Did Berlin seek the Greek government's help in limiting the number of family members transferred from Greek refugee camps to Germany? Rumors that a quota of 70 people was imposed this spring have swirled since May, when the Greek immigration minister wrote to Germany's Interior Ministry that transfers from Greece had been slowed "as agreed."
4,500 people, of whom almost 3,000 are children, have permission to come to Germany to join family members and are currently waiting to be flown out of Greece. That figure has increased dramatically from 2,500 in June, while the numbers of people brought to Germany dropped dramatically in April and May before rising somewhat in the following months. Frustrated by delays of a year or more, ten refugees in Athens are currently staging a hunger strike to demand that they be reunited with their families.
Germany's Interior Ministry firmly denies the existence of any quota. In Berlin on Friday, ministry spokesman Tobias Plate said that the problems with bringing the family members to Germany were organizational in nature, as were any agreements with Greek authorities. He added that Germany admitted a disproportionate share of refugees guaranteed admission to EU countries as part of the family reunification provisions in the Dublin III agreement.
But activists on the ground in Greece say that there was in fact a de facto quota imposed in the run-up to Germany's national election this September – whether or not family members should be allowed to join refugees in Germany remains a controversial political issue.
"There was an unofficial agreement between the Greek and German governments in which the German side apparently suggested or decided upon a numerical limit," Salinia Stroux of the Refugee Support Aegean organization on the Greek island of Chios told Deutsche Welle. "It was never officially confirmed. But here at the Greek asylum authorities, the refugees were all regularly told that there was a 70-person limit."
'The blame game' while thousands wait
To counter the notion of a 70-person limit, Plate said that the number of refugees transferred from Greece to Germany in recent months had fluctuated between 80 and 250. He acknowledged that some of the people concerned had been forced to wait longer than the six months stipulated as a deadline by Dublin III, but attributed that to, among other things, inefficient Greek bureaucracy.
Stroux tells a different story. She acknowledges that Greek governmental authorities, already understaffed due to cutbacks in the wake of the financial crisis, are chronically "overwhelmed." But she says that a de facto quota was in effect until late August when the number of refugees Germany wanted Greece to send along was increased to "around 250." The German government, she adds, is playing a "blame game."
Barbara Lochbihler, a Green member of the European Parliament who is currently on a fact-finding tour of refugee camps in Greece, says there is blame to be apportioned on both sides for the failure to reunite people, who in many cases have been waiting for well over a year without their loved ones.
"On the one hand people have asked: does (Germany) not want this?" Lochbichler told DW. "And other hand, people ask: Can the Greek administration deal with it? I think that if Germany showed more often that it wants this, then the Greeks would be able to deal with it more easily."
Meanwhile, no matter who is to blame, the negative consequences of this refugee bottleneck keep getting worse and worse.
Refugees have to pay their own way
Lochbichler described Greek refugee camps, particularly on the Aegean islands, as overcrowded, unhygienic and dangerous. She points out that last year six people died in such camps in part because of low temperatures in winter.
"I talked to a doctor who said that many of the children can't withstand the cold," Lochbichler said.
Stroux says that refugees have been forced to wait for more than a year to apply for entry to Germany and that some had to use Skype to even register themselves. As a result typical waiting times after permission to come to Germany has been granted tend to be eight to nine months – provided the refugees can pay for their own airfare.
"(As a rule) refugees have to bear the costs themselves, and when you consider that most cases are families or mothers on their own with up to five children or more, you can imagine how high those costs are," Stroux says. "Most of them don't have that sort of money. In that case, they fall down even lower on the waiting list."
Stroux says that there is only one Greek travel agency that deals with finding flights for refugees unable to take care of transport on their own. She suggests Germany charter flights to bring refugees in from Greece as a "quick solution."
The strains of waiting
Both Stroux and Lochbichler describe the wait as taking a heavy toll on the refugees, particularly the children. Although Germany is all these people's ultimate destination, they have few opportunities in the refugee camps to learn German or otherwise prepare for life in the country.
Stroux compares their lot to that of homeless people, living in isolation from the rest of society. Psychological problems are increasing, she says, from the pressure of waiting around in unsuitable surroundings, including makeshift quarters on a pier with no room for children to play. Recently a child died in that camp, she adds, after falling in the water and drowning.
Lochbichler says that there is no shortage of EU money available to improve the situation. And while it's up to Greece to improve its administration, she thinks that Germany should take the lead on the whole.
When asked whether she believed that Greece would speed up its processing of the refugees if Germany pressed for swifter action, she said it was "entirely possible," adding "the biggest relief from Germany would be, if we'd accept these people."