No Excuse: Freezing Conditions in Greece

As snow and freezing temperatures impact refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants currently living in make-shift shelters in Greece, Refugees International urges the Greek government and the European Union to immediately provide adequate warm accommodations for those enduring harsh winter conditions in Greece’s refugee camps. While temperatures have been particularly low over the past few days, with snow falling on the Eastern Aegean islands as well as on the Greek mainland, the winter itself was predictable. That men, women and children seeking protection are left in the cold without adequate shelter could and should have been prevented.

Refugees International visited camps in northern Greece and on the islands of Lesvos and Chios in late October 2016. The asylum-seekers we met readily described their exposure to the cold and rain and their worries about the coming winter. Judging from the state of winter preparation RI encountered during our visit, it was apparent that, unless urgent action was taken, not all of the asylum-seekers would be provided with adequate shelter and protection from the winter’s cold. And indeed, at this time, not all are protected from the current frigid temperatures. While UNHCR is providing accommodation for 20,000 people in hotels, apartments, and with host families and a number of people are in prefabricated houses in camps, the current situation raises serious concerns about why it took so long to move people into more adequate accommodation and why so many people are excluded from such measures. For instance, the more than 1,100 asylum-seekers who were living in tents in the Petra Olympou camp near Mount Olympus, one of the camps that Refugees International visited in October, were only transferred to hotels and apartments provided by UNHCR at the end of November, after winter weather had already started to set in.

As 2017 begins, the list of humanitarian crises around the world is long, starting with the crises in Syria and Iraq and including South Sudan, Somalia, and many more. Greece and the EU have no place on that list. 

The exposure of asylum-seekers to the freezing temperatures is all the more shocking as there appears to be no shortage of funding. The EU Commission has awarded EUR 186 million (out of an allocated EUR 198 million) to UN agencies, including UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, the Red Cross/Red Crescent, and to non-governmental organizations to provide adequate shelter as well as cash assistance for refugees and migrants in Greece. The European Commission has provided EUR 14 million to UNHCR alone to prepare camps for the winter. The Commission has also provided the Greek Ministry of Defense with EUR 88.8 million to improve conditions for refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants, including through shelter and accommodation.

In this context, the European Commission’s plan to resume returns of asylum-seekers to Greece, under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, is all the more alarming. Such returns of asylum-seekers by member states to Greece as their first country of arrival in the EU have been suspended since the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Greece’s reception conditions amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment. Greece continues to be unfit to receive more asylum-seekers as adequate conditions continue to be lacking.

Every year, RI travels the world to document the living conditions of displaced people. Typically, we encounter crisis situations with tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people left without options in countries without properly functioning institutions, few or no security mechanisms, and frequently with little or no funding to address crises. Greece is a member of the European Union, the largest economy in the world. The EU has provided the Greek government and humanitarian organizations with considerable funds to improve conditions for refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants. And while it has been particularly cold in Greece over the past few days, winter was by no means an unpredictable or unexpected event.

The Greek government must live up to its obligations to provide adequate reception conditions for the people under its jurisdiction and work together with humanitarian organizations to ensure that effective assistance reaches the people who require it, including not only the most vulnerable, but all those in need of shelter.

The Greek government and international organizations  including UNHCR and non-governmental organizations that have received EU funding to improve conditions for refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants in Greece must be accountable for the way they are spending these funds, and the EU must play its role in ensuring accountability and transparency. The Greek government must live up to its obligations to provide adequate reception conditions for the people under its jurisdiction and work together with humanitarian organizations to ensure that effective assistance reaches the people who require it, including not only the most vulnerable, but all those in need of shelter. Longer-term policies are also urgently needed. All EU member states must face their responsibilities and accept asylum-seekers from Greece. So far, other EU countries have only relocated 7,280 asylum-seekers from Greece under the EU’s relocation scheme, a small fraction of the 63,302 to which they have committed.

As 2017 begins, the list of humanitarian crises around the world is long, starting with the crises in Syria and Iraq and including South Sudan, Somalia, and many more. Greece and the EU have no place on that list. 

Photo: The Moria camp on Lesvos, Greece. January 9, 2017. Courtesy Fotini Rantsiou.

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