The situation on the Greek eastern Aegean islands housing the so-called refugee “hotspots” has taken a dangerous turn over the past week. According to reports by the media and non-governmental organizations, residents have attacked and intimidated asylum seekers, migrants, and international aid workers on Leros, which shelters about 690 of the approximately 57,000 migrants that are currently in Greece. Similar reports have emerged from other Greek islands, including Lesbos.

A dorm in the Vathi hotspot, on Samos island, Greece. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, the facility was severely overcrowded, with significant shortages of basic shelter and filthy, unhygienic conditions.

© 2016 Private/Human Rights Watch

Racism and xenophobia in Greece is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2010-2013, the country saw an alarming surge in attacks on migrants and asylum seekers, with gangs of Greeks chasing foreigners down the streets and violently attacking people on a daily basis, particularly in downtown Athens. In recent years, however, the majority of the Greek population has been largely generous and welcoming to the refugees, and of late, attacks had abated, despite the challenges posed by the large numbers of asylum seekers and migrants since the beginning of the refugee crisis, particularly on the islands.

So what has contributed to this worrying turn of events? There is no doubt that the atmosphere of frustration, chaos, and insecurity in Greece’s razor wire-fenced island camps plays a role. The camps are severly overcrowded, living conditions are filthy, basic shelter is in short supply, and police fail to protect the camp residents from violence and harrassment. Asylum seekers may end up in these conditions for months while their claims are processed. When people are forced to live in such conditions for long periods of time tensions flourish and violence can erupt.

Reports of uncontrolled fights inside the camps in turn create fertile ground for far-right extremism and anti-immigrant rhetoric among the local population.

To tackle the phenomenon before it spreads further, the government should send a strong message that violence will not be tolerated inside or outside the hotspots, and that the police will hold those responsible to account.

To ease the tensions, it is also important for Greek authorities and the EU to take immediate steps to ensure the security and protection of asylum seekers and migrants inside the hotspots. Greece should not detain people in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities and should speed up the processing of asylum claims to alleviate the pressure on the islands.

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