Greece: Rights groups express concern for migrant conditions

ATHENS, Greece - Twenty international and Greek rights groups and charities called on the Greek government Wednesday to end the policy of keeping migrants and refugees arriving from Turkey stuck on Greek islands.

Expressing "urgent concern" over severe overcrowding, the organizations said many migrants were being forced to live in summer tents as the winter weather descends.

"Nothing can justify trapping people in these terrible conditions on the islands for another winter," Eva Cosse, Greece researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a joint press release with the other agencies.

"Greece and other European Union member states should act urgently to remove the obstacles to people getting the care and assistance they need on the Greek mainland."

Greece was the main route into the EU for migrants and refugees until an EU-Turkey deal in March last year shut down what had become known as the Balkan route from Greece to the more prosperous European north. Under the agreement, all those arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast would be held in camps on the islands pending deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully applied for asylum in Greece.

Although the deal stemmed the flow of migrants, hundreds still head to Greek islands each week. With nowhere to go and unable to reach the mainland, facilities on the islands have been stretched beyond capacity.

More than 8,000 people are stranded on the island of Lesbos, one of the main arrival areas, where the reception capacity is 1,500. Islanders held a protest there on Monday, led by the island's mayor, Spyros Galinos, as local municipal services held a 24-hour strike to protest the overcrowding and conditions for the migrants.

Authorities on Lesbos and four other eastern Greek islands are demanding that other areas share the burden of hosting the camps, which are up to four times over capacity on the five islands.

Jana Frey, International Rescue Committee country director for Greece, described the situation as "a matter of life and death" and said there is "absolutely no excuse" for current conditions.

"We are in a race against time," she said. "Lives will be lost, again, this winter, unless people are allowed to move, in an organized and voluntary fashion, to the mainland."

The 20 organizations said conditions have continued to deteriorate, with 10,925 people staying in facilities on three islands with a capacity of 3,924. Many, they said, are being forced to live in summer tents as temperatures plunge.

"Forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity cannot be justified," they said.

While the preferred route of those attempting to cross into Greece illegally remains from the Turkish coast to the nearby islands, many have also been crossing the river that runs along the land border between Greece and Turkey.

On Wednesday, Greek police said the body of a man believed to be a migrant had been found the previous day in an abandoned building in a mountainous border area in northern Greece.

Police said the man, believed to have been between 20 and 30 years old and of either African or Asian descent, was found outside a mountain village in the Evros region.

The area is on a migrant smuggling route, with people crossing the border illegally from Turkey and then trying to make their way on through the Balkans to other European countries.

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Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece, contributed.


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