Dozens of families are still accommodated in areas of a migrant camp in Lesbos where soil testing showed elevated lead levels two months after the Greek government confirmed that the areas were contaminated, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have yet to conduct comprehensive soil testing inside the camp in the highest-risk areas to assess the extent of contamination.
The Greek government has known the risks since at least December 2020, when test results confirmed lead contamination in parts of the Mavrovouni camp, which houses nearly 6,500 migrants and asylum seekers. The government should have been aware of the risk and was specifically warned by media and civil society organizations shortly after the camp was opened in September because it was built on top of a small arms firing range that had been in use until the camp was opened.
“Based on the results of testing by the Greek government’s own experts, it is clear that young children and pregnant women are at serious risk when living on and playing in soil and dust contaminated by lead,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek authorities’ failure to protect camp residents when tests show elevated lead levels amounts to serious negligence.”
In meetings in January and February 2021, both the migration and asylum minister, Notis Mitarachi, and European Commission officials told Human Rights Watch that authorities had removed all the tents from areas at risk of lead contamination. However, as of March, through satellite imagery analysis and interviews with migrants living in the camp, Human Rights Watch confirmed that authorities had not relocated about 90 residential tents, five reception structures, and nine administrative structures in close proximity to contaminated areas at the base of Mavrovouni hill. Instead, the authorities only removed tents on the former firing range, where they have been adding new soil and gravel layers.
The tents at the base of Mavrovouni hill are within 160 meters of the two locations where government test results suggest serious health risks for small children and during pregnancy. While government testing was limited to these two samples near and at the base of Mavrovouni hill, the entire area around the hill is at high risk because the direction of the firing at the range was such that projectiles containing lead would have landed there. The samples taken in November by the Greek Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration (EAGME) showed the most elevated lead levels found among all 12 samples taken in the camp. The EAGME in its report on the site identified the area at the base of the hill as an area at high risk of lead contamination and recommended taking it “into account in the design and location of the tents in the [camp] as well as in taking measures to avoid possible dust generation during periods of drought and strong winds.”
Analysis of satellite imagery from March 9, corroborated by camp residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch, indicates that the authorities appear to have erected a fence less than 100 meters in length around the area of the sample with very elevated lead levels of 2,233 mg lead/kg soil (“MAV-01”). However, the authorities have maintained a cluster of nine administrative structures that residents regularly visit for services between 3 and 100 meters away from where this sample was taken. About 90 residential tents housing at least 70 families, many with young children and some with pregnant women, and five reception structures also remain at the base of Mavrovouni hill, six camp residents told Human Rights Watch.
The tents are between 15 and 125 meters from where very elevated lead levels of 2,233mg/kg were detected (“MAV-1”), and between 3 and 160 meters from where elevated lead levels of 330 mg/kg (“MAV-12”) were found. According to Greek authorities, the maximum acceptable level of lead in soil for playgrounds is 100 mg/kg. Similarly, people living in tents and children playing in the dust can be expected to be exposed very acutely to soil and dust, making the ‘playground’ standard appropriate rather than the standard of 500 mg/kg for other types of residential areas, which the Greek authorities contend should apply.
European Commission officials told Human Rights Watch, in a meeting on February 26, that the EAGME experts will soon return to the camp to test whether the additions of new soil and gravel have adequately reduced exposure to dangerous lead levels.
However, they said there are no apparent plans to further test the area at the base of Mavrovouni hill. In addition, said an aid worker operating in the camp, because the work is still going on, there is no sign that the experts are returning to the camp imminently to conduct the testing. Given the high levels of lead found in that area and the limited number of samples taken, the government should remove all residents living near lead-contaminated areas, until experts urgently conduct comprehensive testing to protect the health of residents and staff in the camp.
In a February 1 briefing with aid organizations working inside the camp, Minister Mitarachi said that the authorities would provide camp residents with information about the lead risks at the camp. But the six camp residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch in March, including four who live in direct proximity to where the two elevated lead samples were found, said that the authorities had yet to provide them with information about lead contamination and how to protect young children and pregnant people from exposure. One woman living in that area who had been pregnant since September and had a miscarriage in January, said: “I didn’t receive any information from aid workers or the government about how to protect myself while pregnant and living in this camp … and I didn’t receive any information about the lead contamination in the camp.”
Based on media reporting, due to strong local opposition to any permanent structure, people will most likely be living in this camp, and therefore suffer prolonged exposure, for at least another winter before there will be any prospect of moving to another camp site.
The authorities at the camp should inform all camp residents and staff in languages they understand about the risks of lead poisoning and ongoing testing and mitigation measures, acknowledging the current knowledge gaps, Human Rights Watch said. This should include information about particular risks for children and during pregnancy, and the government should bring experts in to train those providing medical services on how to inform patients about the areas that are known to be contaminated by lead and steps they can take to mitigate the risks of exposure.
The Greek authorities should clarify when new soil testing will take place, consult with independent experts about the testing plans, and allow them to comment on investigative work plans, audit the soil testing process, and collect split samples for independent testing. Small children and people who are pregnant who spend time in these areas should be offered free blood testing, prioritizing children between 9 months and 2 years because they are most at risk of severe lead poisoning.
“If the Greek government fails to take swift action, the risk that young children and pregnant women will develop lead poisoning and potentially severe health problems goes up by the day, and the government will bear responsibility for that harm,” Wille said. “The risk already is mounting with every delay in constructing a new camp on Lesbos that will allow people to leave the contaminated area.”