The European Union on Tuesday approved 83 million euros (93.8 million dollars) aimed at improving conditions for refugees in Greece, in its first disbursement under a mechanism set up to provide humanitarian aid within the bloc.
Economically embattled Greece has been the main point of arrival for migrants and asylum seekers entering Europe, with most of them crossing by sea from Turkey until a deal was struck with Ankara last month to return people.
EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides was in Greece on Tuesday to sign the first aid contracts, with funding going to the UN refugee agency, the International Federation of the Red Cross and six other aid organizations.
The money will help provide tens of thousands of people in Greece with healthcare, food, better hygiene conditions, temporary housing and child-friendly spaces, the European Commission said in a statement.
“We have to restore dignified living conditions for refugees and migrants in Europe as swiftly as possible,” Stylianides said. Greece is hosting around 50,000 people, he added, noting that more than twice that number had crossed the country this year.
Most of those arriving in Greece have sought to travel onwards to wealthy northern European states, but that route has effectively been sealed off as the countries along it have closed their borders to migrants and asylum seekers.
“The humanitarian crisis which is taking place in Greece is a European humanitarian crisis which in fact is stemming from a European problem,” said Ioannis Mouzalas, the Greek minister in charge of migration issues.
He stressed the importance of striking a balance between the welfare of host communities and the dignity of refugees.
The commission has proposed an initial 700 million euros in overall humanitarian spending on refugees within the EU for 2016 and the next two years.
Also Tuesday, the commission approved 110 million euros to help migrants and asylum seekers in Turkey, out of a 3-billion-euro facility agreed as part of the migration deal with Ankara.
Of this, 60 million euros will go towards food, healthcare and accommodation for migrants who have been returned from Greece to Turkey under the deal. The remaining 50 million euros will address the immediate needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey, the commission said.
The migration deal struck between the EU and Turkey is “starting to work,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Tuesday. He referred to a “sharp decline” in people undertaking the sea journey to Greece during comments to the Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights watchdog.
Under the EU-Turkey deal, the EU will take in one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian returned there from Greece.
The Council of Europe is due to assess the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in Greece and Turkey under the deal, as part of its responsibility for making sure that their basic rights are being respected.