United Nations: Situation at refugee centers on Greek islands at “boiling point”

*Image source: AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

by Aggelos Skordas

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urged the Greek government on Friday to immediately address the situation in the so-called Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) located in Eastern Aegean islands as the conditions have reached a “boiling point”. The RICs, commonly known as “hotspots”, are severely overcrowded as thousands of asylum seekers and migrants, among them hundreds of children, live in squalid, inadequate and rapidly deteriorating conditions, with some of them living in these centres for more than six months.

Specifically, on the island of Lesvos, more than 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants are crammed into shelters built to accommodate just 2,000 people. A quarter of those are children. Similarly, some 2,700 people (mainly Syrian and Iraqi families) are living at the Vathy RIC on Samos, originally designed to hold less than 700, while the situations are no different in the hotspots of the Eastern Aegean islands of Chios and Kos.

“We are particularly concerned about woefully inadequate sanitary facilities, fighting amongst frustrated communities, rising levels of sexual harassment and assaults and the increasing need for medical and psycho-social care”, Charlie Yaxley spokesman for the UNHCR told a briefing at the at the Geneva Palais des Nations, adding that “there are an increasing number of children who are presenting with mental health issues. The available response and treatment is woefully inadequate at the moment”. Yaxley could not confirm reports on alleged suicide attempts among young refugees and migrants.

Children, including hundreds of unaccompanied boys and girls, are particularly at risk, as well as dozens of pregnant women, new-born babies, survivors of sexual violence, and other extremely vulnerable people, the UNHCR highlighted.

These levels of overcrowding have not been seen since March 2016, when arrival rates were far higher, although more than 3,000 asylum seekers on the islands have been given the authorization to move to the mainland, although transfers have been slow due to the lack of sufficient accommodation. Some 1,350 asylum seekers have already been transferred to the mainland in August, however, this is failing to ease the pressure as more people continue to arrive on the islands, as an average of 114 people arrived daily during the month.

Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis are the groups that comprise more than 70 percent of those arriving in Greece. The island of Lesvos was the main entry point of almost a million refugees and migrants.

The UNHCR indicates that despite the funding Greece has received from the European Union it is facing various challenges in speeding up transfers. Other European Union members state there must be assistance for “frontline states” including Greece, Italy and Spain, the Agency highlights. “The people arriving in Europe today is a very manageable situation; it’s a question of political will”, Yaxley concluded.