The days go by slowly on Chios, this island in the northeast Aegean Sea. A breeze sweeps the scent of jasmine and orange blossom across the landscape. Turkey's coast is visible just five miles away.

In the last year and a half, life has changed significantly here. Last fall, Chios—along with the Greek islands of Kos, Leros, Lesbos, and Samos—found itself in the path of an international humanitarian crisis as it became a transit point for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers bound for the European Union. Since the spring, the tide has mostly subsided thanks to a deal between the EU and Turkey. Ankara agreed to step up efforts to keep refugees from leaving on rubber boats to Greece and to accept failed asylum seekers returned from the Greek islands. In return, Turkey will get up to six billion euros to improve its refugee reception system. Turkey also stands to gain visa-free travel to the EU for its 80 million citizens and a faster track to long-stalled EU accession.

Although EU leaders tout the deal as a success—around 18,000 refugees have arrived in Greece since it took effect March 20, compared with more than 857,000 all last year—Greek islanders disagree. Chios Mayor Manolis Vournous told me that the deal has made the island, home to 50,000 Chians, an open detention center for 4,400 refugees. “It's an extraordinary policy, decided very quickly at the European level, but implemented locally,” Vournous said. “But there is a lack of information and coordination at both the EU and Greek government levels. This naturally brings the local society not to trust anymore those who decide the issues.”

Adding to the pressure was the European Parliament's vote last week to suspend Turkey's EU membership talks over government repression since the failed July 15 coup. Although the vote was nonbonding, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed against the parliament immediately afterward: "You did not keep your word," he said of the refugee deal. He threatened to open the border gates to again unleash a flood of migrants to Europe.

It is apparent that Brussels, in its haste to stop Europe's biggest refugee influx since World War II, gave little thought to the deal’s local costs.

It is apparent that Brussels, in its haste to stop Europe's biggest refugee influx since World War II, gave little thought to the deal’s local costs. Athens is struggling to handle 62,500 refugees spread throughout the country, and it has not helped its islands and smaller towns nearly enough. Chios has been left with a stationary refugee population that is tied up in the endless bureaucracy of the “hot spot” processing centers; a frustrated local citizenry increasingly driven to extreme right-wing, anti-refugee rhetoric; anda financial hit that came after it miraculously escaped the brunt of a six-year economic crisis that devastated much of Greece. In April, Vournous sued the Greek government over the detention-like conditions in the island’s processing center; the case is now proceeding.

The deal itself was the brainchild of Gerald Knaus, founder of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank. He is now one of its loudest critics. The Greek islands are at risk of becoming the “Nauru of Europe,” he says. Nauru is one of the remote Pacific island nations where Australia indefinitely detains asylum seekers trying to reach its shores, often in prisonlike conditions. “The idea of the agreement was to give people an incentive to no longer take to the sea, and for Syrians to be legally resettled to the EU,” Knaus says. “It was supposed to take the islands out of the frontline of defense to the EU, not be the first port of call.” 

But that has not happened because the Greek asylum, appeals, and deportation processes are so painfully slow. Some 16,000 refugees are stuck on the islands, and around 100 more still arrive daily. They are crammed into spaces designed for half that number. Adequate food and medical care are scarce. Fights and fires break out often: a woman and child were recently killed and several were injured in Lesbos when an expired gas canister exploded as they cooked. But refugees cannot leave the islands until the overburdened Greek Asylum Service decides their cases. Only 750 have been deported to Turkey so far, most because they were economic migrants from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh who chose not to apply for asylum. Those given deportation orders often appeal, triggering a lengthy legal process that has so far protected all those with asylum claims from being returned to Turkey. But if no recognized refugees are ever sent back, the agreement is essentially meaningless.

Vournous, Chios' mayor, is worried about the widening tears in the island's social fabric. Petty theft by hungry, poor refugees is on the rise. Sometimes they clash with locals. In the small villages around VIAL, a processing hot spot, residents have formed vigilante squads that patrol the area overnight. The situation has also hurt tourism, an important part of the local economy. International charter flight arrivals have fallen more than 70 percent since 2014. For the first time in recent memory, no charter flights are scheduled for next year. It’s a slap in the face, Vournous said, after Chios was recognized internationally last year for its generosity toward refugees. Meanwhile, “the highest cost is the cost of opportunity, which is huge, and we will pay for it in the future,” Vournous explained. Municipal infrastructure and economic development projects have been put on hold as refugee management consumes attention from local priorities.

A tent burns during riots at a refugee camp in Chios, Greece, November 2016.
Eurokinissi / Reuters

Far away from the problems on the ground, EU and Greek authorities are locked in an elaborate blame game. “The goal of ensuring returns . . . has mostly been hampered by the slow pace of processing of asylum applications at first instance by the Greek Asylum Service (even with the help of the European Asylum Support Office [EASO]) and of processing of appeals by the newly established Greek Appeals Authority,” the European Commission wrote in its September progress report on the EU-Turkey deal. It also called on Greece to “urgently” increase its capacity to return arriving migrants, “which is considered to be the key deterrent factor for irregular migrants and smugglers.”

Greek officials take a decidedly different tone. The country's asylum service director, Maria Stavropoulou, recently told CNN Greece the EASO has sent fewer than 40 of the promised 400 “asylum experts” from various EU member states who are supposed to help Greek authorities decide cases on the islands. Many refuse to send more because of concerns about personnel safety, she added; refugees, in fear of deportation and living in abysmally overcrowded camps, have set makeshift EASO and asylum service offices on fire. Belgium recently recalled its staff from Greece over concerns that the employees would be caught in an attack. But the painstaking process of evaluating claims cannot move any faster until Greece gets more EU help. “It's a vicious cycle,” Stavropoulou said.

EASO, meanwhile, says it has sent 44 and is trying to round up at least 54 more. The 400 promised at the deal's outset, explains spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri, were based on arrival numbers, which have fallen significantly. As to why more have not been deployed to Greece by now, Schembri says they're needed in their own countries. “In the EU there is currently a big backlog of asylum cases [around one million] which need to be processed,” he told me.

Far away from the problems on the ground, EU and Greek authorities are locked in an elaborate blame game.

A recent case showed how refugees are endangered by the lack of personnel and oversight. Human rights groups allege that Greece tricked at least eight Syrian refugees into being deported to Turkey without giving them a chance to apply for asylum, a violation of international law. The group, which included four children under five years old, arrived on the Greek island of Milos on October 9. Two weeks later, EU border agency (Frontex) officials escorted them onto a flight they thought was bound for Athens.

The Syrians realized they’d been brought to Turkey only when they got off the plane and saw Turkish flags, they told Amnesty International. “This is at best incompetence, and at worst a cynical attempt by authorities, under ever-growing pressure from the European Union, to remove Syrian refugees from the country at any cost," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe director.

To relieve pressure on the islands, the Greek government and local mayors are fighting over transferring refugees to the mainland. But that would be “like pulling a key building block out of a Jenga tower,” Knaus told me, because it would signal to potential migrants that they're not actually at risk of being returned to Turkey. And that could trigger a repeat of last fall, when dozens of boats flooded Greek shores each day.

What needs to be done to keep the islands from becoming Europe's open-air detention centers? First and foremost, the EU and Greek authorities must jointly ensure that those currently stranded are processed and moved onward far more quickly. Enough EU funding is not the problem; rather, Greece needs additional personnel. There must also be clearer communication between Brussels, where the deal was hammered out, and islands such as Chios, where it's put into practice. This is especially crucial as Turkey, with its own fragile political situation, grows more vocal about scrapping the deal unless the EU makes good on its promises. 

“The EU needs to show that the islands are not a trap, that they won't be a Nauru,” Knaus said. “But the Greeks need to demand it. Then the islanders might have the patience to say, ‘This is the first time we have a credible plan that is not at our expense.’” If the deal collapses, he added, “the islanders are again trapped. And they really need a success more than anyone else.”

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  • TANIA KARAS is a freelance journalist based in Athens. Reporting for this story was partially supported by the GroundTruth Project. 
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