A young mother and refugee carries her baby in search of a safe home

Greece: Chaos and squalid conditions face record number of refugees

Weak coordination and severe shortages in facilities and staffing are creating dreadful conditions for the hundreds of refugees and migrants arriving every day on the Greek island of Lesvos, which is seeing the highest number of arrivals in Greece.

Dramatic increase in arrivals

Overloaded, under-resourced authorities are failing to cope with the dramatic increase in the number of people arriving on the island (33,000 since 1 August) and must rely on local volunteers, NGO activists, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and tourists to step into the massive breach. The vast majority are fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – 90% of those arriving in 2015 according to UNHCR.

“The arduous odyssey faced by people fleeing conflict does not end on Greece’s shores. Forced to walk long distances in searing heat and stay in squalid camps or out in the open, refugees and asylum seekers see little alternative but to continue their journey, contributing to the disaster we’ve seen on the Macedonian border in recent days,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.

Worst refugee crisis since WW2

“This is not just a Greek tragedy, but a Europe-wide crisis. It is unfolding before the eyes of short-sighted European leaders who prioritize securing borders over helping survivors of conflict. The world is seeing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. What Europe’s borders need is not fences but safe entry points for refugees, and facilities to receive them with dignity.”

On 24 August, police on Lesvos told Amnesty International that they estimate that more than 33,000 refugees and migrants had arrived on the island since 1 August. Hundreds more are arriving every day – 1,450 on the night of 10-11 August alone.

While Kos, Chios and other Greek islands in the Aegean have also received refugees and migrants crossing over via Turkey, Lesvos has received the highest number: more than 93,000 already in 2015, more than seven times the 12,187 arrivals in all of 2014. More than 160,000 migrants and refugees have entered Greece as a whole so far this year, compared to 45,412 in all of 2014.

Overcrowded, squalid conditions

Amnesty International observed very poor, unsanitary conditions and overcrowding at the Moria immigration detention centre on Lesvos, including overflown toilets, lack of sheets and blankets, filthy and old mattresses and broken beds. Police on Lesvos said they lack the funds to improve conditions.

A refugee from Afghanistan told Amnesty International:

“Words cannot describe [the conditions] … it smells … there is no soap, no clothes and everything is broken. … There is nothing for the small children, not even milk … [the police] shout a lot … Yesterday morning they cut the electricity and until lunch time we had no electricity and it was smelling a lot in our rooms [so we slept outside]…”.

People waiting outside the overcrowded centre for space to free up have been staying in tents, underneath nets from olive groves, or enduring 35-degree heat with no shelter at all.

Syrian refugees housed in tents in a car park

Syrian refugees arriving on Lesvos are being sent to the separate Kara Tepe camp, where they wait one to two days for documents that allow them to travel onwards to Athens. Kara Tepe is an informal, unmanaged camp set up by the local mayor on a car park.

Intended for 500 people, it is very overcrowded with more than 1,500 people staying there at a time. There are not enough tents, toilets or showers. Food is distributed by police and NGOs, with little coordination from Greek authorities. It falls to the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières to clear the garbage and clean and maintain the toilets and showers.

Migrants and refugees forced to walk for miles

With only four buses available to transport the hundreds of people coming ashore every day, most have to walk the up to 70 km journey from the island’s northern shores to the reception centre in the capital, Mytilene.

Amnesty International witnessed more than 100 mainly Syrian and Afghan refugees, including families with small children and elderly people, walk to the point of collapse in temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius. In the absence of help from the authorities, locals, tourists and activists gave them water and food.

Syrian refugees told Amnesty International how arduous the journey was for families and the elderly:

“There are women with babies and there is no bus … We are young and we will make it but what about them?” Syrian refugees on the journey from the shores of Lesvos to the capital, Mytilene

Understaffing prolongs ordeal

Once they arrive in the island’s capital Mytilene, people wait to be registered by the coastguard. Amnesty International witnessed lines of around 200 people waiting in welting heat. There are neither interpreters to help the coastguard process arrivals nor enough volunteer doctors to examine any beyond the most urgent cases.

Members of the Greek Coastguard told Amnesty International they have only 10 staff to register the hundreds of refugees arriving daily, though they receive support from NGOs who provide information and medical assistance.

Island refugee crisis demands emergency plan

Amnesty International is calling on Greek authorities, with urgent EU financial and logistical support, to set up an emergency response to manage the crisis on Lesvos and other Greek islands. Authorities need to urgently open the new First Reception Centre in Moria.

“The economic and refugee crises are converging on Lesvos and the other islands of the Aegean, with refugees and migrants paying the price,” said Gauri van Gulik.

“Announced EU funds can help Greece respond, but it is becoming clear that Greece also needs operational support to put these funds to use. Even more importantly, Europe needs to relieve pressure off Greece in the longer term by providing more safe and legal routes into Europe for those who need protection. As long as it fails to do so, Europe is directly responsible for what is unfolding on Lesvos and other frontline points of the refugee crisis.”