15, 000 refugees face another winter on the Greek islands

Almost fifteen thousand refugees, including young children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, remain stranded on the Greek islands. Conditions are dire, and as arrivals continue – unabated by the approach of winter – the existing, inadequate facilities are placed under greater strain.

Following the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, the Greek islands have effectively become sites of indefinite detention. The agreement stipulated that all irregular arrivals to Greece, i.e. those who arrived on boats or without prior approval, would be returned to Turkey. Both the foundations and the consequences of the deal, either involuntary return or effective detention on the islands, violate the human rights of those subject to it.

Asylum seekers who arrived in the days following the deal have been stranded in Greece for almost nineteenth months. They are in tortuous limbo, unable to leave and often denied access to adequate asylum information and procedures. Help Refugees recently endorsed an open letter by 19 human rights and aid organizations, calling for an end to this “containment policy”.

Overcrowding reaches critical levels

Arrivals continue at a far greater pace than relocation to Turkey or to the mainland, placing further strain on already overstretched facilities. As winter approaches, thousands face another winter with little more than a flimsy tent to protect them.

Help Refugees has signed an open letter, alongside 86 other organisations, that calls for urgent action to relocate those currently on the islands. The letter recalls the six people who lost their lives last year in Moria, a camp on Lesvos, due to inhumane winter living conditions.

In Lesvos, a group of refugees who have resided in Moria – including five women and teenage girls – began a hunger strike some ten days ago to protest the conditions that they are forced to live in.

On Samos and Lesvos, more than 8,300 asylum seekers are living in hotspot facilities meant for just 3,000. An emergency decongestion plan, announced in late October, pledged to resettle 2,000 asylum seekers within two weeks: while a positive commitment, its implementation has been slow and as yet incomplete. Moreover, it fails to offer a sustainable solution to the systemic cause of this emergency: the containment policy induced by the EU-Turkey deal.

Under the agreement, only individuals deemed particularly vulnerable are transferred from island hotspots to camps on the mainland. However, a lack of both practical and procedural capacity means that many of those who are provisionally eligible cannot be relocated.


Delays in relocation to the mainland

There are only 1,130 places in mainland shelters for unaccompanied minors, despite the fact that almost triple that number live in Greece. The remaining 1800 children wait alone in camps, reception centres, and de facto detention centres – or on the streets.

“Unaccompanied children stuck on the islands should be transferred to shelters on the mainland without delay; existing shelters with the right standards should receive available funding and there needs to be more foster care or supervised living schemes. This can all be done,” said Laurent Chapuis, Country Coordinator for UNICEF’s refugee and migrant response in Greece.

Furthermore, there are additional delays in relocation for vulnerable adults and children alike. These are produced by delays in both the identification of vulnerable people for transfer, and in the lifting of georestrictions on their asylum booklets. MSF noted, for example, that only a third of their patients who are survivors of sexual violence have been identified as vulnerable. As such, most patients will not get access to the protection and care that they need, and will not be transferred to the mainland.

It must not be forgotten that delays represent at least another day, and another night, living in deplorable conditions as winter sets in.

“We feel abandoned,” says Diab, a 23-year-old from Homs, Syria, protesting the scarcity of medicine, clothes, and supplies on Samos.


Mental health crisis

Organisations on the ground have warned that a mental health emergency is developing on the islands, fuelled by inadequate living conditions, neglect and violence. The UN has also reported that the long delays, of up to five months, in transferring children to the mainland are compounding their emotional and mental strain.

A recent report by Medicins Sans Frontières (MSF) states, unequivocally, that “the conditions asylum seekers are living in on the Greek islands constitute continuous traumatic stress.”

“It is harrowing…to see the mental health status of the asylum seekers in Lesvos progressively getting worse,” said an MSF psychologist in September 2017. “We do our best to help those that we can, but the situation they are in is so horrendous. We hear of 15 suicide attempts every month in Moria – it’s an unbearable situation.”


How you can help

The situation on the Greek islands is only getting worse. Despite the cold weather, the number of people arriving in October surpassed that of the previous month; they now face a winter in tents, either pitched in the overcrowded state facilities or in the makeshift camps that are springing up nearby.

Help Refugees funds over forty grassroots projects in Greece, ranging from search and rescue, to the provision of warming and nutritious food, to the construction of shelters and distribution of tents. As temperatures continue to drop, the pressure on our projects mounts.

If you are able to donate funds, goods or your time, please do so. Our work relies on the generosity of people like you. Thank you.