With national elections coming up in less than a week in Greece, the widespread public debate about the country’s economy and future is not surprising. Unfortunately, other important issues are not getting the same attention.
This was brought home to me last week on a visit to Lesbos, the Greek island where thousands of asylum seekers are trapped due to an EU-backed policy that prevents them from travelling to the mainland where services are better.
In 2015, the world’s attention was focused on this issue, and it was a top priority for the Greek government. Now that attention has faded, but the problems remain.
More than 16,500 asylum seekers are trapped on Greek islands, most in the severely overcrowded “hotspot” camps. The largest, Moria camp on Lesbos, holds more than 5,000 people, while on Samos, a camp for 648 people, currently holds more than 3,600. Hundreds are forced to live in the forest surrounding the Samos camp. Thousands of children don’t have access to schools and vulnerable asylum seekers, including pregnant women and people with disabilities, can’t access critical services.
What was most disheartening about my visit is that there has been backsliding on key areas of progress. Asylum procedures have slowed down, services are short-staffed, and arrivals of asylum seekers from Turkey are increasing, with serious consequences for those in need.
“Authorities are again registering unaccompanied children as adults,” an NGO worker told me. Human Rights Watch documented in 2017 how unaccompanied migrant children on Lesbos were being incorrectly identified as adults and housed with unrelated adults, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and unable to access care they need. The government took steps to halt what was happening, but it seems to have re-started.
“There’s no psychologist in the camp [the Moria hotspot] since the beginning of May, and before that there was no doctor since October,” said another NGO worker. She explained that the lack of a psychologist combined with slow procedures means that at-risk asylum seekers – like victims of torture, gender-based violence survivors, people with invisible disabilities, or unaccompanied children – are not identified by the authorities and given the attention they need. The modest improvements in support in the previous year appear to have been lost.
Whoever leads Greece’s next government should pay a visit to Lesbos and make the Aegean Island’s emergency a priority again.