ATHENS, GREECE - Illegal migration flows to Greece have dropped to their lowest point since the start of the year, counting upwards of 100 cases this week, after the governments in Athens and Ankara lock down their countries to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The dramatic decrease offers some respite for Greece, which has been struggling to fend off thousands of asylum seekers from streaming into the country after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in late February he no longer would block their access to Europe.
Faced with a burgeoning health crisis, the Turkish leader rescinded his orders last week. By that time, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu explained Thursday, some 150,600 migrants and refugees had managed to enter Greece — the biggest migrant push to the West since more than 1 million, mainly Syrian refugees, fled to Europe to escape their country’s civil war in 2016.
Athens refutes the figures, and United Nations’ data show the total number of migrant entries to Greece totaling 9,486 since the start of the year. Just 105 were recorded in the last week, 10 times less than the 1,288 documented in early March, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency.
Coast guard and migration officials are calling the swoon “dramatic,” saying it is among the largest drop-offs since the EU and Turkey stitched together a landmark deal to limit the 2016 refugee crisis.
“We’re seeing zip, zilch, zero rubber rafts for days now,” said a senior coast guard official on Lesbos, an island on the forefront of Europe’s lingering migration crisis. “Even so,” the official said on the condition of anonymity, “we remain vigilant.”
NATO allies Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads for years over conflicting sea and air rights, mainly in the oil and mineral-rich Aegean Sea. Athens frequently has accused Erdogan of using the more than 3 million refugees in his country to pressure the EU and Washington into supporting its own military offensive in the nine-year Syrian war.
Now that migratory pressures having eased, though, officials in the Greek capital are scrambling to shield more than 100,000 asylums seekers trapped in the country since a host of Balkan states sealed their borders and threw up steel fences to stop them from reaching the heart of Europe during the 2016 refugee crisis. More than 40,000 refugees are crammed in unsanitary and overcrowded camps on a host of Aegean islands.
“We are enforcing the strictest possible controls, even tougher than those imposed on the rest of the population in Greece, to cope with the situation,” Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said.
But Athens is refusing to heed pressure from the EU to move migrants from five island camps to the Greek mainland – a move the government fears could enflame the spread of coronavirus.
To date no cases of COVID-19 have been reported among Greece’s community of refugees and migrants.
On Thursday, Greek Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she was working with the Greek government “to agree on an emergency plan to help reduce the risk as much as possible in the overcrowded hotspots on the islands.”
She suggested the plan could include relocating the most susceptible to the virus – mainly the disabled, elderly and chronically ill.
Earlier this month, the government imposed strict restrictions on the movement of asylum seekers in camps. It also has designs to turn at least two of the five Aegean camps into enclosed facilities.
Aid workers and human rights advocates have been critical of the measures, warning that if the virus spreads to the camps, it could decimate the migrant communities.
“The government’s strategy is to lock everyone in one place and throw away the key,” said Eva Cossé, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Thousands of people, including older people, those with chronic diseases, children... pregnant women, new mothers, and people with disabilities, are trapped in dangerously overcrowded, deplorable conditions on the islands amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” Human Rights Watch said.
“Forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity cannot be justified on grounds of public health,” the international, New York-based non-governmental organization said in a statement.