the opposition Green party’s spokesperson for migrant issues. She said the situation in refugee reception centres on Greek islands such as Lesbos was “unsustainable”.
“Women, children, the elderly and sick are housed in disgraceful conditions,” she said. “The situation is daily becoming more precarious.”
Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels