Ursula von der Leyen gave a show of support to Athens earlier this month, as she described Greece as Europe’s “shield” in deterring migrants. Speaking at the border town of Orestiada, she said: “This border is not only a Greek border, it is also a European border. I thank Greece for being our European shield in these times.” But international humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (DWB), formally known as Médecins Sans Frontières, hit out at the comments.
Florian Westphal, managing director of the NGO in Germany, said he was shocked the EU chief praised the Greek government’s tough approach to migrants.
He said: “We are dismayed that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen supported the Greek government’s rigorous action against those seeking protection and the suspension of fundamental rights in her first reaction without restriction.
“The fact that she praises Greece as a shield for Europe and demands that it maintain its position is particularly disturbing.
“This language suggests that people seeking protection at the border are a threat.
“We know from our projects in Greece that there are numerous people looking for protection who have been through severe violence and who need medical care and protection.
“Especially a doctor like Dr. von der Leyen should focus on people and their basic needs.”
DWB said they had received reports refugees and migrants on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos have been subject to attacks and threats in the past few days.
Reem Mussa, an export on migration at DWB, said: “Last weekend, people told our team in Lesbos that they were stuck in the ocean for 16 hours while being repeatedly attacked by masked men who tampered with their boat. Coast Guard personnel simply watched.”
She said other migrants had reported intimidation and threats from the Greek coast guard on Samos.
Tens-of-thousands of migrants are currently staying in extremely overcrowded camps on the Greek Islands.
More than 20,000 people are living at the Moria camp on Lesbos, living in a facility designed for just 2,200 people.
In an attempt to ease conditions in camps, migrants are to be offered €2,000 (£1,764) per person to go home under a voluntary scheme launched by the EU.
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The amount is more than five times the usual sum offered to migrants to help them rebuild their lives in their country of origin.
The financial incentive will be in place for just one month, as the Commission fears an open-ended scheme would attract more migrants to Europe.
Sylvia Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner said the scheme will not apply to refugees who have no homes to return to, but is instead aimed at economic migrants seeking better living standards.
She said the scheme could be a quick way to relieve the pressure on camps on the Greek islands, where conditions are “totally unacceptable”.
Yesterday the EU executive warned the Greek government that it must uphold the right to asylum, after reports emerged asylum seekers had been captured and beaten before being expelled from the country without the chance to speak to a lawyer or claim asylum.
Ms Johansson, who travelled to Athens for talks on the migrant crisis, said: “We are going to discuss what they are doing, but they have to let people apply for asylum.”
It comes after Athens announced it was suspending asylum applications for one month, a move that has been heavily criticised.
Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg
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