Greece: asylum seekers in abysmal conditions on islands
Groups press Tsipras for transfers to mainland
Athens, Greece, October 23, 2017 — Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras should end the Greek government’s “containment policy” of confining asylum seekers to the Aegean islands, 19 human rights and humanitarian aid organizations said in an open letter released today.
Thousands of people, including very young children, single or pregnant women, and people with physical disabilities, are trapped in abysmal conditions as winter sets in. Forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity, cannot be justified by the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, the organizations said.
Since the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016, the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros have become places of indefinite confinement. Thousands of women, men, and children are trapped in deplorable and volatile conditions, with many denied access to adequate asylum procedures. Asylum seekers who arrived on the islands in the first days of the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal have been stuck there for almost 19 months.
The recent increase in arrivals of men, women, and children has increased the pressure on the already overcrowded reception and identification centers known as hotspots. Current arrivals are still comparatively quite low and should be manageable for Greece and the EU more broadly, but they include a significant number of women and children.
The situation is particularly critical on Samos and Lesbos, where a total of more than 8,300 asylum seekers and migrants are living in hotspot facilities meant for just 3,000. The recent announcement that 2,000 asylum seekers will be moved from the two islands to the mainland in the coming weeks as an emergency decongestion measure is a positive development, the groups said. But it is not sufficient to alleviate the current overcrowding of the facilities and does not sustainably address the systemic issues that have created this emergency situation – namely the containment policy.
With the approach of the third winter since large-scale arrivals on the islands began, it is evident that the Greek authorities cannot meet the basic needs and protect the rights of asylum seekers while they remain on the islands. Implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement has been cited by EU and Greek officials as a justification for the containment policy. But forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity, cannot be justified, the organizations said.
The organizations urged Prime Minister Tsipras to protect the human rights of asylum seekers trapped on the islands by ending the containment policy. They should be transferred to the mainland so that they can be provided with adequate accommodation and services to meet their needs and to ensure that their asylum claims are fairly heard.
Quotes from Participating Groups
“Greece should end its cruel policy of trapping asylum seekers on the islands,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People should not be forced to suffer another winter in unheated tents and without proper services.”
“The policy of containment is putting the lives of people who are seeking sanctuary in Europe at risk,” said Jana Frey, the International Rescue Committee’s country director. “While we welcome the government’s announcement to move 2,000 people on Lesbos and Samos off the islands in the coming days as an emergency measure, this can only be seen as a first step. Far more must be done to both improve conditions on the islands, and move the most vulnerable to the mainland, in order to ensure that lives are not lost this winter.”
“The EU-Turkey deal must no longer be used as pretext to strand asylum-seekers in inhuman conditions on the Greek islands’’ said Irem Arf, Amnesty International’s researcher on migration. “It is imperative that the Greek government urgently move people to mainland Greece.”
“The policy of implementing the EU-Turkey Statement has been violating asylum seekers’ rights under international law, and has contributed in disrupting social cohesion in the Greek islands affected,” said Spyros Rizakos, director of Aitima. “It is high time the EU and Greek authorities abandoned this policy.”
“Europe is refusing to offer humane reception conditions and dignity to people in need who arrive on our shores,” said Nicola Bay, head of mission for Oxfam in Greece. “Greek and EU authorities should immediately transfer migrants to the Greek mainland instead of leaving them trapped in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands.”
“Making these Greek islands a huge detention center isn’t in the interests of anyone,” said Gianmaria Pinto, Country Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We all know what it is needed, including the government: to provide vulnerable people trapped on the islands with dignified accommodation and adequate services, without overlooking legal aid.”
Joint letter to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras
His Excellency Mr. Alexis Tsipras Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic Prime Minister’s Diplomatic Cabinet Vasilissis Sofias 5
106 71 Athens
Fax: +30 210 368 1717
Dear Prime Minister Tsipras,
Athens, October 23, 2017
We, undersigned human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organisations, are writing to express our deep concern at the deteriorating conditions for thousands of women, men and children, seeking asylum and trapped on the Aegean islands as winter sets in.
We urge you to put an end to the ongoing “containment policy” of trapping asylum seekers on the islands if they arrived after the entry into force of the EU-Turkey Statement of March 18, 2016, and to immediately transfer asylum seekers to the mainland and meet their protection needs, including by providing them with adequate and dignified protection, accommodation and access to services.
We acknowledge the efforts of the Greek Government and the solidarity of the Greek people towards asylum seekers and migrants in the past years. Many of our organisations have repeatedly called on the European Union and its member states to demonstrate genuine collective action and share fairly the responsibility towards asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Greece since 2015 in a way that is humane and respects their human rights. However, the disappointing lack of real solidarity and commitment to responsibility sharing by many EU member states is no justification for the current state of asylum seekers on the Greek islands.
Since the EU-Turkey Statement came into effect, the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros have been transformed into places of indefinite confinement for asylum seekers. Thousands of women, men and children have been trapped on these islands in abysmal conditions and many lack access to adequate and timely asylum procedures and protection. Some who arrived on the islands in the early days of the EU-Turkey Statement have remained stuck there for 19 months.
The recent increase in arrivals, which are still comparatively quite low and should be manageable for Greece and the EU more broadly, include a considerable number of women and children, and have put further pressure on the already overcrowded hotspots. According to recent government data, the situation is particularly critical in the hotspots on Samos and Lesbos, where a total of more than 8,300 people are living in facilities intended for just 3,000. We welcome the recent announcement that 2,000 asylum seekers will be moved from Samos and Lesbos to the mainland in the coming weeks as an emergency decongestion measure, and hope to see this commitment fulfilled as soon as possible; however, this is not sufficient to alleviate the current overcrowding of the facilities and does not sustainably address the systemic issues that have created this emergency situation. Only uplifting the geographical limitation imposed on the asylum seekers on the islands can provide a sustainable solution.
While the ongoing transition to full State management of the provision of services on the islands began in August, a harmonised, holistic response plan has yet to be released, reception conditions are deteriorating, and gaps in basic services, especially medical, are increasing.
On Lesbos, more than 5,400 people live in overcrowded tents and containers, with little access to proper shelter, food, water, sanitation, health care, or protection. Dozens of people, including very young children, are crammed into tents with only a canvas cloth separating one family from another. The living conditions are particularly harsh for pregnant women to endure, and place themselves and their babies’ health at risk. Summer camping tents, designed to accommodate not more than two people, are now holding families of up to seven. Accessing water, sanitation and food is particularly difficult for the many people with physical disabilities—for example, people using wheelchairs simply cannot reach these basic services. Single women in the hotspots report harassment by some of the men. And some asylum seekers have gone through their asylum interview without having had the requisite vulnerability assessment critical for determining both the asylum pathway available to them and the care they may require to prevent further deterioration of their health. These conditions have a devastating impact on the long-term well-being of people trapped there.
A number of human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organisations, including Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Human Rights Watch, have documented the impact of these conditions on the mental health of asylum seekers and migrants – including incidents of self-injury, suicide attempts, anxiety, aggression, and depression. Professionals who have interacted with the asylum seekers note that in many cases, the psychological distress they experience has been factored and/or exacerbated by the policy of “containing” them on islands, which also impedes their access to adequate support and mental health care.
Implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement has been cited by EU and Greek officials as a justification for the containment policy. But forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their wellbeing, health and dignity cannot be justified. As we approach the third winter since large-scale arrivals on the islands began, and
the second winter since the entry into force of the EU-Turkey Statement, it is evident that the Greek authorities cannot meet the basic needs and protect the rights of asylum seekers while they remain on the islands.
Greece has a responsibility to protect the human rights of women, men and children arriving on the islands. That can only be achieved by ending the current containment policy and transferring asylum seekers to the mainland, so that they can be provided with adequate accommodation, services to meet their needs, and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures.
We thank you for your attention, and remain available for any further discussion with your excellency or a relevant government official on this important matter.
ARSIS-Association for the Social Support of Youth
Danish Refugee Council
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Greek Council for Refugees (The Greek Council for Refugees endorses the text, within the framework of its actions and scope)
Greek Forum of Refugees
Greek Helsinki Monitor
Hellenic League for Human Rights
Human Rights Watch
International Rescue Committee
Jesuit Refugee Council
KSPM-Ecumenical Refugee Program
Lesbos Legal Center
Norwegian Refugee Council
Terre des Hommes
To read the joint letter to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, please visit:
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 28 offices across the U.S. helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.