Greek Court Upends Rules Limiting Migrants’ Movements

Asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan playing football last month at a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

ATHENS — The authorities in Greece were scrambling on Thursday to respond to a top court’s ruling that migrants arriving on Greek islands could travel freely around the country, a decision that could relieve pressure on detention centers but potentially undermine a European Union agreement to manage the flow of refugees.

There are no “serious or overriding reasons of public interest” to justify a measure, known as “geographical restriction,” prohibiting migrants on Greek islands from going to the mainland while their applications are being processed, according to a ruling by the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court, on Wednesday.

In March 2016, the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey to try to ease a migrant crisis on the Continent. Under the terms of that deal, refugees arriving on Greek islands from Turkey had to remain in their port of entry while their applications were reviewed, leading to camps where thousands languish in deplorable conditions and where frustrations often boil over into riots.

Athens has been reluctant to lift restrictions on migrants’ movements, fearing that doing so would remove disincentives for refugees and their traffickers to cross the Aegean. “We’ll see how we will tackle it,” said Yiannis Balafas, a deputy migration minister.

But he added that the decision was unlikely to “topple” the deal between Turkey and the European Union. The decision on Wednesday, which is not retroactive, will not apply to the more than 15,000 refugees already being held in detention centers for months or even years while their asylum applications are reviewed.

Greece and Turkey have a long history of tensions over territory and sovereignty, which could aggravate the situation. “The tension does not help the management of the refugee and migration issue,” the migration minister, Dimitris Vitsas, said on Tuesday. “On the contrary, it creates problems, so it is in our interest and that of Turkey to reduce the tension and the rhetoric.”

With spring weather improving in Europe, the number of refugees trying to reach European shores has begun to rise again, and dozens arrive each day. That is significantly less, however, than the thousands who crossed the Aegean each day at the peak of the refugee crisis in early 2016.

The 28 countries in the European Union granted asylum to 538,000 people in 2017, almost 25 percent less than in 2016, according to Eurostat, the statistics arm of the organization. Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis made up 64 percent of those granted protection.

More than 60 percent of those granted asylum had applied in Germany, with the next largest numbers of successful applications in France, Italy and Austria. Greece accepted 12,015 applications for asylum last year, Eurostat said.

Gavriil Sakellaridis, the head of Amnesty International’s Greece chapter, said the Greek court decision had created new responsibilities for the government in Athens. “We expect the Greek authorities to respect this decision and transfer asylum seekers reaching the islands to the mainland,” he said on Wednesday.

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