Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas speaks during a press briefing in Athens, Greece, Dec. 28, 2016. Greek government pledged on Wednesday to improve living conditions for refugees stranded in the debt-ridden country in 2017. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)
by Maria Spiliopoulou
ATHENS, Dec. 28 (Xinhua) -- Greek government pledged on Wednesday to improve living conditions for refugees stranded in the debt-ridden country in 2017.
During a press briefing in Athens, Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas elaborated on the progress achieved in recent months and the plans for the new year regarding the management of the refugee crisis.
The Greek official acknowledged shortages and mistakes and underlined the solidarity Greek society has demonstrated to the more than one million people who fled war and poverty and landed on Greek shores since 2015.
Mouzalas promised efforts from the Greek side to provide more aid to the 62,000 refugees and migrants trapped in Greece after the closure of the Balkan route to central Europe last winter, urging other European countries to offer more support and share the burden with the countries at the frontline of the crisis.
With a few exceptions, most refugees and migrants will spend this winter in decent accommodation centers with heated containers, prefabricated houses or hotel rooms and apartments under a UNHCR program, he stressed.
Last winter, thousands of people stayed in tents in makeshift camps or organized facilities with no sufficient food or medical care.
Currently the refugees and migrants are accommodated in 36 organized sites nationwide with average capacity of 600-900, the minister noted, recognizing that the situation remains difficult for those trapped on the northern Aegean Sea islands in overcrowded hot spots.
Under the European Union-Turkey agreement reached in March to stem the refugee influx, all new arrivals remain on the islands until the asylum bids are assessed. Those who were not eligible for asylum were returned to Turkey.
Although the number of arrivals has dramatically declined in recent months compared to 2015, due to delays in the asylum procedures, the hotspots on Lesvos, Chios and other islands are currently hosting 15,500 people, almost doubling their capacity.
Mouzalas promised on Wednesday that in early 2017 the understaffed Asylum Service will be strengthened and new small detention centers will be created on the islands to decongest the existing facilities and ease tensions in the hotspots.
In addition, in springtime the Greek government plans to replace the free meals offered to refugees with a 400 euros (415.65 U.S. dollars) per family monthly allowance. Electronic identification cards will be issued for all migrants and refugees living in Greece, the minister announced.
Speaking to reporters, the Greek official put emphasis on the issue of the unaccompanied minors, vowing more hard work to create more special facilities for this vulnerable group of refugees and migrants and tackle the challenge.
Out of the some 20,000 underage refugees and migrants currently stranded in Greece, approximately 2,200 minors are unaccompanied. Due to the lack of adequate special facilities in several cases, they are accommodated in closed areas within hot spots or in police custody for their own protection.
"The facilities for unaccompanied minors are special facilities. There should be 20-30 minors hosted in each one. They receive special support. Old tools are insufficient. We are trying to create new tools, such as the safe zones inside the existing camps," Mouzalas said.
"We believe that as long as the EU-Turkey agreement is still valid by Easter time, perhaps a little later, we will have addressed also this issue of the unaccompanied minors in Greece," the minister said, reiterating Athens' commitment to the deal.