ATHENS – The medical aid group Doctors Without Border (MSF) said European Union plan to put up 276 million euros ($323.87 million) for new refugee and migrant camps on Greek islands won’t work or alleviate suffering.
The group said visiting European Commissioner Ylva Johansson, who went to the islands of Lesbos and Samos that have existing detention camps, was putting a “positive spin on what is in reality a disastrous situation.”
It added that the EU was planning “to implement the same policies that have created only suffering for the past five years since the EU-Turkey deal,” referring to an essentially suspended 2016 agreement.
That was supposed to see Turkey contain some 4.4 million refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands, and also take back those who made it to Greece but deemed ineligible for asylum.
MSF’s medical coordinator for Lesbos, Hilde Vochten, wrote in an open letter that people seeking sanctuary in Greece after the EU close its borders to them have been trapped on five islands during “five winters that have led to destitution, traumatization, and even to the death of people trapped in EU-funded reception centers.”
Detailing miserable living conditions in the island camps, Vochten wrote that “none of this is an unintended consequence nor an issue of lack of capacity or resources: the conditions on the Greek Islands are supposed to be a deterrent to those still thinking of attempting the journey.”
Johansson earlier was met with protests on the islands from locals who don’t want new camps built and have, along with officials there, been pressing the New Democracy government to send refugees and migrants to mainland camps.
She then met with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias after she insisted that the EU-funded camps would be open and not confine people, the government saying they would be closed facilities.
The EU is currently working on a new migration pact to tackle the issue of asylum-seekers wanting to enter the bloc. Refugee rights groups have slammed the bloc's migration policies as inhumane but gotten nowhere.
Countries on the EU’s southern border, the main destination for refugees and migrants, also want rules revised that limit asylum being sought only to the first country in which refugees or migrants land, primarily Greece, Italy, Spain, Malta and Cyprus.
Johansson made her tour with Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi where she stressed the need for solidarity among the EU's 27 member states in handling migration, which won’t happen because some, such as Hungary, said they won’t take any and others reneged on promises to do so.
She said Turkey should live up to the agreement and take back those who didn’t get asylum but Turkey has refused and instead of being punished is being rewarded with plans for more money to deal with refugees and migrants there.
Speaking after meeting with Johansson, Mitsotakis noted the massive overcrowding in island camps had significantly eased over the past year, with the numbers on islands around some 14,000, down from more than 42,000.
“We have made significant progress in the decongestion of the islands. We are moving forward with the EU’s help, with the construction of permanent facilities on the islands, which will mark a decisive change in relation to what was happening in the past,” he said.
The notoriously overcrowded and squalid camp of Moria on Lesbos burned down last year, and its residents have been moved into a temporary camp of tents set up on a former military firing range. The camp has been plagued by problems of flooding, which Mitarachi said were being dealt with.
Still, the facility in Samos, constructed to house just under 650 people, remains grossly overcrowded, with more than 3,000 people living in the camp and a shantytown that has emerged around it.
A new facility is being constructed on Samos and others are slated for some of the other islands over the objections of residents and officials as well as aid groups like MSF and refugee rights organizations who have been ignored.
The 2016 EU-Turkey deal stipulates new arrivals must remain on the islands pending return to Turkey unless their asylum application is successful. The agreement reduced arrivals, but didn't stop them, leading to massively overcrowded island camps with the EU claiming that it’s working.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)