Greece: 13,000 Still Trapped on Islands As EU-Turkey Anniversary Nears, Move Asylum Seekers to Mainland Safety

Thousands of asylum seekers are trapped on the Aegean islands in deplorable conditions and without access to adequate protection and basic services, nine human rights and humanitarian organizations said today as part of the #OpenTheIslands campaign. The Greek government should act immediately to end the “containment policy” that traps asylum seekers in these conditions on the islands and move them to safety on the mainland.

As the two-year anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal nears on March 18, 2018, more than 13,000 men, women, and children are trapped on the islands, according to Greek government figures.

“The containment policy has turned the Greek islands, once a symbol of hope and solidarity, into open prisons that put the lives of refugees on hold for months on end, causing them additional suffering,” said Gabriel Sakellaridis, director of Amnesty International in Greece. “The Greek authorities, with the support of the EU, need to immediately bring refugees to safety on the mainland.”

The containment policy was put in place by Greece, with the support of the European Commission and other European Union member states, to prevent people seeking asylum from leaving the islands for mainland Greece. The Greek government also argues that the policy is necessary to carry out its commitment under the EU-Turkey Statement on migration.

The statement, which all 28 EU states agreed to in March 2016, was to return to Turkey all new migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands after the agreement entered into force.

Greece and its EU partners should ensure protection for all asylum seekers in Greece. The government should rapidly expand safe accommodation and access to services on the mainland, and create a system to move people quickly to mainland accommodation that suits their medical and mental health needs.

The Greek government has moved more than 7,000 asylum seekers from the islands to the mainland as an emergency measure, as it had promised in early December 2017. But with more than 5,000 people arriving since December, it has also increased the number of unsuitable makeshift shelters in the already overcrowded island camps.

The “hotspots” on Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos, where most of the asylum seekers on the islands are being hosted, still have almost 10,000 people in facilities with a total capacity of just 6,292. The numbers are likely to rise as more asylum seekers take to the seas during the traditional crossing season in the spring and summer months, adding to the humanitarian emergency on the islands.

Many people are still forced to sleep on the ground or in tents not adapted to the heavy rains and cold on the islands. Women and children, who may have already been exposed to violence and exploitation in the countries they fled, face a heightened risk of sexual violence and harassment, amid the tensions, lack of security, and overcrowding at reception facilities. Basic services such as toilets and showers are not accessible to people with disabilities.

“People seeking protection from war or abuse should not feel unsafe when they reach the Greek islands,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek and EU authorities should work to restore the dignity and humanity of people seeking protection, and start by scrapping the containment policy, which has caused tremendous suffering.”

The limited capacity of doctors and lawyers in the hotspots means that the vast majority of people are unable to get appropriate medical care or adequate legal information and representation to which they are entitled. Most children are out of school. The overcrowding, poor conditions, inadequate access to services, and uncertainty about the future have exacerbated tensions within the hotspots.

Medical professionals in Greece who have interacted with the asylum seekers have said that the containment policy and its effects have exacerbated asylum seekers’ psychological distress.

Under the #OpentheIslands campaign, which began on December 1, the groups are asking Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to end the containment policy. Greek authorities should immediately transfer people to improved conditions on the mainland and take concrete measures so that no asylum seeker is left in appalling conditions. Other EU leaders should take a clear stand to end the containment policy that keeps asylum seekers trapped on the islands under the EU agreement with Turkey to send people arriving from there back.

“The situation on the Greek islands is at the breaking point, with displaced people on the Greek islands facing a daily violation of their human rights and sub-standard humanitarian conditions,” said Marta Welander, executive director at Refugee Rights Europe. “Urgent action is needed by the Greek government and EU to uphold the human rights of the thousands of people stuck on the islands.”

Organizations Signing this Statement:
Amnesty International
Caritas Hellas
Greek Council for Refugees
Greek Forum of Refugees
Human Rights Watch
Oxfam
Praksis
Refugee Rights Europe
Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR)