Turmoil and tragedy in Lesvos as sea arrivals surge, urgent support needed to rapidly improve reception

Turmoil and tragedy in Lesvos as sea arrivals surge, urgent support needed to rapidly improve reception

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In Greece, UNHCR staff had to be evacuated briefly from a registration site yesterday when violence flared at a crowded site on the island of Lesvos. This took place amid continuing arrivals of thousands of refugees and migrants by sea from Turkey. Authorities also reported up to seven people dead - four of them children - following a collision between a smuggling boat and a Greek Coast Guard vessel.

Both incidents, the maritime tragedy and the tensions on Lesvos, underscore once again the urgent need to rapidly establish proper reception facilities in Greece for receiving, assisting, registering and screening all new arrivals.

Along with an increase in arrivals in the past two days came more deaths. The Greek Coast Guard reported yesterday that a collision between one of its patrol vessels and a wooden fishing boat carrying 38 people had left seven dead, including four children. The collision occurred off the island's northwestern coastal town of Molyvos. Thirty-one people were rescued, and the incident is being investigated. More than 100 people have died making the crossing from Turkey to Greece this year, while across the Mediterranean as whole, more than 3,100 have perished.

UNHCR staff returned to Moria this morning. They say as many 85 boats landed on the island on Wednesday and possibly as many again yesterday and overnight, mainly along its northern shore where the channel separating Greece from Turkey is only about 10 kilometres. A UNHCR protection officer told us that up to six boats at a time - most of them rubber rafts carrying about 50 people each - could be seen approaching the shore throughout the day. The surge in arrivals could be the result of a temporary improvement in the weather, a rush to beat the onset of winter, and a fear that European borders may soon close.

A Syrian refugee in northern Greece told UNHCR that his group of about 50 people tried three times over the past two weeks to make the crossing from Turkey to Lesvos. The first time, they were towed back to shore after being intercepted by a Turkish patrol vessel. The second time, they spotted another patrol boat just offshore and cancelled the voyage. They finally reached Lesbos earlier this week, he said.

With the increasing arrivals, pressure also grew on the government's already overstretched reception and registration facilities on the island. Violence erupted yesterday at the crowded Moria registration site outside the island's capital of Mitilini when groups of single men tried to jump queues and force their way into the registration offices. Police had to be called in to try to quell the disturbances, which continued to flare into the evening. Registration at the site was suspended around midday and UNHCR and other staff at the facility were evacuated.

At present there are around 3500-4000 people on the north coast of the island. Bus transfers have been stopped because of overcrowding in the reception centres, and some people are now trying to walk the 70 kilometres across the island towards Mitilini.

So far this year, more than 450,000 refugees and migrants have arrived by sea in Greece, placing enormous strains on local communities as well as national authorities. In a visit to Greece earlier this week, High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said it was absolutely essential that the country receive massive support from the European Union for adequate reception, registration and screening processes, which are also essential for the success of a planned relocation of refugees to other European countries, as well as for the return home of those found not in need of international protection.

High Commissioner Guterres has also urged governments to put in place more channels so that people can come to Europe legally and don't have to resort to smugglers and other irregular routes. Such legal channels include increased resettlement from countries of first asylum, family reunification, private sponsorship schemes, humanitarian visas and more flexible visa arrangements for students, workers and others.

In a separate development, close to the Turkey-Bulgaria border, an Afghan man was shot dead last night in a rugged forested area near the town of Sredets. UNHCR is shocked by this incident. We understand the man was hit by a rebound bullet, fired by a Bulgarian border guard. We are urging the Bulgarian authorities to conduct an immediate investigation into this tragic incident and to make the findings known.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Athens (Regional), Ron Redmond on mobile +30 694 244 5037
  • In Budapest, Babar Baloch on mobile +36 30 530 9633
  • In Sofia, Boris Cheshirkov on mobile +359 878 507 041
  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • In Geneva, William Spinder on mobile +41 79 217 3011