Greece's infrastructure struggles to cope with mixed migration flow

News Stories, 19 January 2009

© Ministry of Mercantile Marine/J.Vahlotis
Boat people are helped ashore after being intercepted by the Greek coastguard.

MYTILINI, Greece, January 19 (UNHCR) The number of irregular migrants and asylum seekers detained last year on Greece's Lesvos Island after crossing from Turkey more than doubled from 6,147 in 2007 to 13,252, including thousands of children.

A rise in the number of arrests almost 70,000 nationwide in the first seven months of last year compared to 60,000 in the same period for 2007 and 40,000 in all of 2005 has also been logged in many other islands in the Aegean Sea. It's a trend that is putting a great strain on infrastructure.

"We are the most important gateway [in terms of number of arrivals] for irregular migrants," Pavlos Voyiatzis, the prefect of Lesvos, told UNHCR during a visit to the island late last year.

He was referring to the determined people who make the short but tricky sea crossing from Turkey on rusty boats or fibreglass dinghies. Some set off at night or in rough weather, and last year at least 61 people died or went missing while trying to make the trip. That compared to some 160 in 2007.

While many of those arriving on Greece's shores are economic migrants, a significant number are people in need of international protection after fleeing conflict or persecution in their home countries. Very few apply for asylum at their point of arrival only 25 on Lesvos in 2008.

"They don't apply here for many reasons. They either want to go to Athens or to other EU [European Union] countries," said Panagiotis Samaras, the deputy director of security on Lesvos, adding that many wished to avoid the Greek asylum system because, if later picked up elsewhere in the EU, they could be sent back to Greece for their asylum application to be processed.

All those stopped on Lesvos are detained and given a deportation order (regardless of whether or not they are in need of protection), but this is rarely enforced. Those who apply for asylum on Lesvos spend longer in detention, but everyone is eventually moved to Athens, where 95 percent of asylum applications are lodged.

But there is only one detention centre on Lesvos and the increasing number of arrivals is putting an enormous strain on this facility, which is located at Pagani near the Lesvos capital of Mytilini. The centre has a capacity to hold 280 people; when a UNHCR team visited in late November, there were 990. A separate open facility for unaccompanied minors can hold 96 children.

Men, women and children are kept in detention on Lesvos for weeks and, in some, cases, months as the bureaucracy struggles to process them.

Aside from severe overcrowding, non-governmental organizations and other critics say the human rights of the detainees in Pagani are being violated because they are not allowed to exercise each day in the courtyard. The authorities say they do not have enough manpower to both supervise an outdoor activity period and guard the inmates.

Critics also say there are insufficient hygiene and sanitation facilities, with around 150 people having to share a bath and a lavatory. As a result, they say, the risk of epidemics and disease is very high. Moreover, there is only one doctor on call to deal with emergencies.

UNHCR has repeatedly called on the Greek authorities to close Pagani and open new facilities that meet minimum international standards for detention centres. The authorities acknowledge there is a problem.

"Pagani was adequate two years ago, but it is clearly insufficient with the dramatic increase of arrivals," said Voyiatzis, the Lesvos prefect. "We have obtained the green light for a new holding centre for 1,000 people, but it will not be ready for at least 18 months."

The prefect said he was looking at possible mid-term solutions including moving people to temporary accommodation to address the conditions in Pagani, which sparked demonstrations, hunger strikes and suicide threats by detainees last June. Shortly afterwards, the island authorities announced the creation of the special centre for minors in the picturesque village of Agiasos.

The establishment of the open facility some 35 kilometres north of Mytilini is a positive development those 13,252 people detained last year on Lesvos included 3,649 minors, many of whom were unaccompanied.

The children are allowed to stay as long as they need when UNHCR visited late last year, a handful had been there for four months. Many have relatives in resettlement countries such as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK; a lawyer at the centre is exploring ways to reunite them with their kin.

But the problem of irregular mixed migration flows into Greece is unlikely to ease up in 2009, which means that the government must upgrade its facilities to handle this extra caseload. The situation in Pagani, moreover, is replicated in many other parts of Greece such as nearby Samos Island, where a new detention centre regularly has more than double its 300-person capacity.

And in the western port of Patras, thousands of people from Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East live in huts made of garbage, cardboard and plastic. Action is needed to ensure their dignity in better living conditions.

By Ketty Kehayioylou in Mytilini, Greece

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UNHCR country pages

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Rescue at Sea

A guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants and refugees.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

George Dalaras

George Dalaras

The makeshift camp at Patras

Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.

The makeshift camp at Patras

Beyond the Border

In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

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