Europe’s successive failures have led to a human rights crisis on Lesvos
The now infamous Greek island of Lesvos, one of the largest of the islands in the Aegean, has been at the forefront of the sharp increase in arrivals since 2015. While in 2014, Greece received 41,000 sea arrivals, in 2015 this rose to nearly 857,000. The Aegean islands were woefully underprepared, leaving thousands of refugees and displaced people in unsuitable and unsafe conditions. Lesvos is home to one of the largest refugee populations where the majority reside in the controversial Moria camp.
Conditions on the island remain alarmingly inadequate, characterised by overcrowding and a striking lack of basic healthcare for the vulnerable displaced population. The island remains a stark reminder of the successive failure of the European Union and its member states to implement humane and effective policies rooted in human rights.
As the situation intensified in 2015 with the large numbers of new arrivals, reports found aggressive and violent riot police outnumbering aid workers on the island. Many people slept in the open air without tents and navigated the limited toilets ‘floored with swamps of human waste’. Aid workers on the ground reported people queuing through the day and night awaiting screening for registration and processing, while unaccompanied children were detained as the authorities searched for shelter facilities. The dramatically increased population of Lesvos led to food and water shortages and developed tensions between refugees waiting to move to mainland Greece. The influx of people to the Greek islands was not anticipated and put considerable strain on existing resources. As numbers grew, meeting the needs of the arrivals became sorely out of reach for humanitarian groups.
In response to the spike in sea arrivals, the EU and Turkey signed an agreement (the ‘EU-Turkey Statement’) with the premise that displaced people that had travelled through Turkey would be returned, in exchange for European aid and visa liberalisation. This policy response was enacted on 20 March 2016 and allowed Greece to nominate Turkey as a ‘Safe Third Country’. Under this designation, Greece is able to reject asylum claims before assessing international claims for protection on their own merits, under the reasoning that individuals who travelled through Turkey could have found protection had they remained there. In order to facilitate efficient returns, the Greek government implemented a containment policy on the island, restricting the movement of arrivals to mainland Greece. This has left thousands of people trapped on the island in what has been described by many as an ‘open-air prison’.
Three years on, the policy has only proved to worsen the lives of people on the island as they are forced to live in squalor for an even longer period. Refugees and displaced individuals who are deemed ‘vulnerable’, after having a vulnerability assessment, are permitted to be transferred to the mainland as refugees under Greek law. Problematically, nearly all of the persons on the islands can be considered ‘vulnerable’ due to their reasons for leaving their countries of origin and their experiences in transit to Europe, many of which involved trafficking, as well as the time spent in poor camp conditions once in Europe.
Alongside vulnerability, those with family in the EU are also in theory able to leave the islands for the Greek mainland under the Dublin Regulation. However, this process is slow, and during recent research conducted by Refugee Rights Europe in Lesvos in June 2018, 63.1% were found to have family members elsewhere in Europe, while many have struggled to access the legal procedures. Only 11.3% of those 63.1% said their family members were in the UK.
While the policies enacted by the EU have focused on returns, and those routes designed to relocate displaced people throughout Europe are subject to slow and arduous bureaucratic procedures, conditions on the island remain critical.
During Refugee Rights Europe’s research on Lesvos, they found a stark lack of safety and security. Displaced people are living in tents and shipping containers, lacking privacy and any security; 65.7% said that they ‘never feel safe’ inside the camp. Children and adults alike live among reptiles and are only given paracetamol to remedy ailments. Similar conditions were found in Chios in May 2017.
Toilets in the camp have the water supply cut off for hours during the afternoon, leaving the facilities unsanitary and contributing to the spread of disease. Access to drinking water is also sorely lacking, contributing to extensive physical health problems on the island. 86.2% reported a health problem since arriving on the island. Of these, 45.9% stated that their health concern was a mental health problem, and worryingly, many said that they had not accessed help. New and existing health concerns are likely to be exacerbated largely by prolonged time spent in these conditions. Alarmingly, reports indicated that some camp residents had been on the island since December 2016.
The wait isn’t over either. Most new arrivals on the island have been told that they will have to wait until 2019 and 2020 for an initial vulnerability assessment in order to be considered for a move to the mainland. This reality has caused many to lose all hope. Further to this, the tensions on the islands have led to instances of violence between refugees due to the heightened despair and desperation. Violence against refugees is also apparent – instances of racially motivated physical and verbal abuse are commonplace from both citizens and police. Reports from displaced people living on the island indicated that many have been exposed to tear gas, suggesting excessive force by police towards people trapped on the island.
It is imperative that the Greek government and European Union acknowledge and rectify the slow and extensive administration of vulnerability assessments and vastly improve living conditions on the island. What is most apparent however, is the reality that after living in the conditions of the camp, travelling from situations of conflict and making the perilous journey to Lesvos, the overwhelming majority, if not all, people on the island fall under the ‘vulnerability’ category. Trapping vulnerable and traumatised people on the island in wholly unacceptable conditions is therefore a failure to uphold the rights of displaced people under international human rights law and must be urgently addressed.
Photo Credit: Mohamad Alhussein Saoud.