Greek Island of Woe: Refugees, Migrants Trapped on Lesbos 4 Years

FILE - In this Friday, May 4, 2018 file photo migrants and refugees wait outside the European Asylum Support Service offices inside the camp of Moria on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

With no signs anything will change, a refugee and migrant center on the island of Lesbos has been operating for four years, trapping many barred from going to other European Union countries, now seeking asylum to stay in the country and get out of their detention.

There are more than 73,000 in Greece, including some 15,000 on islands near Turkey, where they first went before human traffickers brought them to the islands, their hopes of moving on dashed when the EU closed its borders to them.

When the crisis began, they were welcomed with open arms, Greeks plucking people out of the sea when their flimsy craft and rubber dinghies overturned on the perilous journey from Turkey, islanders hailed internationally, Greek fishermen rescuers hailed.

Now, with the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA doing little to provide aid and the EU essentially turning its back on Greece – and with no account of how some 1.5 million euros ($1.68 million) in subsidies for the camps and centers was spent under the control of former defense minister Panos Kammenos – there is compassion fatigue and growing anxiety.

“There’s a great indignation among locals. Europe must understand this burden, Greece shouldn’t lift it by itself, it should be shared, every state must take its part,” Nikos Trakellis, Village Chairman for the notorious Moria detention center told Agence France Presse (AFP) in a feature on the dilemma.

The BBC, which visited the camp previously and took a video showing garbage and feces strewn about, people living in tents and women afraid of sexual violence staying away from toilets and showers, said it was the “worst in the world,” although Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he was proud of the conditions in which refugees and migrants were held.

Some 20 human rights groups, activists, volunteers, and Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) providing help have repeatedly urged the government to do more, to no avail.

There’s frequent violence inside the camp and occasional clashes with riot police as patience has grown thin with indications nothing will change as Greece struggles to deal with asylum applications and a suspended EU swap deal has seen Turkey taking few back.

Trakellis said,”There are issues every day… all their sewage, the dirt we breathe it,”  accusing migrants from the camps of stealing livestock and food.

Ibrahim Adamou, a 27-year-old from Togo, spent six months in the Moria camp, witnessing “disgusting” conditions and sleeping “on the ground, in the cold,” AFP said, and he will have to wait until October just for an asylum hearing.

Outgoing Mayor Spyros Galinos told the news agency that, “We are still waiting for pressure on the Moria camp to be lifted. They keep coming and this creates a bottleneck,” with more arriving although in far smaller numbers than before the deal with Turkey and as Europe dumped the problem on Greece.

THEY KEEP COMING

The camp’s Deputy Commander Dimitrios Vafeas admitted “there’s a huge waiting list” to process claims. “We have arrivals every day, 90 percent of them Afghans. It’s important to continue accelerating the transfers to the mainland,” he told AFP.

The government has already transferred hundreds of the most vulnerable refugees to camps elsewhere in Greece but they are quickly replaced by new arrivals landing on the shores, sent from Turkey.

In the past people would only stay on the islands for a maximum of two days, according to UNHCR’s representative in Greece, Philippe Leclerc of the United Nation’s agency representing refugees.

“But the slow workings of Greek bureaucracy, and pressure by certain EU member states to keep migrants on the islands, have created overpopulation and suffering on both sides,” he said.

“People feel betrayed by Europe, the richest northern European countries don’t accept refugees,” said Lena Altinoglou, owner of a Lesbos restaurant employing migrants. “They want to turn our island into a concentration camp,” she said.

Greece’s  Minister for Migration Policy Dimitris Vitsas during a radio interview, said there are some 73,000 refugees and immigrants in Greece, of whom 25,000 live in apartments and houses; about 20,000 in 28 hospitality centres on mainland Greece; another 11,500 are at reception and identification centres; and another 2,000 are at Karatepe centre on Lesbos and island homes, while about 2,000 unaccompanied minors live in facilities of the Ministry of Labour, Social Security & Social Solidarity.

“Our big problem is Samos, due to an increase in turnout, but we have two programmes to decongest the island,” Vitsas said; “in Greece, we have 550,000 economic migrants from before 2016, while in Athens, 20% of the population are economic migrants,” he said, the Sydney-based Greek City Times reported.

“We need to find solutions for the rest, as people who have been granted asylum until July 2017 have agreed with the UNHCR that they will get three monthly allowances, rent a home,” said Vitsas.

He added that, “We examined 60,000 asylum applications last year alone, and because of that we ask for a unified European of asylum standards,” adding that Greece had a 16% increase in migration flows in the first quarter of 2019 on the islands but a decline at the land border with Turkey along the Evros River.

“There is a possibility of another increase in April, both on the islands and the Evros border region, but we are alert,” he said, anxious the influx will pick up again with warmer weather on the horizon and officials on islands holding refugees worried tourists won’t come.

Vitsas said that in the next two years Greece will see the introduction of some 20,000 refugees and migrants into its society and its economy which is still struggling with a near nine-year-long economic and austerity crisis and the jobless rate the EU’s highest.

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