ATHENS, 15 APRIL 2015 – As unprecedented numbers of refugees arrive in Greece’s Dodecanese islands after making journeys across the Aegean Sea, Greek and European Union authorities must urgently improve the conditions for receiving them and prepare a contingency plan for a higher peak of arrivals this summer, the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned today.
An MSF team in the Dodecanese islands has witnessed an increasing number of refugees arriving by boat since mid-March, with some 100 new arrivals each day – as many as during the peak of new arrivals last summer.
"A functioning reception system is urgently needed," says Stathis Kyrousis, MSF’s head of mission in Greece. "People should be provided with shelter and toilets, receive an organised food distribution and have access to basic healthcare."
Currently, newly arrived migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have to put up with poor living conditions and only limited access to healthcare. On the island of Kos, more than 200 people, including children and pregnant women, spent the first week of April crammed into a police station as they waited for administrative procedures to be completed, with some forced to sleep in the courtyard. At the same time, a reception facility on the nearby island of Leros was left unused.
Typically refugees cross the Aegean Sea in small boats in search of protection in Europe. The majority are Syrians, with others coming from Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa. The closure of EU’s external land borders has left refugees and migrants no choice but to use the sea as their main route to reach a safe haven in Europe.
MSF launched its latest project in the Dodecanese islands in mid-February to provide medical care and distribute essential relief items to newly arrived migrants. Since its first response in the islands last year, MSF has called on the Greek authorities a number of times to improve conditions for refugees, but minimal changes have been made.
According to the latest official figures, the number of people arriving in the Dodecanese islands was 145 percent higher in January 2015 than at the same time the previous year. Italy recorded a decrease in the numbers of new arrivals in March, while Greece has recorded an increase, which may represent a significant shift in the route that migrants are taking to Europe.
"This may be due to growing instability in Libya, and to the visa restrictions imposed on Syrians by Algeria and Lebanon," says Manu Moncada, MSF's operations coordinator for migration. "Syrians are left with very few options to reach Europe in search of protection."
MSF is extremely concerned that the situation for arriving migrants in the Greek islands will get significantly worse if nothing is done to prepare for an upcoming influx. Greek and EU authorities will need to agree on a contingency plan to cope with the needs that may emerge from this potential new trend.
"We are not yet in the peak season, which usually falls from July to September," says Kyrousis."This has certainly rung alarm bells for all of us that more people will need to be assisted in the summer months ahead."
Currently working on the island of Kos, the MSF team is conducting screenings to identify the most vulnerable people, including pregnant women and minors, and is providing medical consultations. From mid-March to the beginning of April, MSF conducted some 500 medical consultations and distributed 500 kits of relief items, including soap, combs, toothbrushes and towels, as well as 1,100 sleeping bags and 300 emergency blankets.
Since 2008, MSF has responded to the urgent medical and humanitarian needs of newly arrived migrants in Greece, as well as to asylum seekers and migrants in administrative detention. In collaboration with two Greek organisations, MSF is also providing medical rehabilitation for victims of torture in Athens.