As you all know, Greece has been exposed to migratory pressure for many years now. While there is no comparison with the intensity of the situation 5 years ago, definitely we are not where we were at that time, we all recognise the huge challenge that Greece is facing and that Greece is constantly exposed to migratory pressures which at periods becomes difficult to bear. At the beginning of November 2019, there were more than 35,000 migrants present on the hotspot islands 17,000 migrants were present on Lesvos alone.
It has been and it remains a priority for this Commission to help the entire country addressing these challenges. Urgent action is needed to alleviate the pressure on the islands and to improve the conditions for migrants and refugees.
We need to do everything we can to support national authorities. And we do it. As regards the financial support, the Commission has made available to Greece 2.2 billion EUR since 2015 - the largest financial support ever provided to a Member State for migration. We have also been providing technical and operational support with colleagues from the Commission being deployed on the ground and being in regular contact with the Greek authorities. We have been doing that during the last five years, supporting the previous government and the current government in Greece, that are doing whatever they can in order to address this issue.
However, and as you know, the role of the national authorities in handling the situation on the ground remain of paramount importance; I want to be very clear on that: The Commission can only provide support, it cannot replace the Greek authorities. The Commission – at all levels – operational but equally politically, is in permanent contact with the Greek authorities.
At the beginning of October, I visited both Athens and Ankara together with the German Minister of Interior, Mr Seehofer, to discuss the situation with the Government in both countries and find ways to address the challenges, also in the context of the EU-Turkey Statement. In addition, just a few weeks ago, a technical mission at the highest level, with my Director-General, Ms Paraskevi Michou, also went to Greece to discuss ways to further support Greece in developing effective solutions to the challenges on the ground. In fact, many of the existing problems have become worse with the increase of arrivals to the islands over the last six months.
The decongestion of the islands and the need to increase the reception capacity on the islands and on the mainland remain key priorities. More efficient asylum procedures would greatly contribute to improving the processing of the asylum requests; this would also help speeding up the return of those who have no right to stay.
Moreover, ensuring the provision of adequate health care, and in particular intensifying the preparations for winterisation remain paramount and very urgent. Seeing those images of vulnerable people stranded in the cold in the past has been a collective shame for Europe. We simply cannot have another winter like that. And we have been given all assurances by the Greek government that they have taken care of it.
As you all know, the Greek Parliament has adopted a new law on asylum and reception on 31 October with the objective of making procedures more efficient without compromising on fundamental rights. It is a very important step forward. We have been following closely its adoption process; once it will be formally notified to the Commission, we will assess the law’s compliance with the EU legal framework.
Now, let me give you some examples of EU support on the islands: The creation of a new Reception and Identification Centre in the island of Samos, which Greece is currently working to implement with EU funding, is a positive step towards improving the living conditions on the island. It is important to make the new Centre operational as soon as possible, and no later than January 2020. The Commission staff on the island of Lesvos has facilitated with the agreement of the authorities the renting of an area where asylum seekers have improved living conditions. In September 2019, the Commission provided an additional 4.2 million Euro funding to the International Organisation for Migration for the creation of Safe Zones on all hotspot islands.
The critical situation of unaccompanied minors in Greece continues being a top priority and I have personally called for a pro-active approach to find new places and reach tangible results, as well as to facilitate their integration.
In this context, the Commission has recently awarded an emergency assistance project for the creation of safe zones, dedicated for unaccompanied minors in the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Leros and Kos.
I know that the Greek Minister of Interior has also urged his counterparts to relocate unaccompanied minors. Everybody should be part of this effort. It is not a Greek problem, it is not a neighbourhood problem, it is a European problem. The Commission supports such bilateral agreements between Member States, including financially.
The assistance of Member States on the basis of solidarity and responsibility is of utmost importance. Migration remains an issue of joint responsibility of all Member States and the Union as a whole.
Migration and its management is testing every day the values and the principles upon which Europe is built. As I said before, it is a European issue. And even an issue of global dimensions.
This moment, while we are discussing in Brussels, more than 400 million people are somewhere in the world, seeking for a safe haven. Migrants or refugees. The root causes are still there and unfortunately they will be there for many many years. So we have a huge responsibility to address this issue and lead the world in providing support to these people and finding practical solutions.
At the same time, returns need to be accelerated, also in the context of the effective implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement. The pace of returns from Greece to Turkey remains critically slow with about 1900 returns since March 2016, of which some 130 in 2019. The number is very low, and we all know that. This low level of returns is a huge obstacle to any progress. At the same time, also in the area of returns, Greece is and will not be left alone.
While a lot has to do with improved procedures by the Greek authorities, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency stands ready to provide operational and financial support to Greece for returning people, not only to Turkey under the EU-Turkey Statement, but to their country of origin, in full respect, I repeat and I stress this, of the principle of non-refoulement and other safeguards embedded in our EU acquis on return. We acknowledge the efforts of Greece all these years in all these interconnected areas. A lot has been achieved but there is still much to be done.
The Commission is committed to continuing working hand in hand with the Greek authorities and together with our agencies on the ground, to mobilise all support needed there.
Finally, let me conclude again by recalling that only together, in a spirit of trust and unity, we can find sustainable solutions for the big issue of migration in Europe.
I welcome the declaration by the President-elect of last week, when she announced that a draft proposal for a new migration package will be presented by the new Commission in the first or second quarter of 2020. It must be our goal to become a model of how migration can be managed sustainably and with a human approach, but effectively.
And believe me, our Commission has put a strong basis on that.
Thank you indeed, for this important debate. As I said, we won’t stop supporting Greece in addressing these challenges. We are committed to continuing working hand in hand with the Greek authorities and together with our agencies on the ground mobilise all support needed. We know what is the situation, and most of you were very vocal on that and I was also very clear on my introductory remarks.
We need a common and sustainable solution. I would like also to thank for your support in this regard.
This but also the previous Parliament has worked very hard. I am sure that with your continuous help, the new Common European Asylum System can become a reality soon.
Today is one of the last occasions for me to speak to directly and openly in the context of a plenary meeting, before my term finishes. Let me therefore first of all thank you wholeheartedly for the personal and collective exchanges that we have had, as well as the excellent cooperation, over the past 5 years.
It has been an honour and a privilege working together with you, in order to work for our citizens and respond to unprecedented challenges to our common house, Europe. To deliver a Europe that is more resilient, more secure, but also more humane. To uphold the values and principles upon which the EU is built.
This has been a constant battle and it will be a continuous challenge for the years to come. Because as I said before, migration came to stay for many many years and Europe has to be better prepared. This is what we have been doing for the past five years. How to address certain fears and concerns of our citizens, without becoming isolated, intolerant or exclusive. Earlier this week we all commemorated 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A division that was larger than Europe, but than ran through its very heart. The fall of the Berlin wall shows the power of our citizens, and the power of stamina, of not giving up, of believing – both individually, but more importantly as a community.
No single person could have demolished that wall. But a collective spirit did. This spirit should guide us in an unpredictable future.
The European Union, our charter of fundamental rights - which celebrates also 10 years by the way - our Schengen area of free movement, all of this is about keeping that collective spirit alive. It is about protecting it and strengthening it.
The past 5 years have shown that whatever comes our way – migration, climate change, terrorism – we can only succeed if we work together in unity and trust.
Migration and security challenges are testing our vision, our resilience and our commitment to our European principles.
And this House is a fundament in this success. This is what I have experienced for the past five years. I am proud to have shared this supreme duty with all the proud and democratic political forces in this House. I came here five years ago as a pro-European, Greek politician and I am going back as an even more convinced and committed, active politician of Europe, but above everything as a convinced, European citizen.
Thank you very much.