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Human Rights Watch Says Lesbos Refugee Camp Poses Lead Poison Risk

Αssociated Press

Heavy machines operate as migrants gather at the new temporary refugee camp in Kara Tepe, on the northeastern island of Lesbos, Greece, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)

ATHENS -- Refugees and migrants, as well as staff workers, volunteers, activists at others at the tent city hastily built on the island of Lesbos after the notorious Moria camp burned down could face lead poison dangers there, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

In a more than 4,000-word report, the agency said also potentially being exposed are workers from the United Nations and Greece and European Union who are aiding there.

Some 12,500 people living in the Moria camp, waiting up to two years and more for asylum applications to be processed, were burned out in a fire officials said was set by a small group upset over a COVID-19 quarantine.

The tent city, where they will spend the winter until a new facility is built later in 2021 with the help of the EU, was built on the site of a former military firing range that are often contaminated with lead from unions, HRW said.

The activist group said authorities didn’t conduct comprehensive lead testing or soil tests before moving people into the tents in September and that they didn’t clear the area of  all unexploded mortar projectiles and live small arms ammunition, which could injure or kill if disturbed or handled.

“Putting thousands of migrant adults and children, along with aid workers, on top of a former firing range without taking the necessary steps to guarantee they would not be exposed to toxic lead is unconscionable,” said Belkis Wille, Senior Crisis and Conflict Researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The Greek authorities should promptly conduct a comprehensive site assessment of soil lead levels and release the results,” she also said.

In November and early December, HRW said it interviewed four people living in the camp, two aid workers, one Greek migration ministry employee working there, and four medical and environmental experts.

There was also a review of academic research on the risk of soil lead contamination at shooting ranges and medical research on the health risks of lead poisoning.

HRW did not have access to conduct on-site research, but analyzed photos and videos of the site and satellite imagery to confirm the firing range location.

The Asylum and Migration Ministry began major construction work at the end of November at the site, called Mavrovouni camp, that could disturb any lead contaminated soil, further exposing residents and workers. 

The work to improve access to electricity and water and reduce the risk of flooding began despite warnings from HRW of the potential of increased risk of lead poisoning, the organization said.

In response to letters from HRW, Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi stated in his letter that the camp had “no lead contamination,” but provided no evidence, the group said in its report.

General Secretary for Asylum Seekers’ Reception Manos Logothetis, called HRW to dispute the risk of lead contamination at the camp but was said to have confirmed that no soil testing for lead had been done and that officials are waiting for the results of soil testing conducted recently in collaboration with the Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration (IGME.)