Greece: asylum seekers in abysmal conditions on islands

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras should end the Greek government’s “containment policy” of confining asylum seekers to the Aegean islands, 19 human rights and humanitarian aid organizations said in an open letter released today.

Thousands of people, including very young children, single or pregnant women, and people with physical disabilities, are trapped in abysmal conditions as winter sets in. Forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity, cannot be justified by the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, the organizations said.

Since the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016, the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros have become places of indefinite confinement. Thousands of women, men, and children are trapped in deplorable and volatile conditions, with many denied access to adequate asylum procedures. Asylum seekers who arrived on the islands in the first days of the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal have been stuck there for almost 19 months.

The recent increase in arrivals of men, women, and children has increased the pressure on the already overcrowded reception and identification centers known as hotspots. Current arrivals are still comparatively quite low and should be manageable for Greece and the EU more broadly, but they include a significant number of women and children.

The situation is particularly critical on Samos and Lesvos, where a total of more than 8,300 asylum seekers and migrants are living in hotspot facilities meant for just 3,000. The recent announcement that 2,000 asylum seekers will be moved from the two islands to the mainland in the coming weeks as an emergency decongestion measure is a positive development, the groups said. But it is not sufficient to alleviate the current overcrowding of the facilities and does not sustainably address the systemic issues that have created this emergency situation – namely the containment policy.

With the approach of the third winter since large-scale arrivals on the islands began, it is evident that the Greek authorities cannot meet the basic needs and protect the rights of asylum seekers while they remain on the islands. Implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement has been cited by EU and Greek officials as a justification for the containment policy.

But forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity, cannot be justified, the organizations said.

The organizations urged Prime Minister Tsipras to protect the human rights of asylum seekers trapped on the islands by ending the containment policy. They should be transferred to the mainland so that they can be provided with adequate accommodation and services to meet their needs and to ensure that their asylum claims are fairly heard.

Quotes from Participating Groups

“Europe is refusing to offer humane reception conditions and dignity to people in need who arrive on our shores,” said Nicola Bay, head of mission for Oxfam in Greece. “Greek and EU authorities should immediately transfer migrants to the Greek mainland instead of leaving them trapped in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands.”

“Greece should end its cruel policy of trapping asylum seekers on the islands,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People should not be forced to suffer another winter in unheated tents and without proper services.”

“The policy of containment is putting the lives of people who are seeking sanctuary in Europe at risk,” said Jana Frey, the International Rescue Committee’s country director. “While we welcome the government’s announcement to move 2,000 people on Lesvos and Samos off the islands in the coming days as an emergency measure, this can only be seen as a first step. Far more must be done to both improve conditions on the islands, and move the most vulnerable to the mainland, in order to ensure that lives are not lost this winter.”

“The EU-Turkey deal must no longer be used as pretext to strand asylum-seekers in inhuman conditions on the Greek islands’’ said Irem Arf, Amnesty International’s researcher on migration. “It is imperative that the Greek government urgently move people to mainland Greece.”

“The policy of implementing the EU-Turkey Statement has been violating asylum seekers’ rights under international law, and has contributed in disrupting social cohesion in the Greek islands affected,” said Spyros Rizakos, director of Aitima. “It is high time the EU and Greek authorities abandoned this policy.”

“Making these Greek islands a huge detention center isn’t in the interests of anyone,” said Gianmaria Pinto, Country Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We all know what it is needed, including the government: to provide vulnerable people trapped on the islands with dignified accommodation and adequate services, without overlooking legal aid.”

Notes to editors

  • Read the open letter.
  • Oxfam spokespeople are available for interviews and background in Athens, Lesvos and in Brussels.
  • Oxfam works with refugees and other migrants in Lesvos. We respond to the urgent needs of people arriving, including by providing legal aid through partners. Learn more about Oxfam’s humanitarian response in Greece.
  • Oxfam calls for a change of approach in the EU’s Migration Agenda, which sets Europe’s policies on migration. An Oxfam report, based on extensive field experience, highlights the danger, abuse and denial of basic rights, that people face linked to the Migration Agenda’s policies. Oxfam has developed eight principles for a more humane and effective approach.

Contact information

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

Anni Mitropoulou | Athens | anni.mitropoulou@oxfam.org | office +30-213-042-2331 | mobile +30-694-034-0020

For updates, please follow @Oxfam and @OxfamEU

Contact information for other NGOs that have signed the open letter

  • In Athens, for Human Rights Watch, Eva Cossé (Greek, French, English): +30-693-47-90-865; or +1-718-406-3160 (mobile); or cossee@hrw.org. Twitter: @Eva_Cosse
  • In London, for the International Rescue Committee, Lucy Carrigan (English): +44-207-692-0407 (work); or +1-917-859-3086 (mobile); or lucy.carrigan@rescue.org.
  • In Athens, for ActionAid, Sissy Gkournelou (Greek, English, Spanish): +30-210-921-2321; or +30-693-716-1028 (mobile); or sissy.gkournelou@actionaid.org.
  • On Lesvos, for Advocates Abroad, Ariel Ricker (English): +30-694-400-3383; or director@advocatesabroad.org. Twitter: @AdvocatesAbroad
  • In Athens, for AITIMA, Spyros Rizakos (Greek, English): +30-697-72-80-984; or spyrosr2@gmail.com
  • In Athens, for Amnesty International, Dimitra Spatharidou (Greek, English): +30-210-360-0628
  • In Greece, for CARE, Vangi Dora (Greek, English): +30-697-241-8359 or vangi@care.de.
  • In Athens, for Danish Refugee Council Greece, Kyriakos Giaglis (Greek, English): +30-694-998-3129 (mobile); or country.director@drc-greece.org.
  • In Paris, for FIDH, Samuel Hanryon (French, English): shanryon@fidh.org.
  • In Athens, for the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), Danae Leivada (Greek, English): +30-210-380-0990; or d.leivada@gcr.gr.
  • In Athens, for the Greek Forum of Refugees, Yonous Muhammadi (English, Greek, Farsi): +30-213-028-2976; or +30-694-840-8928 (mobile); refugeegr@gmail.com. Twitter: @Refugeegr
  • In Athens, for the Greek Helsinki Monitor, Panayote Dimitras (Greek, French, English): +30-693-27-46-619 (mobile); or panayotedimitras@gmail.com. Twitter: @PDimitras.
  • In Athens, for Hellenic League for Human Rights, Georgia Spyropoulou (Greek, English): +30-213-026-4975; or advocacy.hlhr@gmail.com. Twitter: @georgiasp6
  • In Mytilene, for Lesbos Legal Center, Lorraine Leete (English): +30-695-507-4724; or lorraine@legalcentrelesbos.org.
  • In Athens, for Norwegian Refugee Council, Maria Petrakis (Greek, English): +30-698-856-5488; or maria.petrakis@nrc.no.
  • For SolidarityNow, Valia Savvidou (Greek, English): +30-210-677-2500; +30-697-041-7260 (mobile), or valias@solidaritynow.org.
  • In Copenhagen, for Danish Refugee Council Headquarters, Sebastian Juel Frandsen (English): +45-337-351-84; or sjf@drc.dk.
  • In Athens, for Praksis, Marianella Kloka (Greek, English): +30-694-291-3972; or m.kloka@praksis.gr