The “hotspots” experiment: removing human rights from the equation

Gradually, hotspots on the Greek islands have acquired more characteristics far different to those initially announced in terms of their operation and human rights guarantees.

Everything shows that a new model of violent psychological deterrence has been established in Europe for those crossing borders irregularly and arrive in Greece. This model is based on the practice of geographical limitation and degrading first reception conditions.

The Greek hotspots have been transformed into areas where human rights are being systematically breached. It is extremely problematic that these breaches continue despite the fact that a number of international organizations supervise and contribute to the hotspot operations.

Despite the human misery inflicted by the measure of geographical restriction, the Greek authorities have persisted with its implementation as a means to implement the toxic EU-Turkey deal. The measure does not allow refugees to travel to the mainland and makes any referrals to proper accommodation according to the individuals’ needs and vulnerabilities difficult. Meanwhile, transfer to the mainland remain very slow due to the reported lack of available places in camps there.

It is of particular importance that the way hotspots operate since the implementation of the deal has led parts of the local island communities to shift towards extreme conservative positions and on several occasions, racist attacks. However, for the political European elite this model is still considered successful. In one of the recent European summit, it was presented as a good practice to be implemented in the Central European countries according.

Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), as an organization that systematically monitors developments in the hotpots, calls for the halt of creating grey zones where human rights are systematically violated and local communities are pushed to xenophobia and racism in the name of implementing the toxic EU-Turkey deal.

In this note, RSA presents the current hotspot situation on Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos and adds to the information published in previous notes.

Arrivals January to mid-September 2018: 2,529 [1]
Arrivals January to end September 2017: approx., 2,400 [2]
Total Population on the island as of 30 September 2018: 2,673 [3] Total Population in Vial hotspot: 2,423 [4]
Children on the island in mid-September 2018: 692 [5]; Children at VIAL hotspot: 537
UASC on the island: 92; UASC in hotspot: 73

Vial hotspot (camp) is located 8 km south of the principal town of Chios. By the end of September, the camp’s population was two and half times its official capacity and 2,600 refugees and migrants lived in the camp. Despite the very poor conditions and winter approaching, the authorities appear unprepared to deal with hundreds of refugees that will be exposed to the harsh weather conditions. At the same time, the climate of xenophobia and reactions by parts of the local community against the presence of the hotspot and refugees reached another peak. In early October, around 1,100 parents send a letter to the school authorities objecting refugee children attending mainstream education.[6]

MOTHERS AND NEWBORN BABIES STRANDED IN AN OVERCROWDED CAMP

As a result of the continuous new arrivals and the decrease of transfers to the mainland until the situation in the hotspots reached breaking point, Vial has been overcrowded for many months.

Overcrowding means that the camp’s population persistently exceeds that allowed by a Greek Council of State ruling issued last February. [7] According to the ruling, Vial’s capacity should not exceed 100 prefabricated houses and 1274 residents.[8] Whilst there are at least 91 prefabricated houses in the hotspot, overcrowding has resulted in new rub halls (particularly large tents) and camping and makeshift tents being set up once more in the outskirts of the camp.

The camp also faces serious problems with water supply especially during the summer months; people including the vulnerable sleeping in tents and near sewage; mice infestation; and complete absence of privacy as many refugees share rub halls (large tents).

The insufficient accommodation in the camp and overcrowding has resulted in failure to provide appropriate accommodation to vulnerable individuals such as pregnant women and their families or women who have just given birth and new born babies. RSA has followed and intervened in some of these cases.

Dina*[9] arrived with her premature two week old baby on Chios in late summer. Despite the family’s vulnerability, they lived in a rub hall for at least two weeks and shared accommodation with another 100 refugees. Temperatures during that time were unusually high.

Dina* spoke with despair: ‘They told us that there is no other space to stay. Everything is full. We sleep on top of blankets on the ground of the large tent. It is unbearable… I try to find some shadow to sleep outside so my baby does not suffer any longer. It is inhumane…’

This failure to accommodate vulnerable individuals has been confirmed by Reception and Identification authorities in a response given to RSA in relation to a case concerning Janet*, pregnant woman from Somali who arrived on Chios with her husband from the mainland and gave birth on the island in late August 2018. In a response provided on 21 September, the RIC Director said that between the end of August and 12 September ‘the centre was overcrowded and large parts of the population stays in tents(…)However, every possible effort is being made to find accommodation while prioritizing vulnerable persons….. ’. In early September, Janet* and her baby were transferred from the maternity ward of Chios hospital back to the camp. Janet* had undergone a caesarean section and despite her condition and vulnerability had to walk few hundred meters every day so she could have access to the common toilets and so she could find some of the few places with shadow around the camp. She stayed with her new born inside a small tent while the heat exceeded 30 °C.

Martin*, her husband told us: ‘Last night we slept on the ground. My wife cried non-stop. I could not even set up our tent where there is a bit of shadow as this is where waste from the toilets is running. How many days can we stand these conditions without getting sick?’

Lack of safety has been reported in relation to the ‘Safe Zone’ where the unaccompanied children are housed, As a result some of the children choose to live in containers with adults.

AN ISLAND MARRED BY XENOPHOBIA

Xenophobia and serious racist attacks against refugees have been some of the toxic effects of the EU-Turkey deal upon the island, its residents and refugees. In addition, there have been battles before the courts regarding the future of the hotspot. These court battles reflect the increasingly hostile attitudes of parts of the local community and a reaction of the Municipality towards the permanent presence of the hotspot and refugees on the island. On 29 November 2017, Chios Municipality – the owner of the hotspot site – submitted an interim measures application asking for the extension of the camp to be halted. This was followed in the first months of 2018 by legal actions launched by locals against the Ministry of Migration Policy aiming to block the camp’s extension and the installation of new containers. The Municipality also sought to evict the Ministry of Migration Policy from the hotspot.[10] Amid the legal challenges and the pressure of poor reception conditions in the hotspot, its then Head resigned in late January 2018. In addition, locals objecting the continuing presence and increasing number of refugees at Vial established a kiosk outside the hotspot and demonstrate on a permanent basis. On 27 June, locals attacked verbally and physically female staff of the Regional Asylum Office (RAO). [11] Since summer and up to now, parents react systematically to the operation of afternoon reception classes for refugee children (DYEP) in primary and secondary schools.

LIMITED ACCESS TO MEDICAL ASSISTANCE AND DELAYS IN VULNERABILITY ASSESSMENTS

KEELPNO – the agency responsible for medical screening and vulnerability assessment in the hotspots – faces almost permanent problems in conducting its tasks because of lack of cultural mediators and doctors. In mid-July, there were no cultural mediators employed under the PHILOS project in the hotspot.[12] Also, since late July, there has been no doctor in the camp. This results in lack of access to medical assistance and significant delays with vulnerability assessments which sometimes take place after the asylum interview.

Since April 2018, RSA has been informed that psychiatrist referrals seem to have stalled as there is only one state hospital psychiatrist for the local and refugee population. This situation has an impact to the proper treatment of the patients and further delays vulnerability assessments which are an integral part of the asylum procedure.

ASYLUM

RSA has also observed that the period between the full registration of an asylum claim and the interview by the Greek Asylum Service (GAS) is affected by the number of refugee arrivals on the island and varied from one week (in the beginning of June) to more than three months (in mid-April). In recent weeks the asylum interview appointments for vulnerable cases by the Attika RAO have been scheduled as late as 2020.

As of early July, there was a backlog of 300 asylum claims pending to be registered by GAS as a new practice was being implemented. This practice consists of a prior medical screening of asylum-seekers before their appointment for the registration of their asylum claim by GAS.

Gaps are anticipated regarding the provision of legal assistance in asylum cases at appeal level. NGO METAdrasi which has provided legal assistance[13] for appeal cases has recently started focusing on asylum cases at first instance. Meanwhile, the lawyer of the State Registry can only undertake 17 cases per month.

8 February 2018: Locals protest against the installment of new containers in Vial whilst the Church stand in solidarity

27 June 2018: Locals demonstrate once more against the increasing number of Vial population

* Names of the interviewees have been changed withheld to protect their privacy and security.

Footnotes

  1. Source on arrivals: UNHCR
  2. Estimated by statistics provided in https://reliefweb.int
  3. Source on refugee population on the island and hotspot: http://mindigital.gr
  4. In March 2018, the camp’s official capacity increased from 894 to 1.014 persons.
  5. Source on children and UASC: UNHCR
  6. http://www.kathimerini.gr. While some progress has been made in the field of education following the creation of a kindergarten in the hotspot last February, school-aged children in Vial still do not attend any formal education.
  7. Ruling issued on 24 February 2018.
  8. In mid-June, locals lodged a lawsuit against the new Head of Vial right after her official appointment citing a systematic breach of the Council of State’s ruling – see http://www.politischios.gr
  9. The names of the refugees who spoke to RSA have been changed in order to protect their anonymity.
  10. In its lawsuit, the Municipality cited as grounds for the eviction the reported penury and degradation of the site as well as security issues for the local society. The case is still pending before the courts.
  11. The Chios RAO premises are based inside Vial hotspot – see https://astraparis.gr
  12. According to KEELPNO’s response to RSA, in July present at the hotspot were:1 doctor, 8 nurses, 1 midwife, 1 health visitor, 4 psychologists and 5 social workers. E-mail correspondence, 13 July 2018.
  13. NGO METAdrasi provision of legal assistance at the appeal stage of the asylum procedure in the framework of UNHCR’s Memorandum of Cooperation with the Ministry of Migration Policy (MoMP) ended in August.

Refugee arrivals January to end of September 2018: 2,221[1]
Total Population on the island as of 30 September 2018: 1454; [2]Total Population in Pyli Hotspot as of 30 September 2018: 1,185
Children on the island in mid- September 2018: approx. 449 ;[3] Children in Pyli hotspot: approx. 369 ; Unaccompanied or Separated Children (UASC) in Pyli hotspot: 44

The hotspot of Kos is situated on a hill in the village of Pyli around 15 kilometers far away from the center of the island’s main city and has 113 prefab houses.[4] Next to the hotspot is the pre-removal center with capacity of 500 persons.[5] The distance to the nearest public health facility is more than 10 kilometers away.[6] Although there is public transportation available, there is an irregular service.

At the end of September, the capacity of the hotspot was for 816 persons[7] but according to official statistics it provided shelter to 1.185 persons.[8] The majority of the refugees currently inside the hotspot are from Iraq and Syria. Inside the hotspot there is a Safe Zone for UASC.

Newcomers arriving on other South Aegean islands like Kastelorizo and Simi are usually transferred to the Pyli hotspot (camp) because of the lack of such structure on these islands. Due to the increased number of arrivals, the camp is currently overcrowded. In some cases, newly arrived refugees maybe sleep in benches and on the ground in the courtyard inside the hotspot until a place is found for them in the pre-fab houses.

In May, UNCHR observed a deterioration of conditions linked to regular interruptions in water supply and insufficient hygiene as well as sewage and water supply infrastructure.[9]

Medical care and psychosocial support in the hotspot is provided by KEELPNO. According to KEELPNO, in the middle of July there was a total of 14 staff currently at the hotspot including cultural mediators (2), general doctors (1), nurses and assistant nurses (3), psychologists (4) and social workers (3).[10] In July, UNHCR observed that the inadequate number of doctors and cultural mediators across all islands, especially on Kos and Leros, “create further delays in the vulnerability assessment which is an integral part of the asylum procedure”.[11]

A refugee from Iraq speaking[12] to RSA reports that hotspot residents have to wait for a long time under the sun in order to speak to the doctor and that in many cases they have to buy their own medicines or pay for tests in case they are sick. “Many of us cannot pay for this because the financial help we get through the cash card is not enough”, says the refugee who has a health problem and receives 90 Euros monthly. He also raised concerns about the quality of food provided by the authorities. “Sometimes they give us products that have expired. We can read the expiration date in the packaging”, he said.

Legal assistance to asylum-seekers on the hotspot is currently provided by lawyers of the Greek Council of Refugees and METAdrasi.[13] There is no free legal aid scheme for the second instance as there is no lawyer appointed by the State registry.[14]

RSA has received reports of bureaucratic obstacles regarding the sharing of information between the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) authorities and the Kos Regional Asylum Office on issues such as an asylum-seeker’s identified vulnerability. Reports have also been received regarding many postponements of appointments of asylum interviews at first instance.

In the beginning of September, the refugee children living in the hotspot who attended Greek formal education were less than 25%. [15]There are also some non-formal education activities and recreational activities provided by METAdrasis and Arsis.[16]

Currently there are no racist attacks by far-right groups against refugees or protests against the presence of the hotspot such as those that occurred in 2015 and 2016.[17] However, local society still objects to the presence of refugees and the hotspot on the island. Late in June, the Mayor of Kos sent a letter[1] to the Minister for Migration Policy asking from for the recall of a decision (published in the Government Official Gazette) envisaging the creation a new hotspot in another area of Kos (Linotopi).

* Names of the interviewees have been changed withheld to protect their privacy and security.

Footnotes

  1. Source on arrivals: UNHCR. https://data2.unhcr.org
  2. Source on refugee population in the island and hotspot: http://mindigital.gr
  3. Source on refugee children and UASC: UNHCR
  4. Source : https://data2.unhcr.org
  5. On concerns raised over conditions in the pre-removal centre following a visit by the Greek Council for Refugees in early 2018, see https://www.gcr.gr.
  6. Source: https://data2.unhcr.org.
  7. http://mindigital.gr.
  8. Source: http://mindigital.gr
  9. Source: https://data2.unhcr.org.
  10. 9 more staff are being employed in Kos General Hospital and 2 at the Kos EK, source: electronic correspondence with KEELPNO, 13 July 2018.
  11. Source : https://data2.unhcr.org; also https://data2.unhcr.org 2.
  12. Interview 9 July, 2018
  13. Source: UNHCR
  14. NGO METAdrasi provided legal assistance at the appeal stage of the asylum procedure in the framework of UNHCR’s Memorandum of Cooperation with the Ministry of Migration Policy until the end of August.
  15. https://data2.unhcr.org
  16. Source: UNHCR
  17. Source : https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/09/greece-refugees-attacked-and-in-hellish-conditions-on-kos/; https://www.huffingtonpost.gr/2016/02/06/koinonia-kos-metanasteutiko-hot-spot_n_9174742.html.

Refugee arrivals January to mid-September 2018: 604[1]
Total Population on the island as of 30 September 2018: 927;[2] Total Population in Lepida hotspot: 730
Children on the island in mid-September 2018: 213;[3] Children in Lepida hotspot: 122; UASC in Lepida hotspot: 19

Refugees and migrants arriving on Leros are initially accommodated in the Reception and Identification Center at Lepida (Lepida hotspot). The number of refugee arrivals on the island during the first six months of 2018 increased by 56 % in comparison to the same period in 2017.[4] At end of September, the hotspot’s reported official capacity was for 860 persons[5] while the total population reached 730. The majority of refugees in the hotspot are from Syria and Iraq. Many of the new arrivals to the hotspot are transferred from other islands such as Farmakonisi and Rhodes.[6]

Vulnerable families (e.g. families with new born babies) and individuals can be referred for accommodation to the Open Structure for Temporary Reception of Asylum-Seekers (PIKPA building)[7] or apartments provided by UNHCR’S ESTIA programme.[8] While the Lepida hotspot does not face overcrowding and refugees staying in tents, the lack of cultural mediators (a problem also existing on other Aegean islands) delays significantly the identification of those vulnerable.[9] Delays in the vulnerability assessments subsequently affect asylum procedures, the referral of refugees to a different type of accommodation (apartments or PIKPA), the timing of the lifting of geographical restrictions so that vulnerable refugees can move to the mainland and the quality of health care provided by medical personnel in the hotspot or island hospitals.[10]

There is no lawyer of the State’s Registry providing free legal assistance to asylum-seekers at second instance, as envisaged by Greek legislation.[11] Legal aid is provided by lawyers from the NGOs METAdrasi and Greek Council for Refugees.[12]

A significant percentage of the hotspot’s population is children. Out of the approx. 122 children living there, 19 are UASC. Still, there is no UASC Safe Zone in the hotspot.[13]

A kindergarden started operating last year in the hotspot and was attended by children aged 4 to 6. In addition, non-formal education and recreational activities are supported by METAdrasi and Arsis.[14]

During the 2017-2018 school year, four reception classes for refugee children (T.Y.) operated on the islands’ primary schools. These classes were attended by several children living in PIKPA, apartments run by ARSIS and the hotspot. Some children from the hotspot also attended classes in one of the island’s Middle Schools (Gymnasio) while two children living in the ARSIS apartments attended the Vocational Lykeion (so-called EPAL).[15] Still only a total of 25% of children could attend formal education. [16]

* Names of the interviewees have been changed withheld to protect their privacy and security.

Footnotes

  1. Source on arrivals: UNHCR https://data2.unhcr.org
  2. Source on refugee population on the island and hotspot: http://mindigital.gr
  3. Source on refugee children and UASC: UNHCR
  4. Source: http://mindigital.gr.
  5. Source: http://mindigital.gr
  6. On the appalling conditions in the cells of Rhodes police station see the announcement of the Union of Police Staff https://www.dimokratiki.gr.
  7. PIKPA is a Reception and Identification Service structure. Significant practical assistance in the running of the structure is provided by volunteers of the Leros Solidarity Network. Its capacity is 120 places and as of 6 October 2018, it hosted 105 refugees (Source: Matina Katsiveli, activist, Lesvos Solidarity Network).
  8. As of the end of September 2018, the total number of available places in the apartments provided by UNHCR’s ESTIA programme was 116 (Source: UNHCR).
  9. According to information provided by KEELPNO, in mid-July there was no cultural mediator employed by the PHILOS program in the hotspot. There is one doctor, two nurses, five assistant nurses, 1 midwife, 4 psychologists and 8 social workers. E-mail correspondence, 13 July 2018. In the beginning of October, the hotspot still did not have cultural mediators.
  10. Interview with Leros Solidarity Network. See also https://data2.unhcr.org.
  11. Source: http://asylo.gov.gr.
  12. METAdrasi provided legal assistance at the appeal stage of the asylum procedure in the framework of UNCHR’s Memorandum of Cooperation with the Ministry of Migration Policy until the end of August.
  13. Source:https://data2.unhcr.org
  14. Source: UNHCR
  15. Electronic correspondence with Ministry of Education Leros Coordinator on Refugee Education, 10 July 2018.
  16. Source: https://data2.unhcr.org

Arrivals January to 15 September 2018: 10,275[1]
Arrivals January to 19 September 2017: 6,684[2]
Total Population on the island on 15 September 2018: 10,774
Total Population in Moria hotspot on 15 September 2018: 8,633 Children on the island: 2,643;[3] Children in hotspot: 1,653
UASC on the island: 466; UASC in hotspot: 319

In North Aegean, Lesvos continues to be the island with the highest number of arrivals (53% of the total number of refugee arrivals on all islands). During the first nine months of this year, nearly 4,000 more refugees reached the island’s shores in comparison to the same period last year. In September, the situation in Moria hotspot (camp) reached once more a crisis point as arrivals continued and over 8,500 lived in dire conditions inside and outside the officially designated camp.

At the end of September in an attempt to tackle the severe overcrowding and crisis in Moria, the Greek authorities intensified transfers to the mainland. Still, thousands including small babies remained in summer tents inside and outside Moria hotspot at a time when civil protection authorities issued multiple warnings over strong winds and rainfalls all over Greece. Recently announced plans to move refugees and migrants living in tents to other shelters in anticipation of the winter also show the repeated lack of preparedness by the authorities as far as winterization measures are concerned.

INHUMAN CONDITIONS

The majority of the people in Moria hotspot (camp) are able to move freely outside but unable to leave the island for many months as a result of the controversial geographical restriction policy.[4] The island and the camp itself have become in essence an ‘open prison’. The name of Moria camp has been equated to living hell because of the inhuman living conditions such as extreme overcrowding; insecurity; violence including sexual violence and harassment; living in flimsy tents; exposure to the elements such as heat, strong winds, cold and rain; complete lack of hygiene; insufficient number of toilets and showers; lack or limited access to medical assistance; lack of electricity; limited or no hot water; everyday interruptions to the water supply; and long waiting lines during meal distribution! Among the thousands of refugees living in these conditions are many vulnerable such as victims of torture, persons with serious disabilities, pregnant women and newborn babies.

Outside the fences of the camp the neighbouring hill known as the “Olive Grove” is full of tents and has become in essence a second “camp” next to the Moria hotspot.

In mid-July, overcrowding was so bad that in the container accommodation sections, there were between 50 and 70 refugees sleeping in each of the containers and the rest in tents around the containers. Refugees told RSA about suffering from scabies, allergies and microbial skin infections as a result of the conditions in the tents. Meanwhile families shared the same tents with single men.

As daily arrivals continued to increase during August and September and transfers to the mainland were slow, the situation in the camp reached unique levels of crisis. In mid-September, daily arrivals exceeded 250 and the camp’s population was two and half times its official capacity. Outside the fences of the camp the neighbouring hill known as the “Olive Grove” is full of tents and has become in essence a second “camp” next to the Moria hotspot. In a damning statement, MSF said that Moria camp was in a state of emergency regarding the physical and mental health of refugees living there. [5] RIC staff reported the dire conditions and the dangers they posed for refugees and employees.[6] Also, in a move that could be interpreted more as aiming to put pressure to the central government than to address the conditions, the North Aegean Regional Director announced that the camp would be closed if the problems would not be rectified. [7] In response to the dire situation, the Greek authorities accepted the difficulty of the situation and devised a plan for the transfer of 2,000 refugees to the mainland by the end of September. [8]

In the last week of September, RSA visited the “Olive Grove” where thousands of refugees including many vulnerable have set up tents or sleep rough. The tent camp was growing daily until strong winds reduced new arrivals. Many of the tents in the designated camp area and in the “Olive Grove” are flimsy summer tents that cannot protect the refugees from the weather elements such as strong winds, dropping temperatures or rain nor from snakes that exist in the area. Often refugees have to buy wooden pallets for 3 to 5 Euros each in order to build the base for their tents to protect them from the cold or rain. Refugees with very little money are forced to buy cables and risk their lives in order to install lights in their tents to avoid staying in complete dark during the night.

Over 8, 500 refugees living in the camp have to queue in long lines for everything: food, showers, toilettes, doctors.[9] For sick people and people with disabilities, the difficulty to access the few available services in Moria is even greater as they also have to go up and down steep hills.

‘” I can hardly move up and down the hill, between olive trees, rocks and tents”, told us Asadi*, a male refugee from Afghanistan who has a serious physical disability. He has been living in a tent for the past two months and without electricity for one month. He described the impact of the bad weather conditions upon those living in the Grove: “Yesterday the storm destroyed my brother’s tent. He has been sleeping rough after that….”.


“I have had two operations after a severe injury in my belly. I suffer from Rheumatism. Sometimes I cannot walk at all, sometimes I walk with crutches. I cannot wait in the food line, but when I tell them I have strong pain they ask me for medical certificates to prove it. The other women shout at me that I am pretending to be sick to have easy access. Yesterday I came back from the food line without food. I was crying
,” said Anousheh*, a young Afghan woman who is a victim of serious violence.

Refugees living in the “Olive Grove” told RSA that the showers have just cold water and there are so many people waiting in the line. Mothers were forced to wash their babies in front of their tents instead of using a shower while their kids lacked warm winter clothing. RSA also saw overflowing garbage bins and waste water entering the tents.

“Today we found a snake in our tent. We don’t dare going back in so me and my children will stay outside tonight. There is no difference between sleeping in the tent or outside”, told us an Afghan female refugee who arrived with her family on Lesvos during the first week of September 2018.

“My child has diarrhea for the past three weeks and is now coughing. I fear he will die here. I don’t know where to find help. My child needs to go to hospital, but I have no money to take a taxi. In the camp, they would call the ambulance only if someone has been stabbed and is bleeding”, said Afsoon* from Afghanistan, who is among the latest arrivals in the “Olive Grove”.

LIMITED ACCESS TO MEDICAL ASSISTANCE

Many difficulties exist with access to medical assistance and initial vulnerability assessments as a result of the insufficient number of health care staff working in the hotspot such doctors and interpreters and the increasing population. In July, when the hotspot accommodated around 7,500 refugees and migrants the state agency responsible for the provision of primary health care and initial vulnerability assessment in the hotspot (KEELPNO) informed RSA that it had 43 staff deployed in the camp including 1 general doctor, 14 nursing staff, 5 psychologists, and three interpreters.[10] [11] Refugees interviewed by RSA at that time described how they had to wait in lines for hours in order to see a doctor and that there were not always interpreters.

In September and at time when the camp’s population was at its peak, there was reportedly only one doctor and no interpreters to assist them in the camp. Refugees – especially mothers with children – spoke with despair about the very poor conditions and the challenges they face in accessing health care and necessary medicines.

“I arrived without my (asthma) medication. The worst thing is the smell (that is) everywhere. I cannot breathe. I queued for hours to get an asthma inhaler. …It’s like hell here”. Single mother from Afghanistan.

A CRUMBLING VULNERABILITY ASSESSMENT SYSTEM

The camp population and doctors/ interpreters low ratio results in very vulnerable people waiting for many months to have their vulnerability assessed and identified. In September, RSA was informed by vulnerable refugees that they had to wait for up to four months for their initial vulnerability assessments by KEELPNO. Meanwhile, they continued living in summer tents in the “Olive Grove”.

Delays in appointments result in many vulnerable people living in inappropriate conditions that are not suitable for their needs and not receiving the appropriate medical and psychosocial care. Furthermore until their vulnerability is recognized they may not be exempted by the fast-track border procedures nor they can have their geographical restriction lifted so they can travel to the mainland.

RSA also believes the insufficient personnel and high number of vulnerable population in the camp results in lesser time being dedicated to qualified assessments. This means that vulnerabilities can escape from detection. Specifically, detection the persons with non-physical or ostensible vulnerabilities such as victims of SGBV or torture is very difficult in such conditions.

At the end of August, RSA met a Mohamed*. a refugee from Afghanistan who had been living with Fardi*, his severely disabled 14 year-old son from a first marriage, second wife, 18 year-old daughter and other minor son in Moria camp. Fardi* could not move his legs, hands, walk or speak. The family arrived in Moria in May this year but it took a month for Fardi’s vulnerability to be identified. Their asylum claims were registered at the end of June and their asylum interviews were scheduled 10 months after the initial registration. In mid-September, the family still lived in difficult conditions in Moria despite Fardi’s identified and severe disability and the impact that these conditions had upon his health. Mohamed* said: “In recent weeks my boy does not want to eat, does not sleep and I have repeatedly asked for him to be examined by a specialist doctor”. RSA intervened on their behalf to the Greek authorities and requested their transfer to the mainland and in appropriate accommodation. By the end of September, the family’s geographical restriction had been lifted but the Lesvos Asylum Office did not do the same for the 18-year-old daughter of the family. The family, who cannot be separated by the young adult girl is hosted in Kara Tepe and has been trying to find a solution so the family travels all together.

RSA also met with a young family from Afghanistan that lived in a tent in the “Olive Grove” with their newborn baby and small toddler. The family was registered by the RIC in mid-August 2018 and the date they were given for the registration of their asylum claim was the end of September. However, the scheduled date for their examination of their case and assessment of vulnerability by KEELPNO was the third week of November, i.e. nearly two months after the registration of their asylum claims and three months after their registration by RIC. As a result, the family including the three month-old baby and four year-old continue to live in a tent in dire conditions. The impact on the baby’s and mother’s health has been detrimental. RSA intervened on their behalf to the Greek authorities and requested their transfer to the mainland and in appropriate accommodation. By the end of September, the lift of their geographical restriction was still pending and the family remained in a summer tent on the “Olive Grove”. After strong winds and a wave of cold, the baby had to be transferred to hospital.

“My wife went with our baby to the hospital. There was no space to keep them, so in the night they returned to us to the tent. I don’t know how to protect my family under these circumstances!” the tired father said.

LIVING IN FEAR

The very poor conditions combined with the lack of information about the progress of an individual’s legal situation and his/her future lead to almost every day tensions and violence among the refugees as well as the refugees and the police and on certain instances serious violence that can pose a threat to the lives and wellbeing of those living in the hotspot. Violence that erupted on 25 May 2018 led to around 900 Kurdish and Yazidi refugees abandoning the hotspot and tried to seek shelter in places such as Mytilene parks and PIKPA camp. [12] On 9 July, more serious violence erupted between different ethnic groups and resulted to at a reported 55 persons including women seeking medical assistance for injuries and destroyed tents. Refugees had to flee again for safety and a 16 year-old Syrian boy was shot and injured by a local farmer when the boy and his family sought shelter in the farmer’s yard.[13]

In mid-July, refugees told RSA that they experienced a great sense of insecurity as a result of the clashes and violence in the hotspot and felt unable to sleep. RSA has also been informed of cases of LGBTI persons being subjected twice to homophobic attacks while staying in the camp and women feeling fear, and insecurity and being exposed to SGBV.[14]

By the end of September refugees in and outside of Moria perceived violence a normal part of their daily suffering in the camp.

DEPRIVING CHILDREN OF A FUTURE

While many school-age refugee children living in Kara-Tepe camp and other structures accommodation structures have access to formal education, children of the same age living in Moria camp are still waiting to access formal education this school year.[15]

The situation of UAMs on the island also remains precarious as nearly 319 were in different places around the hotspot in mid-September. Different actors still detect unaccompanied children that have not been identified as minors by the authorities and referred to age assessment procedures. Delays are also reported in the conduct of age-assessment procedures and in the protection of minors once they are identified.

ASYLUM

The registration of the new arrivals’ asylum claims takes place a few weeks or about a month after arrival on the island. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) is actively involved in national asylum procedures since the beginning of the EU-Turkey deal. Following another legislative amendment[16] in September 2018, EASO’s initial mandate for participation in the border procedure was further extended to conducting asylum interviews in all types of asylum procedures in Greece. This change gave EASO a central role in the examination of asylum claims.

Most recently there has been a change in practice and EASO conducts exclusively all asylum interviews on the island even for people who have been identified by RIC staff as highly vulnerable. Then caseworkers of the Lesvos Regional Asylum Office (RAO) are called to issue a decision based on the interviews conducted by EASO personnel and their opinion without having ever met the applicants unless they (RAO) request for a complementary interview.

The time-frame for the examination of an asylum claim varies but generally asylum-seekers are faced with complicated procedures, long delays and lack of information about their asylum procedure.

At present, asylum interviews with EASO on the island may be scheduled for up to 9 months later, even for vulnerable cases. Syrian asylum-seekers classified as vulnerable are usually referred to the regular procedures in the mainland and face prolonged wait for their asylum interview. RSA has been informed of cases where appointments have been scheduled for the winter of 2021.

Most asylum seekers receive no legal aid during the registration of their claims and their interviews and authorities are still not able to ensure access of the applicants to legal aid during the examination of the appeals, as it is their obligation under national and EU law.

Currently on Lesvos there is no free legal aid scheme [17] for the second instance. There is no lawyer appointed by the State’s registry for legal aid . The sole lawyer of the State’s Registry  stopped undertaking cases since last May  and the organizations present on the island provide ad hoc legal assistance to a limited number of cases.

In September following the crisis situation in Moria and the outcry over the conditions, the authorities started transferring hundreds of vulnerable refugees to the mainland. However, they all have to return back to the island for their asylum interviews. It is unclear who will inform them about this fact in the camps they got transferred, so they won’t miss their interview and who will carry the cost of their return journeys to the island when the time for their interview comes. For families transferred recently to camps in Northern/Northeastern Greece such as Katsikas and Volvi, the journey back to Lesvos could cost them more than their monthly allowance.

XENOPHOBIA

Krypteia, an extreme far-right group, claimed responsibility for the destruction of the memorial dedicated to the refugees who have lost their lives in the Aegean Sea. Read more:keeptalkinggreece.com

As with other North Aegean islands such as Chios and Samos, during the year there have been increasing reactions by local residents from Moria village against the presence of the hotspot as well as xenophobic manifestations and racist attacks. In June, the representative of Moria Municipality Council went on hunger strike for several days in protest about the conditions in the hotspot and their impact upon the health and safety of village residents. [18]

* Names of the interviewees have been changed withheld to protect their privacy and security.

Footnotes

  1. Source: UNHCR.
  2. Statistics on children and UASC: UNHCR.
  3. The camp includes the area of First Reception and Identification facility (RIC), the majority of the services of the Lesvos Regional Asylum Office (RAO), as well as accommodation and detention premises (pre-removal detention centre). The accommodation infrastructure consists of pre-fabricated houses, family tents, small summer tents and a number of makeshift shelters set up by NGOs or refugees themselves. The allocation of ‘housing’ structures inside Moria is assigned to an NGO along with other camp management responsibilities
  4. Moria’s population as of mid-September 2018. As of 2 October and following transfers to the mainland, the camp’s population was over 7,600.
  5. Seven persons are employed by KEELPNO in the Lesvos General Hospital and 7 in the Ambulance Service. E-mail correspondence, 13 July 2018.
  6. Additional medical services are provided by an MSF mobile clinic situated near the hotspot and a clinic inside the hotspot which is set up by the Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF). For detailed activities of MSF on the island see: https://www.msf.org/greece-msf-activity-update-march-2018; for BRF activities see: https://bootvluchteling.nl 
  7. On the challenges school-age children in the hotspot face in relation to accessing non-formal education and lack of access to formal education for the living in the hotspot see: https://www.hrw.org.
  8. Ministerial Decision of the Ministry of Migration Policy 16490/2018  (National Gazette Β΄ 3807/4.9.2018)
  9. NGO METAdrasi provision of legal assistance at the appeal stage of the asylum procedure in the framework of UNHCR’s Memorandum of Cooperation with the Ministry of Migration Policy (MoMP) ended in August.
  10. Source: http://www.ert.gr/; see also the threat of closure for PIKPA camp, source: http://rsaegean.org.

Refugee arrivals January to mid-September 2018: 3,732 [1]
Refugee arrivals January to end of September 2017: approx. 4,000 [2]
Total Population on the island as of 30 September 2018: 4,078; Total Population in Vathy hotspot: 3,845[3]
Children on the island in mid-September September 2018: 793;[4] Children in Vathy hotspot: 672
UASC on the island: 138; UASC in Vathy hotspot: 127

Samos is the second Aegean Island after Lesvos that receives most refugee arrivals. While media attention in recent months has focused on Moria, the Vathy hotspot (camp) on Samos faces numerous challenges as it hosts nearly six times its official capacity and conditions are dire. During the first eight months of the year, 19% of the total number of sea arrivals in Greece reached its shores.[5]

Samos along with Lesvos and Chios are the three islands where parts of the local society have opposed the presence of hotspots and refugees while xenophobic reactions continued.

VATHY REFUGEE CAMP – THE FORGOTTEN CRISIS

According to the Ministry of Migration Policy, as of the end of -September, 3,845 persons lived in Vathy hotspot and in the area that surrounds it. The total number of refugees on the island exceeded 4,000 if one includes also the ones sheltered in flats and other forms of housing.[6] 800 persons remained on the island despite having received the permit to leave as they did not know where to find shelter on the mainland.[7] Nearly all those hosted in flats live in or close to Vathy, a town of 6,200 people. Τhe camp itself is located on a hill just 200 metres away from the outskirts of Vathy town. It is in walking distance to the centre.

In May, the Ministry of Migration Policy announced plans to move the hotspot to the Moschona army camp, which is situated near the village of Mytilinioi. However, parts of the local society and local politicians protested over the establishment of the hotspot near the village and xenophobic and aggressive rhetoric was used.[8] It was not the first time that protests over the presence of a hotspot and other forms of accommodation for refugees on the island were characterised by xenophobia. In September 2017, a group of men attacked two employees of the NGO ARSIS who had presented a refugee accommodation programme during an open meeting organized by the Paleokastro municipality.[9] [10]

With a capacity of 648, Vathy hotspot is constantly overcrowded hosting currently six times more persons than officially possible. Around 2,000 persons live in tents according to UNHCR while winter is approaching. There were 587 tents and one rub hall and only 46 prefabs and 20 life shelters.[11] Arrivals from 6 August to 9. September 2018 reached 691, while transfers to the mainland did not exceed 366.[12] Through the year, transfers to the mainland rarely rose to more than half the arrivals – sometimes less. As a result, the population in the overcrowded hotspot has increased while conditions have deteriorated further.

At the end of September, the Regional Governor of North Aegean issued a decision similar in content to that concerning Moria and request the central authorities to remedy the conditions in Vathy camp or it would face closure.[13]

For months, hundreds have been forced to sleep rough or inside small summer tents inside and outside Vathy hotspot. A second makeshift camp has emerged around the fence and in the fields as the hotspot itself is bursting from a mix of isoboxes and makeshift shelters. Already back in May, UNHCR reported that some 2,000 people were facing inadequate shelter and hygiene facilities in the reception centre of Samos. Its report stated that “(t)he majority of toilet and shower amenities in the reception centre are out of order, worsening conditions and amplifying health risks.”[14] During his July visit to the hotspot, the German Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid found the conditions worrying.[15]

Vulnerable persons, the healthy and the sick, adults and unaccompanied minors, single women or mothers all share the same space. Contagious skin infections like scabies have reportedly emerged in the hotspot due to overcrowding and poor conditions and there are frequent water shortages. [16][17] In the beginning of September there were just 64 toilettes [18]inside the hotspot, which means more than 40 persons had to share one toilette if all were functional.

Abdu* (24) from Somalia told RSA that he was tortured in his home country and suffers from mental health problems. He arrived on Samos in 3 October 2017 but managed to travel to Athens without permit, as he could not stand the conditions in the tents during wintertime. In January, Abdu returned to Samos after two months of homelessness in Athens. When he spoke to RSA in July he was living in the hotspot in a small tent. “Here the problem we face is that vulnerable and non-vulnerable refugees have the same rights: None. We all live in tents. Sometimes there is no water in the camp for 3-4 days each week. It is overcrowded. I cannot sleep. I see bad dreams and I remember bad things every night.”

IMPACT UPON THOSE MOST VULNERABLE

In February, UNHCR observed that women and children in the hotspot were exposed to a heightened risk of sexual violence. [19] Security is also a big concern as fights break out in the hotspot[20] and refugees feel unsafe and unprotected. A month later, Amnesty International delegates witnessed refugees exposed to the elements and received testimonies the hotspot area was ‘crawling with rats’ because of poor sanitation. [21]

Meanwhile, the majority of unaccompanied minors have to stay in and around the hotspot as there is only one transit-shelter on the island. The shelter is run by NGO METAdrasi, it has capacity for 11 persons and is permanently full. Access to education and free time activities in the hotspot are very limited and minors have to wait for months to be transferred to appropriate shelters on the mainland. In mid- September there were 127 UAMs living inside the hotspot. Already, in June UNHCR highlighted the unsuitability of the UAM designated area.[22] In August, the Agency stated that ‚’living conditions for unaccompanied and separated children remain alarming especially (…) in Vathy RIC, Samos where the designated area remains without security‘.[23]

LIMITED ACCESS TO MEDICAL ASSISTANCE

KEELPNO provides primary health care, psychosocial support, as well as the vulnerability assessment in Vathy hotspot. KEELPNO stated in July that they had just one doctor but in total 19 persons employed in the hotspot.[24] In September, the KEELPNO medical coordinator was the only doctor at the camp and he was supported by 16 other staff. In a media interview, he described the situation as intolerable for all (refugees and staff in the camp) and expressed his concerns about the forthcoming winter. [25]

Meanwhile, the local hospital has become overburdened as it lacks not only the necessary specialisms for locals and refugees but also interpreters. In mid-September the Employees’ Association of the General Hospital of Samos and the Association of Hospital Doctors of Samos published an open protest letter, which stated amongst others: “The absence of interpreters from the hospital 24 hours a day to serve refugees creates serious problems during their examination and hospitalization.”[26]

ASYLUM

Legal aid is offered by PRAKSIS inside the hotspot, while the Greek Refugee Council runs a legal aid clinic in Vathy town. METAdrasi provides legal aid for second instance appeals.[27] According to recent research among Syrian refugees only “[a] very low proportion of participants reported having had access to information on legal assistance (9.6%).[28] Information is provided only by UNHCR.

Video material
Videos by Ehab Onan, Syrian refugee in the hotspot: “We have become slaves of hope!”

Video November 2017 in the rain, copyright: Samos B-Side

MSF video on Samos

* Names of the interviewees have been changed withheld to protect their privacy and security.

Footnotes

  1. Source: UNHCR
  2. Source: https://reliefweb.int.
  3. Source: http://mindigital.gr
  4. Source: UNHCR
  5. Source: https://data2.unhcr.org.
  6. Source: http://mindigital.gr. In early September, the majority of refugees on the island was from Syria (28%) and Iraq (24%). Source: UNHCR’s Weekly Snapshot Samos (3-9. September 2018). See: https://reliefweb.int
  7. Source: Kathimerini 30 September 2018.
  8. Source: https://www.efsyn.gr
  9. During 2017, RVRN recorded 5 incidents against refugee rights defenders on Samos including that in Paleokastro. Source: Racist Incidents Recording Network 2017 Report (RVRN), http://www.unhcr.org; and http://www.efsyn.gr.
  10. Source: https://www.theguardian.com
  11. Source: https://data2.unhcr.org
  12. See: UNHCR Samos weekly snapshot. 3.-9. September 2018.
  13. http://www.skai.gr.
  14. Source: https://data2.unhcr.org
  15. Source: https://twitter.com/BaerbelKofler/
  16. Samos Volunteers June Newsletter. Source: https://mailchi.mp
  17. Source: facebook.com/samosvolunteers
  18. UNHCR https://data2.unhcr.org
  19. Source: http://www.unhcr.org; see also source: https://www.amnesty.org/.
  20. Source: http://www.ert.gr
  21. Source: http://www.infomigrants.net.
  22. UNHCRs weekly snapshot on Samos (2.-8. July 2018). Source: facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport
  23. https://data2.unhcr.org.
  24. KEELPNO reports that the medical program PHILOS they carry out, currently employs in the hotspot: 1 paediatrician, 2 psychologists, 1 health visitor, 1 midwife, 4 nurses, 4 assistant nurses, 3 social workers and 3 cultural mediators. The program also employs 1 doctor, 2 nurses, 2 midwives, 2 psychologists, 2 life-guards, 1 medical technician and 1 cultural mediator in the general hospital. Electronic correspondence with KEELPNO, 13 July 2018
  25. Source: https://news.cgtn.com
  26. https://www.902.gr
  27. Written answer from UNHCR, 12th July 2018. NGO METAdrasi provision of legal assistance at the appeal stage of the asylum procedure in the framework of UNHCR’s Memorandum of Cooperation with the Ministry of Migration Policy (MoMP) ended in August 
  28. Jihane Ben Farhat et al., Syrian refugees in Greece: Experience with violence, mental health status, and access to information during the journey and while in Greece, BMC Medicine, 13 March 2018, available at: http://bit.ly/2FUOhj6.

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