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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Greece to move 2,000 refugees off island by month end

NGOs say an“emergency of unprecedented scale” is unfolding in Greek refugee camp

A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family tent  at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. REUTERS
A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family tent  at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. REUTERS

Two thousand asylum-seekers will be moved from the island of Lesbos to the mainland by the end of the month, Greek authorities said Tuesday after local officials threated to close the camps to end overcrowding.

The announcement follows calls by human rights groups and local authorities to improve the living conditions of around 9,000 refugees crammed in the Moria camp – originally designed to host 3,000.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) claimed sub-human living conditions have led many – including children and young adults – to self-harm and suicide attempts. In a press release issued on Tuesday, the organisation talked of an “emergency of unprecedented scale” and called upon the authorities to conduct an urgent evacuation of vulnerable refugees.

A spokesperson for the Ministry for Migration Policy told The National last week that action would be taken to bring down the numbers in the camp. As part of a controversial EU-Turkey deal, Greece is only able to relocate asylum-seekers judged vulnerable to the mainland, while the others must be kept on the island to await deportation to Turkey.

Christiana Kalogirou, the Governor of the north Aegean – to which Lesbos belongs – had issued an ultimatum last week, calling on the government to take action within 30 days or face the camp’s closure. In a note, Kalogiru cited “uncontrollable amounts of waste” and broken sewage pipes as causes for concern for public health.

In the main area of Moria camp, 72 people share one functioning toilet and 84 people share one functioning shower. This is well below the recommended humanitarian standard in emergency situations.

Last month, the UN refugee agency UNHCR urged Greece to speed up transfers of eligible asylum-seekers, saying conditions at Moria were “reaching boiling point”.

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The camp descended into chaos over the summer, with regular clashes and incidences of sexual violence impacting on the precarious mental health of many in the camp, according to human rights organizations.

“They come from traumatising experiences, and reach Europe hoping for refuge and dignity, but what they find is the opposite: more violence and more inhumane conditions,” Giovanna Bonvini, Mental Health Activity Manager at Mytilene clinic, said in June.

Separately, the conditions of asylum seekers in Hungary have also been found to be in breach of European standards. In a report published on Tuesday, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture demanded that Hungarian authorities put an end to the push-backs of asylum-seekers to the Serbian side of the border.

Refugees attempting to cross into Hungary are currently deprived of any individual assessment on the risks faced in case of expulsions – a procedure envisaged by the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees as well as by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Hungary should examine each case “on the basis of an objective and independent analysis of the human rights situation in the countries concerned,” the report concluded.

Seventy-nine cases of expulsions of asylum-seekers from Hungary to Serbia were documented in less than two weeks by the CPT in December 2017.

The report comes on the heels of a historic EU vote in favour of triggering Article 7 sanction procedure, due to Hungary’s perceived breach of EU values including "human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended his country prior to the vote on September 12, saying that Hungary was being penalised for choosing not to become “a country of refugees.”

In June, the Hungarian Parliament approved a package of laws that criminalised efforts to help migrants. Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Gauri van Gulik, responded to the move at the time saying that Hungary was becoming “the most hostile territory for asylum seekers and refugees in Europe.” “The Hungarian government has taken their attempt to enshrine intolerance, xenophobia and racism in law to a new level,” he said.

While Hungarian authorities cooperated with the report, Budapest “simply denied the delegation’s findings” when asked to make changes, the report stated.

Hungary’s anti-immigration policies had already been documented by the same body in 2015. The CPT is entitled to make recommendations but has no legal agency to ensure their implementation.

Since 2015, Hungary implemented a new accelerated procedure at its border to further speed up the processing of asylum applications. In addition, three new criminal offences punishable by prison or expulsion were introduced – namely illegally crossing the border barrier, damaging the border barrier and obstructing its construction or maintenance.

Mr Orban won a resounding election in early April on a strongly anti-immigrant platform, advocating for the Hungarian people’s right to decide who enters the country.