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28th May 2022

Refugees on Greek islands face daunting winter

  • Refugees on the island of Lesbos. EU commissioner Avramopoulos said a repeat of last winter on the Greek islands must be avoided (Photo: Save the Children)

The European Commission on Wednesday (15 November) defended its migration policy in Greece in the lead up to the winter months, as concerns mount people will be left exposed once again to the elements.

Scenes of asylum seekers in thin tents waking up to deep snow on the Greek islands last year sparked outcry. At least three people died, reportedly from carbon monoxide poisoning, in their effort to keep warm.

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Despite the concerns, EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told MEPs in Strasbourg that outstanding winter weather issues still remain on the Greek islands.

"All housing units should be connected to electricity and further heating appliances should be provided for those housing units that are not equipped," he said.

He also demanded that the Greek authorities set up more pre-fabricated units on the islands.

Greece has received some €1.3 billion from the European Union to address migration and refugee issues. It is by far the biggest recipient of EU home affairs funding.

Greek responsibility

Asked why Greece still has not connected the housing units to electricity despite the money, Avramopoulos told this website that the "responsibility is in the hands definitely of the Greek authorities but also of the NGOs who have to cooperate with the Greek authorities on the ground."

Last week, the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, accused Athens of trying to turn the island and other border areas into "concentration camps where all human dignity is denied."

On Tuesday, Galinos announced a general strike next week in protest at the conditions, telling Greek media Kathimerini that the island currently hosts over 8,000 migrants.

That Greece struggles to provide appropriate housing and reception on the islands points to political and administrative mismanagement to deter others from arriving.

But any such message has failed to impress refugees and migrants who continue to leave Turkey in increasingly larger numbers to reach the Aegean islands. Some 4,600 arrived in September alone, up from 3,665 in August.

Altogether, the islands are home to around 13,600 migrants as Athens struggles to send people back to Turkey. EU states have also fallen short in relocating others from the mainland, creating administrative bottlenecks.

The overcrowding is severe.

As of end of October, Lesbos held over 5,500 people but can only house half that number. Many are crammed into tents and containers with little access to proper shelter, health care, food or even water.

Chios had just under 2,000 but can only accommodate 894, Samos had 2,400 but is able to care for 700. Other islands reported smaller figures.

Conditions on the islands remain poor amid continuing reports of suicides, attempted suicides, violence, and psychological traumas.

Children, minors, and women are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Many have already witnessed war in Syria and elsewhere, struggled in Turkey, and now face further abuse in a European Union member state flush with EU money tailored to address those very same issues.

Last month, dozens of human rights groups and NGOs sent a letter to Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras to condemn the island conditions.

They noted some have remained stuck on the islands for 19 months.

"Forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health and dignity cannot be justified," they said.

Greek immigration minister Ioannis Mouzalas told reporters earlier this month they may send cruise ships to help ease the overcrowding on the islands.

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