ATHENS – A plan by Greece’s New Democracy to alleviate overcrowding on Greek islands, speed asylum applications and put those deemed ineligible in detention centers is tantamount to creating prisons for them, human rights groups said.
Martha Roussou, Senior Advocacy Officer for the International Rescue Committee in Greece, told the British newspaper The Guardian that, “The government’s announcements represent a blatant disregard for human rights. The creation of closed facilities will simply mean that extremely vulnerable people, including children, will be kept in prison-like conditions, without having committed any crime.”
Greece is overrun with more than 96,000 refugees and migrants, including more than 36,000 on islands near Turkey which lets human traffickers keep operating during a suspended swap deal with the European Union that has seen about 2,000 returned.
With those in camps and centers languishing in what activists and rights groups said were inhumane conditions ignored by the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA ousted in July 7 snap elections, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he had to act.
“We are in the eye of the storm,” he said, adding that Greece would be “closing the door” on migrants not fleeing for their lives or running from war zones, separate from refugees who are and had gone to Turkey as a jumping-off point to get to Greece.
The European Union closed its borders to them and some countries reneged on promises to help take some of the overload, dumping the problem on Greece during the height of an economic and austerity crisis nearing a decade long.
Criticizing the EU, Mitsotakis – whose government has seen more than 44,000 new arrivals since taking office – said that Greece “needs a national strategy,” as well as aid to help deal with the newly-flared crisis.
The Greek branch of Amnesty International called the plans “outrageous,” calling the Moria camp a “human rights black hole,’ adding that, “In reality, we are talking about the creation of contemporary jails with inhumane consequences for asylum seekers, and more widely, negative consequences for the Aegean islands and their inhabitants.”
The number of men, women and children making the treacherous sea crossing from Turkey has risen by 73% this year, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR and that most are refugees fleeing persecution and war, especially from Syria, who need refuge.
After visiting the camps last week, Medecins Sans Frontieres’ international president, Christos Christou, said: “I’ve been truly shocked and devastated by the extent of the emergency. Men, women and children are trapped in endless drama … In Moria on Lesbos there’s one latrine per 200 people. In Samos, one latrine per 300. This human tragedy needs to end now and it can if Greece and Europe choose to enact a responsible migration system and end these containment policies.”
With local island communities equally under pressure, Mitsotakis has pledged that by early next year 20,000 people will be transferred to newly built camps on the mainland. Asylum processing is also to be accelerated, with an extra 500 staff hired to vet procedures.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said that, “A clear message should be sent to those planning, or thinking of coming to the country illegally when they aren’t entitled to asylum. They should realize … if they give money to a trafficker to bring them to Greece they will lose it.”
In Chios, Lesbos and on the mainland, islanders and officials are angry and have staged protests and even blocking buses carrying refugees and vowing they would step up their demonstrations against the centers.
Samos Deputy Mayor Giorgos Dionysiou told the German news site Deutsche Welle that the island opposes “The fact that we will continue to have to accommodate 5,000 new arrivals; it is time to give our island some relief.”
Not far from city hall, refugees and migrants at the Vathy registration center live under deplorable conditions, the report said, living in a former barracks designed to hold 700 people but containing more than 5,000, most of them from Afghanistan, Iraq or sub-Saharan Africa.
Dionysiou said arrivals shouldn’t roam but be under supervision in closed camps, or that, “Otherwise, the safety of our citizens and ultimately of the newcomers, too, is at risk.”
Eliza Vozenberg, a conservative politician in the European Parliament, blamed the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA for having an open-door policy welcoming anyone who landed on a Greek island, after which human rights groups said they were penned up.
In this Friday Oct. 4, 2019 photo, 38-year-old Abdul Hanoi from Afghanistan sits next to his daughter Yesna outside their tent in a makeshift refugee and migrant camp on the fringes of the overcrowded Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
“The increase in new arrivals has nothing to do with the new government, but with the fact that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is allowing refugees and migrants to go on their way toward Europe,” the lawyer told DW. Erdogan has threatened repeatedly to flood the EU with millions more refugees and migrants – most through Greece on islands and land borders – unless the bloc fulfills conditions of the swap deal, including 3 billion euros ($3.31 billion,) being withheld, along with visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and a faster-track entry to the long-stalled hopes Turkey has of becoming a member.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Athens weekly To Vima, 33% of respondents believed refugee and migration policies were currently “the No. 1 problem in Greece,” while only 28% saw the economy as the top priority.
“The government’s pledge to transfer thousands of people quickly out of overcrowded and inhumane conditions on the islands is right, but locking up everyone else is not,” said Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece should ensure adequate conditions in open reception facilities on the islands and a fair, efficient process for regular transfer to avoid chaotic, unsafe overcrowding.”
During a visit to Lesbos in mid-October, Human Rights Watch found asylum seekers and migrants living in tents in Moria camp’s open areas, including pregnant women and families with small children, some of whom had been there for over three weeks.