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More speed needed to help refugees stranded in Greek islands

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The overcrowded reception centre in Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos. © UNHCR/Yorgos Kyvernitis

UNHCR moves a dozen families from soggy tents at Lesvos reception centre to hotels, but transfers to the mainland need to speed up as conditions deteriorate.

By UNHCR Staff | 22 December 2017

LESVOS, Greece – Syrian refugee Sibel* lived for three months in a small, damp tent in the hills of Lesvos, with her three children and teenage nephew, buffeted by winter winds and rain as she sought asylum.

Her youngest daughter, seven -year-old Ran, has been sick with a bowel problem and has been recovering from colostomy procedures. But in the unsanitary conditions at the Moria reception centre, with little access to running water, it has been difficult to care for her.

But yesterday (December 21) she was among a dozen families, 59 people, moved by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, from soggy tents there to hotel rooms hired for the most vulnerable on the Greek island.

“Now I will be able to bathe her with hot water,” Sibel told UNHCR as she boarded a chartered bus to take her out of Moria.

UNHCR remains very concerned at the situation of refugees and migrants on the Greek Aegean islands, in particular Lesvos, Chios and Samos. In this context, UNHCR welcomes important efforts to speed up transfers to the mainland over the past weeks.

Since mid-October, some 6,000 asylum seekers have been moved by the Greek government out of the islands with UNHCR’s support. This is among efforts being taken to ease conditions in overcrowded reception centres, and transfer the more vulnerable to safety as winter sets in.

However, some 10,000 asylum seekers are still crammed into government-run facilities on the islands, double the design capacity. Addressing reporters at a news briefing in Geneva, UNHCR spokesperson Cécile Pouilly said the situation continues to be critical in the reception centres of Moria on Lesvos and Vathy on Samos.

“Time is of the essence and the accelerated pace of departures for asylum seekers authorized to move should be maintained,” she told reporters at the Palais des Nations on Friday (December 22).

“UNHCR is calling on the Government to continue easing pressure on Lesvos, Chios and Samos, by further shortening procedures for people eligible to move, and urgently improving conditions for those who continue to stay.

The camp is strewn with garbage and dotted with home-made shelters, which are little proof against winter rains and falling temperatures.

Pouilly said that the current restrictions which keep people on the islands need to be reviewed to allow for the quick transfer from Reception and Identification Centres, or RICs, of vulnerable asylum seekers and others who could continue the asylum procedure on the mainland.

Tension in the RICs and on the islands has been mounting since the summer when the number of arrivals began rising. This coincided with the government taking over responsibility for infrastructure and services in the RICs, facing problems that still need to be addressed.

In some cases, local authorities have opposed efforts to introduce improvements inside of the RICs. On some islands, local reluctance has also hampered efforts to secure small numbers of temporary and exceptional accommodation in apartments and hotels for the most vulnerable.

“We hope that these problems can be quickly solved and that people staying in the RICs can access warmer and safer conditions with adequate shelter, electricity and functioning water and sanitation facilities,” Pouilly said.

In light of the difficult situation on several islands, UNHCR since October has handed over some 240,000 relief items to authorities to improve the situation at reception centres, including winter kits, blankets, and sleeping bags. We have also recently installed 18 accommodation units in the Kara Tepe site, which is managed by the Municipality of Lesvos, in addition to 242 installed earlier this year.

More than 1,700 people have reached the Greek Aegean islands so far in December, continuing a trend of higher arrivals – some 19,800 since July this year. This includes large numbers of families and many people needing specific support. Over 70 per cent of all arrivals this year were Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan, and four out of ten were children.

Meanwhile, mayors of towns and cities taking part in the UNHCR accommodation programme on the mainland gave their firm support at a landmark conference in Athens last week for the continuation of the scheme beyond 2018. UNHCR is meeting the goal of 22,000 places in the urban accommodation programme by the end of the year.

*Name changed for protection reasons.