UNHCR Representative in Greece visits the Dodecanese

Philippe Leclerc at the non-formal school KEDU on Kos island. © UNHCR/Stella Nanou

During a mission to the Dodecanese last week, the Representative in Greece for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Philippe Leclerc, visited the South Aegean islands of Rhodes, Kos and Tilos to see firsthand the challenges the region faces from a recent spike in arrivals and to meet the Mayor of Tilos ahead of a new self-reliance project for refugee on the island.

Mr. Leclerc met with representatives of local authorities to discuss the reception and accommodation of refugees and migrants. Ahead of his mission, Mr. Leclerc met with Minister of Citizen Protection Mihalis Chrysohoidis and the Alternate Minister of Citizen Protection for Migration Policy Giorgos Koumoutsakos to brief them on UNHCR’s role and operation in Greece, while putting forward the most pressing issues for the government to tackle, including overcrowding and poor conditions on the Greek Aegean islands.

In an interview for regional newspaper “Rodiaki” following his visit to the Dodecanese, the UNHCR Representative gave his analysis of the current environment for refugees and asylum-seekers on the islands and across Greece.

What is the purpose of your visit in our region?

It has been nearly two years since my last visit to the Reception and Identification Centre, RIC, on Kos in contrast to Samos and Lesvos which I visited more regularly. Until recently, the Kos and Leros reception centers were dealing with a manageable number of people arriving and seeking asylum in the Dodecanese islands. The competent authorities — the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Hellenic Police, the Reception and Identification Service, RIC, and the Asylum Service — with the support of UNHCR on Kos and Leros and NGOs such as METAdrasi, ARSIS, and the Greek Council for Refugees, had established procedures and living conditions were adequate while people stayed on the islands. Since May 2019, the situation has become very difficult as a result of more arrivals and low transfers to the mainland resulting in the overcrowding of the Pyli center [on Kos] which today hosts almost three times its capacity of 800. As a consequence, the living conditions for the asylum-seekers have severely deteriorated as the sanitary conditions are inadequate. There is a lack of toilets, limited medical and psychological support, and slow asylum procedures.

Beyond the urgent situation on Kos, I also wanted for some time to symbolically visit the island of Tilos and meet with mayor Maria Kamma to formally thank her for her consistent position on the island’s hosting of refugees during the difficult times  of the high arrivals in 2015 and 2016 and exploring with her an evolution of the assistance to refugees towards non-emergency assistance, now exploring the possibility for asylum-seekers and refugees to contribute to the development of the economic and social activities of the island by participating in a small goat cheese factory project. Self-reliance and social inclusion of refugees can be developed in all regions of Greece including its 700 inhabited island, like Tilos.

During his visit to Tilos the UNHCR Representative in Greece met with the island’s mayor Maria Kamma. © UNHCR/Stella Nanou

What are the main takeaways from you mission to Rhodes, Kos and Tilos?

Unfortunately, the situation in the Pyli RIC on Kos has significantly worsened in the last few months, as a result of higher arrivals and limited transfers to the mainland. I saw first-hand the extremely difficult conditions that hundreds of people, including women, children and people with specific needs, are forced to endure for months, as they are left without proper shelter or access to basic facilities and services. The number of unaccompanied children has also increased. There are currently 88 in the RIC, who stay in equally substandard conditions and are exposed to heightened risks. I met with RIS and police authorities on the ground, ARSIS and METAdrasi staff, as well as with my UNHCR colleagues, of course, all of whom are confronted with significant challenges as they try to assist people every day in these overcrowded conditions.

Philippe Leclerc discusses with Maria Kritikou, the Director of the Reception and Identification Center of Pyli, on Kos island.© UNHCR/Stella Nanou

I also visited the pre-removal centre on Kos, which since May 2019 has broadly  been used as a place for direct placement in detention, instead of reception, of asylum-seekers, including women and those with specific needs, some of whom without prior and sufficient medical or psychosocial screening, due to lack of enough personnel. I have discussed the main challenges that state authorities on Kos faceand the support they would need to address them, and I will advocate further with the central government so that there is targeted and quick action for the islands that face the most significant problems, including Kos. The priority is clearly now to decongestion the islands RIC, but also to provide quick relief to the population that is forced to remain in the centres, through a set of priority actions, including more staff for the provision of services, small scale technical interventions to improve the shelter and meet minimum hygiene standards, and material assistance. It is also urgent and vital to increase places for accommodating refugees on the mainland, as well as the registration and processing capacity of the asylum authorities so that asylum seekers can be transferred to the mainland promptly. As transfer of asylum-seekers to the mainland is urgent and sufficient places cannot be easily created in a very short time, I will reiterate our proposals to use other means such as cash for shelter so that quick transfers can be achieved in the weeks to come at a sustained pace.

On Rhodes, the situation in Sfageia, [a compound with dilapidated buildings] close to the port, where some 75 people have found shelter, remains very difficult and dangerous and a long-overdue alternative must be found soon, so that people are quickly removed from this totally inadequate place. There is a need to identify a space where those landing on the island – let’s not forget that Rhodes has received more than 100 arrivals since the beginning of the year – are able to await until their transfer to an available reception centre on Dodecanese, where basic standards can be met.

In Sfageia, close to the port of Rhodes Island, some 75 people have found shelter. © UNHCR/Stella Nanou

During my visit, I also had the chance to meet with a refugee who recently received his positive decision and is working on the island of Kos, while taking care of his wife and baby daughter.  He seemed confident about his family’s future and was eager to contribute to the community and the people who have welcomed him from the first moment he set foot on Kos. On the island of Tilos, the mayor and locals look forward to welcoming again refugees in their small community and to give them a chance to find work and build a home and life there. These people enhanced my belief that social inclusion is not a utopia but a reality, even in a country like Greece that still bears the brunt of the economic  crisis,  as long as all together — government, local authorities, communities, refugees, civil society, individuals — show the will and create those conditions that will enable  refugees to thrive, not just survive.

What is the real situation with regard to refugees and migrants today – on our islands but also in Greece more general? Do you think there is a surge [in arrivals]? If yes, what do you think are the reasons?

We have seen an increase in arrivals this summer, notably on Lesvos but also in the Dodecanese area, including on smaller islands like Symi, Farmakonissi and Kastellorizo. July was the month with the highest number of arrivals since the EU-Turkey statement in March 2016. This also coincided with national elections in the country and the formation of a new government. As a result of higher arrivals, there are now more than 21,000 refugees and migrants on the Aegean islands, the vast majority of whom, almost three in four, are in the five RICs, known as hotspots, where capacity is for just 5,400. Conditions remain dire, due to overcrowding, particularly on Samos, and thousands of people, including families with young children, remain exposed to a number of risks. The situation is particularly alarming for the 810 unaccompanied children in the RICs, as they have no access to adequate care and security.

In their large majority, people who continue to arrive in Greece flee from conflict, persecution and human rights violations and therefore have a refugee profile. They are mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo, regions where insecurity and violence prevail. These people are in need of international protection and should be given prompt access to territory and the asylum procedure so that they can have a fair and efficient processing of their asylum claim. Other nationalities are also making their way to Greece and their asylum applications should also be assessed in a fair and efficient manner to determine whether or not they are entitled to stay in Greece. Unfortunately, the needs continue to exceed the capacity of the Asylum Service, and as a result there are still serious delays in the process, like for example on Kos, where residents may wait for their initial registration by the asylum service for at least three, four months and even more for their interview and decisions. Compounded with the lack of reception capacity in the mainland, this contributes to the congestion in the islands’ RICs and what we witness are people, often having been affected by traumatic events, waiting for a long time in very substandard conditions and exposed to all sorts of risks.

The Reception and Identification Center of Pyli, Kos island, July 2019. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

On the mainland, reception capacity has significantly grown since 2015 — from just 1,000 places to more than 50,000 at present — with refugees staying in sites, apartments and more temporarily in hotels, across the country.  Despite this progress, Greece’s reception system is at its limits and the authorities must accelerate action to find accommodation, end overcrowding, scale up health and other services and improve living conditions.

Under a programme funded by the European Commission, UNHCR is supporting Greece with hosting some of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers in 25,000 places in apartments in 20 towns across the country, mostly on the mainland and in Crete. We also provide monthly cash assistance for some 70,000 asylum-seekers and refugees to cover basic needs. More than 350 places in apartments for vulnerable asylum seekers are also provided in Rhodes, Kos, Leros, and Tilos. UNHCR is actively engaged in preparing the State authorities to gradually take over the accommodation and cash programs in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

In addition to covering the most urgent humanitarian needs, what should be an important element in the refugee response is the adoption of integration measures, so that recognized refugees can become self-reliant and independent and graduate from the country’s reception system. This will also open up much-needed places for those in overcrowded conditions. In parallel with adopting measures to provide urgent relief, finding more viable solutions means that priority should be given to integration policies for those refugees that will eventually stay in the country, as well as to facilitate family reunification procedures for those who have relatives in other EU member states. UNHCR has also repeatedly stressed that countries, like Greece, that are at the external borders of the EU and receive the largest number of refugees and migrants, need solidarity in action by other European states, not only with funding but also with meaningful responsibility-sharing mechanisms, such as relocation of asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied and separated children.

About a couple of years ago during our first discussion, you had mentioned LEDU – an informal school for refugee children on Leros island, which had just started operating at the time. What has changed since then with regard to the education of refugee children?

Centres like LEDU on Leros or KEDU on Kos – a similar school which opened in the meantime and I had the chance to visit during my recent trip – are very important for refugee children and teenagers as they help them regain a sense of normalcy and connect them again, or for the first time, with the educational process. In these non-formal schools, some 300 children who attend classes on a daily basis, have the chance to acquire basic life skills, learn Greek and English language, and play and interact with other children. In contrast to the mainland, where most refugee children are enrolled in formal education, on the islands little progress has been made in school enrolment for several thousand children living in overcrowded conditions at five reception centres – more than 75 percent of the over 4,600 school-aged children on the Greek islands who are asylum-seekers and live in RICs do not attend school. Education is a basic human right and every child should have access to the national public educational system as early as possible. Until this is achieved fully for all refugee children who are in Greece, non-formal schools and educational programmes, like LEDU and KEDU, will continue to play a significant role to bridge the gap and prepare children for their eventual transition to the public school system. That is why, in parallel with our advocacy efforts done in cooperation with our sister agency UNICEF for access to public education for all, UNHCR plans to boost the capacity of these two centres on Kos and Leros and introduce similar initiatives on other islands as well.

Teenage refugees attend classes at KEDU school on Kos island. © UNHCR/Stella Nanou

What do you think the new government should do with regard to the refugee/migrant issue in Greece?

The new government has announced policy objectives on the refugee issue and it is positive that it acknowledges the need for action in a number of areas. I have already met with the Minister of Citizen Protection Mihalis Chrysohoidis and the Alternate Minister of Citizen Protection for Migration Policy Giorgos Koumoutsakos and briefed them on the UNHCR role in Greece and put forward those issues which should be prioritized for interventions. The most urgent humanitarian need is undoubtedly to decongest the RICs on the islands of Samos, Lesvos and Kos, while not allowing Chios and Leros to be overcrowded. We agree with the government on the need to take swift action in assisting unaccompanied children by placing them in appropriate shelter. We will continue assisting the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in this regard.  At the same time, one should not overlook the situation on the mainland where accommodation is in short supply, compared to the needs, while conditions in some sites are problematic and tensions occur.

The Reception and Identification Center of Pyli, Kos island, July 2019. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

The government should also invest in enhancing the registration and processing capacity of the asylum service in cooperation with the European Asylum Support Office, EASO. This would translate in more staff, so that the efficiency and the credibility of the asylum system is upheld and both those who are recognized as refugees but also those rejected can move on — the former to integrate, the latter to be returned to their countries of origin — and not be held waiting for months, if not years. Maintaining the quality and fairness of the asylum procedure throughout is crucial. The government should also prioritize integration for recognized refugees and translate the national integration strategy into concrete actions, which should include language classes, refugee employment programmes, vocational trainings and effective inclusion in the country’s social protection and welfare system, among others. Finally, it is crucial that Greece continues to manage its borders in a manner that secures safety of life of the people trying to cross and that those in need of international protection can have access to Greece’s territory. We continue to call on the Greek authorities to properly investigate the numerous credible allegations that UNHCR has received about informal forced returns at Evros and ensure the immediate end to such practices, as they are in direct violation of international, European and national law.  We stand ready to continue supporting the authorities to find and implement solutions to the existing challenges and ensure the safety and well-being of both refugees and the local population, objectives which are not contradictory but rather complementary.

The continuous increasing flows of refugees and migrants in our region has made the situation in the islands’ RICs an asphyxiating one. What do you think are the measures that should be taken to normalize the situation?

Indeed, one of the most urgent priorities right now for the authorities and any government body engaged in the response should be to decongest the overcrowded RICs – mainly Samos, Lesvos and Kos. To this end, emergency measures are needed to reduce severe overcrowding and improve conditions and access to services, get people, particularly the most vulnerable, into better accommodation and accelerate transfers to the mainland. The latter have slowed mainly because there is insufficient reception capacity on the mainland. While it is unsustainable to expect an ever-expanding reception capacity for Greece’s refugee population, it is vital that Greece develops a rationalized, realistic and effective reception policy, with support from the EU, so as to address existing needs. European support should also include solidarity measures, such as relocation out of Greece to other European States particularly for the most vulnerable, such as unaccompanied children and people with specific needs. To turn an “asphyxiating” situation into a “normal” one is certainly not an easy task and cannot fall squarely onto the shoulders of a single actor or entity, but it is a situation that calls for urgent measures and flexible processes. Otherwise, allowing the system and people involve to “breathe” will become increasingly difficult.

Source: I Rodiaki