Challenging living conditions in Greek hotspots due to a mix of overcrowding and … winter

By: Vicki McKenna

Entrance into the Moria hotspot in Lesbos, Greece, where children registered as adults are accommodated with unrelated adult single men, exposed to very poor living conditions, including overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and frequent incidents of violence. © 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

The recent surge in the refugee and migrant arrivals has resulted in increased overcrowding and deteriorating living conditions in camps on the Greek islands. UN children’s agency, UNICEF has further warned that only a third of the 3,300 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children currently in Greece are receiving proper care and shelter.

UN refugee agency UNHCR has also been encouraging the government to accelerate winter preparedness programmes since early October and has specifically called for the easing of the geographic limitations on arrivals to the islands so they can leave for the mainland and help free up space in the overcrowded reception centres. UNHCR is further supporting the government in the transfers, which have seen almost 2,000 people moved to the mainland since the transfer programme was stepped up on November 27.



Some 130 vulnerable people, mainly families with children, were transferred to hotels on Lesvos as an emergency measure to protect them from the harsh weather. They will be temporarily accommodated in the hotels, with the help of local partner Iliaktida, until they travel to sites in the mainland. Photo © UNHCR

The UN Refugee Agency’s Julie Gaunt, said it has been a challenging time in terms of new arrivals, with an increase of families arriving over the summer months on the islands and also unaccompanied children and separated children. “What I particularly noticed was that the unaccompanied children seemed to be getting younger, in the sense that we were seeing more 14 year olds, 12 year olds or younger, arriving, presumably partly because it was less risky to send children and young people when the seas were calmer, warmer,” added Gaunt, a UNHCR child protection officer. At the same time, though children have continued to arrive each week despite the change in weather.

Gaunt highlighted the particularly harsh conditions in Moria Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) on Lesvos Island, citing the overcrowding in Section B, where there were 250 unaccompanied children. This has resulted in spill overs in Moria and other RICs, which are also known as hotspots.’.

In a report published in April 2016, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment also noted that the conditions in the closed Section B of Moria Centre were particularly poor and could be considered as inhuman and degrading.

“There are children who are having to sleep outside of these sections, outside of containers also, it’s not only unaccompanied children, it’s children in general who are living in very difficult conditions. They are in tents that are not properly winterized, the conditions are unsanitary. There are really serious challenges in terms of living conditions which are arising from the mix of overcrowding and difficulties in winterizing the RICs,” said Gaunt

UNHCR’s Gaunt said the hotspots were not designed to accommodate unaccompanied children. “Fundamentally, as a structure, it would be difficult to see how their needs could be met in such a place because it’s transitory by nature, so there is a sense of ‘limbo’ in being in there,” she says. The unaccompanied children don’t know how long or short their stay may be because the broader problem behind this is that there is such a profound gap in terms of the limitations of the alternative care system in Greece.

“There are simply not enough safe care options available for the number of children arriving and this is the core of the problem, – as this difficulty of not knowing how long a child might spend in these RICs makes it even more challenging to ensure that the right services are in place at the right time to support and protect these children,” Gaunt stressed.

Some key child protection services such as child and youth friendly spaces and child protection case management have been put in place in the RICs and are provided by NGOs such as Praksis, METAdrasi. At the same time, though Gaunt underlines that the surge in numbers of unaccompanied and separated children over the past months has meant that the resources available are not sufficient to meet the needs.

Such programme help “to normalise and stabilise the situation of the child, who is already displaced, who is alone and who needs protection and a sense of predictability in a situation in order to build their resilience and to foster their recovery following potentially traumatic incidents which might have happened to them during their journey or prior to their flight,” Gaunt explained.

She said other key difficulties associated with the RICs include gaps in basic services. In this regard, Gaunt pointed to difficulties in accessing appropriate medical care, particularly for the more challenging medical conditions.

Although the government has implementing partners who deliver psycho-social support, that’s not always enough and sometimes the young people require specialist intervention by a child psychologist or a psychiatrist.  However, that’s not always available to them, depending on the island or the condition of the young patients.

“My message would be very much to keep pushing for sustainable, long-term solutions such as supported independent living, such as foster care, that can really help us to make sure that these children spend as little time as possible in the RICs before being transferred into alternative care and that this kind of deteriorating humanitarian situation doesn’t have to happen,” Gaunt said.

From a purely child protection perspective for the unaccompanied children that has been our message, we need to focus on expanding the solutions available so the really critical humanitarian situation we are witnessing now doesn’t repeat itself, and that we have a more flexible, sustainable approach for the future,” she concluded.

With winter fast approaching 12 human rights groups launched a campaign on 1 December, calling on the Greek Government and EU Member States to end Greece’s “containment policy,” of confining asylum seekers to the Aegean islands.

In an open letter to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the nongovernmental groups have also drawn attention to deteriorating conditions on the Greek islands. Specifically, they called on the Prime Minister to move asylum seekers to the mainland, where better conditions and services are available.

Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch noted how the Migration Ministry had convened an emergency meeting about the situation on the islands in response to this campaign with operational NGOs. The Greek Government further announced that it was planning to transfer 5,000 people from the islands to the island by the end of the week. So far there has been more than 3,000 2,000 people that have been transferred since last week, Cossé added.

At the same time though, Human Rights Watch has indicated that as of 21 December, the hotspots on Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos still have almost 11,000 people in facilities with a total capacity of just 5,576. More than 1,000 people have arrived on the Greek islands during the same period.

“We have 1000s of people living in overcrowded facilities and because there’s a lack of shelter, people are living in summer tents, sleeping on the ground, on the concrete or just out in the fields. With the cold, the damp, the snow, the rain, the conditions are really bad in terms of being protected from the weather conditions, but also in terms of health.

There is severe overcrowding in the hotspots with many 100s of unaccompanied minors living in designated areas inside the hotspots for unaccompanied minors until they are transferred to safe accommodation,” said Cossé.

Emphasising the particular strain and hardship faced by children, Cossé notes how they “are exposed to all kinds of dangers, abuse and violence.” She adds that “there are frequent fights and riots, the hygienic conditions are really bad, there’s no real access to proper shelters, sanitation, food and with winter approaching the conditions are deteriorating.”

“The overcrowding in the hotspots is because they are in an environment where there are 100s of people living there, adults, women, other children with their families has affected the mental health and we’ve documented the impact of living for prolonged periods of times in the hotspots has undermined the mental health,

We’ve spoken with children who’ve spoken about self-harming, about not being able to sleep at night, being stressed, being angry and this is because they don’t have any information about how long they will stay on the islands, when they are going to be transferred to a shelter etc.”

Drawing a link between the gaps in services and the overcrowding, Cossé explains how asylum seekers in the camps are having to queue for 2 to 3 hours to get their breakfast or lunch lunch and in the end often don’t get it because there isn’t enough. The deplorable living conditions in the hotspots was emphasised, with Cossé particularly pointing to the poor sanitation, and lack of toilets and showers.

“There’s no regular running water , so these facilities are very dirty, there’s a very important problem in accessing health care-health care in the hotspots is really basic, but again this is also linked to the fact that there’s a large number of people, that is over capacity, and the doctors who are there can’t respond to that, hundreds of people living in basic shelter, basic tents that have water inside with one blanket on the ground as a mattress or in tents where there are hundreds of people and the room is separated by blankets from other beds.”

On the one hand, the majority of the population are trapped on the islands because of the containment policy that was put in place in March 2016 in order to implement the so-called EU-Turkey deal. On the other hand, unaccompanied minors are trapped on the hotspots not because of this containment policy, but due to the shortage of dedicated spaces in shelters for children. Consequently, children are kept on waiting lists to be transferred to shelters for prolonged periods of time.

During this time, unaccompanied children are kept in specific designated areas that are, for most of the time, separated from the rest of the population. But often, unaccompanied children can also be found living in the hotspots mixed with the general population, due to the lack of identification, or lack of shelter in the designated areas. Children on the waiting list for a shelter also often find themselves detained in dirty and dark police station cells under the so-called police protective custody. This means that “the children are taken to police station detention cells where, they can be detained along with unrelated adults, as well as criminal detainees, people who committed offences and are awaiting trial,” Cossé explains. “And this, for their own protection.”

Human Rights Watch research has found that dozens of children are detained in such police station cells across Greece, mainly on the mainland and they are detained there for weeks maybe even months under very bad conditions.  Human Rights Watch has further document that unaccompanied children can be held in such places where they have little access to basic care and services. Often, these children do not receive information about their rights or about how to go about seeking asylum.

“Imagine a cell in the basement of a police station that is very dirty, that doesn’t have light that doesn’t have the basics, children are sleeping on the ground and sometimes they are sleeping in the same room as unrelated adults, including people who are criminal detainees.  The risks are very high.”

In order to avoid having 100s of children stuck on the islands or on the waiting list for a shelter what needs to be done is first for Greece to create more facilities and more space, more adequate space for unaccompanied children on the Greek mainland, but also for the EU Member States to promptly relocate unaccompanied children who are already in shelters so that the spaces can be emptied and filled with new children who are coming, otherwise it is not sustainable and the EU and other Member States need to support Greece in addressing the needs of children,” Cossé concludes.

Imelda Graham, a learning specialist from Ireland explains her decision to go and volunteer as an educator in the Pikpa camp on Lesvos island in May 2016. Specifically, she stresses that her background inspired in her a particular “sensitivity” to the plight of refugees and that,combined with the “urgency of the crisis” motivated her to go to Greece.

In the first instance, she notes that her deep-seated empathy towards refugees arose as a result of her upbringing and the fact that her grandparents had welcomed refugees into her home in Ireland in the 50s.

“We had a group of refugees who came from behind the iron curtain as it was then. They came to Ireland as a group and they were welcomed, my grandparents were genuinely kind to them, my Aunt married one of them, so I’ve always had this kind of background modelled for me.

Then when the crisis emerged in 2015, it became apparent that it needed a lot more effort from a lot of people. I heard of a lot of Irish people  going to help  and I just went as well. I went to Lesvos because I had heard  that there was a huge problem there and I knew that they needed lots of help,” Graham said.

In further comments, Graham explains how she set up a kindergarten in Pikpa in May 2016, catering for children aged between 2 and 11 years old. She adds that that there was no permission for refugee children to atend school at all at this stage. This situation changed at the end of 2016 and children from Pikpa could attend primary school.  Recently  A new kindergarten has been established which will hopefully be a long-term, local kindergarten  integrating children under six from the camp with local Greek children, Graham continued.

Pikba Refugee Camp, Mytilene, Lesvos

Emphasising the specific problems faced by unaccompanied minors, Graham points to the appalling living conditions. While officially there are 1,500 allowed in the main Camp in Moria, there are now over 7000 Graham adds. She further notes how the children arrive on the boats wet, cold, scared, and hungry and then often have to sleep on the ground due to lack of space.  These children have “no voice,” “no one to advocate on their behalf,” she stresses.

“The unaccompanied minors face the additional issues of being intimidated by older people, that’s quite a challenge for vulnerable young children.  We had a big group of unaccompanied minors last year, 2016, when there was a fire in Moria, so they took the 90 unaccompanied minors down to our camp and we looked after them for a few days.

Many of those children were then moved off the island because there was a legal judgment that the minors could not be in the big camps, but they’re back in the big camps now, because there’s not enough places to put them,” Graham notes

Moving to the specific difficulties coming into winter, Graham indicates that the conditions are “seriously damaging, really bad, it’s already cold, there’s no proper Winterization of facilities, they’re sleeping in tiny tents. If they’re not lucky, they’re just sleeping on a piece of cardboard on the ground.”

On a more positive note, Graham indicates that she has helped  to run activities for the older children as well, like an afterschool club. In particular, she points to the success of the refugee choir which involves both local Greek children and refugee children. She emphasises that this has been a “great integration tool.” Other integrated projects in the run by the camp in a centre in town, Mosaik, included workshops on candle-making and soap making for all age groups from the age of 8. She adds that she predominantly deals with Syrian children, as well some Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians and some unaccompanied minors from Africa.

Pikba Refugee Camp, Mytilene, Lesvos

Graham underlines that there has been a mainly positive reaction to the work of the kindergarten projects. “People have talked about the difference in the children, they get involved in a routine, they settle down, they calm down, they have some type of expectation of normality, it’s all been very positive.

On the other hand, she notes that there are about 2000 people In  the Kara Tepe camp on Lesvos, adding that the 400/500 children there aren’t getting much,  with few services, mainly just playgrounds and some artwork. In general, it’s “very limited,” she notes, adding that Moria provides no services for children. It’s particularly “obscene” and “distressing” to see the impact on children, minors and families there, she stressed.

Pointing to her future plans, Graham indicates her intention to do a mass amount of fundraising for the camp and for the education services in the camp. “You know you’re being useful , it’s very difficult to suddenly walk away and not be part of that. I think that’s part of the problem that when some of the volunteers come home, it’s not a guilt, but it’s an awareness that you’re doing something good and they need it more than anything,” Graham concludes.