Refugees arriving on the island of Samos, near Athens | Credit: EPA? Yannis Kolesidis
Refugees arriving on the island of Samos, near Athens | Credit: EPA? Yannis Kolesidis

On the second anniversary of the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Greek government to finally put an end to its so called "containment" policy and stop the suffering of thousands of people still stranded at overcrowded migrant camps.

It is two years since the EU-Turkey agreement from March 18, 2016, committed Turkey to accepting the return of all asylum seekers who reached the Greek Islands by traveling through Turkey and crossing the Aegean sea. In return, the EU agreed to provide billions of euros in aid and other benefits, and to resettle an equal number of Syrians who were already in Turkey. 

Over 13,000 people still in island camps 

But despite the agreement, there are still over 13,000 people stuck at massively overcrowded refugee camps on the north eastern Aegean islands of Chios, Lesvos and Samos, where living conditions have been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups.

"Thousands of asylum seekers are trapped in crowded and filthy processing centers on the Greek Islands, with many spending the winter in lightweight tents or even sleeping outside on the ground," said a statement from HRW. "The Greek government, under a "containment" policy, decided to keep asylum seekers confined to the islands to facilitate their speedy processing and return to Turkey. Women and girls say they experience sexual harassment and threast of violence on a daily basis, deterring them from leaving their shelters or even going to the bathroom alone. They express little confidence that Greek authorities would help or protect them if they report incidents," the statement added.

After a December campaign called #OpenTheIslands was launched by 13 nongovernmental groups, including HRW, to move the asylum seekers to safer conditions on the Greek mainland, more than 7,000 people have been moved. However, thousands more have arrived on the islands or remain trapped there.

"The containment policy has turned the Greek islands, once a symbol of hope and solidarity, into open prisons that put the lives of refugees on hold for months on end, causing them additional suffering," said Gabriel Sakellaridis, director of Amnesty International in Greece, earlier this month. HRW want to see Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras make good on his promise to speed up the transfer of refugees from the islands to the mainland, where conditions are better.

"The islands have become places of indefinite confinement for thousands of people where they do not have timely access to asylum procedures, nor benefit from the protection they are entitled to. Many have been stuck there for months on end," said HRW. "This has significant consequences for their health and wellbeing. In addition to dire living conditions, including insufficient food, many can't get physical and mental health services or education for their children or even police protection if violence breaks out in these tense conditions." 

HRW has said that, even though the conditions on the mainland need improvement, they are much better than on the islands. The mainland has facilities that are not overcrowded, are protected from the winter weather, and offer better security and access to services, with some room for expansion. In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) accommodation program provides 22,000 rented housing places to vulnerable asylum-seekers and refugees, including to asylum seekers transferred from the islands. 

HRW also added that the EU and other member states should financially support Greece more in order to expand asylum seekers' accommodation on the mainland and take steps to relocate asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries. 

Tensions increase 

Last week tensions began to increase again at the Moria camp on Lesvos, in the wake of more violent rioting at the overcrowded facility, where many refugees have been stranded for months on end. Eight police officers were injured in clashes with around 150 migrants at the overcrowded reception center on March 14, and tensions have remained at fever pitch since then. Over the past few days several refugees have threatened to commit suicide and one refugee is being treated for injuries after being electrocuted and falling from a power pole. Earlier this month, Amnesty International called on the Greek government to take urgent direct action as overcrowding, poor sanitation and security lapses are putting refugees and migrants lives at risk in all of the North East Aegean camps. (Refugees holding their children as they arrive with the 'Blue Star 2' passenger ship from the island of Samos, at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece. Credit: EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS)

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