Thousands of people relocated to a tent camp after fires gutted Europe’s biggest refugee facility on the Greek island of Lesbos will have to endure winter in the rudimentary settlement.
As Greece faced criticism by the continent’s top human rights watchdog, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, over the appalling conditions of several of its refugee holding centres, officials conceded asylum seekers would have to languish in the settlement until well into the new year.
“Its problematic,” said Giorgos Koumoutsakos, Athens’ alternate minister for migration and asylum policy. “A new camp has to be built from scratch and agreement has yet to be reached over its location. It’s impossible to get a new state-of-the art facility ready before next summer.”
Almost 8,000 people are living in the camp, established as part of an emergency response to blazes that razed the island’s infamously overcrowded Moria reception centre in September. The new camp, on a former shooting range only meters from the sea, was meant to be temporary. Lack of infrastructure has meant the sprawling facility is wholly dependent on water tanks.
The Greek government recently signed a €121m agreement with the EU to establish new reception and identification centres on Samos, Kos and Leros. This week, it vowed to complete construction of improved facilities on all of its frontline Aegean isles by the autumn of 2021.
In what would be an overhaul of containment policies that have trapped thousands of people in the outposts, the government also promised that no asylum seeker would remain on any island for more than six months.
About 19,000 people are living in overcrowded camps in Greece, having attempted to reach Europe from the shores of Turkey. “Our asylum system is now working very quickly,” Koumoutsakos said. “Around 80,000 applications have been processed over the course of the last nine months.”
But a report released by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture on Thursday called out the Greek authorities for their management of refugees. It found that, five years after almost a million Syrians fleeing civil war traversed Lesbos alone, Greece’s response was still far from acceptable, citing allegations of ill-treatment by the police, coastguard and military. In some cases, squalid conditions of detention amounted to “an affront to human dignity”.
“Of course, the CTP recognises the immense difficulties confronting Greece in managing mass migration flows at the EU’s external borders,” said Mark Kelly, the committee’s first vice-president, who headed the delegation that visited Greece in March. “However, dealing with those pressures must under no circumstances be allowed to degenerate into holding men, women and children in conditions that could be considered inhuman and degrading.”
The report, which called for a stop to illegal pushbacks after “consistent and credible allegations” of refugees being forcibly expelled to Turkey, said delegates had seen 93 people crammed into two police cells in the port of Samos. Among the detainees were 20 babies, while three of 15 women there were pregnant. Neither of the cells was equipped with heating, beds or mattresses. One, measuring 42 sq metres, held 43 people, while a second of little more than 32 sq meters held 50 people.
“The unpartitioned in-cell toilets were blocked and emitted a foul stench into the rest of the cell … the migrants [we] met had not had access to a shower for more than two weeks and no soap was given to them to wash their hands.” Arrivals had not been given information about their rights, as was also the case in Evros, the land-border region the committee visited.
Kelly said the authorities were pursuing a “punitive approach”. “A belief apparently remains that harsh conditions will deter migrants from arriving in Greece, without taking into consideration the push factors driving people to risk their lives to enter the country,” he said.
The anti-torture committee questioned the role and engagement of the EU border agency, Frontex, in pushback operations that in some cases had the effect of separating children from parents forcibly expelled across the land frontier with Turkey.
Since Ankara’s threat to open the doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees earlier this year, Athens has taken unprecedented steps to reinforce its borders, with backing from the EU.
The Greek government has issued a 25-page response contesting the report’s findings, and its claims of abuse. “Whenever there are allegations [of misconduct] they are always examined,” said Koumoutsakos. “It is a constant challenge to protect our borders. Turkey has a pool of 4 million refugees that it might choose to use for geopolitical goals again.”
He called the border crisis “a huge lesson to all of us”, saying: “There is no way our competent authorities are not respecting international laws and norms. We are Europe’s shield and have been congratulated for the job we are doing.”