ATHENS, Greece -- A new Amnesty International report decries the predicament of refugees and migrants trapped in Greece and highlights the EU's lack of progress in relocating people in European countries.
Greece has been at the center of the European refugee crisis since its onset more than a year ago. More than 850,000 migrants and refugees arrived in the Mediterranean nation in 2015, and already more than 150,000 have reached its shores in 2016, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The European Union and Turkey agreed last month to allow those who arrived after March 20 to apply for asylum, and send back anyone whose applications Turkey is rejects. But the plan did not account for the more than 50,000 migrants and refugees who came to Greece before the deal's implementation, who can’t continue their journey to northern Europe because the Balkan countries have closed their borders. More than 3,500 are camping out in terminals at the port of Piraeus in Athens, while around 10,000 people are trapped at the Greek-Macedonian border camp of Idomeni. The others live in temporary accommodation centers across the country.
Amnesty warns in its report, published on Monday, that those sites are overpopulated, unsanitary and often lack basic infrastructure like heating. The human rights group said that services in the centers are minimal, and rely on volunteers and non-governmental organizations for support. Migrants and refugees also often lack access to translators.
People staying at the sites told Amnesty that they are worried about their health and have not received sufficient information about their rights. Several women said they felt vulnerable to assault and exploitation in certain facilities.
“The conditions here are not good and we are sleeping on the ground; our blankets are soaked with water. There are no bathrooms. This is why people are getting sick,” a pregnant Syrian woman told the organization about her stay at Idomeni.
Amnesty found that children traveling without their parents were routinely held in police stations or immigration detention centers, together with all other migrants and refugees, before being transferred to shelters. But specific accommodation for unaccompanied children is drastically below needs, Amnesty said. More than a 100 children were waiting for a place in a shelter.
Children held at a border guard station in Evzoni, near Idomeni, told the organization about the conditions:
At the time of the organization’s visit, the border guard station was used solely for the detention of unaccompanied children. The children described very poor conditions including lack of natural light, lack of heating and hot water. They said that mice were walking amongst them. Clean blankets were brought by activists who visited the centre. The toilet in the detention area was blocked and the odor coming from the toilet was unbearable. The police station’s fund for food provision allowed them to provide two hot meals a day and sometimes breakfast.
Amnesty called on Greece to improve its asylum procedures and support mechanisms for migrants and refugees in the country, especially for people in vulnerable situations. Facing its own social and financial crisis, Greece has been overwhelmed by asylum claims since the EU and Turkey agreed on a deal to stem the migrant flows. The southeastern European country is experiencing difficulties in speeding up the processing of asylum claims under the agreement, while at the same time conditions in its accommodation centers remain harsh.
But the group also criticized the European Union for the slow pace with which it is taking in refugees from the Greek centers. The organization notes in its report that of 66,400 asylum seekers who were scheduled to be relocated from Greece to other EU countries in September 2015, according to an agreement between the European Commission and EU countries, only 646 were actually transferred.