ATHENS – With Greece’s government under growing pressure and criticism over the state of a refugee detention center on the island of Lesbos, which the BBC said was the “worst in the world,” Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras due to talk Sept. 19 with European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos over what to do.
Avramopoulos is a member of the major rival New Democracy who are SYRIZA’s arch political enemy but he has not forced other European Union countries to live up to pledges to help take some of the overload of more than 64,000 refugees and migrants in Greece.
That includes more than 15,000 on islands near Turkey, where they went after fleeing war and strife in the Middle East and Africa and as Ankara is allowing human traffickers to keep sending them during a suspended swap deal with the European Union.
European countries have closed their borders to them, dumping the problem on Greece during an eight-year economic crisis and as thousands have been stuck in the centers and camps for two years or more, waiting for asylum applications to be processed.
With 20 activist and human rights groups, NGOs and volunteers stepping up criticism of the government for the conditions at the Moria center on Lesbos, Greece’s Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas admitted it’s way over capacity and something needs to be done, although he didn’t offer any solutions apart from saying some could be moved to the mainland, already congested with nearly 50,000 others.
Some 11,053 people, including children, are packed into the center, where violence frequently breaks up between ethnic groups, primarily Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans, and with constant tangles with riot police and people living in unsanitary conditions.
Greece has received 1.6 billion euros ($1.87 billion from the EU to manage the migration crisis although some reports said not all of it was being utilized and the government has Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos also said that some 2,000 asylum seekers will be transferred to mainland shelters within the month but Vitsas said more are arriving constantly, although at rates slower than before the deal with Turkey, which has taken back only a relative handful.
Vitsas said, “everything depends on migrant flows that have increased,” and complained that Austria, which holds the symbolic rotating EU Presidency and has rejected taking refugees and migrants, “does not speak with Turkey” and doesn’t care about the crisis.
Asylum service workers on Lesbos said they are being overwhelmed and as another 615 refugees and migrants landed in the three days ending Sept. 18.
Some 8,912 are staying at the Moria center that was designed to hold 3,100 and another 1,185 live at Kara Tepe and the rest at smaller camps.
“If the migration flows continue at the current rate, we won’t be able to keep going and keep control of the situation,” Marios Kaleas, the head of the local asylum office, told Kathimerini.
The office processed 750 new asylum applications over the past week but more people keep coming, making the work like shoveling sand against the tide.
“They all lodge asylum applications, otherwise they are immediately returned to Turkey,” said Kaleas of the terms of the deal, saying most are in groups deemed “vulnerable,” allowing them to be taken to the mainland.
A total of 2,645 migrants were transferred from the islands to the mainland from Aug. 6-Sept. 9 but the numbers keep growing.
In a statement, Doctors Without Borders, whose representatives are stationed close to the Moria center, called for the immediate transfer of all minors and members of vulnerable groups from the island facility to the mainland.
“Every week, Doctors Without Borders teams see incidents involving adolescents who try to commit suicide or self-harm,” the statement said, adding that they also have to deal with “serious cases of violence.”
The head of the Moria center, Yiannis Balbakakis, told the paper overcrowding has created a “very difficult situation” which has been aggravated due to the presence of people from many ethnic groups. But he suggested that some reports were far-fetched. “A lot of what is being said does not stand.”
Referring to the 19 NGOs who signed a petition last week, calling the conditions at Moria “shameful,” Balbakakis said only four have seen the camp first-hand.