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As part of our Monday Talks series supported by Science 14, we have talked with Dimitris Vitsas in Athens, Greek Minister for Migration Policy, about many pressing issues including migration, the conditions of asylum seekers and the relocation scheme

Irene Christodoulaki: Mr Vitsas, I would like to begin from the situation in the hotspots in the Greek islands and the refugees’ living conditions. Last December in a letter to the Greek Prime Minister, the director of Amnesty International said that the condition in the hotspots, especially in Moria (Lesvos), are “a scar on the conscience of Europe”. At the beginning of the month, you said in the Greek parliament that the situation in refugee camps in Samos has exceeded every limit.  You also said that mid-April a new refugee welcome center will be opened. How do you think the Greek government and the European Union can help the decongestion of the islands and how can the conditions in the refugee camp be improved?

Dimitris Vitsas: First of all, I do not agree with the assessment of the director of Amnesty International because he does not have a full picture of what is happening in Greece. I will give you in a coded way my reply to the decongestion of the islands, and we should remember that the hotspots are a European idea that it is only implemented in Greece. We should not forget this. Firstly, I should say that it should exist a relocation programme that will rely on the principles of co-responsibility and solidarity among European countries, something that does not exist at the moment.  this is why Greece is recorded first in relation to its population in asylum applications, and only third in absolute numbers, namely after Germany and France. although larger countries exist.

The second thing that it should be done is to stop the [immigration] flows because we daily have new flows. They are not big, but they are added to the ones we already have because our borders are closed.  The third issue is to bear fruit the effort we are making that was successful in the four out of five islands, namely in Lesvos, in Kos, in Chios and in Leros but is not yet successful in Samos. In Samos, the situation really is close to the limits and we are trying by reinforcing the medical personnel as well as the asylum services so that in March to take from the islands – and especially from Samos- 3.000 people who have been characterized as vulnerable or they are receiving asylum.

Irene Christodoulaki: During her visit to Greece, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the agreement between the EU and Turkey is “not working properly” with regards to sending back migrants to Turkey. In this context, she said that the EU is examining new ways to help refugees coming from countries other than Syria. In this context, do you think that it is tangible a reform of the “Dublin” regulations before the Euro elections of May?

Dimitris Vitsas: Two things about the previous. Turkey needs to provide the guarantees it provided for the Syrian citizens to citizens from other countries. Secondly, according to the Geneva Convention, there is a cross-border process where each asylum application is examined individually, and we should note that everyone applies for asylum no matter if they are eligible or not.  We cannot take a step back from this [system]. We cannot take a step back. The third issue is “Dublin”. Right now, some countries are blocking the creation of “Dublin IV”, because “Dublin III” collapsed in 2015. Greece has contributed tremendously to find a common solution. While the Greek positions are the same with the position of the European Parliament, we compromised to consider the proposal of the Bulgarian Presidency as a base for the trilogies among the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission in order to find a solution.

A solution of “Dublin IV” could create a sense of co-responsibility and solidarity amongst Europe. However, our proposal goes a step further, because I do not think that until the Euro elections we will have a “Dublin IV”.

We propose a  transition mechanism among the countries that would want to participate in a distribution of the responsibility, and we think that it could be a great start if along with this mechanism, in the next stage, we make provisions for penalties for the countries that are not participating, because the flows to Europe have dropped by 97%, however, the migration issue is becoming focal point in Europe but it is a different situation from 2015 when more than 1.5 million people came towards Europe, and a different issue that in 2018 around 100.000 people –from whom 46.000  in Greece- came in Europe. This is an issue that we must manage with humanity.

Irene Christodoulaki:  You mentioned before that there is a decline in the refugee influx to Greece. Nevertheless, many European officials criticize the country for the slow pace it awards asylum to applicants. Many consider that the big cutbacks in the public sector that took place during the economic crisis, are affecting the examination process of asylum applications because for example there are not enough judges to examine them. What do you answer to this criticism? And connecting this to the previous question; what is the message you want to send to Europeans regarding the management of the refugee crisis?

Dimitris Vitsas: At every simulation, we have done, Greece must examine around 20.000 asylum applications per year. Last year we examined 69.0000. Therefore, nobody can tell us that we haven’t done the fastest, the biggest that it can be done. My answer to all those who criticize Greece, is, from the one side, to invite them to compare the reception system, the care system for refugees and migrants in Greece, with the systems in any other country in Europe, because we say clearly the entire truth

We say that we have a problem in Samos, that we have a problem in Moria. We have 28 accommodation centres, we have 23.000 people that stay in apartments, we have 12.500 children that go to school. Nobody has the flu in the [refugee] populations that we manage, all these actions are happening.

From right to left: Irene Christodoulaki, Dimitris Vitsas, Alexis Bouzis, and Ebubekir Isik. Athens, 22 February 2019.

The financial help we have is enough, we don’t have this problem. The problem is that constantly new populations are coming. Our opinion, the opinion of the Greek government is that these populations have to be cared for according to the International Law, we have to examine them and send them where they have to go, namely if they are for return, [the go for] return, if they have to stay in Europe for protection, [they will stay] in Europe for protection. This is the crucial thing for us in which we are focused on and we constantly increase and ameliorate our efforts. Are we not adequate?   Nobody can work in immigration and feel adequate. And relating to all the above: before 2015, in Greece, there was only a small service focused on immigration.

Now, in 2019 there is a separate ministry – the one that I lead- for immigration, we have hired people, 20 commissions were made – with eight of them being established last month – for the appeals, we constantly develop this system. The problem is overpopulation. Or if I could say so: “if a good hotel that hosts 200 people, if suddenly is made to host 2.000 people, it will stop to provide the services it’s supposed to provide”.

Irene Christodoulaki:  Mr. Minister, while on the issue of the refugee flows, there are a number of international publications that say that “yes, there is a reduction in refugee flows”, however, there is an increase on the northern borders of Greece that is due to the fact that many Turkish asylum seekers are arriving in Greece. These people left Turkey after the failed coup of 2016. The publications refer to fieldworks conducted in Greece and say that these people do not wish to remain in the country, because they are asylum seekers and therefore, they are not allowed to work or start their own business, at least legally. However, they recognize the help provided by the Greek authorities and the Greek hospitality. The question is: could Greece somehow help these people or is there once again the wider context of the European regulations that they must follow?

Dimitris Vitsas: For one thing, let’s start with this: that no immigrant that arrives in Greece does not come to Greece for Greece, but wants to go to other countries of Northern Europe, that is the main point. However, we try and contain for Europe’s shake several of tens of thousands.75.000 people – as of this moment- from 2015 until now and that way we try to come to an agreement with countries such as Germany, such as Sweden, such as Norway who are destination countries. That is one issue.

In 2018 we had an increase of 284% on our land borders where it is not in effect the Joint Declaration of the European Union and Turkey. This is not caused by just Turkish citizens. It is caused mainly by Afghans, there are of course some Turks but let us not inflate an issue that is not that great. We, before someone crosses into our country, cannot know whether they are a Turk or, a Pakistani or an Afghan and so on and so forth. After the application for asylum, we are obligated to examine that. That is what I say, that if there was a distribution this matter would have been solved and would lower on certain matters the tension between Greece and Turkey, with whom I at least try – others as well and the Greek government-, to maintain good relations  because we support the European course of Turkey, with adjustments that of course, Turkey must make itself.

Irene Christodoulaki: You mentioned before that Greece is not a destination country. I think that in the same context, we must put forward the issue of integration of refugees and immigrants into society; A few days ago, the public consultation on the National Strategy for the integration of refugees and immigrants in Greek society was concluded. The question is how based on the proposed new National Strategy can the government boost further the foundations and the initiatives for the integration of the refugees and immigrants who wish to remain in Greece?

Dimitris Vitsas:  Yes, the National Strategy that we have determined is a general framework on how we will move forward with the integration of these people into the Greek economy and the Greek society, something that is not easy in a country with 18% unemployment. But we put forward very specific actions.

First, we have the “Helios” programme. The “Helios” programme connects free residence with integration processes and we have been planning it that way so as to in the next two years 20.000 people will have been integrated into the society in this manner. What are the integration processes? Basically, there are three at the moment. The first one is for them to learn Greek. At school, they learn Greek and English. If we were talking about after 10 years it would have been much easier because the 12.500 children after 10 years, they will know perfect Greek. The second is to be trained or for us to recognize their working skills, someone used to be a farmer, another was a tailor, another a scientist, and the third is to find ways towards the labor market. Already we have two agreements and we begin two programmes.

One programme pertains to agriculture and is referring to 2.000 people who will be trained and will be able to work in the farming industry on the field or in cooperatives and in accordance with agricultural cooperatives and individual farmers and producers. The other programme is in partnership with the Ministry of Employment, a programme in which 3.000 will be employed in the tourist sector, which is a (very) large industry in Greece. If we succeed in its completeness in 2018, then we will have a good example of what to do in other sectors of the economy.

And I must mention that the pilot programmes that we did for the integration in Thebes and Levadia went fantastically, and they are important because, in this way, these people acquire -and already have the right -to receive healthcare, not only them but others as well, and they start to feel useful to themselves and can in that way be served and in that way leave the system that is for those who apply for asylum. Now we move forward even further, apart from those who have already received asylum ,and to those who have applied for asylum in order for them to have such rights, and become independent from what, one would say that no matter how you look at it, it is a small monetary amount the one given by the European Union through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Irene Christodoulaki: Thank you very much for our exchange

Dimitris Vitsas:  Thank you too

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