Migrant hunger strikes spread in Greece
Migrants have launched a string of hunger strikes on the Greek islands and near Athens in the past week to protest against poor treatment and living conditions.
The latest action kicked off on Sunday (5 January) at Elliniko camp, an abandoned sports complex of four stadiums built for the 2004 Athens Olympics that is now home to 1,000 people, including families with small children.
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The protest follows growing dissent on the Aegean islands.
Last week, 23-year old Hessam Ghafelpor, an asylum seeker from from Iran, and several others started a hunger strike.
Ghafelpor has lived in a tent in a camp on Samos island the past three months. The camp, located near the coast, is also home to some 100 other people.
He says the situation is “very bad”, that asylum claims are not being processed quickly enough, and that people are having to endure winter months in tents designed for summer conditions.
"The food is bad and we don't have warm water to shower. Since recently, there is the lack of hygiene stuff [toilet paper, shampoo, washing detergent, etc.] I can't count them all because there are a lot of issues here,” he said.
Ghafelpor and his companions had been without any toilets for a month until the day they started their strike. Some have since ended the hunger strike, others have started, and one person was taken to hospital after three days without food.
The conditions are also bleak elsewhere.
Along the shore of Chios island, people mill about in a camp near an old fortress. They burn firewood to stay warm.
Several have died on the islands in the past week. Smoke inhalation from a coal burner killed two in their tent, while another died of hypothermia.
Since the beginning of this year, 1,500 more people have come to the already overcrowded islands.
The mayors of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros recently issued a joint statement demanding the transfer of hundreds of people to the mainland.
In Lesbos alone, about 4,800 people are living in two camps, which are roughly 1,000 over capacity.
Dire island conditions
Nikos Gionakis, head of the Day Centre Babel, which provides mental health services to migrants and refugees, but also volunteers, said the way humanitarian aid is offered in Europe is inhumane.
“People are coming to Europe expecting safety, dignity, human rights, or to join their families," he said.
"But they are stranded in dire conditions, in camps with little to no information about what will happen to them. Generally, I can say people are not treated as humans."
Gionakis noted the situation on the islands is especially dire.
“In order to go to the mainland, they have to prove they belong to one of the vulnerable categories. If not, they have to stay in the camps for who knows how long. It is not only the living conditions but also the lack of expectation and perspectives they have.”
But it is only marginally better on the mainland Greece, where over 62,000 people are stranded.
Although some are relocated to other EU states, few can leave without the help of smugglers.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR says around 18,300 are living in apartments, different buildings, host families, and hotels. But the majority of people are still in camps.
From athletes to asylum seekers
In Elliniko, where athletes once competed for medals, asylum seekers are competing for space.
One man is living in a basement room in a former sporting facility with his wife and six-month-old. The room is warm but has no windows. Yet, unlike many others, this family has a door they can close.
The camp authorities promised the families with children would soon be moved into apartments. The same promises have been heard before.
People can also be found in tents or in the corridors of a former facility. It is hard to breathe inside, the bathrooms are unsanitary and unsafe. A recent survey by the Refugee Rights Data Project shows that 46.4 percent of women surveyed reported that they don’t feel safe in camps, particularly when going to the toilet.
“First of all, people should not live in camps but in houses,” Gionakis concludes. “I understand it is an emergency, but also it is not an emergency. It is just an excuse. After so many years, you cannot talk about the state of emergency.”
This month, the European Commission announced plans to speed up asylum procedures for people on the islands. They also announced the possibility that people will be transported to the mainland, but it is not clear how this can be possible given even those on the mainland are waiting for too long for the asylum procedure.
A psychologist working with refugees and asylum seekers, who did not want to be named, says the situation is affecting mental health.
Gionakis said the migrants are in "a situation of victimisation".
"When you are a victim, you are put in a position to ask for help. If you can not cook for yourself, you have to ask for food, if you can not buy your clothes, you have to ask for it," he said.
"What is needed is to allow people to live in a surrounding where girls do not feel threatened that they can be raped, where people can be active, integrate, to speak clearly to them about their future.
"In any other case, whatever we do here is destroyed when they go back to camps. Not only because of the conditions but also because of the meaning these conditions to the people."