Rights groups press Greek government on migrant ruling

Athens (AFP) –


Rights groups on Thursday pressed the Greek government to comply with a court ruling to allow migrants to move freely within Greece instead of being confined to six Aegean islands.

The Greek section of Amnesty International and local group SolidarityNow also called for the ruling by Greece's top administrative court to be made retroactive so that some 15,000 migrants already in overcrowded camps on the islands could move to the mainland.

"The ruling confirms what NGOs and human rights movement have said from the start: the forced retention of asylum-seekers on the islands, often in deplorable conditions, is unfair," Amnesty-Greece president Gabriel Sakellaridis said in a statement.

The immigration ministry said Wednesday that it would study the Council of State ruling.

Commentators say the government could include new legislation addressing the issue in an asylum bill to be introduced by the end of April.

The Greek section of the refugee agency UNHCR declined to comment on Thursday, saying that it wanted to review the court ruling.

The Greek government is keen to reduce tension on the islands, especially as the busy tourist season is about to begin.

So far, only ailing and vulnerable refugees such as unaccompanied minors have been allowed off the islands without full asylum approval, a process that can take many months owing to the sheer volume of applications.

Until now, the migration ministry has refused to allow larger numbers of refugees to cross to the mainland, arguing that it would only encourage people smugglers to send more over.

Since an agreement signed in March 2016 between the European Union and Turkey, those arriving on islands such as Lesbos and Samos have been obliged to stay there until their applications are processed.

The accord effectively slowed the flow of migrants after the vast exodus of 2015, but left migrants languishing in the camps, often for months, until their asylum claims can be processed, fuelling despair and leading to protests and outbreaks of violence.

"European policies aimed at 'stashing' refugees either in Greece or third countries are unacceptable and must be stopped," Sakellaridis said.

The court ruling comes amid an increase in migrant and refugee flows compared to last year.

According to the ministry, arrivals doubled in the first three months of the year, compared to the same period in 2017, from around 60 persons daily to around 120 on average.

On the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros -- the closest to Turkish shores -- camps are filled to more than double their capacity, forcing many to sleep in tents.