(Athens) – Poor organization and a lack of personnel is creating chaos and insecurity at a police registration center and surrounding informal camp for asylum seekers and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos, Human Rights Watch said today.
In a visit to Lesbos on October 4 and 5, 2015, Human Rights Watch found that women with young children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities or medical conditions are often not identified as vulnerable groups nor ensured that they can register and get proper access to basic services such as food and health care.
“After months with huge numbers of people arriving in Lesbos, the authorities still don’t have an effective system for registering people so that they can travel onward,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist. “This is causing unnecessary security problems for the police and hardship for asylum seekers and migrants, especially for women and children and people with disabilities who can’t force their way to the head of the registration line.”
Registration is an administrative police procedure separate from applying for asylum. Virtually no one applies for asylum on Lesbos, though it is allowed. Regardless of nationality, almost all continue their journey to other EU countries to apply for asylum. Many hope to reunite with family members.
Human Rights Watch staff witnessed the confusion and tension at the Moria registration center created by the numbers of people and lack of information and interpreters. Aid workers and police at the center said that procedures have changed several times, generating more uncertainty.
The lack of an orderly system, including the lack of interpreters and an effective communications system, combined with people’s desperation to move on, has created a volatile situation, with information traveling by word of mouth and large numbers converging in a short space of time. Human Rights Watch witnessed violent disorder on October 4, which left one man briefly unconscious. Police in riot gear used tear gas to control an unruly crowd desperate to register.
The authorities have said that people with special vulnerabilities are entitled to priority in the registration procedure, but people are not aware of this, and the police appear to have no system in place nor to make any effort to identify these groups.
“There is no planning,” one Iranian man told us, “How can they do this?”
Conditions in the makeshift camp are abysmal. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and other humanitarian groups have provided tents but hygienic conditions are very poor. Many people sleep outdoors, on the dirt or on little more than a blanket on the ground. There is no separation of women and children from unrelated men, raising concerns about the risk of sexual harassment and violence.
Adee, a Somali woman traveling alone with her four young children, said she was scared to be surrounded by so many men. The night before we spoke, she had awakened to find a man with his legs over her 7-year-old daughter’s body. There is no established mechanism for reporting such incidents.
“It is appalling to see children with medical conditions and disabilities lying in the dirt as flies buzz around their eyes,” Cossé said. “The authorities should coordinate with humanitarian groups to ensure that people with particular needs are identified quickly and ensured access to the registration process and unhindered access to doctors.”
Although the makeshift camp around the Moria registration center is informal, the authorities have an obligation to ensure adequate first reception facilities as people await a necessary police procedure, and to take special measures to protect women and children, as well as to identify people with particular vulnerabilities.
The registration process should be organized to ensure separation of families with children, and women traveling alone, from single men. Appropriately trained police officers or other civil servants – including women – should be deployed at the entrance to the informal camp and should walk through the camp to identify groups in need of special services, including families with young children, pregnant women, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and the ill.
The informal camp is a de facto reception center, and the authorities should ensure appropriate conditions and services, including the separation of families and single women from unrelated adult men. Female staff members should be available at the center, and all staff members should be trained to respond to reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
The Greek authorities, working in close coordination with humanitarian organizations, should adopt measures to ensure the safety and rights of all migrants and asylum seekers. There is a clear need for more information, and for the information to be communicated in a timely manner and in relevant languages.
A loudspeaker system throughout the camp could give people important information about the procedure, where people should stand, and make announcements about scheduled food distribution and where to seek medical care. The police guarding the doors should have interpreters with them as much as possible. Additional staff to conduct registration would help process people more quickly.
“It’s a tough situation for everyone at Moria camp, and there are no perfect solutions,” Cossé said. “But the authorities should do a lot more to guarantee safety and basic rights for the thousands of people there, without forgetting that some of them need special attention.”
For details of chaos at the registration center and in the camps, accounts by migrants, and how the system operates, please see below.
Chaos at the Registration Center
The migrants and asylum seekers, who arrive on the north side of the island by boat from Turkey, travel about 70 kilometers on foot or by bus to the registration center, at Moria, on the south side of the island, just outside the capital, Mytilene. They then gather every day for hours outside the Moria registration center on an 8 to 10-meter-wide road between barbed wire fences, with a line of riot police at the end. Police then allow smaller groups to enter and register to obtain the document they need to take a ferry to Athens.
The registration center was designed as a large detention center and is encircled with barbed wire. It is run by Greek authorities who register migrants and asylum seekers and provide them with documentation that will allow them to take the ferry to Athens. Previously, people were detained inside the facility while they awaited the documents. When Human Rights Watch visited, the police said that no one was detained inside. Another part of the center is a special closed reception center for unaccompanied migrant children. Human Rights Watch did not have authorization to enter that center.
On October 4, there was a large crowd of mostly Afghans and Iraqis pressing against the riot police line guarding the entrance of the registration center. Police shouted in English for all Iraqis to raise their hands, but then nothing seemed to happen for many minutes. Fighting and shoving among the crowd broke out periodically, with police then charging the group, causing people to run down the hill. Women and children pressed themselves against the walls. Human Rights Watch staff heard what sounded like a woman or a young boy in distress in the middle of the crowd.
A police officer inside the barbed wire on a raised platform shouted down in English “You are not human beings, you are animals. We tell to make a line and you don’t.”
At one point, the police fired tear gas and hundreds of people ran down the hill. A man was left unconscious on the ground in front of the line of police, probably trampled by the crowd. A photographer working for Human Rights Watch witnessed the scene, as the police said they could not call an ambulance because they didn’t have a phone. The man, whom police took behind their line, appeared to revive. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify what happened after that.
On October 9, media reported that police had opened an investigation into a guard at Moria photographed kicking a man staying in the camp. All incidents of alleged excessive use of force by the guards and riot police should be fully investigated.
The police attempt to create separate lines so that single men are separated from families and people with special needs, including those with disabilities and pregnant women. These groups need special attention to ensure that they have equal access to registration facilities. But on the ground, the lack of information and interpreters, and of a clear, orderly system means that many people have no idea what to do or where to stand.
All the lines are in one relatively small area, with no physical barriers between them. Some families end up standing in the line for single men because they are not aware of the other line.
Vulnerable People Shoved Aside
The risk of being caught up in the disorder deters some people from standing in the lines. An Afghan man traveling with his 8-month pregnant wife and 8-year-old brother said they had been there for four days but he had been afraid to take them to stand on the line. Adee, the Somali woman who had been living for 25 years in Yemen, was also afraid to wait on the line with her four children, ages 7, 6, 3 and 2. When Human Rights Watch spoke with them, they were unsure when or how they would be able to obtain their papers.
A woman from Afghanistan was sitting on the ground on the hill near the lines, with her 15-year-old daughter, Zahara, lying on a blanket next to her. Zahara was born with multiple disabilities; she is blind, unable to speak, and cannot move. Zahara’s mother said she had no idea what to do to get their papers.
Another Afghan woman led Human Rights Watch researchers to sit with her husband and two sons, aged 9 and 18 months, both of whom have epilepsy. She told us she was particularly concerned about her 9-year-old, who had been having seizures since the boat ride from Turkey, and had not had his medicine in a week. She said the smugglers threw the medicine and special food they give him into the sea, threatening to throw the boy as well when they protested.
Both families were led to a back door into the registration center, where police agreed to allow them to enter to seek medical care provided by a humanitarian group, Doctors of the World, (known by its French acronym MdM). However, police told Human Rights Watch this is not a standard practice and that people in such situations should make their way to the main entrance and seek permission from the police to enter from there.
In the Makeshift Camp
There are no official statistics on how many people were in the makeshift camp that surrounds the registration center on the two days Human Rights Watch visited. Save the Children had prepared to distribute 3,500 meals on the second day of the visit. The majority of people were Afghans, while there were also Iraqis, Somalis, Iranians, and Pakistanis. Syrians are accommodated in a separate, more orderly camp. At the time of our visits, several thousands were staying in that camp.
The authorities do not distribute any food and water in the camp. There are kiosks selling food at market prices. Humanitarian organizations distribute food, but there did not appear to be any regularity or schedule. The aid group Doctors of the World, known as MdM, has a mobile clinic inside the registration center, with two doctors in the morning and one in the afternoon. Doctors without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, operates a mobile clinic outside the center, where people are sleeping, only on Sundays, when MdM is closed.
MdM staff told us they try to tour the camp when they have time, and hope to soon begin operating two mobile clinics in the camp area. The two aid groups are able to offer primary care, but have to refer people to the hospital for any conditions requiring more attention, including pre- and post-natal care. There is no emergency obstetric care.
Visiting Lesbos on October 9, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres urged “massive support” to Greece by the European Union to respond to the influx.
Asylum Seekers Arriving in Lesbos
An average of 4,000 asylum seekers and migrants arrive every day on Lesbos by boat from Turkey. The vast majority of the boats arrive on the northern side of the island, 70 kilometers from the capital, Mytilene. The Moria registration center is located near to Mytilene on the south side, close to where ferries depart for Athens. Some who arrive from Turkey may get on the few buses provided by the authorities, or the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and other groups. Others walk all the way to Mytilene. Volunteer groups distribute food, water, and dry clothing at certain points near the beaches where boats arrive. There are doctors at some points who can provide medical attention. There is no government-run first reception where the boats arrive, however.
When they reach Mytilene, most Syrians go to a registration center called Kara Tepe, set up exclusively for them. It is an open camp, with tents provided by UNHCR and humanitarian organizations. Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, and others have a daily presence. Police have set up temporary buildings for registration inside the camp.
Syrians are given a paper suspending deportation procedures and allowing them to stay in Greece for six-months, renewable. All other nationalities, including Afghans, are given a paper ordering them to leave Greece voluntarily to return to their country of origin within 30 days.