A European Union (EU) deal with Turkey has helped stem the flow of asylum seekers making the narrow but precarious sea crossing from Turkish shores to outlying Greek islands – but many are still getting across.
More than 160,000 people have arrived in Greece by crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, almost half of them from Syria, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
But some of the Syrians who have applied for refugee status in the EU are regretting their decision to leave the wartorn country.
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Four months of living in a broken tent by Athens’ Pireaus harbour, waiting for his asylum claim to be processed, has caused Mustafa to bitterly regret his decision to leave Aleppo.
“Anywhere. Anything is better than this,” he said, crying.
Mustafa, 38, from Syria, and his wife, Nadia, 37, sit sweaty and squashed in their small tent in the stifling Greek summer heat. They said their asylum interview has been repeatedly delayed.
The couple left most of their family behind in Syria, except for Mustafa’s parents who made it to a refugee camp in Turkey.
“At this rate we’ll be here for years. Sometimes, I just want to take my wife’s hand and jump into the sea.”
To receive asylum in Europe, arrivals in Greece must go through a rigorous process through EASO, the European Asylum Support Office.
“The time it takes for a relocation request to go through in Greece really depends on the member state in question. Some are relatively fast and some are not,” Iota Peristeri, who works at the Greek asylum service, told the Reuters news agency.
“You could be lucky and you’re only in Greece for three months or so, or it could take much longer.”
Back to Turkey – or Syria
For those who arrived after the EU-Turkey deal in March, the wait could be much longer as EU member states continue to fill up their asylum quotas and become increasingly cautious about who they grant asylum to.
“The relocation process is so slow. I think life would be easier back in Syria,” said Maha, 38, who left Aleppo with her three children in February after her husband died of a stroke.
Although she registered her and her family as refugees with EASO in March, they are yet to have their first interview.
“I just want them to hurry up or at the very least send us back to Syria … a lot of people regret coming at all, and many are being smuggled back to Turkey,” she said.
While many asylum seekers like Maha are placed in official refugee camps, the majority are forced to sleep on the streets in Athens as they wait for their applications to be processed.
“People are so desperate here, they’ll really do anything,” said Safi, a former NATO employee and translator. “Everyone is depressed here, myself included. Nobody ever feels good.
“I have friends who are saying they’ll go back to join al-Qaeda or worse, because they feel like they have no other choice. And, you know what? I don’t blame them.”