Greek camps near capacity as refugees face long wait for asylum

Migrant camp in Greece Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Athens, Greece Nov 03, 2019, 07.42 PM (IST)

A former military camp on the outskirts of Athens is now reaching full capacity as it serves as a temporary home to almost 1,000 asylum seekers, with many facing an uncertain and prolonged wait while their asylum status is determined.

As numbers at the camp have swelled in recent months, dozens of new containers have been added to accommodate the new additions, the majority of whom are families hailing from Afghanistan.

Camps like this provide a stop-gap where asylum seekers are transferred from Greek islands and wait for months for a decision on their application.

Gazal Tajik arrived here with her husband and three children in 2018, but will be stuck until May 2021 for a final outcome on their status.

"I want to leave, [and with] my child go to another country and I [hope to] have one house, my child could go to school and university and I find a good job and my husband finds one. I just want a normal life. I don't want to live in a camp," said Tajik.

Most of the asylum seekers arrive in Greece in an attempt to move onwards to a northern European country.

The Greek government says the asylum system has been strained by a backlog of some 68,000 requests, and as the country slowly recovers from a devastating economic crisis, unemployment figures remain high.

With asylum seekers spending months or even years in camps, integration for many remains a distant option.

"The more we develop the possibility for them to access the labour market, to learn Greek, the more we create the conditions for them to really have a choice. If we don't provide these basic tools, then it's very difficult to make a choice. You don't have much of a choice." said Gianluca Rocco, International Organization for Migration (IOM) Chief of Mission in Greece.

The government says accelerating asylum procedures is the main aim of legislation that was approved on Thursday, which would expedite the return of people whose asylum claims are rejected.

The new bill also sets stricter criteria for asylum seekers, a move the government hopes will deter those who are not entitled to asylum from trying to reach Greece.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, over 25,000 migrants and refugees have reached the Greek islands since August, with this number accounting for over half of the total sea arrivals in Greece since the beginning of the year.

Europe's Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that camps on the Greek islands are on the edge of catastrophe as numbers continue to increase.

Several Greek and international humanitarian groups, including the U.N. Refugee Agency, have criticized the new law, warning it could lift some of the protections which are in place for asylum seekers.