Humanitarian efforts and media attention have picked up following the arrival of over 10,000 refugees and migrants in Greece last month. But the situation on the ground remains critical and experts are skeptical it will change any time soon. InfoMigrants’ reporters Aasim Saleem and Amanullah Jawad were in Greece to find out more.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 10,258 migrants arrived in Greece in September. That's the highest monthly total since 2016, when the European Union (EU) reached an accord with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants to the EU. The recent spike in migrants arriving in Greece has left the already overburdened EU member state once again in a precarious situation.
Greece main port of entry for refugees and migrants in 2019
Over 79,900 refugees and migrants reached Europe via land and sea routes between January 1 and the beginning of October 2019. The vast majority, over 45,500, reached Greece. Meanwhile, over 24,000 arrivals were recorded in Spain, around 7,900 in Italy and almost 1,600 in Malta.
Last year, the total number of migrants and refugees who reached different European states stood at 141,472. In 2017, total arrivals stood at 185,139, in 2016 they were over 373,600 and in 2015 at the peak of the crisis, over one million (1,032,408) people reached Europe in search of political asylum and a better life.
The arrivals in 2019 to date do not reflect a drastic increase from last year's numbers, but the already overburdened Greek mainland and the islands have, once again after 2015 and 2016, become the main port of entry. Over 10,300 migrants and refugees reached Evros via land routes till early October. It is Greece’s northernmost region that borders Turkey to the east and Bulgaria to the north and the northwest. The rest, over 38,000 people, reached the Greek islands from Turkey via the Aegean Sea.
Situation on Greek islands ‘desperate’
Due to their geographical proximity to Turkey, most migrants arrive on the Greek Aegean islands. Lesbos is just 9 kilometers away from the Turkish shoreline. The Greek islands currently host more than 26,000 asylum seekers, although the camps there are in are built to accommodate just a fraction of these numbers. In addition to poor hygiene and frequent outbreaks of violence, many of the residents sleep in tents and complain of having to queue for hours to obtain food, take a shower or use a toilet.
The Moria reception and identification center (RIC) on the Greek island of Lesbos is currently hosting more than 13,000 refugees and migrants, more than four times its capacity. The situation is somewhat similar on Samos, where the local reception and identification center is hosting 5,800 migrants, though it has a capacity of just about 650. The facilities on the islands of Chios, Kos and Leros do not tell a different story.
Astrid Castelein, UNHCR’s representative in Lesbos, told InfoMigrants during a visit in early October that the pressure due to the new arrivals is worsening the situation inside the camps which are already overcrowded. "The new arrivals are further affecting the security, health, hygiene and other areas of life in and around the camps and the situation has become critical,” said Castelein.
Anna Pantelia, who is the Communications Manager of Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Moria, Lesbos told InfoMigrants that their organization is operating over capacity in both their clinics, at Moria and in Mytilini. “Until about a few months back, we were seeing about 80 patients per day,” said Pantelia. She added, “with the new arrivals since July, we are now seeing over one hundred patients per day in our clinic at Moria camp. But our medical staff that attends to patients is still only comprised of just two people.”
According to the MSF representative, roughly 40% of the people living inside the Moria camp are children. “Every week, the same children come to us with the same illnesses. They suffer from diseases that can directly be attributed to living conditions and bad hygiene,” added Pantelia.
Pantelia also said that the fire on September 29 in which several people were injured and dead, is just one of the tragedies that we see every now and then when the situation is at the breaking point. “And right now,
we are constantly at the breaking point,” she concluded.
Local communities ‘wary and skeptical’ of migrants and refugees
A combination of right-wing, populist narratives, a sluggish Greek economy and lack of tourism on the once popular Greek islands have also affected the sentiment of the locals towards migrants and refugees. The communities that opened their doors in 2015 are no longer warm and receptive.
“Before the big wave of refugees arrived on Greek islands in 2015, I used to travel carefree even after mid-night,” a local associated with the hotel industry told InfoMigrants on the condition of anonymity. She added, “but now, you have these young Afghans lurking around our streets all day long and till late night and I don’t feel safe on the streets anymore
The woman, a resident of Lesbos, also believes that this is a coordinated attempt to ‘Islamise Europe’ by sending in muslims to the continent. She considers the migration trend ‘an invasion of Europe by the Muslims’.
Another young local, who also spoke to InfoMigrants on the condition of anonymity, said that he doesn’t have any problem with the migrants and refugees, but Greece alone cannot sustain the economic burden.
Moria’s mayor Ioannis Mastrogiannis also echoes the same sentiment. “Europe should show more solidarity and support Greece with this problem.” He added that Greece alone isn’t capable of dealing with the large number of refugees. “The EU member states have to help take in people and at the same time increase the pressure on Turkey to stick to their side of the agreement,” Mastrogiannis concluded.
Athens employs two-pronged approach to deal with the issue
The new conservative Greek government which was elected in July, has taken a two-pronged approach to deal with the situation. The government in Athens has announced plans to return 10,000 migrants to Turkey who fail asylum requirements by the end of 2020. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last week called on Turkey to take responsibility for the new wave of migrants and for the EU-Turkish deal to be revised so Athens can speed up the return of rejected asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, relocation of hundreds of refugees to camps on the Greek mainland is also underway. Over 700 vulnerable refugees and migrants were transported from islands to the mainland on Monday as part of Greece’s effort to decongest the overcrowded North-Eastern Aegean islands. State broadcaster ERT said 500 people were ferried from Lesbos to Piraeus, with hundreds more to follow in the coming days. 250 migrants were transferred at the end of September right after the fire had destroyed parts of the Moria Refugee Camp on September 29.
However, as migrants continue to arrive, the de-congestion of the camps is again neutralized. Hundreds of migrants land on Lesbos every day (about right??). When InfoMigrants visited the island, around 600 people arrived over the course of two days.
EU and Greece responsible for this situation
Anna Pantelia from MSF holds the EU and the Greek government responsible. “We cannot be in a European country in 2019 and have women and children sleeping in tents with strangers. In 2019, we cannot have people living in deplorable conditions with no access to showers and toilets and standing in queues for hours for food,” Pantelia said. “This must change,” she concluded.