Refugees trapped on Kos: An unspeakable crisis in reception conditions

Hundreds of refugees are forced to live in boxes made out of cardboard and reed or makeshift sheds inside and outside of the Kos hotspot, in the utmost precarious and unsuitable conditions, without access to adequate medical and legal assistance. Since last April, the Kos hotspot, located on a hill at the village of Pyli, 15km outside of the city, is overcrowded, while the number of transfers of vulnerable refugees from the island to the mainland is significantly lower[1] compared to other islands, therefore creating an unbearable sense of entrapment for the refugees. RSA staff visited the island recently, spoke with refugees[2] living at the hotspot and visited the surrounding area. The images and testimonies cited in this document point out an unspeakable crisis in reception conditions.

A former military camp in the village of Pyli serves as the Kos hotspot, despite intense protests residents; it started operating in March 2016 following the implementation of the toxic EU – Turkey Deal. According to official data, a place designed for a maximum occupancy of 816 people and 116 containers is now accommodating 3.734 people. Given the lack of any other accommodation structure on the island, the above number includes those living in makeshift sheds inside the hotspot as well as in crumbling abandoned buildings and tents outside of it. This severe overcrowding has led the authorities to use the Pre-removal Centre as an area for the stay for asylum-seekers– who are under restriction of their freedom of movement – including vulnerable individuals, women and families.

According to UNHCR, the majority of asylum-seekers come from Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Palestine and Iraq, while children make up for 27% of the entire population. This data points out that, despite the dominant opposite and unfounded rhetoric, most of the newcomers are refugees, coming from countries with high asylum recognition rates.

  • Refugee and migrant population on the island till 28 October 2019: 4.235
  • Refugee and migrant population in the hotspot till 28 October 2019: 3.734 while the official capacity is for 816 people
  • Total number of detainees in the detention centre (PROKEKA) till 28 October 2019: 325  while the official capacity is for 474 people

“We are living like mice”

Two large abandoned buildings stand outside the hotspot; they are accessible only through debris, trash and a “stream” of sewage. RSA met with refugees who live there and who described their wretched living conditions. “Here, we are living like mice. We are looking for cardboard boxes and reeds to make ourselves a place to sleep. At night, there is no electricity. You look for an empty space between others, you lay down and try to sleep”, says an English-speaking man from Cameroon, who has been living in one of these abandoned buildings for two months. It is an open space full of holes in the walls and a weathered roof of rusty iron[3].

Cardboard rooms

African refugees, men and women have found shelter in this utterly dangerous setting. They have made a slum with big cardboard rooms, one next to the other, where the entrance is not visible. As the refugees sleeping in this area mention, there is cement and plaster falling off of the roof all the time. A vulnerable female refugee from Africa described to us her justified fear that her living conditions expose her to further danger. The police told us to go find somewhere to sleep, there is no room at the hotspot. I am scared in here among so many men, because there is no electricity and it gets dark at night. But, what can I do? There was no room for me inside”.

A blanket for each person

The situation for Afghan families living in rooms of the other abandoned building, a few meters away, is similar. “When we take our children to the doctor, he writes prescriptions and tells us to buy them by ourselves. No one has helped us. When we arrived, they gave only one blanket to each one of us. Us women, we don’t even have the basics for personal hygiene”, says a young Afghan who has been living here for a month with her daughter and her husband. “They give us 1.5lt of water every day and pasta or potatoes almost daily”, says a young Afghan.

In that space we met with refugees who complain about snakes getting indoors, where people sleep. Many try to shut the holes in the abandoned buildings to deter serpents from entering and to protect themselves from the cold. “We shut the holes but it is impossible to protect ourselves, this building is falling apart, it is really dangerous”, says a man from Afghanistan.

Reported snake bite wound

There are no toilets outside of the hotspot; a cement trough is used as a shower for men, women and children, along with a hose from the fields nearby. There, they collect water in buckets and take it to their sheds. Alongside the road leading to the hotspot, refugees are carrying on their shoulders mattresses they have found in the trash, to put them in their tents and sheds.

According to UNHCR, following a request by the Reception and Identification Authority, 200 tents were donated to the hotspot. This said, the Authorities have yet to find an appropriate space to set them up.

Unbearable conditions inside the hotspot

At the moment, there is not really a “safe zone” for unaccompanied minors, despite the fact that there is a space that was designed for this purpose, as families seem to be living in UNHCR tents in that space. The area is not completely protected and according to reports adults, who use the hygiene facilities, can enter there.

Due to the overcrowding, lodgings have been set up in almost every available space, whereas, according to testimonies, there are serious problems with electricity, water supply, sewage disposal and cleanliness. The refugees mention that there is only one public toilet for those not living in a container, lack of clothing, shoes and hygiene products. Some told us that they left the hotspot because of the conditions there, in search of a living space outside of it. Such is the case of a Syrian refugee with his son, who are sleeping in a small construction near the hotspot entrance. “I found two mattresses in the trash. It was so filthy inside and the smell was so unbearable that I couldn’t stand it. I was suffering of skin problems, both me and the child”, he says. Tens of other refugees are sleeping in parks and streets downtown and depend upon solidarity groups in order to attend to their basic needs.

Several refugees told us that they are in search of ways to work, even for free, in order to be of use. “I want to do something, I can’t just sit around doing nothing, it is driving me crazy. Would you happen to know where I could be of help? They say they don’t need me at the hotspot, is there anything I could do for the town of Kos? Clean, help somehow?”, a young Palestinian asks.

Inadequate access to medical care

Refugees living in the hotspot point out the inadequate or non-existent medical care. “We queue up and, if we manage to get to a doctor, they tell us to drink water, a lot of water, and sometimes they give paracetamol. There is no doctor at night, not even for emergencies. If someone is sick, the police won’t even call an ambulance. Take a taxi, they tell us. The other day, my friend was sick with a high fever, we called a taxi, but because the taxi wouldn’t come to the hotspot entrance, we carried him down the road for the taxi to pick us up”, says a young refugee.

According to reports, at this moment there is only one doctor at the hotspot and only one Arab-speaking interpreter among the National Public Health Organization (NPHO) staff; during the summer, because of the limited NHPO staff, there were serious delays in medical tests and vulnerability screenings. Also, Kos hospital is understaffed, with whatever the consequences might be for the locals and the refugees in need of medical care[4].

Not having a Social Security Number makes things even worse for those in need of medication, as they have to pay the entire price to buy it. The amount of 90 EURO that they receive as asylum-seekers from the cash program (cash card), especially when they have a health issue, is not enough. Such is the testimony of a woman from Africa, living in one of the abandoned buildings outside the hotspot. “It is dangerous here, we are suffering. It is difficult in these conditions, with our health, if you go to the hospital, they won’t give you medication. They will write you a prescription and you will have to buy it with your own money”, she tells us.

Problems with free access to medical care for the thousands of newcomers increased sharply since July 2019 because the Foreigner Health Card system did not work and the Minister of Labor revoked[5] the circular on granting a Social Security Number to asylum-seekers, since the matter has yet to be regulated.

Under these circumstances, survivors of a shipwreck (caused by the Coast Guard ramming a refugee boat near Kos resulting in the death of a 3-year old boy and a man) were transferred last week. According to the press, the 19-year old mother of the child, a few hours after the shipwreck and while still in shock, grave mourning and exhaustion, was transferred to the Reception and Identification Centre in order to be registered.

Repression and police brutality

According to the testimonies of at least four refugees, their protests are mostly dealt with repression, while there are reports on use of police violence in these situations. “Every time there is an issue, we go to the police and tell them do something, you have to protect us. They tell us to go away and if we insist, they start yelling and, if we don’t leave, they beat us”, says a minor Afghan who is living in the hotspot with his family. “If we complain, no one listens to you. It is a waste of time and you risk getting in trouble”, a 41-year old man from Africa, who has been living for the past six months inside the hotspot in a shed made of cardboard boxes, explains to us. ”A month ago, when we had the first rain, people were complaining, but it did nothing other than the riot police coming over”, they are telling us.

Huge delays in the asylum process

Many of those we met have yet to receive the threefold document and still have no access to the cash program. Newcomers have only received their “Restriction of Freedom Decision”, valid for 25 days; several have told us that the information on the asylum process is incomplete and they are having difficulty understanding it. At the end of the 25 days, they usually receive a document titled “Service Note of Release” where there is mention of the geographical restriction on the island of Kos. Lately, a notification for the intention to claim asylum is required.

According to reports, at the moment there is a large number of people whose asylum process has not advanced (backlog). “Some of us have been here for 4-6 months and we haven’t even had a pre-interview[6] or an interview yet”, says a woman from Cameroon who is living in the hotspot.

Arrivals have particularly increased in the past months, while refugees arriving in smaller islands, such as Kalymnos, Symi, are transferred to the Kos and Leros hotspots. According to UNHCR, a recent transfer of refugees from Kos to the mainland took place on 6 October and concerned 16 individuals. [7]. Due to the fact that in Kos the geographic restriction was not usually lifted in the past months, hundreds of people are trapped in these extremely precarious conditions. This appears to be happening because of the delays in the asylum process and the lack of medical staff, resulting to vulnerable individuals not being identified, combined with the lack of available space in the mainland structures and the prioritization of other islands that have hotspots.

In Kos, there is free legal aid by four lawyers in total (a Registry lawyer, Metadrasi, Greek Refugee Council, Arsis), while there is great lack of interpreters both in the hotspot and the local hospital.

Lack of access to education

With regard to the refugees children’s education, evening classes in the Refugee Reception and Education Centres (RREC) have yet to start. According to UNHCR data, more than 438 children of school and pre-school age – aged 5 to 17-years old – are living in the hotspot[8] .

In total, 108 children attend the Centre of non-typical education (KEDU) of Arsis Organization near the hotspot, funded by UNHCR. Any educational activity inside the hotspot, take place as part of an unemployment program by the Manpower Employment Organization. According to reports, the kindergarten providing formal education that operated in the previous two years inside the hotspot under the Ministry of Education is now closed as safety reasons were invoked.

Detention: bad conditions and detention of vulnerable individuals

The Pre-removal Centre next to the hotspot, with a capacity of 474 people, is currently detaining 325 people. According to UNHCR observations, the main nationalities are Iraq, Cameroon, Egypt, Syria and Pakistan.

According to reports, newcomers in nearby islands that are transferred to Kos are also detained there until they submit their asylum claim. Also, people who have violated the geographic restriction are also held there. Among the detainees, there are people who have not been subjected to reception procedures process due to shortcomings of the Reception and Identification Authority[9]. Characteristically, following his visit to Kos in August 2019, Philippe Leclerc, the UNHCR Representative in Greece, reported: “I also visited the pre-removal centre on Kos, which since May 2019 has broadly been used as a place for direct placement in detention, instead of reception, of asylum-seekers, including women and those with specific needs, some of whom without prior and sufficient medical or psychosocial screening, due to lack of enough personnel”. 

In the context of the pilot project implemented in Lesvos, even extremely vulnerable individuals are being detained, despite the fact that there is no doctor in the Pre-removal Centre. An African refugee with a serious condition told us “I was in the Pre-removal Centre for three and a half months. I almost collapsed. I showed them a document from my country’s hospital, where my condition is mentioned, I asked them for a doctor, but they brought a nurse. Now I sleep in a room made of cardboard and reed outside of the hotspot”.

According to complaints by at least two people who have been detained at the Pre-removal Centre, the police broke the camera of their mobile phones, that resulted in the phones not functioning and them losing their contacts and the only means of communication with their families. “Inside the Pre-removal Centre we didn’t have access to a doctor nor to medication. There was a nurse, but we were receiving no help. Also, we didn’t have access to a lawyer. When we complained, they transferred us to another wing, but all the wings were in an equally bad condition. Many times those who complained were being taken to the police station”, says a 30-year old man from Gambia.

Stressing over the upcoming winter

Away from publicity lights, as these are focusing on the critical situation on Lesvos and Samos, the hundreds of refugees living inside and outside the hotspot in Pyli are desperately trying to have their voices heard in order to move on with their asylum process and receive the necessary medical and legal support. They are stressing over the upcoming winter and their safety, as many of them are living in makeshift shelters, without any updates on their housing and the end of their entrapment.

RSA and PROASYL are, once more, urging the Greek Authorities to end the toxic EU – Turkey Deal; to take emergency measures in order to address the crisis in reception conditions; and to grant asylum-seekers with safe and dignified conditions, as prescribed by the International and European Law. RSA and PROASYL also call the other EU member States to show solidarity and halt the returns of asylum-seekers to Greece, as there is a grave danger of them being exposed to unacceptable conditions on the Aegean islands and in the mainland.

Footnotes

  1. From April 1st to October 22, 2019, about 4.578 people reached Kos. During the same period, 1.172 left for the mainland. Source: UNHCR, October 24, 2019.
  2. Between October 18 and 19, RSA members spoke with more than 30 refugees and asylum claimants who reside in and outside of the hotspots in Kos.
  3. It is to be noted that the island of Kos is highly seismogenic and a 6,7 Richter Scale earthquake was recorded in July 2017.
  4. See http://www.vimatisko.gr/?page=news&records=details&_p.id=66156.https://www.dikastiko.gr/eιδηση/καταγγελία-ποεδην-ανύπαρκτοι-οι-γιατ/.
  5. See. https://rsaegean.org/el/ta-anthropina-dikaiomata-sto-vomo-tis-dimokratikqis-austirotitas.
  6. Note: meaning a preregistration of the asylum claim
  7. Source: UNHCR, 25 October 2019
  8. Source: UNHCR, October 24,2019
  9. Source: UNHCR, October 24,2019

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