ATHENS, Greece, Dec 15, (Agencies): The European Union pledged Monday to spend 80 million euros ($88 million) to house migrants in Greece even as it seeks tougher procedures for asylumseekers traveling to the continent. Kristalina Georgieva, the EU Commissioner for Budget and Human resources, signed an agreement for a rent subsidy program for up to 20,000 people next year. Thousands of stranded refugees are currently being housed in old venues from the 2004 Olympics, at camps on Greek islands, or are sleeping in tents pitched in city squares and parks in Athens. “The 80 million euros is for the year 2016 … after that it would be assessed. It could be expanded,” Georgieva told The Associated Press. “Families could stay at an accommodation for two months, so the number involved over the year would be quite a lot higher than 20,000.” Nearly 800,000 migrants and refugees have crossed through Greece this year, hoping to travel to northern Europe. But Macedonia and other Balkan countries last month toughened their border rules, restricting crossings to those from war-torn nations like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and stranding others.
Under the Greek housing scheme, assisted by the UN refugee agency, migrants will receive hotel vouchers or checks to live in vacant apartments. The program will significantly increase Greece’s capacity to shelter migrants, which currently stands at about 10,000, according to an EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he or she was not authorized to talk to the media. EU authorities have promised to overhaul the bloc’s border protection agency, speed up and coordinate deportations and process more asylum claims in arrival countries like Greece and Italy. Greece’s left-wing government closed migrant detention centers around the country earlier this year but conceded Monday that some detention is needed to make deportation procedures work. “Detention and return is a form of violence that saddens me,” said Yiannis Mouzalas, a Greek migration minister. “But a government is obliged to abide by what is legally necessary … if a bottleneck stays open, that bottle will smash.” Meanwhile, Pope Francis on Tuesday called on countries to review their laws on migration in order to welcome refugees and help them integrate into society and become legal residents. His appeal comes at a time when several countries in Europe want to shut their borders to migrants and refugees, while immigration is also a prominent issue in the US presidential campaign.