“THE CONDITIONS here are not the worst part,” says Zabiullah, an affable middle-aged Afghan, sipping sweet tea in a rat-infested tent. The stench of sewage hangs in the air. No, he continues, the worst part of life in Moria, a camp for asylum-seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos, is the waiting. Residents can spend up to 12 hours a day in queues for food. Each day, they also await news on whether they will be granted asylum. Many, like Zabiullah, have been doing so for over a year since making the perilous 10km journey by small boat from Turkey to Lesbos. The prolonged uncertainty, he says, makes Moria feel like “a small piece of hell”.
He is stuck there because of a deal struck in March 2016 between the EU and Turkey. Before it, thousands were arriving on Greece’s easternmost islands every day. Turkey agreed, under the deal, to try to stop the boats and to accept unsuccessful asylum-seekers deported from the Greek islands. In return, the EU promised Turkey €3bn ($3.4bn) in aid and perks such as visa-free travel. For the EU, it felt like a great success. Sea arrivals to Greece fell from almost 1m in the year before the deal to 82,000 in the two-and-a-half years since (see chart ).
But although the deal ended the refugee crisis for most of Europe, it increased the burden on Greece. Asylum-seekers like Zabiullah, arriving on Lesbos and four other Greek islands after the deal, now had to stay on these islands for the entirety of their asylum-application process. This was ostensibly to make it easier to deport them to Turkey if needed, but many Greeks suspect its true purpose was to help enforce the Dublin Regulation, under which people can only apply for asylum in the first EU state where they are registered. In the past, many of those arriving in Greece avoided registering there and went deeper into Europe to seek asylum. But since the deal, far more people are applying for asylum in Greece itself. The country has already received nearly four times as many applicants this year as in 2015. Those accepted are entitled to residence only in Greece, and not elsewhere in the EU, until they qualify for Greek citizenship.
The EU has given Greece €1.6bn over the past five years to take care of the problem. But the country’s asylum system has long struggled to cope, increasingly hitting non-financial barriers like local opposition, logistical difficulties, long processing times and a shortage of qualified staff. “You can give us money, but how much can we keep expanding?” asks Alexis Bouzis, a spokesperson for the Greek Migration Ministry. Greece is now home to 65,000 asylum-seekers, 9,000 of them on Lesbos.
Instead the Greek government and aid agencies argue that the EU must overhaul the Dublin Regulation, so that asylum-seekers are distributed more evenly. The current system, they say, is unfair. Five countries—Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany—received over three-quarters of Europe’s asylum applications in the first half of this year. Greece has had to deal with 70 times as many claims as Hungary, a country of comparable size and wealth. The rules are also ineffective: EU money is not an adequate replacement for relocation. But calls for reform have been rebuffed, by the “Visegrad” countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) which are refusing to consider it.
The strain on the Greek islands is visible in Moria. Marios Kaleas, head of the asylum service in Lesbos, says his team is struggling to keep up with the hundreds of applications it receives each week. Processing times vary wildly, but legal-aid workers estimate that people typically wait five months for their first interview and another six to nine for a ruling. The backlog has led to overcrowding. The Moria camp, designed for 2,500, now holds three times that. Hundreds are encamped on a sludgy hillside nearby. NGOs have warned of a mental-health “crisis” in Moria, with children as young as ten attempting suicide. Fights break out almost daily in its endless queues. “We are treated worse than animals,” says Saida, a 19-year-old Somali who has lived there for eight months.
Locals on Lesbos, once welcoming, feel overwhelmed. Those living near Moria say crime has risen. One in ten people on the island is an asylum-seeker. Municipal authorities refuse to let the Greek government expand the camps on Lesbos or build any new ones. Instead, they insist, more people should be moved to the mainland. “We will not allow our island to become a prison of souls,” declares Anastasia Antoneli, a deputy mayor of Lesbos.
In theory, people from vulnerable groups—pregnant women, the chronically ill, survivors of rape or torture—are exempt from the EU-Turkey deal and can apply for asylum on the mainland rather than stay on Lesbos. But the clinic in Moria that screens people has only two doctors and is currently offering its earliest appointments in March 2019. There are also hundreds of people on Lesbos who are allowed to leave but cannot, because government-run camps on the mainland are full.
The Greek government has recently been scrambling to create more space on the mainland, where conditions are usually far better. In Eleonas, a small camp in an industrial part of Athens, families live in brightly painted containers, each with their own toilet and kitchenette. Police have been raiding Eleonas and other mainland camps, evicting those who had not yet registered with the asylum service, and moving people in from the islands to replace them. But on the islands, these transfers are still outpaced by new arrivals.
Deportations, too, are slow. Many of those denied asylum will appeal, which rarely changes their fate but draws out the process. Only 1,738 people have been sent back to Turkey under the deal, in part because authorities rarely believe asylum-seekers will be safe there. A UN-run voluntary-returns programme has fared slightly better. It offers people a plane ticket, a little cash and help with re-integrating if they choose to return home. Over 12,000 have done so since June 2016. In Moria most people seem unaware they can go no further than Greece, at best. Many yearn to live in Germany or Britain. Stratoula Koudounaki, a street-cleaner in Moria, looks on at them sadly. “These people are not going to Europe,” she sighs. “What will happen when they have to become Greeks?”