EU leaders need to take immediate action to save lives in Greece this winter

Thousands of people are at risk this winter as the EU-Turkey deal keeps migrants, including refugees, stuck in dangerous and degrading conditions in Greece, a coalition of more than 30 humanitarian agencies and human rights organisations warned on Wednesday. The organisations most of which work with migrants in Greece, warn that men, women and children could die because of worsening winter conditions. EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday to discuss migration need to take urgent action to improve the situation on the ground and save lives.

In a joint statement to European heads of state and government, the 31 organisations including Oxfam, Save the Children, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Rescue Committee outline the horrendous situation faced by people who have reached Greek shores seeking safety and dignity. Despite overcrowding and rapidly deteriorating conditions, migrants are not being  transferred from the islands as EU governments fear they will not be able to deport people from the Greek mainland to Turkey under the deal signed in March.

Men, women and children have been trapped for months in camps that are ill equipped for long-term stays, especially in winter. Many, including children and babies, are living in freezing cold tents and even on beaches, where they struggle to stay dry, as temperatures drop and storms grow more ferocious.

Only three weeks ago, a grandmother and her six-year-old grandchild died when their tent in the Moria ‘hotspot’ on the island of Lesbos caught fire, because the cold forced them to cook inside. In another case, a family suffered carbon monoxide intoxication after they were not given a heater and had to procure their own one.

Many refugees and other migrants, including children, are immediately detained before they can even request asylum, which is a violation of their rights. Families are being broken apart in the process of relocation, or when only some members are granted family reunification. Asylum procedures are slow and unnecessarily complicated. The relocation mechanism is slow, difficult to navigate and excludes many people.

European leaders need to take immediate action to improve the situation, and they have the power to do so, the organisations said.

Natalia Alonso, Deputy Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at Oxfam International said: “In any other part of the world, European countries would be calling on governments to do better. Instead, they have continuously and comprehensively failed to effectively manage new arrivals and instead are putting huge pressure on just a few nations. EU leaders must show real solidarity with countries like Greece and Italy, and above all with the men, women and children in need of our support.”

Iverna McGowan, Director of the Amnesty International European Institutions Office, said: “The EU-Turkey deal has manifestly failed the men, women and children who came to Europe in search of sanctuary. This deal which ignores and – even worse – causes suffering and human rights abuses must not become a blueprint for others.”

Imogen Sudbery, Head of the Brussels Office of the International Rescue Committee, said: “The crisis in Greece is completely avoidable. EU leaders have many tools at their disposal, including relocation and family reunification for the thousands of refugees with parents, siblings and other family members already in other parts of Europe. The question is, do EU leaders have the common strength and humanity to put these tools to use?”

The NGOs also warned European governments against replicating the EU-Turkey deal with other countries under the ‘partnership framework’ with African governments. The overarching aim of these deals is to keep migrants away from Europe.

At Thursday’s EU summit, European leaders have the opportunity to address the dire situation for migrants on Greek islands. EU leaders need to urgently take the following steps, the coalition of humanitarian agencies and human rights organisations said:

  • Prioritise the immediate transfer of people from overcrowded sites on the islands to locations on the mainland that meet European law standards for reception, rather than pressuring Greek authorities to keep people on islands in substandard conditions.
  • Redouble efforts to take asylum seekers out of first countries of arrival, including Greece, by enabling swift and efficient access to family reunification, relocation and a secure refugee status; it is imperative to start with the most vulnerable groups, irrespective of their nationality, and give people better information and support when selecting the destination country.
  • Ensure that every person has access to protection and to a fair and efficient asylum process; the desire to speed up processes cannot come at the expense of access to asylum.

Notes to editors

Contact information

Florian Oel | Oxfam | florian.oel@oxfaminternational.org | office +32 2 234 11 15 | mobile +32 473 56 22 60

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