Photo: Reuters

Coronavirus expedites relocation of migrants to Europe

47 unaccompanied migrant children have been flown to Germany from camps in Greece as part of an initiative to relocate minors to the European Union.

The children, who ranged in age from 3 to 15, arrived at Hanover Airport on Saturday, 18 April after being brought from the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos. Their nations of origin are Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. The group will spend two weeks in quarantine in the state of Lower Saxony, before being dispersed across the German states.

20 more will head to Switzerland at a later date.

More than 1,000 such relocations are being expedited amid concerns over the impact of coronavirus on vulnerable groups. Luxembourg became the first European destination, when it accepted twelve unaccompanied children from the same islands aged 11 to 15 last Wednesday, 15 April. Ten were from Afghanistan and two from Syria. The children wore protective face masks as a precaution against the spread of the disease prior to boarding their flight at the Athens International Airport.

Greek Deputy Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos told state ERT broadcaster that although the number of children sent to the Grand Duchy was small, it sent a strong message and set an example for others to follow. Greece has had to bear a disproportionate share of the refugee burden, he said, stressing that his nation “faces a crisis within a crisis; migration and the pandemic together,” the combination of which “makes an already difficult situation even more so, and more complex.”

Having imposed a lockdown early on in the COVID-19 crisis, Greece has weathered the pandemic relatively well compared to many other European countries – with 2,235 confirmed cases and 113 deaths to date. The country’s economy was only beginning to recover from a decade-long recession following a debt crisis, and it is expected to be heavily impacted by the collapse of its tourism sector due to the coronavirus.

Greece hopes to relocate some 1,600 unaccompanied minors in the coming months to EU countries. About a dozen European countries have expressed a willingness to take in the children, including Italy, Finland, Serbia, Ireland and Portugal.

Finland announced in February that it would assist Greece, Cyprus and Malta by taking in 175 refugees, most of whom were children and single-parent families from countries where the humanitarian situation is the most devastating, such as Afghanistan and Syria. Finnish Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo expressed satisfaction that “the government has reached a consensus on the issue. Thereby, we can help children in difficult situations,” saying that “iIt is important that Finland – as an EU border country – is looking for solutions both acute and for a permanent common European asylum system.” The financial cost of hosting the migrants would be covered by the international Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund of €3.1 billion allocated for 2014-2020.

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there are more than 5,200 unaccompanied or separated migrant children from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and African countries currently in Greece, among as many as 120,000 migrants and refugees in the island nation overall. Official figures show there are over 36,000 migrants in camps on five islands in the Aegean Sea who are awaiting the processing of their asylum requests.

While there has yet to be the detection of the coronavirus in the island migrant camps, two on the mainland have been quarantined.  The government plans to shut down overcrowded and unsanitary island compounds and transfer most migrants to accommodation on the mainland.

The Human Rights Watch advocacy group is calling on Athens to release all unaccompanied minors, saying they are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 while being detained in either cramped refugee quarters or police cells. The Regional Director for the International Organization of Migration Ola Henrikson told Reuters that, “The importance of this crucial initiative is amplified now due to the challenges we are all facing from COVID-19.”

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in their own nations had used Greece as a transit route toward other European countries in 2015 and 2016, when an EU-mediated pact with Turkey all but halted the stream.  At least 3.4 million primarily Syrian refugees are being hosted in Turkey.

A major crisis erupted earlier this year when tens of thousands of migrants tried to get into European Union member Greece after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on 28 February that his nation would no longer prevent them from doing so, as agreed in a 2016 deal with the EU in return for aid for Syrian refugees.

Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu visited the Edirne province bordering Greece on 4 March, where he announced the deployment of 1,000 special police to the area to halt the pushback of migrants towards its territory. He also said that Turkey was preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of migrants, accused Greek forces of wounding 164 people and pushing back nearly 5,000 into Turkey. Athens rejected Ankara’s charges, and responded by accusing Turkish forces of helping the migrants to cross the border. Both sides used tear gas at the Kastanies border post.

More than 40,000 asylum seekers are now stuck in camps on islands close to Turkey.

Meanwhile, both Italy and Malta have barred the docking of NGO boats carrying refugees rescued at sea after declaring their ports unsafe due to the coronavirus. According to the EU Observer online newspaper from Brussels, critics charge the closures are a “cynical move to prevent further migrants from arriving.” European countries are now demanding the creation of a “search and rescue solidarity mechanism” as part of the European Commission’s plan to relaunch a common asylum system sometime before the summer. The Interior Ministers of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain reportedly sent their proposal in two-page joint letter to the EC earlier this month. The document “rehashed a German proposal, initially outlined last year, to offshore registration, security and medical checks, and identification of asylum seekers,” said the EU Observer.