As thousands of asylum seekers remain stuck on Greece’s islands in tight and unstable conditions, the Council of Europe’s top human rights official said Friday that the country must process asylum claims faster in order to create more space on the islands.
So far this year, the number of refugees entering from Turkey has decreased to slightly more than 13,000 — far lower than 2015 when thousands were arriving daily — but Greece’s decade-long economic crisis has made it increasingly difficult to properly handle incoming migrants.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, concluded a five-day visit to Greece on Friday and said the circumstances are still concerning.
“The situation remains worrying and much more needs to be done to protect the human rights of those who have had to flee their country,” she said.
At Friday’s meeting, European leaders made a migration deal agreeing that their countries would share out refugees entering the E.U. on a voluntary basis and establish centers within the continent to process asylum requests.
On the other hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said disagreements remain, as some leaders made vague pledges to increase border control.
Government data show that the number of asylum seekers in Greece last year was more than four times higher than in 2015, climbing to a record-setting figure of 59,000 and causing extreme delays at the numerous island camps with conditions Mijatovic has called “substandard.”
As a result of lengthy waiting times, asylum seekers in camps continue to endure crowding, poor health conditions, extreme summer heat waves and overall lack of safety, while local residents remain unsure regarding their future.
Additionally, in some cases a buildup of tensions between Greeks and migrants has resulted in violence, such as an incident in April on the island of Lesvos where residents protested a group of some 200 Afghan refugees, pelting them with flares, firecrackers and rocks from sidewalks.
A media law expert hailing from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Mijatovic has been in her post since April and said it is still too early to pinpoint the possible ramifications of the EU’s latest agreement on migration.
“We can have more talks, more agreements…” she said. “But we also need to act and we need to act quickly.”
In addition to the creation of asylum processing centers, EU leaders also agreed to help rescue migrants at sea — an issue that has been particularly prominent in Italy as it sits directly across from northern Africa.
In June, both Italy and Malta refused to take in a ship that had been stuck at sea for days, eventually leading to it being granted safe haven from Spain.
Meanwhile in Greece, land arrivals have become increasingly problematic.
As recently as April, more than 3,600 refugees and migrants crossed over the Greek-Turkish border, compared to roughly 3,000 arrivals by sea from Turkey to the Aegean islands, according to a June report from the United Nations Refugee Agency
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