(Athens) – Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers on Greece’s Aegean islands face appalling reception and detention conditions as the humanitarian crisis for people reaching the islands by sea intensifies, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite considerable efforts by local authorities on the islands, debt-stricken Greece is unable to meet its most basic obligations toward the people who arrive there, the vast majority of whom are fleeing violence and repression.

“Greek authorities are simply unable to cope with the large numbers given the country’s ever-deepening economic crisis, and there’s a real risk that the situation will only get worse in the days to come,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “The EU’s response to the overall crisis in Greece should include consideration both for Greece’s outsized share of responsibility for asylum seekers, and for the rights and well-being of the asylum seekers themselves.”

Refugees and immigrants disembark from a Greek ferry after arriving in the port of Piraeus near Athens on June 14, 2015. 

In May 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 newly arrived asylum seekers and migrants on the Greek Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos. All had traveled by boat from Turkey within the previous month. Most of the people interviewed, including women and children, were from Syria and Afghanistan. Twenty-four of the children, mainly boys between 15 and 17, were traveling without family members. Since May, the situation for migrants and asylum seekers has deteriorated significantly, with more than 1,000 people arriving every day.

People who arrive on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, in the Northern Aegean, are generally detained in screening centers surrounded by razor wire for a week or less, until the authorities are able to identify, register, and fingerprint them. Chronic overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate access to food and healthcare have created conditions in these facilities that fall significantly below international and national standards and may amount to inhuman or degrading treatment. While doctors, social workers, and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) visit the screening centers, they cannot ensure a continuous presence and the shortage of interpreters makes communication about asylum or any other subject extremely difficult, Human Rights Watch said.

Children are frequently held with adults in severely overcrowded and dirty conditions. Because of the overcrowding, many migrants and asylum seekers have to sleep in the open, including at the open center of Kara Tepe on Lesbos, where thousands of people wait before being transferred to the screening center for registration and processing. On Samos, which has the only facility where single women were held separately from men, detainees said they only had access to running water for 30 minutes a day; and at the screening center on Chios, Human Rights Watch found adults and children seeking protection from the sun under makeshift shelters made from clothing and blankets.

On the islands of the Southern Aegean, including Leros and Kos, there are no screening centers and there is no reception system. New arrivals on Leros are taken to the police station and often released on the same day. However, in times of mass arrivals and delays in registration, people, including children, have to sleep in police station cells awaiting registration and processing. Local volunteers help coordinate housing, food, clothing, and medical care.

Of the islands visited by Human Rights Watch in May, conditions were the worst on Kos. Processing often took three weeks or more due to the large number of arrivals and the lack of staff and technical capacity. Children and adults alike were sleeping in squalid conditions in an abandoned hotel on makeshift beds, without electricity and with limited running water, or in tents provided by Doctors without Borders. Others slept outdoors in public areas. Nearly all of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that authorities provided little food and some said they had not eaten for days. Many said they had received no information about when they would be processed or how long it would take.

Asylum-seeking and migrant children who are registered as unaccompanied minors are often detained much longer than adults or children traveling with their families while authorities search for shelter facilities for them. Although placement in shelters is designed as a protection measure, a lack of space across Greece has led to the prolonged detention of children in screening centers. Greece has only 323 places for unaccompanied children. While adults may be released in just a few days, children may be held for three weeks or more.

UNHCR warned on July 10 of the growing asylum crisis in Greece, and of the rapidly deteriorating conditions on the islands, including rising tensions and problems in food distribution. In response to the crisis, the agency has deployed additional staff to provide advice and assistance to new arrivals and care for unaccompanied children and people with specific needs. UNHCR has also made interpreters temporarily available to the police to speed up the registration process on the island of Lesbos, which receives the highest number of refugee arrivals.

Greek law requires authorities to provide for the reception of third country nationals who are arrested due to unlawful entry or stay in Greece under conditions that guarantee human rights and dignity in accordance with international standards. The law provides for placing mobile first-reception units in police screening centers on the islands to identify vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied migrant children and to conduct medical screening. The units also provide socio-psychological support and information on the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, and refer vulnerable people such as unaccompanied children and victims of torture to social services. At present only two such units are operating, on Lesbos and Samos, and they are understaffed. Most new arrivals, including unaccompanied children and other particularly vulnerable people, have no access to the services that should by law be available.

According to UNHCR, over 90 percent of the 77,000 people who have arrived on the islands in the first six months of 2015 are fleeing countries experiencing war and conflict, principally Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. With the Greece-Turkey land border virtually sealed due to increased patrols, including by Frontex, the European Union’s external border enforcement agency, and the construction of a 12.5-kilometer fence in 2012, more and more asylum seekers and migrants are setting off from the Turkish coast to reach Greek islands in the Aegean Sea in overcrowded inflatable dinghies and wooden boats, Human Rights Watch said. According to Greek authorities, on July 7, a boat carrying 30 to 40 people sank in the Aegean between Turkey and Greece. Media reports indicate that 5 bodies have been recovered while 13 people are still missing.

At a European Council meeting on June 25, EU leaders agreed “in principle” to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece. Leaders rejected the European Commission’s proposal for a compulsory distribution of asylum seekers based on criteria such as a member state’s gross domestic product, unemployment rates, and the number of asylum seekers and refugees already in the country. Member states now have until the end of July to decide how many people they will take. EU countries should agree to take generous numbers of asylum seekers from Greece, Human Rights Watch said.

The Greek authorities and the EU should urgently agree on a plan to ensure adequate reception conditions, including shelter, toilets, food, and access to basic healthcare as well as enough interpreters, human resources, and technical capacity to support people, identify their vulnerabilities, and process them more quickly. Authorities should provide suitable accommodation for particularly vulnerable asylum seekers, including children, people with disabilities, survivors of torture, and victims of trafficking. Greek authorities should expedite processing of families with children and unaccompanied children on the islands, and avoid detaining children, in line with recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which oversees compliance with the children’s rights convention.

The Greek government should ensure sufficient capacity in shelters for unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children to minimize detention time pending transfer to shelters. The EU should provide financial assistance to the Greek government to achieve these goals.

“While everyone is feeling the effects of the economic crisis in Greece, those on the margins, like migrants and asylum seekers, are particularly vulnerable,” Cossé said. “The EU can and should do more to help these often-forgotten victims.”

For accounts from migrants and asylum seekers on Greece’s Aegean islands, please see below. 

Accounts From Migrants and Asylum Seekers

Maan, 32, from Syria, gave this account of the night he spent in the Lesbos screening center:

When we arrived here we slept on the ground. We asked for a shower, for a pillow, for a blanket, but nothing…. From yesterday we have asked for tools to clean our room but nothing. It’s dirty. And there’s one of the guys here, he has something in his hand, under his skin that started moving. It’s a worm.

Mariam (pseudonym), 39, from Afghanistan, had been detained seven or eight days in the Lesbos screening center along with her 16-year-old daughter Zahara (pseudonym). Mariam told Human Rights Watch: “They don’t tell us why they keep us here. They don’t explain anything…. We are 20 to 30 people in one room, men, women all together.” Zahara said:

We sleep in a room with many men and we are afraid to be alone with them. We are so scared here, among so many men. We don’t have access to soaps, shampoos…. No one has come to hear our problems. Only the doctor, but just when the interpreter is here. But the interpreter doesn’t speak to us. I’m really scared here. I compare the two nights I slept in the forest with here and I was feeling safer than in here.

Johnny (pseudonym), a 24-year-old Syrian who had been in Chios’s overcrowded detention center for two days when interviewed in May, gave this description:

Here we feel like in jail. The sun is above us and there is no place to stay. There are a lot of people. No rooms. We sleep on the ground. The rooms are for children and people who arrived before us. It’s miserable. We have water to drink but not for shower. No one informed me about my rights, and I haven’t seen a doctor.

Ali Mohammad Ali, 24, from Syria, interviewed on the ferry on his way to Athens, had spent three days in the Chios detention center:

There was no toilet, no running water even to clean your hands. It was dirty and there was no place to sleep. The blanket and the mattress were smelly. We chose to sleep on the ground because many people had used the blanket and the mattress before us. Nobody informed me about my rights. There was no doctor in the camp and no interpreters. I didn’t have problem with the police. They are doing their best. The large number of people who arrive creates the problem.

Mustafa, a 26-year-old Syrian Kurd from Aleppo with a physical disability, was staying at the abandoned hotel where migrants and asylum seekers stay on Kos while awaiting registration by the police:

The only thing that bothers me it’s this place here. It’s hard for me to go up and down the stairs. If I want to eat, shops are one kilometer away. It’s difficult for me to walk there. There is no water, no electricity, no mattress, no blankets here.