UNHCR warns of growing asylum crisis in Greece and the Western Balkans amid arrivals of refugees from war

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 10 July 2015, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The number of refugees arriving in the Greek islands continues to rise, averaging 1,000 people daily. Since the beginning of the year, 77,100 people have arrived by sea to Greece (as of 3 July). Almost 60 per cent are refugees from Syria. Others come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia. Greece is now facing an unprecedented refugee emergency.

On Tuesday morning, a boat leaving from Turkey with up to 40 refugees capsized between the Greek islands of Agathonisi and Farmakonisi. According to the Hellenic Coast Guard, Greek and Turkish sea rescue services rescued 19 people. Eight were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard and 11 by the Turkish Coast Guard. Five bodies were retrieved and up to 16 people are still missing and feared to have drowned.

Greece's volatile economic situation, combined with the increasing numbers of new arrivals, is putting severe strain on small island communities, which lack the basic infrastructure and services to adequately respond to the growing humanitarian needs. The numbers of people arriving are now so high that, despite all efforts, the authorities and local communities can no longer cope. An urgent response from Europe is needed before the situation deteriorates further.

On the northern Aegean island of Lesvos, the number of new arrivals far outstrips the capacity of the police-run identification centre in Moria. More than 3,000 refugees are currently living in difficult conditions at the makeshift accommodation site of Cara Tepe, and 1,000 are camping outside the Moria facility. Adequate medical assistance, running water, sanitation and shelter from the high temperatures are in short supply. UNHCR has previously expressed concern for the well-being of refugees, including pregnant women and children, who are having to walk up to 60 kilometres through the mountains to reach the island's main town of Mytiline. UNHCR welcomes the recent amendment in Greek legislation which will exempt from prosecution, under certain conditions, those transferring irregular entrants, and stands ready to assist the authorities in finding a solution to the issue of transport.

UNHCR, through an implementing partner METAction, has made interpreters temporarily available to the police to speed up the registration process on Lesvos island, which continues to receive the highest number of refugee arrivals. On the island of Samos, food distribution was halted this week due to delays in paying the caterers and cash problems. The military has provisionally stepped in to ensure that food continues to be distributed. There are rising tensions in accommodation sites on some islands, including Samos, as bottlenecks in the registration process have led to longer waiting times in rapidly deteriorating conditions.

Despite the precarious situation facing the livelihoods of many Greek people, their response towards refugees has for the most part been welcoming and generous. Community-based initiatives organized by civil society, including local NGOs and volunteers, small businesses and tourists, are overseeing the collection and distribution of food, water, clothing and even basic medical attention. Once being transferred to Athens, the refugees are confronted with the same challenges, as the accommodation capacity of Greece continues to fall dramatically below the needs.

Additional UNHCR staff has already been deployed to five locations in the eastern Aegean, to provide advice and assistance to new arrivals and care for unaccompanied children and people with specific needs. As an immediate response to increasing humanitarian needs, UNHCR is distributing, via its partner Agkalia and the municipality of Lesvos, drinking water supplies and energy bars. Coordination with other humanitarian actors is now necessary to ensure adequate response to the needs of refugees, in close coordination with the Greek authorities.

A majority of the refugees arriving to Greece are moving onward, trying to reach countries in western and northern Europe through the western Balkans region. Countries in this region such as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (fYROM) and Serbia, have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of refugees. In the first half of this year, some 45,000 people sought asylum in the region. This represents almost a ninefold increase of asylum applications compared with the same period in 2014. However, these are only some of the refugees entering the two countries, with most continuing directly on their way to Hungary and further north. It is estimated that half of all refugees who are actually passing through the region do so without being registered by the authorities, and are exposed to violence and abuse by smugglers and criminal gangs. In the course of June, the number of people crossing every day from Greece into fYROM and Serbia surged from 200 to 1,000. Over 90 per cent of those traveling this route are from refugee-producing countries, mainly Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia.

As with Greece, the capacity of these countries to effectively respond to the emergency situation is severely overstretched. While the authorities are trying to alleviate the situation by establishing facilities to receive and process them, UNHCR is concerned about reports of border police preventing refugees from entering. In some instances, refugees alleged that some police officers are using violence and pushing them back into the hands of smugglers. The tightening of borders is not the solution, including the plans of the Hungarian government to build a fence along the Serbian border. Reports of push-backs at the borders between Serbia and fYROM and between fYROM and Greece are worrying, as such practices place refugees at further risk and are contrary to states' legal obligations. Refugees, including women and small children, often end up stranded along the borders, without protection and without access to basic services, such as food, water, and hygiene items.

This situation requires a collective and far-reaching response based on the principles of humanity, access to protection, and genuine solidarity and responsibility sharing, both within the EU but also with countries outside the EU. Europe should live up to its traditions in this regard. UNHCR welcomes the renewed commitment made by EU Member States to resettle another 20,000 refugees to the EU. UNHCR hopes that details to relocate 40,000 people in need of protection within the EU will also soon be finalized, demonstrating solidarity with those EU countries like Greece who are facing unprecedented numbers of refugee arrivals. These proposals - even if modest compared with the needs - are important first steps towards such a comprehensive approach. As needs continue to grow, these measures must be expanded. More work is urgently needed to increase safe and legal avenues for people to reach protection in Europe, improve reception conditions and asylum systems, show solidarity with countries with large influxes, support countries in the immediate EU neighbourhood (notably The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia), and address the root causes of forced displacement. UNHCR stands ready to work together with EU Member States and institutions, as well as other partners to achieve these goals.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Athens, Ketty Kehayioylou on mobile +30 694 0277 485
  • In Lesvos, Laura Padoan on mobile +44 777 556 6127
  • In Budapest, Babar Baloch on mobile +36 30 530 9633
  • In Sarajevo, Neven Crvenkovic +387 61 611 082
  • In Rome, Carlotta Sami on mobile +39 335 679 4746
  • In Geneva, William Spindler +41 79 217 3011