ATHENS – After visiting a notorious refugee and migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, United United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Greece’s government must do more to help people he said are living in dire conditions.
“Conditions in which people live are extremely disturbing. There is a big sense of despair and a lack of prospects makes the situation difficult,” Grandi said, the news agency Reuters reported after Greek media also said he was unhappy with what he saw.
With the European Union closing its borders and other countries reneging on promises to help, Greece has been overwhelmed with more than 96,000 refugees and migrants, including some 34,700 on islands near Turkey which has let human traffickers operating during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the bloc.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy government said it would speed asylum applications with virtually everyone wanting sanctuary to avoid being returned to Turkey, where they had first gone fleeing war and strife in their homelands, using that country as a jumping-off point to get to Greece islands and the northern border.
But the government also is going to close camps on islands and set up detention centers to vet those deemed ineligible for asylum, which has drawn bitter criticism from human rights groups who said it will keep people in limbo.
Grandi joined the chorus of those expressing concern about the scheme after two dozen rights groups, activists, and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) said conditions in the island camps were inhumane.
Mitsotakis blamed the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA for having an open-door policy welcoming everyone with his government saying it would shut that door and won’t accept people who aren’t refugees fearing for their lives and wanting only economic opportunity.
“I made clear to the government that UNHCR policy is against detaining asylum seekers,” Grandi said after meeting Mitsotakis but there was no report on what the response was or if he, like all other groups, would be ignored.
Mitsotakis said he wants to move 20,000 refugees and migrants to the mainland by the end of the year but his plan is being opposed by islanders and officials there who don’t want detention centers and by residents of villages in Greece where they would be taken .
But Grandi joined Mitsotakis’ call for the EU to do more even though the bloc’s migration chief is New Democracy veteran Margaritis Schinas who hasn’t said anything about the problem with no reports whether he has visited the camps. “Europe has to get its act together,” Grandi said.
Officials on the Aegean islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros rejected the government’s plan to create new closed centers for migrants with a joint statement by the mayors calling on the government “to honor its pre-election commitments to proceed immediately with the large-scale decongestion of the islands and to respect the decisions of our city councils,” said Kathimerini.
They said moving people to the mainland wont’ work as long as Turkey lets traffickers keep sending them, with more than 44,000 arrivals since New Democracy took power in July 7 snap elections, ousting SYRIZA.
“The government should guard the sea borders,” they said, although that hasn’t worked with the Greek Coast Guard and the EU border patrol Frontex being unable to keep more from chancing the perilous sea journey across the Aegean to Greek islands.
But the community leader of Moria, home to the notorious camp on Lesbos, wrote Kathimerini that, “The government’s program moves within the spirit of what we have asked for.”
Alternate Citizens’ Protection Minister George Koumoutsakos said that “Greece is at its limit,” repeating his earlier assessment the government can’t cope with the overwhelming numbers on the islands.
Grandi acknowledged pressure on communities, but stressed “living conditions at the reception centers must be improved,” along with the need for immediate measures to deal with unaccompanied minors, the paper said.