Refugee crisis: Greece sets up island 'hotspots' to process incoming refugees - but what happens next?

Under EU pressure, Greece has created centres to register refugees after they arrive on islands. They are coping for now, but as weather warms, numbers will increase, while borders into Europe may close. Laura Pitel reports from Chios

It was an aluminium factory. Then it became a municipal recycling centre. Now, the echoing warehouse on the Greek island of Chios is processing people.

Opened last weekend after a huge rush to be ready in time for an EU summit on Thursday, the hilltop facility is one of five “hotspots” set up on the islands at the behest of Brussels. By registering and fingerprinting the arrivals, authorities hope to impose some order after the chaotic scenes of last summer, when a million people arrived in Europe by sea alone – 800,000 of them from Greece via Turkey. But the idea remains dogged by both practical problems and huge unanswered questions about what happens next. 

The setting for the Chios “hotspot” is beautiful – a drive up from the coast twists past lemon and orange trees and verges dotted with anemones. The centre is less charming: a concrete hulk surrounded by tall wire fencing.

Beyond the gates is a giant, dusty warehouse that reverberates to the sound of chatter in Arabic, Kurdish and Farsi. Having arrived on dinghies hours earlier, hundreds of weary parents from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran cluster together on chairs while their children make mischief at their feet. The elderly recline on wooden pallets with blankets pulled up around their necks. Everyone says that they want to go to Germany.

Organised into numbered groups, everyone waits their turn to file along steel barriers and into cabins where police officers from across Europe verify their identity and put them into a database. It is part of a drive by EU leaders to tighten security, after it emerged the ringleader of the Paris attacks passed through the island of Leros.

Greece sets up nearly five refugee centres for processing

Such was the hurry to get this place ready that workmen are still drilling inside and outside the hangar. There are no staff to clean and on the first day, there was not enough water for the toilets. EU border staff say that their computers are not yet properly hooked up to the databases they need.

Despite these glitches, the Chios hotspot – along with one that opened in Lesbos in October – is the one faring best out of four centres declared “ready to function” by the Greek Defence Minister on Tuesday. 

In Samos, aid workers say there is no electricity and staff have been working in the dark. On Kos, everything has been held up by protests from locals who are worried and angry about the impact on tourism. On the first day in Leros, 600 people arrived and were promptly sent to an old camp because there were no staff to run the new hotspot. 

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Refugees at a hospitality centre, set up at the behest of the EU, on the Greek island of Chios (AP)

European officials asked Greece to build hotspots last autumn, but for months nothing happened. Amid threats that Greece could be kicked out of the Schengen open border zone, on 31 January came a sudden scramble. With just two weeks to get the job done, the Greek government called in the army. In Chios the task fell to Lt-Col Lolos Charalambos, who would clearly rather be almost anywhere other than here.

“It’s much easier for me to be a commander in a camp with my soldiers,” he says wistfully. But he believes that he completed his mission successfully and is pleased to see that the refugees and migrants are calm and relatively relaxed. “I look at their faces and I see they are OK – that’s the satisfaction for us.”

For all the fanfare, few believe that these facilities will solve the vast challenge of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. For a start, there is the question of numbers. The capacity of the Chios hotspot is 1,000 people but on Thursday at least 1,400 people arrived. The island was forced to use the old town centre camps for overspill.

Despite initiatives to encourage people to stay in Turkey and crack down on smuggling routes, that influx is expected to increase further as the weather warms up and the seas calm down. Even bigger than the practical problems are the many unanswered questions about the role these centres will play in controlling the flow of people towards the rest of Europe.

Mediterranean crossing's missing refugees remain uncounted

Many expect that the border with Macedonia – already closed to all but Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis – will soon completely shut. Joe Kuper, a Londoner running the UN refugee agency’s response in Chios, warns that a backlog could quickly build up in a country still facing the fallout from the catastrophic 2009 debt crisis. “This is why it is important that the Greek authorities are prepared and have in place a contingency plan to receive and support refugees,” he says.

Whether people stay put or seek alternative, riskier routes depends partly on their view of the likelihood of making it to Europe in a more regulated fashion. EU states have promised to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy. So far, just 497 people have been taken.

There also needs to be a way to turn back those deemed ineligible to enter the EU. Last year, only 33,590 people were returned either voluntarily or by force. In December, a group of 31 Pakistanis was dispatched to Islamabad, only to be sent straight back after their government said that they had been illegally deported.

Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, has pleaded for help on returns to stop Greece becoming a “warehouse for human souls”.

Mr Tsipras has met with Angela Merkel and François Hollande amid growing concern about Greece’s “lack of control” over thousands of migrants crossing its borders. Officials said leaders at the talks argued over conflicting national reactions to the migrant influx, and the potential collapse of Europe’s border-free travel. 

The European Commission has given Greece three months to restore order on its borders, but few believe Athens will be able to meet the deadline. At present, the Chios hotspot is not acting as a detention centre – after being registered, the newcomers are given a temporary visa and allowed to buy ferry tickets to the mainland. But, given the wire fences and the hardening mood in Europe, some believe that could soon be the purpose of the hotspots.

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