Women, Children Fearful, Unprotected; Lack Basic Shelter
(Athens) – Police are failing to protect people during frequent incidents of violence in closed centers on the Greek islands known as “hotspots,” Human Rights Watch said today. The centers were established for the reception, identification, and processing of asylum seekers and migrants. None of the three centers Human Rights Watch visited on Samos, Lesbos, and Chios in mid-May 2016, separate single women from unrelated adult men, and all three are unsanitary and severely overcrowded.
“In Europe’s version of refugee camps, women and children who fled war face daily violence and live in fear,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Lack of police protection, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions create an atmosphere of chaos and insecurity in Greece’s razor wire-fenced island camps.”
On visits from May 9 to May 15, Human Rights Watch found all three facilities to be severely overcrowded, with significant shortages of basic shelter and filthy, unhygienic conditions. Long lines for poor quality food, mismanagement, and lack of information contribute to the chaotic and volatile atmosphere in the three hotspots, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 13, a fight involving about 200 men raged for several hours in the Vathi hotspot on Samos, a 250-bed facility that held 945 people that day. Human Rights Watch visited the center on May 14, and saw smears of blood on floors, blood-stained clothing, jagged holes in the shelters where rocks had been thrown, and broken glass and other detritus from the fight, and examined bruises and lacerations on men’s and women’s heads and bodies. Many residents said the police providing security for the site withdrew when the fighting broke out. According to aid workers with Boat Rescue, a Dutch nongovernmental organization that provides health care at the facility, 14 people were hospitalized, including some with broken arms and legs.
Human Rights Watch was forced to cut short its May 14 visit to Vathi due to security concerns, but visited again on May 15.
Camp residents and service providers said that fights are a daily occurrence at Vathi and that the police withdraw when the fighting starts and do not intervene to protect people. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, which was present on each of the three days Human Rights Watch visited, said that Vathi has no camp manager. No one appeared to be in charge on the days Human Rights Watch visited. Residents at the other two camps, Moria on Lesbos and VIAL on Chios, also said that police don’t intervene in fights.
Despite a police order that directs all police working with refugees and migrants to ensure protection and security for women and children, the centers on Chios and Samos have no segregated sections for single women, family groups, or women with children. Human Rights Watch observed unaccompanied children and families living in common areas at Moria. Moria has sections for children and families, but they are not large enough to accommodate all the women and children in the center. Women reported frequent sexual harassment in all three hotspots. “The men get drunk and try to enter our tent every night,” said a 19-year-old single woman from Eritrea living in Vathi. “We went to the police and asked to be taken to a separate part of the camp from the men who try to abuse us, but the police refused to help us. We fled our country for exactly this reason, and here in this camp we are afraid to leave our tent.” Women in the Moria hotspot on Lesbos and VIAL hotspot on Chios spoke of similar problems and expressed deep concerns about their and their children’s safety.
Since a March 20 migration agreement between the European Union and Turkey, Greek authorities have automatically detained all asylum seekers and migrants. On April 2, the Greek parliament hastily adopted a law that allows blanket “restriction of movement” on new arrivals inside closed facilities at border entry points – such as the islands – for up to 25 days during reception and identification. UNHCR and several nongovernmental aid agencies suspended many of their activities when the hotspots were converted into detention centers, though UNHCR continues to monitor conditions and provide limited services.
The hotspots, officially called “Reception and Identification Centers,” are nominally administered by the Greek government’s First Reception Service, under the Migration Policy Ministry. Two EU agencies are a more visible presence: Frontex, the EU’s external borders agency, which conducts the initial registration, nationality screening interviews, and fingerprinting in collaboration with the Greek police, and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which conducts admissibility interviews and makes recommendations on admissibility to the asylum procedure to the Greek Asylum Service. The Asylum Service is also present in the facilities, though their offices were closed in Vathi on the days that Human Rights Watch visited. The Greek police are responsible for camp security.
Greek and EU authorities should take immediate steps to ensure the security and protection of women and children in the hotspots as well as all other residents, Human Rights Watch said. Women, children, and families should be provided with secure sleeping, toilet, and bathing facilities separate from those for single men. Greece should not detain people in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities.
The blanket detention of all asylum seekers and migrants in closed facilities is unjustified, given the possibility of less restrictive options, and amounts to arbitrary detention. The hotspot facilities on Greek islands should be converted into open camps with appropriate services and security measures, Human Rights Watch said.
No one who has indicated an intent to seek asylum should be detained in facilities on the islands absent evidence that the detention is necessary and for a legitimate purpose or reason, such as that the person presents a specific and individualized security threat.
EU countries should accelerate the fulfilment of their obligations under the temporary relocation scheme. They should urgently make sufficient places available and facilitate the relocation of asylum seekers whose claims were considered inadmissible from the Greek islands hotspots. Individual circumstances such as family ties should also be taken into account.
“When Greece detains people in overcrowded conditions unfit for animals and fails to provide them with basic police protection, it creates a climate where violence flourishes,” Frelick said. “Although the EU is not directly responsible for camp security, it was appalling to watch Frontex personnel hurriedly leaving the Vathi camp as tensions mounted on May 14. The EU and Greece should immediately remedy this shameful situation, quickly end arbitrary detention, and ensure humane treatment of people in their custody.”
Lack of Police Protection
Human Rights Watch heard consistent accounts from camp residents in all three locations of the routine lack of police protection.
Among the accounts about the large-scale fight on May 13, in Vathi, a 36-year-old Syrian woman living in one of the containers said: Yesterday I felt like I had left one war only to come here to another war. The fight happened right outside my door. They were jumping on the roof of my container. They smashed holes in the walls. I was very frightened. They were drunk. Some tried to enter the door of my container but we pushed against the door. Thank God they didn’t enter.
A 20-year-old Syrian woman living in a small tent in Vathi said:
Yesterday, a big fight happened. We were afraid. We went to the police to protect us. But the police withdrew inside their compound to protect themselves. They would not let us in. We broke down the door to go to the police courtyard. We knocked on their door and asked them to help the people who were hurt. The hurt people stayed on the ground for two hours before the police took them. Whenever there is a fight, the police stay out of it. There are fights every night. Blood and broken bones.
A 24-year-old Pakistani man who was attacked during the fight said: “It happened because people have been very much frustrated. They are in this facility for two months, three months…. They fight for very small things.” An 18-year-old Pakistani man who was injured said: “I feel insecure here. I was sleeping and people came in my container and hit me with an iron pipe.” Human Rights Watch observed his broken teeth and stitches on his lower lip.
Camp residents said fights occur daily, particularly in the food lines, with no police intervention. The 36-year-old Syrian woman said: “Whenever something happens, the police just leave and stay in their container and lock the door. If a fight breaks out in the food line, they lock down the food distribution just to protect themselves. The worst thing is they laugh at us.”
Large-scale fighting – together with a withdrawal of police during the fighting – also occurred in the other locations Human Rights Watch visited.
Several Syrians in the VIAL hotspot on Chios, which is built around an abandoned alumininum factory, described a large attack by Afghans lasting a couple of hours on May 7 or 8, a few days before Human Rights Watch visit. People showed researchers holes in the interior walls of the factory where they said rocks had been thrown. A 27-year-old Syrian man, who lives there with his 20-year-old wife and his 60-year-old mother, said: “A few days ago, the Afghans attacked us. They threw rocks and stole our mattress. Now we only have blankets. When we asked the police for help, they just disappeared. The police told us, ‘It is not our business what you refugees do between yourselves.’” A 20-year-old Syrian man said: “The Afghans came and attacked us. They attacked from both sides, throwing rocks. Two people were sent to the hospital. Three days ago, an Afghan hit a Syrian woman here.”
A 29-year-old Syrian man in VIAL said:
It happened at night three days ago. [He rolled up his pant leg and showed a cut on his leg]. It started with two drunk Afghans who came into this building and they were yelling and we told them to go, but they refused, and then more Afghans came from both sides and attacked us. The two policemen here ran away. They left the building as soon as the fighting started. We went to call the police but they fled the building. About 30 minutes later, a police bus came, but the police stayed outside the camp, outside the main gate; they didn’t even bring the bus up to the building where we were being attacked. We gathered the women and children and barricaded them into one of the office containers. We don’t feel safe here.
All the Syrians Human Rights Watch interviewed who were living on the floor in the converted factory building in VIAL said they wanted to be near the camp’s administrative offices for their safety. Afghans live in containers around the factory building.
Similarly, all the Afghan families and women Human Rights Watch interviewed in VIAL expressed the same fear about fights between Afghan single men and between Afghans and Syrians.
A 27-year-old Afghan woman living in VIAL with her husband and two children, ages 7 and 4, said:
To tell you the truth, with the war going on between Afghans and Syrians [in the camp] I don’t feel safe at all. From the moment we arrived here I haven’t slept well even one night. I am mostly worried about my children. They [the men] fight, they throw stones, windows are breaking and glass is falling down, and they might get hurt. When we were in Afghanistan, after the threats to my husband, I was always begging him that we leave. But now that we came here, I am really worried about our security.
A 35-year-old Afghan woman living in VIAL with her three daughters – 14, 12, and 10 – and her 8-year-old son and 9-year-old nephew, described similar fears: “There are always fights. Even women are getting hurt in the fights and we don’t have men to protect us and we are afraid. In one fight we were inside the main building but outside there were so many stones being thrown that they could kill a human. The situation is very hard but we don’t have another choice.” Her 14-year-old daughter said: “This is not a proper place for women and children. We are not safe here. Every night the men drink and fight and try to enter our room.”
In the Moria hotspot on Lesbos, a 36-year-old Afghan man said, “The food lines are very long. All the time there is fighting. There are fights between the Afghans, and Pakistanis, and the Syrians for places in the food line. Because the police do not help, we have had to come together to try to organize the lines ourselves.” A 22-year-old Afghan man at Moria said, “I spend five or six hours waiting in line for food. Fighting between different nationalities breaks out. The police are small in number. They can’t do anything. There are 40 or 50 people fighting and only four or five guards.”
A 27-year-old Palestinian Syrian man said, “Here the police don’t protect us, even when people throw rocks at us. We line up a very long time for food. There is no safety at all. In a prison it would be better organized than here.” A 26-year-old Afghan man at Moria said, “People are fighting and the police just watch like it is a dog fight. They even clap their hands like it is a show for them.” His wife said: “There is no security in the camp. We do not feel safe here. I cannot leave my documents in the tent, I always carry them with me. At night, men get drunk and abuse people. The police are not here.”
Women and Children at Risk
On March 31, the headquarters of the Hellenic Police issued an order to all police agencies engaged with refugees and migrants that requires separating women and children from men in closed facilities. The directive orders police operating in refugee and migrant centers “to prevent incidents of violence and abuse” against women and children.
However, none of the three hotspots Human Rights Watch visited in mid-May separated the living quarters of single men from single women and families. VIAL and Vathi have no separate sections for single women, family groups, or women with children, and VIAL has no segregated space for unaccompanied children. In Moria and Vathi, some unaccompanied children were segregated, but in Moria, this area was prison-like. Even in those camps with separate areas for unaccompanied children, Human Rights Watch found some unaccompanied children living among adults. In Moria, there was also a small section for family groups, but many families were living with the general population.
In Moria, a 45-year-old single woman from Cameroon was placed in a container with 11 other people, including Pakistani men. “I cannot change my clothes in front of the Pakistani men,” she said. “To get dressed, I must go to the latrine, where it is very dirty.”
Women also described being sexually harassed routinely, particularly when going to and from or using the camp bathrooms. In Moria, Human Rights Watch observed a large number of men loitering next to the women’s latrine. A 23-year-old Syrian woman, who is alone with her three small children, said that she does not go to the toilet at night because drunk men hang around the women’s latrine and have grabbed her hand and touched her shoulder in ways that made her feel uncomfortable. Single women at VIAL said that, to protect themselves, they had to ask unrelated men of their nationality to escort and guard them when they went to the bathroom. A 36-year-old Syrian woman at Vathi in Samos with two small children said, “I would like to have a man escort us to the bathroom, but there is no one. My biggest concern is the long distance to the bathroom and fear for my safety.”
Women in VIAL also described a lack of privacy at the women’s showers. A 27-year-old Afghan widow with three children said, “The situation is very bad in the women’s showers. The showers don’t have curtains but you don’t have another choice. If other women are with me I feel comfortable.” Another 27-year-old Afghan woman said: “The situation is very bad in the showers. Imagine that there are no curtains. And it is very very dirty.” A 17-year-old Afghan girl living with her sister and mother said: “We don’t have hot water in the shower, and we don’t have a safe space to shower and wash our clothes.”
“I believe it would be good to have a separate space for women,” said the Afghan widow with three children. “I am alone and Pashtun, and here we are a minority. I particularly fear if something very bad happens to my 9-year-old daughter, I will have nowhere to turn to report it.”
Women and girls said they feel particularly exposed to the threat of sexual violence during episodes of fighting. In VIAL, a 23-year-old single Afghan woman said: “Yesterday there was a fight between Sunni and Shia Afghans. One Afghan came and threatened me and said, ‘I will come back at night and rape you.’ I feel insecure here. They [the police] haven’t taken any measures to protect us. Another time, they [the men fighting] hit me on the head and I went to report it [to the police] and no one would listen to me.”
A 17-year-old Afghan girl living in VIAL with her mother and 16-year-old sister said: “A few days ago a drunk Afghan man came here and started harassing women. There are always fights here, they come, break the windows and the glass, and I’m always scared that they will get in and do something. The police are looking and are doing nothing. I went to the police to complain and they clearly said that as long as it’s between you, we don’t intervene. They tell us that they can’t do anything.”
The mother of the 17-year-old girl said she had moved her family to a container with five unrelated Afghans in hopes of finding protection for her and her daughters. Human Rights Watch found that the others were three 16-year-old unaccompanied boys and two unaccompanied brothers, 17 and 13. “With the fights between Afghans and Syrians I was really scared,” the woman said. “Particularly because I have two young girls and I was scared they could rape them.” Her daughter said: “I don’t feel comfortable with so many men [boys] in the room but I am forced to accept the situation. At this moment, no one controls the camp, there are fights, people get drunk, and get inside containers. That’s why we decided to live with [boys].”
Human Rights Watch interviewed a husband and wife from Aleppo, Syria together in their makeshift shelter made of blankets and parts of fencing materials on the factory floor at VIAL. They have four children, all girls. The wife, crying, said, “This is the most difficult thing I’ve been through.” Her husband said: “My children are afraid every day. There is no safe area for children. We would be better protected in Syria. When there is a fight between Afghans, nobody does anything. The holes in the wall here [he pointed to holes] are from when the Afghans attacked us. It happened in the night when we were sleeping and it was scary. We can’t sleep at night. My wife sleeps with a knife out of fear of the Afghans. To go to the bathroom, men must escort and guard the women, especially at night. One Afghan boy told my 14-year-old daughter he would kidnap her.”
Children in the hotspots are also exposed to violence and abuse. “Some days you don’t get food,” a 16-year-old unaccompanied Afghan boy in the Moria center said. “There are long lines for food and fighting often happens. The police just watch when the fights break out.” This boy, a young-looking 16-year-old, was separated from his 17-year-old brother who had been segregated in the high-security section in Moria for unaccompanied boys. “I have an ID with my age on it, but the doctor here said I was not a minor.”
A 17-year-old unaccompanied boy living with the general population in Moria camp along with his 16-year-old brother told us: “When we came here, we didn’t have food to eat. We couldn’t get food for days because of fights at the lines. Three days ago there was a fight at the line and my brother who was at the line was hurt. The fight started between Pakistanis, I tried to pull my brother out of the line [because he was hurt] and people fell onto us and and I was injured too.” Human Rights Watch observed the wounds on his leg and arm.
There is no safe play area reserved for children in the Vathi or the VIAL hotspots, but Moria does have a play area created by a nongovernmental group.
Overcrowding and Lack of Shelter
All three hotspots were overcrowded and in all three many people were sleeping on the ground in small tents or makeshift shelters constructed of blankets, plastic sheeting, and scraps of fencing, cardboard, and other building materials. According to one of the camp administrators at Moria, Spyros Kourtis, at the time of the Human Rights Watch visit on May 9, about 4,000 people were living in the camp. He said that it had a 700-bed capacity.
Daphne Spyropoulou, VIAL camp manager, said on May 11, that about 1,400 people were living in the camp, which she said had a capacity of 1,150. Spyropoulou said that about 200 people were living on the floor of the old factory building at the center of the camp rather than in the containers around it. Human Rights Watch observed at least that number living in extremely minimal and makeshift conditions in the factory building, essentially hanging a few blankets to mark their space and provide minimal privacy.
When Human Rights Watch visited Vathi on May 14, there was no camp manager, but the UNHCR officer there said that the camp population that day was estimated at 945 with a capacity of 250-beds in the areas of the camp open to residents. Later that day, because of fear of another major fight, the camp residents broke through the fencing for a new closed area that was not yet open, broke the locks on container doors, and began occupying that area of the camp, in effect creating a capacity of 357 additional beds, but in a completely disorganized manner that failed, again, to segregate families and women from single men.
A 40-year-old Afghan man in Moria said, “I am one of 37 people in a small room. I cannot sleep. I have been here for 50 days. There is no security in the camp.” The authorities do not tell people where they should stay, leaving them to fend for themselves, and fail to provide accommodations of any kind for many. A 16-year-old unaccompanied Afghan boy living among the general population in Moria said, “I have been here for two months. I sleep in a small tent with six people. We bought it from a guy selling tents.”
A Syrian couple living on the floor of the VIAL factory building with their four children said: “No one showed us where to stay. They just gave us blankets and we found a space on the floor. We built this tent with blankets, pieces of fence, and cardboard. They told us to wait, that it would take time for the containers to be empty. It is very cold at night for the six of us sleeping in this space.”
Unsanitary Conditions, Lack of Water, Rotten Food, Inadequate Health Care
Everyone interviewed said the food was of poor quality and that there was not enough. A 36-year-old Syrian woman with two small children in Vathi said: “We have to line up a long time for food, and the food is very bad, not suitable for children, no milk.”
In Chios, Human Rights Watch opened a packet of cheese that had just been distributed that had a strong rotten smell.
A Syrian woman in Moria said, “The only right we have here is for expired orange juice and rotten potatoes.”
A Cameroonian woman in Moria said she has diabetes and the poor quality of food is a problem for her: “I have an enormous problem with the quality of food. I am forced to eat what they give and it’s bad for my health.”
Residents at all locations described shortages of soap, shampoo, and detergent. Some said they were given one bar of soap and one bottle of shampoo upon arrival, but nothing since. During the visit to VIAL, the water was cut off. VIAL has no hot water. A 20-year-old Syrian woman said: “There are only three toilets for women, not three bathrooms, but three toilets. We have to line up for two hours to use the bathroom. We are not given any soap. There is no soap dispenser in the bathroom. The water is ice cold when it is available at all.” Also in VIAL, sewage from the men’s latrine flows into the living area. A Human Rights Watch researcher smelled the odor coming from the men’s toilets, and several women said the stench was often overpowering.
A 27-year-old Palestinian Syrian man in Moria said, “The toilets are always dirty and flooded. They never clean them.”
Human Rights Watch observed dirty and unsanitary men’s toilets in the Vathi hotspot, with feces all around the area.
People in all locations also said health care was inadequate. Health care in the hotspots is provided mainly by nongovernmental organizations, including Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), Praksis, the Hellenic Red Cross, Medical Intervention, Boat Rescue, as well as the Greek army. Other groups, like Médecins sans Frontières, pulled out of the hotspots when they were converted into prison-like facilities on March 20.
In Moria, a 23-year-old Afghan man said: “The conditions are very bad here. I sleep on the ground in a tent. I was sick and had a bad skin problem. The doctor here gave me one pain pill.” A 29-year-old wheelchair-bound Afghan man in Moria said: “My health got worse since I’ve been here. I can’t feel my leg any more. They made an appointment for me at the hospital for an MRI two months from now. No one cares what will happen to my body during these two months.”
In VIAL, a 50-year-old Syrian man said on May 11: “I am really sick. I have high blood pressure and when I am nervous it gets much worse. I need medications. I got a Red Cross referral to the Chios hospital for May 30. I have no way to get there. I asked the police, and they said, ‘Just find a way.’ They never help us. I asked the UN. They said they couldn’t help.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed an Afghan couple in VIAL living with their 23-year-old daughter. The mother, 56, said her husband is mute and has serious health problems. She showed an official document from Chios hospital issued on April 18, stating that her husband “suffers from a serious degree of heart failure and needs the best possible living conditions.” Human Rights Watch found the couple still living in substandard conditions on May 11.
In Vathi, the 18-year-old Pakistani who was injured during the May 13 fight and had broken teeth and stitches in his lower lip, said that he wasn’t given pain killers when his injuries were treated at a hospital.
Arbitrary, Automatic Detention
Since the EU-Turkey migration deal entered into effect on March 20, all migrants and asylum seekers arriving by sea from Turkey have been detained in the closed facilities on Greek islands. On April 2, the Greek parliament hastily adopted a law that allows blanket “restriction of movement” on new arrivals inside closed facilities at border entry points – such as the islands – for up to 25 days during reception and identification. People subject to deportation can be detained for up to 18 months, while asylum seekers can be detained for up to three months while their claims are processed.
Human Rights Watch found Moria and Vathi to be strictly closed. The authorities only allow asylum seekers to go in and out if they have been detained for more than 25 days. Police had not issued the necessary documentation to allow some people who had been detained for more than 25 days in either place to go in and out. The police in VIAL allow everyone to come and go, in what appears to be an ad hoc and informal decision to ease the tensions. The vast majority of asylum seekers are unable to leave the islands.
A 28-year-old Iraqi man at VIAL who was on the ninth day of a hunger strike outside the office of the Greek Asylum Service told Human Rights Watch that he had been at VIAL for nearly 60 days. He said that although he is now free to come and go, he spent the first 37 days there locked in the camp. He and several others were on a liquids-only hunger strike to demand that the authorities give them asylum interviews.
A 26-year-old Afghan man in Moria said: “I have been here for 40 days. A few days ago, the Syrian refugees here had a demonstration to demand the right to leave after 25 days. But we [Afghans] don’t have this right now.”
The blanket detention of asylum seekers and migrants in closed facilities is unjustified, given the possibility of less restrictive options, and amounts to arbitrary detention. The hotspot facilities on Greek islands should be converted into open camps with appropriate services and security measures.
Methodology and Acknowlegement
All interviews were conducted in private to the extent possible in overcrowded camp conditions, where possible inside the living space where interview subjects were staying. Each interviewee consented voluntarily to be interviewed by Human Rights Watch and none received any payment or other personal service or benefit in return for the interview. In no case was any guard, police officer, or other official able to see or hear the interview. Names of interviewees have been withheld to protect their privacy and security.
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