Pregnant women, children and survivors of torture abandoned in Greek camps as screening system breaks down

Hundreds of pregnant women, unaccompanied children and survivors of torture are being abandoned in refugee camps on the Greek islands, an Oxfam report revealed today. It details how the system to identify and protect the most vulnerable people has broken down due to chronic understaffing and flawed processes. 

For much of the last year there has been just one government-appointed doctor in Lesvos who was responsible for screening as many as 2,000 people arriving each month. In November, there was no doctor at all so there were no medical screenings happening to identify the most vulnerable people. The existing procedures were already confusing because they have changed three times in the past year alone.

The report 'Vulnerable and abandoned' includes accounts of mothers being sent away from hospital to live in a tent as early as four days after giving birth by Caesarean section. It tells of survivors of sexual violence and other traumas living in a camp where fights break out regularly and where two thirds of residents say they never feel safe. Hundreds of vulnerable people are being lumped together to live in the EU ‘hotspot’ camp of Moria which is at twice its capacity.

Renata Rendón, Oxfam’s Head of Mission in Greece, said: “It is irresponsible and reckless to fail to recognize the most vulnerable people and respond to their needs. Our partners have met mothers with newborn babies sleeping in tents, and teenagers wrongly registered as adults being locked up. Surely identifying and providing for the needs of such people is the most basic duty of the Greek government and its European partners.”

Under Greek and EU law, the legal definition of vulnerability specifically includes unaccompanied children, women who are pregnant or with young babies, people with disabilities and survivors of torture, among others. They should have access to the normal Greek asylum process instead of a fast-tracked process designed to send them back to Turkey. They should be given suitable accommodation and appropriate medical care on the mainland. 

Oxfam said there was a particularly worrying trend of authorities detaining teenagers and survivors of torture after failing to recognize them as vulnerable. Legal and social workers told Oxfam they frequently came across detainees who should not have been locked up because of their age or because of poor physical or mental health. Once in detention, it is even more difficult for them to get the medical or psychological help they need.

In one case, a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Cameroon was locked up for five months based on his nationality despite having serious mental health issues. No one checked his physical and mental health before he was detained, and it took a month for him to see a psychologist. He said: “We had just two hours a day when we were allowed to get out of the container... The rest of the time you are sitting in a small space with 15 other men who all have their own problems.”

Winter has brought heavy rain to Lesvos turning the tented areas of the camp into a muddy bog. The temperature is expected to drop below freezing in the next week and there could be snow. Desperate to keep warm, people burn anything they can find including plastic and they take dangerous improvized heaters into their tents.

Rendón added: “Local authorities and humanitarian groups are making efforts to improve conditions in places like Lesvos. Unfortunately, this is made almost impossible by policies supported by the Greek government and EU that keep people trapped on the islands for indefinite periods.”

Oxfam is calling for the Greek government and EU member states to deploy more expert staff, including doctors and psychologists, and to fix the screening system on the Greek islands. It said that more people seeking asylum should be transferred to mainland Greece on a regular basis – particularly the vulnerable. Oxfam is also calling on EU member states to share responsibility for receiving asylum seekers with Greece more fairly by reforming the ‘Dublin Regulation’ in line with the position of the European Parliament.

Notes to editors

  • Spokespeople are available in Lesvos and Brussels. 
  • Recent, high-resolution photos and video footage from around Moria camp are available.
  • Read the full report.
  • The full transcripts of the interviews of asylum-seekers and volunteers in and around Moria camp, on which parts of the report are based, are available to the media upon request.
  • According to the UNHCR, the Moria camp in Lesvos was at around double its official capacity of 3,100 places, with just under 5,000 migrants living inside the camp and another 2,000 in an informal camp next to Moria, known as the Olive Grove.
  • Oxfam has been working in Lesvos since 2015 running a program that aims to ensure that people seeking asylum are protected. This includes training community focal points to provide information, running workshops at a day center for women, and providing legal aid and social support for people seeking asylum through partners.
  • A survey by Refugee Rights Europe in June 2018 found that almost two-thirds (65.7%) of respondents said they ‘never feel safe’ inside Moria, rising to 78% among children living in the camp.
  • In September 2018, Oxfam published a briefing arguing that the EU’s plans for ‘controlled centers’ for the reception of migrants saved at sea are modelled on the existing ‘hotspots’ described in today’s report and should not be implemented.

Contact information

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

For updates, please follow @Oxfam and @OxfamEU.