The United Nations refugee agency has scaled back assistance to migrants landing in Greece due to concerns over a controversial European Union plan to detain and return them to Turkey.
The UNHCR’s criticism and withdrawal of some services in Greece compounds the problems facing a multi-billion-euro scheme that major rights groups say is unethical, possibly illegal and probably unworkable.
"UNHCR has till now been supporting the authorities in the so-called hotspots on the Greek islands, where refugees and migrants were received, assisted, and registered," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the agency.
“Under the new provisions, these sites have now become detention facilities. Accordingly, and in line with our policy on opposing mandatory detention, we have suspended some of our activities at all closed centres on the islands.”
The UNHCR will no longer help Greek authorities transport migrants to the “hotspots”, but will continue to provide urgent assistance to new arrivals at the shoreline and monitor conditions and rights standards at the camps.
Ms Fleming said the UNHCR feared that "the EU-Turkey deal is being implemented before the required safeguards are in place in Greece (which) does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases".
“UNHCR is not a party to the EU-Turkey deal, nor will we be involved in returns or detention. We will continue to assist the Greek authorities to develop an adequate reception capacity,” she added.
Under the plan agreed last Friday, each Syrian landing on a Greek island from March 20th will be sent back to Turkey, and in exchange one Syrian will be sent to the EU from a Turkish refugee camp.
The EU aims to deter migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to Greece, but it is not clear whether Turkish efforts and a new Nato patrol mission in the region will significantly reduce the numbers of people setting sail with smugglers.
In return for Ankara's assistance, the EU agreed to accelerate talks on Turkey's accession bid; to double refugee aid for Ankara to €6 billion; and to let Turks travel without visas to the EU's passport-free Schengen zone by June.
Turkish personnel are now working with Greek colleagues to co-ordinate implementation of the plan, but Athens is also calling for fellow EU states to fulfil pledges to send police officers, asylum experts and other staff to the Greece.
With Balkan states to the north now refusing to admit asylum seekers, Greece is struggling to accommodate about 50,000 migrants on its territory.
The largest group, comprising about 12,000 people, is at Idomeni on the Macedonian border, where the UNHCR said conditions were "dire".