ATHENS Greece, a frontline country for migrants fleeing to Europe from war and poverty, vowed on Wednesday to improve living conditions in its overcrowded island camps.
The number making the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece has fallen sharply this year under a European Union deal with Turkey. It stipulates that people arriving after March 20 are to be held on five Aegean islands and sent back if their asylum applications are not accepted.
According to figures from U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, 173,208 people have reached Greece this year, down from 856,723 in 2015.
Some 60,000 migrants, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, are still scattered across the country, which is struggling to emerge from a debt crisis.
About 15,000 are in overcrowded island camps that have grown violent as the slow processing of asylum requests adds to frustration over living conditions.
"We are planning to have new, small venues on the islands, either by setting up small, two-storey houses, in order to empty the tents, or by finding other places ... to improve conditions," Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas told reporters.
"It will need time but we will do it."
He said authorities would also set up small detention centres and boost policing.
Mouzalas acknowledged that slow processing of asylum requests was an "Achilles heel" but said Athens was hiring more staff to speed it up.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)