CHIOS — A young Somali man at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios was found dead in his test amid a pack of rats and mice, some 12 hours after he was believed to have died, authorities said.
The British newspaper The Guardian reported the case of the 28-year-old who was not identified, but painted a grim picture of conditions at the facility, the island one of five holding refugees and migrants.
They use Turkey as a jumping off point, sent to the islands by human traffickers that Turkey lets operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union that reduced the numbers, but many still coming even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He was found the day after Easter, the paper said, and is believed to have died of natural causes, but the discovery shocking other residents and guards who arrived there after being alerted about piles or rodents around the tent.
Greece's Migration Ministry said there was no foul play apparent and said the “unfortunate man” was found by a military doctor to have bites on his ear and hand. “The precise cause of death will become known from the autopsy that is to be conducted,” it said.
Although a registered refugee, he was restricted to the Vial hilltop holding center because of COVID-19 restrictions, the report said, strict lockdown measures still in place there while being eased across Greece.
“We host them and feed them because they are humans, we can’t kick them out,” the camp’s Governor, Panagiotis Kimourtzis, told the Guardian's Helena Smith.
“It’s only logical that rodents would appear when someone has been dead for so many hours. The camp was built very quickly in 2016. The (camp) is in nature, surrounded by fields. We do everything possible, we use pesticides, but there is only so much we can do,” he added.
Human rights groups and activists have repeatedly criticized conditions at the island camps as inhumane as Greece has struggled to deal with the number of refugees and migrants who began arriving in 2016.
They went to Turkey fleeing war and strife and economic hardships in their homelands, especially Syria and Afghanistan, but also as far away as Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa.
They are stuck in Greece because the EU has closed its doors to them, most seeking asylum to prevent being returned to Turkey or their home countries, taking their chance on finding a better life elsewhere.
reek island camps
“There is only one truth and that is that Greek island camps are synonymous with overcrowding and inhuman conditions,”Dr. Apostolos Veizis, Executive Director in Greece of the international humanitarian group Intersos told the paper.
“People are exposed on a daily basis to rats, rubbish and violence. In clinics across the islands children are often admitted with signs of rat bites. It’s shameful and appalling that they have to live in such disgraceful conditions when it really needn’t be the case,” he said.
An estimated 11,472 men, woman and children are now registered on the islands, the Ministry of Citizen Protection said, including some 1,000 on Chios, reduced from 5,000 in December, 2019 as the government moves them about.
“Yes, there are fewer people and camp conditions have improved but they are not good,” said Leda Lakka, who heads the UN refugee agency’s office on Chios. “There are rats, around Vial and in Vial. That’s a fact. There are also makeshift shelters. That’s a fact too,” she added.
Greece received about 3 billion euros ($3.65 billion) in EU funds between 2010-15 to deal with the refugee and migrant crisis, the report added, but there's criticism how it's been spent, with little evidence of camp improvements.
“If it had been used properly we would not be talking so many years later about a scene out of the middle ages where a dead man is attacked by rats,” said Veizis, who has worked on the islands for more than a decade. “All the camps are horrible. Every day people fall sick, mentally and physically. You have to wonder if treating them like this, not as humans but as numbers, is a deliberate policy choice of the European Union so that more don’t come.”
With the support of the EU, Greece's ruling New Democracy said it will eventually replace the camps and centers with better facilities but it hasn't happened yet, as it didn't under previous governments.
“For a long time the UNHCR has been expressing concerns about the precarious conditions in island camps,” said Stella Nanou, an agency spokesperson in Athens for the UN's refugee agency told the paper.
“Beyond the material difficulties and challenges, there has been the uncertainty of the pandemic, which has added to the frustration of people who so often can see no light at the end of the tunnel.”
A 51-year-old Iraqi national was also found dead on Sunday night at the VIAL asylum-seeker hosting facility structure.The man had been living there for the last one and a half years and, based on initial evidence, his death was due to health issues.