As 300,000 cross Mediterranean this year, UNHCR calls for admission pathways for refugees and speedy relocation out of Italy and Greece. According to UNHCR Spokesperson, William Spindler, one year ago the European Union (EU) and Member States agreed on a two-year plan to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers mainly from Greece and Italy to other European countries. Yet, the number of pledges continues to be woefully inadequate and implementation unnecessarily slow and challenging.
So far, 4,776 asylum-seekers have been relocated from Greece and Italy, only 3% of the original target. UNHCR is calling on States to increase pledges, including for unaccompanied and separated children, speed up the registration and transfers of candidates, and for more nationalities fleeing war and persecution to have access to the scheme.
States have been slow in providing pledges despite agreeing to the plan. In some instances, while States have indicated the places made available, these same places have not been formally pledged to Greece and Italy. This is exacerbating the difficulties for asylum-seekers who can and should benefit from the scheme. Effective relocation is key to increasing solidarity and responsibility sharing in Europe, and ensuring the better management of movements, including helping to address irregular secondary movement and reliance on smuggler networks. This is particularly vital given the humanitarian situation in Greece, and the increasing number of people staying in Italy and applying for asylum.
From Greece, a total of 3,712 asylum-seekers have departed the country thus far and 7,970 people have been referred for relocation. So far, there are 8,676 pledges available for relocation from 21 EU Member States, as well as Switzerland and Liechtenstein, representing only 13% of the target of 66,400 places. The pre-registration exercise which took place in mainland Greece has helped to obtain further estimates of people who might be eligible for relocation. Based on nationalities of those pre-registered there are around 19,000 persons who could be eligible for relocation in mainland Greece. UNHCR encourages the Greek Asylum Service to further speed up the registration of candidates for relocation. UNHCR continues to support relocation candidates through the provision of accommodation. 12,290 relocation candidates and other asylum-seekers have been accommodated in small temporary apartments, hotels at special rates and host families so far, with the support of the European Commission. Many more men, women and children who are eligible for relocation still live in sites with poor conditions and security, which are inadequate for the coming winter. Speedier relocation would mitigate their fear and uncertainty about their future.
From Italy, 1,064 asylum-seekers have been relocated to 16 countries with 2,809 pledges made available to date. More people are staying in Italy than in previous years, including due to increased border controls in the northern areas. For example, the number of first time asylum applications in Italy has increased by 53% (72,470) this year compared to the same period in 2015 (47,428). This has impacted on the capacity of its reception and asylum systems, and requires a strong gesture of solidarity from other Member States.
Participating States also need to accelerate the processing and transfer of relocation candidates. States need to work in partnership with the Greek and Italian authorities and relevant agencies to increase the personnel and infrastructure made available, and to speed up the registration and processing of cases.
UNHCR also calls upon the EU and Member States to revisit the eligibility criteria by lowering the threshold for relocation candidates to include additional nationalities likely in need of protection. Currently, only asylum-seekers of nationalities with an average recognition rate of 75% or higher at the EU level are eligible for relocation. Based on the latest available EU data, this threshold excludes, for example, Iraqis, who previously met the threshold, as their average recognition rate has fallen to 73%.
The obstacles to implementing the relocation scheme now need to be overcome. In addition, parallel efforts must be undertaken in integrating those refugees not eligible for relocation. UNHCR continues to support participating States, the Commission and EU Agencies towards fully implementing the scheme. It is imperative that our collective efforts begin to deliver significantly on the commitments made one year ago for the benefit of people in need of international protection.
Fire at Reception Site on Lesvos island, Greece
On Monday evening, a fire broke out at the Moria reception centre on the Greek island of Lesvos following clashes between residents. A large number of refugees and migrants were forced to leave the government-run site. Some 4,400 people were accommodated in the facility at the time. Around 95 unaccompanied children were transferred to the Pikpa reception site nearby. Based on initial reports, the fire did not cause any casualties but at least 30 people are reported to have light injuries and have been taken to hospital. Over 50 UNHCR Refugee Housing Units, accommodating some 800 people, were completely destroyed. There were other material damages to the site, including the destruction of tents.
UNHCR is present in Moria and the other reception centres on the Greek islands. We have a team assessing the damage and will put up family tents today as an emergency accommodation measure for those affected. Non-governmental organizations will provide tents, mattresses, blankets and water.
While the cause of the fire has not been determined yet, the incident confirms the critical security situation in Moria and other reception sites. UNHCR has repeatedly been calling upon the security and law enforcement authorities to increase security to protect refugees, migrants, aid workers and civil servants working in these sites. Increasing security would also help decrease fear of insecurity in the Greek population living nearby.
Poor living conditions, combined with a prevailing feeling of uncertainty, regularly fuel despair and frustration among asylum-seekers in Greece. On islands like Lesvos, the capacities for hosting refugees and migrants are overstretched. Lesvos hosts over 5,300 people and has a capacity of only 3,500. To reduce tension and overcrowding, UNHCR is working with the authorities and calls for the urgent transfer of unaccompanied and separated children, one of the most vulnerable groups, to the mainland, shorter waiting periods for asylum claims, particularly on the islands, faster registration and processing of cases for all nationalities and speedier return of those who are not in need of international protection.
UNHCR will continue to support the authorities to find solutions to the overcrowding. UNHCR staff helps identify, inform and transfer asylum-seekers by ferry and bus to mainland. In the case of unaccompanied children, we are helping to find adequate accommodation so that they can be moved to the mainland.
PHOTO: UNHCR/Andrew McConnell [Syrian refugees rest onboard a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel after being rescued in the Mediterranean sea, off the coast of Lesvos, Greece.]