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The Guardian | 29.09.2017

Reception centres vastly overstretched as more than 200 people arrive every day, 40% of them children

Greece is experiencing a dramatic rise in the number of refugees and migrants entering the country, exacerbating already deplorable living conditions on island camps.

The number of people arriving, across land and sea borders, has more than doubled since the beginning of the summer. Authorities estimate arrivals are now at their highest level since March 2016, with over 200 men, women and children being registered every day.

“It is dramatic and it is the most vulnerable of the vulnerable coming in,” said Elias Pavlopoulos, who heads Médecins sans Frontières in Greece. “There are whole families fleeing war zones in Syria and Iraq. In the last few months our clinics have seen more people who have suffered violence, who are victims of rape, who have been tortured, than ever before.”

Despite a pledge by EU member states in September 2015 to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers – including 106,000 from Greece and Italy – a mere 29,000 have been moved to other European countries so far. With the 28-nation bloc failing to meet the deadline set out in its own plan, mass demonstrations are expected in capitals across Europe this weekend.

Refugees and migrants have been arriving in Greece not only on rickety boats from Turkey but by foot across the frontier between the two countries. On Wednesday, police announced 37 refugees – including 19 children – from Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, had been dumped by smugglers on the national highway outside Thessaloniki.

Human rights groups are increasingly likening the situation to 2015, when, at the height of the migrant crisis that engulfed Europe, Greece saw close to a million people enter the country on onward journeys that often took them to Germany.

“We’re living the days of 2015,” said Pantelis Dimitriou from Iliaktida, a local NGO on Lesbos operating accommodation and support centres for the newly arrived. “The flows have become huge. From around 50 to 60 in early July they are now at more than 200 every day. Maybe it is the German elections, maybe it is about Turkey’s [worsening] relations with the EU, or maybe this is the last push before winter, but something is going on.”

More worrying is the number of minors making the often treacherous journey to get to Greece. In a statement this week, Save the Children said around 40% of the new arrivals were under the age of 18. Over 1,500 unaccompanied minors are currently on waiting lists in Greece to be housed in child shelters.

Visiting Athens for the screening of Sea Sorrow, a 73-minute documentary depicting the plight of refugees, directed by the British actor Vanessa Redgrave, the Labour peer Alf Dubs voiced his dismay. As the architect of a scheme announced last year to bring up to 3,000 child refugees to the UK, the increasingly febrile situation was deeply troubling, he said. Despite 40 children being eligible for transfer, none has taken place in 2017.

“I am convinced the Greeks need far more help than they are getting from the international community,” he told the Guardian. “There simply aren’t the facilities or resources here to accommodate new arrivals. The least we should do in the UK is speed up the process of accepting children with families in Britain.” Some unaccompanied minors were “in utter despair, their lives on hold, waiting desperately for news”, he said.

Refugee flows dropped dramatically when a landmark accord aimed at stopping the influx was reached between the EU and Turkey in March 2016. In return for €6bn (£5.26bn) in aid – around €2bn every year – Ankara agreed to beef up patrols along its Aegean coast and, where necessary, turn back smuggler boats.

The latest surge is placing growing strain on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands where reception centres in Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Samos are vastly overstretched.

More than 60,000 people are marooned in Greece. Some 13,352 men, women and children, unable to move since the EU-Turkey deal was signed, are currently stranded on the islands, according to figures released by the Greek interior ministry on Thursday. Riots and violent outbursts in camps are common.

In Lesbos, the island on the frontline of the human drama in 2015, the main camp at Moria is currently at twice its holding capacity with 4,825 people registered. The centre is equipped to house no more than 1,800 according to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. “In November last year we had reached a point where in Moria there were no more people living in tents,” said Dimitriou. “That was when we had a cycle of arrivals and departures, some coming but others also being transferred to the mainland.”

Conditions were made worse by the “bottleneck” that appeared as a result of refugee reunifications and relocations slowing down dramatically. “It’s like a perfect storm,” he said.

Frustration has mounted amid donor fatigue and growing difficulty accessing funds to meet the increasing need for humanitarian aid on frontline islands.

With the state of emergency imposed at the height of the crisis officially rescinded, the Greek government assumed responsibility for services provided to asylum seekers in August, spurring NGOs to leave altogether. Authorities say around 99% of those who make it to Greece request asylum. “The Greek state moves very, very slowly,” said Dimitriou. “It’s impossible to address needs as they should be addressed.”

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