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UNHCR urges Greece to accelerate emergency measures to address conditions on Samos and Lesvos

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Refugee families at the Vathy Reception and Identification Centre on the island of Samos, Greece. © UNHCR/Markel Redondo

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

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is today reiterating its call to the authorities in Greece to take urgent steps to address the humanitarian situation for around 11,000 asylum-seekers on the islands of Samos and Lesvos. Conditions in the Reception and Identification Centers (RICs) on the two islands are abhorrent. With winter approaching and more people arriving, time is of the essence and emergency measures are needed.

Efforts to substantially improve conditions and reduce severe overcrowding in the two RICs needs to be prioritized by every government body engaged in the response. It is urgent to get people into better accommodation, and accelerating transfers to the mainland for the more than 4,000 people eligible to go.

UNHCR welcomes recently announced Government plans for an additional 6,000 accommodation places on the mainland, and the Government-led transfer of more than 6,500 people from the islands to the mainland since August. However, more than 11,000 people have arrived to the islands in the last three months, outpacing departures. We are particularly concerned that transfers have recently slowed, while new accommodation on the mainland is in short supply.

Conditions at the RICs have to be seen to be properly comprehended. At the Vathy RIC on Samos, the situation has been worsening. Despite having capacity for 650 people, the centre and its surrounding area are currently hosting around 4,000 people – six times its design. By any measure, things are in crisis.

New arrivals are left having to buy flimsy tents from local stores, which they are pitching on a steep slope in adjacent fields. This offers little protection from the cold weather, without electricity, running water or toilets. There are snakes in the area, and rats are thriving in the uncollected waste.

Many of the asylum-seekers arrive in Greece in a vulnerable state, but even those who turn up at the RIC in good condition soon find themselves suffering from health problems. A single doctor per shift provides medical care to the entire population and often only the most urgent cases get seen. Doctors at the local hospital are also overwhelmed.

Many of the toilets and showers are broken, resulting in open sewage close to people’s tents. Others are using nearby bushes as a toilet.

Vulnerable asylum-seekers – including some 200 unaccompanied children, over 60 pregnant women, the disabled and survivors of sexual violence – are left at risk in the RIC as alternative accommodation places on the island are taken. A container with broken windows and doors for unaccompanied children is hosting three times its intended capacity of six.

Moria RIC on Lesvos still hosts around 6,500 people – over three times its capacity. This is despite recent mainland transfers, and has resulted in nearly 2,000 asylum-seekers having to shelter in a nearby olive grove. Once the weather deteriorates, they will need to seek shelter inside the formal borders of the RIC. With space at such a premium, this is likely to further exacerbate an already agitated situation.

Tension and frustration is rising, particularly over administrative delays. The Moria RIC has become a tinderbox, with any further delays or deterioration in conditions posing a serious threat to the safety of those living and working inside.

On the other islands, conditions are only marginally better, with the RICs on Chios and Kos close to double their intended capacities. Only the Lepida RIC on Leros Island, where just over 600 people are staying, is working within capacity.

In light of the growing needs on the islands, UNHCR has continued its support to transfers until the end of 2018 and has assisted 5,300 asylum-seekers authorized by the government to move to the mainland since the beginning of September. UNHCR is also procuring 400 prefabricated containers to help boost Greece’s hosting capacity in mainland sites and delivering some 19,000 relief items for the islands, such as winter kits, sleeping bags, winter clothes, and hygiene items. Additionally, UNHCR is expanding its available places in apartments from 25,500 in September to 27,000 by the end of November.

As well as appealing to the Greek authorities UNHCR is also calling on the European Commission and Member States, to continue preparations for emergency support and relocation measures at the request of the Greek government.

UNHCR remains ready to continue supporting the authorities, including with transfers of eligible people to the mainland and enhancing their capacity to address the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

In Geneva, Charlie Yaxley, yaxley@unhcr.org, +41 795 808 702
In Athens, Leo Dobbs, dobbs@unhcr.org, +30 694 866 8989
In Athens, Boris Cheshirkov, cheshirk@unhcr.org, +30 695 185 4661