Refugees walk in the snow at the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos Island, Greece
Refugees walk in the snow at the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos Island, Greece

A group of 20 human rights organizations led by Human Rights Watch (HRW) made an impassioned plea to the Greek government on Wednesday to begin immediate transfers of migrants stranded overcrowded migrant camps to the mainland to avoid "putting lives at risk" due to worsening weather conditions.

Exactly a month has passed since 19 nongovernmental groups wrote an open letter to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, calling on him to move asylum seekers to the mainland, where better conditions and services are available.Conditions have worsened since then, with heavy storms and colder weather battering the country while more arrivals of refugees and migrants continue to flow into the Aegean islands such as Lesvos, Chios and Samos.Those islands are now bursting at the seams and that has prompted HRW to call on the state to get help from the EU and act now to end what they describe as Greece's "containment policy." "The current policy forces asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands to remain in overcrowded, unsafe facilities, an urgent concern with winter approaching," said HRW."This remains a matter of life and death," added Jana Frey, the International Rescue Committee's country director in Greece."There is absolutely no excuse for the conditions on the islands right now - thousands of people crammed into overcrowded and desperately under-resourced facilities. We are in a race against time. Lives will be lost - again - this winter - unless people are allowed to move, in an organized and voluntary fashion, to the mainland." Members of the group have asked to meet with Tsipras to discuss the most urgent needs on the islands and to provide recommendations, but they have received no response.In the past month, the government has transferred 2,000 people from Samos and Lesvos to the mainland as a one-time emergency measure.

 Lesvos grinds to a halt

Lesvos ground to a halt on Monday with local authorities shutting down completely to try and deliver a message to the government and beyond about the situation there as protests and demonstrations swept through the island.Lesvos mayor, Spyros Galinos, called for the general strike, stating that the island needs to "remove the noose that is currently around its neck", and declaring that the situation has reached breaking point "fueling insecurity among citizens." "The time has come for action [from the government]; they must ease the pressure and unblock approximately 8,500 refugees and immigrants living in temporary structures on an island which only has a whole population of 32,000 inhabitants," said Galinos.According to the latest figures, as of November 20, 2017, the hotspots on Lesvos, Samos, and Chios are hosting 7,000 over capacity: 10,925 people are staying in facilities with a capacity of just 3,924. "Thousands, including single women, female heads of households, and very young children, are being forced to live in summer tents, essentially sleeping on the ground, as the weather worsens," said HRW.

Returns are happening at a slow pace

In related developments, according to government figures, approximately 16,000 migrants have been relocated to the mainland since October last year, however many more transfers are needed with dozens continuing to arrive.At the same time, returns of refugees not eligible for asylum back to Turkey remains painfully slow."The EU-Turkey deal is condemning refugees and migrants to a second winter in squalor on the Greek islands. Instead of trying to maintain the deal at all cost, European countries and Greece should urgently work together and move asylum seekers off the islands," added Gabriel Sakellaridis, director of Amnesty International in Greece.EU and Greek officials have cited the EU-Turkey deal as a justification for the so called containment policy."In an effort to make the EU-Turkey deal work, the Greek islands have been transformed into places of indefinite confinement for asylum seekers who have risked their lives in search of safety and a better life in Europe," said Nicola Bay, head of mission for Oxfam in Greece. "The EU and the Greek government need to start putting people's lives ahead of politics and uphold Europe's commitment to human rights."

 

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