Greece says overcrowding in migrant camps has eased

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Refugees and migrants stand next to tents in the Mavrovouni camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

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ATHENS, May 14 (Reuters) - Greece said on Friday it had reduced overcrowding in its migrant camps with the number of asylum-seekers on its islands falling below 10,000 for the first time since Europe's migration crisis began in 2015.

The crammed island camps, some of which had spilled over into makeshift groups of tents in adjacent olive groves, have been the target of fierce criticism by the European Union and organizations including the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

At their worst, some of the camps were operating at two to three times their official capacity.

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"The reduction in the number of asylum-seekers to below 10,000 on our islands is more proof of the easing of the burden of immigration on local communities, and shows we are working in the right direction," Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said.

The five camps were originally intended to house about 6,000 people in total.

The Migration Ministry said there were 9,811 asylum-seekers in the five camps on islands close to the Turkish coast in mid-May, down from 19,748 in November 2018.

Arrivals from Turkey in the first four months of 2021, the ministry said, were down 73% compared to the same period last year, and outstanding asylum applications fell by 41% over the past year.

In 2015, Greece was the main route into Europe for nearly a million people seeking asylum, most of them refugees fleeing war and conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The numbers fell sharply the following year, after an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to shut off the main migrant corridor from its shores to the Greek islands.

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Reporting by Karolina Tagaris Editing by Mark Heinrich

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