Migrant rights groups ring alarm over approaching winter


With winter fast approaching and migrant camps on the Greek islands reaching breaking point due to overcrowding, 20 human rights group have written a letter to the Greek government calling for immediate action.

Greece should act to end a “containment policy” that forces asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands to remain in overcrowded and unsafe facilities, the human rights and aid groups said in the letter, 19 months after a similar open letter to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged the government to move migrants to the mainland, where better conditions and services are available.

“This remains a matter of life and death,” the International Rescue Committee’s country director in Greece, Jana Frey, said. “There is absolutely no excuse for the conditions on the islands right now – thousands of people crammed into overcrowded and desperately under-resourced facilities. We are in a race against time. Lives will be lost – again – this winter – unless people are allowed to move, in an organized and voluntary fashion, to the mainland.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday reported that members of the group recently asked to meet with Tsipras to discuss the most urgent needs on the islands and provide recommendations for addressing this increasingly dire situation.

They have received no response, HRW said.

Over the past month, the Greek government has transferred 2,000 people from Samos and Lesvos to the mainland as a one-time emergency measure. When the government announced this initiative in October, these islands were already 5,000 people over capacity. It was clear then that this measure, while helpful, would not suffice, HRW said.

“Nothing can justify trapping people in these terrible conditions on the islands for another winter,” said Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at HRW. “Greece and other European Union member-states should act urgently to remove the obstacles to people getting the care and assistance they need on the Greek mainland.”

As of November 20, the hot spots on Lesvos, Samos and Chios are hosting 7,000 over capacity, the groups reports, with 10,925 people staying in facilities with a capacity of just 3,924.

“Thousands, including single women, female heads of households and very young children, are being forced to live in summer tents, essentially sleeping on the ground, as the weather worsens. Some women are forced to share tents with unrelated men, putting their privacy and safety at risk,” HRW wrote in its report on Tuesday.

“The EU-Turkey deal is condemning refugees and migrants to a second winter in squalor on the Greek islands. Instead of trying to maintain the deal at all cost, European countries and Greece should urgently work together and move asylum seekers off the islands,” wrote Gavriil Sakellaridis, director of Amnesty International in Greece.

Because the “containment policy” is being implemented in response to the EU-Turkey deal, the organizations highlight the responsibility of the European Commission and the EU member states to address the situation on the Greek islands and to press the Greek government to reverse the policy. EU member states should support the Greek government’s efforts to ensure the safety and dignity of asylum seekers in EU territory, including by expanding safe accommodation and access to services on the mainland.

“In an effort to make the EU-Turkey deal work, the Greek islands have been transformed into places of indefinite confinement for asylum seekers who have risked their lives in search of safety and a better life in Europe,” said Nicola Bay, head of mission for Oxfam in Greece. “The EU and the Greek government need to start putting people’s lives ahead of politics and uphold Europe’s commitment to human rights.”