UNHCR calls for safeguards to be in place before returns begin
GENEVA, April 1 (UNHCR) - Urging caution, the UN Refugee Agency today called on all parties to the recent agreement between the European Union and Turkey on refugees and migrants to ensure all "safeguards" are in place before any returns from Greece to Turkey begin,
UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming, stressing serious gaps still existed in both countries, declared: "UNHCR does not object to returns of people without protection needs and who have not asked for asylum, providing that human rights are adhered to."
She told a press briefing in Geneva that across Greece, which has been compelled to host people because of closed borders elsewhere in Europe, "numerous aspects of the systems for receiving and dealing with people who may need international protection were still either not working or absent."
There are currently around 51,000 refugees and migrants in the country, 5,000 on the islands and 46,000 on the mainland. Recent arrivals spiked on March 29 at 766 after several days of arrivals averaging about 300 people a day.
On the island of Lesvos, conditions have been deteriorating at the Moria "hotspot" facility, which since March 20 has been used to detain people pending a decision on deportation. There are now some 2,300 people there. This is above its stated capacity of 2,000.
"People are sleeping in the open, and food supply is insufficient. Anxiety and frustration is widespread. Making matters worse, many families have become separated, with family members now scattered across Greece - and presenting an additional worry should returns begin," Fleming declared.
On Samos island, at the Vathy "hotspot", reception conditions have also been worsening. Sanitation is poor, there is little help available for persons with special needs, and food distributions are chaotic. There are currently up to 1,700 people staying at the Vial "hotspot" on Chios, which has a maximum capacity of 1,100.
"We are very worried about the situation there. Rioting last night left three people with stab injuries," Fleming added.
In line with its global policy on promoting alternatives to detention, UNHCR has had to suspend services at all closed facilities, with the exception of protection monitoring and providing information on asylum procedures. Stranded groups await relocation on the mainland
On the mainland, where people who arrived before the March 20 accord, are staying, the situation is equally difficult. Refugees and migrants are spread across some 30 sites, many awaiting the chance of relocation.
"Conditions at the port of Piraeus and around Idomeni near the border with former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are dismal and the risk of panic and injury in these sites and others is real in the current circumstances. There have been further incidents reported in local media of fighting this week," Fleming detailed.
Without urgent further EU support, the limited capacity of the Greek asylum service to register and process asylum claims will create problems. Limited hours of registration, daily ceilings on registrations, a lack of access to the Skype system for registration set up by the Asylum Services, are all currently adding to the anxiety.
In Turkey, UNHCR has requested access to people returned from Greece, to ensure people can benefit from effective international protection and to prevent risk of refoulement.
UNHCR has set out the safeguards that would be required for safe readmission from Greece to Turkey, most recently in a paper of 23 March. http://www.refworld.org/docid/56f3ee3f4.html.
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