Rights group rings alarm as winter descends on island migrant camps

Rights group rings alarm as winter descends on island migrant camps

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday urged the Greek government to speed up transfers from refugee and migrant camps on the Aegean islands to the mainland, warning that overcrowded facilities on Lesvos, Chios, Leros, Samos and Kos were ill-equipped to deal with the coming of winter.

Despite the transfer of almost 3,000 people since early December, the hot spots on the islands still have almost 11,000 people in facilities with a total capacity of just 5,576, HRW said, adding that more than 1,000 people have arrived to the Greek islands during the same period.

“While Prime Minister [Alexis] Tsipras’s decision to move 5,000 asylum seekers from the islands to the mainland is beneficial for those moved, it is still a half measure that leaves thousands others out in the cold,” said Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at HRW, referring to a commitment made by the administration at the start of the month.

“It’s an important start but more is needed, including support from other EU governments, to make sure that no one has to spend the winter in a freezing tent,” Cosse added.

In a campaign that began on December 1, 13 human rights and aid organizations called on Tsipras to end Greece’s policy of containing refugees and migrants on the islands. The groups said that Greek authorities should immediately transfer people to better-equipped facilities on the mainland. The groups also said that other EU leaders should take a clear stand against a policy that keeps asylum seekers trapped on the islands under an agreement with Turkey to take back people refused asylum.

The Greek government, HRW said, is expected to introduce a bill in Parliament in the coming days to accelerate the asylum process with the aim of expediting returns to Turkey, under the EU-Turkey deal. However, the group warned that expediting the process should not come at the expense of migrants seeking international protection.

Greece should invest more in creating fair and efficient asylum procedures and the safe return of those who are not granted international protection, HRW said.

“Last winter, five asylum seekers, including a child, died in the miserably cold Moria camp on Lesvos,” Cosse said. “Greek and EU authorities have a responsibility to prevent such tragedies from happening again.”