The hotspots on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros are struggling to manage an increase in the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey in recent months. Between January and August 2019,
25,590 people arrived by sea on the Greek islands, according to UNHCR. In August alone, 7,712 people arrived, more than double the number in the same month in 2018.
Arrivals have increased as conditions for refugees in Turkey, and a change in attitude towards those from Syria in particular, have led to more people leaving the country. This trend is likely to increase. In early September, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to open the borders and allow more refugees to cross into The European Union unless Turkey gets more international support for a plan to establish “safe zones” in Syria.
Officials from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party, who formed the new Greek government in July, have spoken about their intentions to avoid a situation like 2015, when more than 850,000 people entered the asylum process in Europe by travelling through Greece. They are putting in place new measures intended to reduce the number of refugees making the journey from Turkey. This has included new patrol boats in the Aegean and a collaboration between the Hellenic Coastguard and Frontex, the EU’s border agency, using a zeppelin to survey the maritime borders around Samos.
Hardening stance from Athens
Since New Democracy came to power in July, the government’s rhetoric towards refugees has become harsher. In particular, there’s been increased police activity in the Exarcheia district of Athens in recent weeks, with a number of squats housing refugees evicted as part of a pledge to ‘clean up’ and ‘bring order’ to the area.
Against this backdrop of government change and increased hostility towards refugees the numbers of people arriving on the islands have also led to a sharp decline in living conditions. One week in August saw more than 500 arrivals on Samos, where the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) was built for 650.