Greece reactivates voluntary migrant return programme

Initiative was put on hold due to Covid-19 pandemic

03 August, 09:30

    (ANSAmed) - ROMA, 03 AGO - Greece's programme for the voluntary return of migrants to their country of origin, which had been suspended due to the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, has been reactivated by the government's migration ministry.

    ATHENS - Although cases of Covid-19 have seen a small spike in recent weeks with the opening of Greece's borders to tourists, the government has decided to move ahead with opening up the application process again, hot on the heels of restarting forced deportations for refugees and migrants who are ineligible for asylum. The Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme, as it is called, is funded by the European Union and was implemented in the context of decongesting the islands at Greece's behest. Initially announced back in early March during a visit by EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, the programme was suspended due to emergency measures put in place to deal with Covid-19 and border closures. "Following the resumption of forced deportations, we are aiming to schedule the first flights of those who have opted for voluntary returns in the coming weeks," Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis told reporters. "We are implementing a strict but fair immigration policy and our goal is to decongest the islands and the whole country following the increase of migration flows which has taken place in recent years," he said. According to AVRR programme criteria, migrants located in reception and identification centers on the islands are now able to apply for the programme. Based on existing funding, the programme can cover up to 5,000 applicants and it will provide each of them with 2,000 euros to support the return process.

    Problems continue at island camps Meanwhile, in related developments, the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) spoke out against local authorities on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos after MSF was forced to close down a Covid-19 isolation center and fined by the local municipality for zoning violations. The isolation center is located near the notoriously overcrowded and squalid Moria reception centre, currently housing around 15,000 refugees and migrants. "MSF strongly condemns the authorities' failure to identify a solution to keep the isolation center open when there is still a risk of Covid-19 spreading through the nearby Moria reception centre. There, more than 15,000 refugees are living in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions," MSF said in a press release.

    The isolation center was opened by MSF on May 6 in order to provide a safe area where infected, or potentially infected, patients could be treated and monitored without exposing the rest of the camp's population to the virus. The facility has a capacity to test and examine 800 people per week, and it's now expected that the burden will fall heavily on the central hospital on Lesvos, since any potential cases will be taken there. Just yesterday, four new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the Plomari area on the island. According to MSF, the facility - which is part of the migration ministry's Covid-19 response plan - began to receive legal papers earlier this month from authorities regarding the zoning issues. "We are deeply disappointed that local authorities could not quash these fines and potential charges in the light of the global pandemic, despite the efforts of relevant stakeholders," said Stephan Oberreit, MSF's Head of Mission in Greece. "The public health system on Lesvos will simply not be able to handle the devastation that an outbreak at the Moria camp would cause - which is why we stepped in," he said.

    (Migrants, wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, prepare to return home on flights from the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Greece.

    11 May 2020. EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS) (ANSA).

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