ATHENS – The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) again has urged Greece – as had two dozen activist and human rights groups repeatedly – to correct “alarming “alarming” overcrowding and inhumane conditions for asylum seekers and migrants staying on the five Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros.
“UNHCR has been appealing to the Greek government to use emergency measures to expedite its plans to transfer a greater number of asylum-seekers to appropriate accommodation on the mainland,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said at a briefing, reported the Turkish Anadolu News Agency.
Greece is overwhelmed with some 100,000 refugees and migrants, most sent to Greek islands by human traffickers from Turkey, which lets human traffickers operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.
They had gone to Turkey fleeing war and strife in their homelands, especially Afghanistan and Syria’s civil war, but also economic migrants from regions such as as sub-Saharan Africa seeking work.
The New Democracy government is planning to replace island camps with detention centers to vet those ineligible for asylum, which is being sought by virtually all after the EU closed its borders to them.
UNCHR said more than 36,000 asylum seekers were currently staying in reception centers across five islands initially designed with a capacity of 5,400 with tension over waits as long as two years for asylum applications to be reviewed.
The frustration has led to frequent violence between ethnic groups and with riot police called in to quell violence and led island officials and residents to demand the government meet its pledge to move 20,000 to the mainland.
UNCH said Greece had been “generous and compassionate towards refugees, despite a very complex and difficult situation,” although most of the burden has fallen on the islands where officials said successive governments haven’t done enough to help.
“It is critical that other regions in Greece step up their solidarity to help alleviate pressures by receiving transferred asylum seekers and opening up reception places,” said Mahecic.
UNHCR said the EU has to step up to do more as other countries in the bloc closed their borders to them refugees and migrants and the last two EU chiefs responsible for migrant and refugee affairs – both from New Democracy – did little to help.
On Samos, 6,782 people are staying in a center designed for 660, while others reside in makeshift shelters pitched in surrounding fields, the report said, adding that the notorious Moria camp on Lesbos is holding 18,342 in a facility designed for 2,200, leaving the overflow outside in tents and makeshift centers in olive groves, in the winter.
Families make up the majority of the asylum-seekers and migrants, a third of whom are children, most below the age of 12 and thousands of women, men and children living in tents are exposed to cold and rain with little or no access to heating, electricity or hot water.
Hygiene and sanitation conditions are unsafe, with health problems on the rise, said UNHCR, adding that despite the dedication of medical professionals and volunteers, many were unable to receive medical attention as there were not enough doctors at reception centers and local hospitals.
“Longer-term solutions and improvement of conditions on the islands are necessary but will only be possible once the overcrowded centers are decongested,” said Mahecic, the report added.