Greece must act to end dangerous overcrowding in island reception centres

Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Country: Afghanistan, Greece, Syrian Arab Republic, World

UNHCR is prepared, with EU help, to expand its support through a cash for shelter scheme that would allow asylum-seekers to move from the islands to the mainland.

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Liz Throssell – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

01 October 2019

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is today calling on Greece to urgently move thousands of asylum-seekers out of dangerously overcrowded reception centres on the Greek Aegean islands. Sea arrivals in September, mostly of Afghan and Syrian families, increased to 10,258 – the highest monthly level since 2016 – worsening conditions on the islands which now host 30,000 asylum-seekers.

The situation on Lesvos, Samos and Kos is critical. The Moria centre on Lesvos is already at five times its capacity with 12,600 people. At a nearby informal settlement, 100 people share a single toilet. Tensions remain high at Moria where a fire on Sunday in a container used to house people killed one woman. An ensuing riot by frustrated asylum-seekers led to clashes with police.
On Samos, the Vathy reception centre houses 5,500 people – eight times its capacity. Most sleep in tents with little access to latrines, clean water, or medical care. Conditions have also deteriorated sharply on Kos, where 3,000 people are staying in a space for 700.

Keeping people on the islands in these inadequate and insecure conditions is inhumane and must come to an end.

The Greek Government has said that alleviating pressure on the islands and protecting unaccompanied children are priorities, which we welcome. We also take note of government measures to speed up and tighten asylum procedures and manage flows to Greece announced at an exceptional cabinet meeting on Monday. We look forward to receiving details in writing to which we can provide comments.

But urgent steps are needed and we urge the Greek authorities to fast-track plans to transfer over 5,000 asylum-seekers already authorized to continue their asylum procedure on the mainland. In parallel, new accommodation places must be provided to prevent pressure from the islands spilling over into mainland Greece, where most sites are operating at capacity. UNHCR will continue to support transfers to the mainland in October at the request of the government.

Longer-term solutions are also needed, including supporting refugees to become self-reliant and integrate in Greece.

The plight of unaccompanied children, who overall number more than 4,400, is particularly worrying, with only one in four in a shelter appropriate for their age.

Some 500 children are housed with unrelated adults in a large warehouse tent in Moria. On Samos, more than a dozen unaccompanied girls take turns to sleep in a small container, while other children are forced to sleep on container roofs. Given the extremely risky and potentially abusive conditions faced by unaccompanied children, UNHCR appeals to European States to open up places for their relocation as a matter of priority and speed up transfers for children eligible to join family members.

UNHCR continues to work with the Greek authorities to build the capacity needed to meet the challenges. We manage over 25,000 apartment places for some of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers and refugees, under the EU-funded ESTIA scheme. Some 75,000 people receive monthly cash assistance under the same programme. UNHCR is prepared, with the continuous support of the EU and other donors, to expand its support through a cash for shelter scheme which would allow authorized asylum-seekers to move from the islands and establish themselves on the mainland.

Greece has received the majority of arrivals across the Mediterranean region this year, some 45,600 of 77,400 – more than Spain, Italy, Malta, and Cyprus combined.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

In Greece, Boris Cheshirkov, cheshirk@unhcr.org, +20 695 185 4661
In Geneva, Liz Throssell, throssel@unhcr.org, + 41 79 33 77 591