Snow lays next to tents provided by the UNHCR at the refugee camp of Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, January 10, 2017.

©Petros Tsakmakis/Intimenews via REUTERS

(Athens) – Greek authorities, with the support of the European Union, should immediately transfer thousands of asylum seekers confined to appalling conditions on the Aegean islands to appropriate mainland accommodations, Human Rights Watch said today.

Heavy snow, rain, and strong winds in January 2017 have exacerbated the already dire conditions on the islands.

“Europe’s failed policies have contributed to immense suffering for people warehoused on the Greek islands in increasingly desperate conditions,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece and the EU need to prioritize the rights, dignity – and safety – of asylum seekers over realpolitik.”

On a visit to Lesbos January 12-13, Human Rights Watch staff observed the flimsy tents in the Moria “hotspot,” a refugee reception and registration center, in the aftermath of a large snowfall on January 9. “When I came here they [authorities] sent those who were vulnerable to the containers and others, like me, to the tents outside,” said Alain, a 32-year-old man from Cameroon. “There are men but also women in the tents. With the snow, I thought I would die of the cold. My tent was covered in snow and you couldn’t see its surface.”

In response to a public outcry, the Greek government sent a navy ship to the island of Lesbos to house asylum seekers, mostly single men, living in exposed tents in Moria. Vulnerable groups, with efforts from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, were moved to heated containers inside Moria and to hotel rooms and apartments amid a strong pushback by the local authorities and hotel owners.

On Samos and Chios, hundreds of refugees living in unheated dormitories and tents are exposed to the cold, damp, and heavy rain and winds.

The EU, UNHCR, aid groups, and the Greek government have been accused of failing to use €90 million worth of EU funding to “winterize” the camps before the first snowfall. On January 13, UNHCR issued a call to speed up the process of transferring people from the islands to the mainland, given the very poor conditions at many island sites.

To carry out an EU deal signed with Turkey in March 2016, Greek authorities instituted a policy of containment on the islands to process most asylum seekers under an accelerated border procedure designed to enable the government to send people back to Turkey. This, and pressure from the European Commission to keep people on the islands “to avoid secondary movement to the rest of Europe,” means that thousands of asylum seekers who arrived after March have been restricted to the islands, often living for months in overcrowded and abysmal conditions while their asylum claims are processed.

Asylum seekers who arrived on the islands in the first days of the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement have been stuck there for almost 10 months. Those identified as vulnerable under the terms of Greek law are exempt from this process and should be admitted directly into the normal asylum procedure and allowed to move to the mainland.

The maximum official reception capacity on the five main islands receiving asylum seekers and migrants is 8,375, compared with the 14,336 asylum seekers on the islands as of January 17. And more people keep arriving from conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The containment policy violates Greek law, Human Rights Watch said. People who apply for asylum on the islands and are still awaiting a decision after 28 days have the right to access the normal asylum procedure and, consequently, to travel off the islands. While the EU-Turkey statement does not explicitly require keeping asylum seekers on the islands, EU and Greek officials cite implementation of the deal as a justification for the containment policy. Even if transfers would complicate possible returns to Turkey, this is an unacceptable excuse for condemning people to conditions that threaten their health and dignity, Human Rights Watch said.

On Lesbos on January 18, the EU migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said that the European Commission will continue working with Greek authorities to eliminate overcrowding on the islands and transfer “vulnerable people” to the mainland. No one, even people who do not have specific vulnerabilities, deserves to be left out in the freezing cold, Human Rights Watch said.

Greek authorities should take immediate steps to enforce Greek law and transfer asylum seekers who have been on the islands for more than 28 days to the mainland, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission should support the move, rather than block it. In addition, authorities should expedite the processing of asylum claims, without compromising the quality of the examination.

The Greek government, with the support of the UNHCR, should make it a top priority to move people living in tents and other unfit shelters on the islands – and elsewhere in Greece – to appropriate accommodation.

“Nothing justifies keeping thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in such terrible conditions on the Greek islands,” Cossé said. “Their suffering is not only the consequence of the slow winterization of facilities, but also of a deliberate refusal to transfer more people to mainland Greece.”