Despite dangerous sea conditions, the number of refugees and migrants arriving on Lesvos continues to be high, at an average of 3,300 people per day so far in November. Of the 660,000 refugees and migrants who have reached Greece this year more than half have landed at Lesvos. With winter approaching, reception conditions and capacity there remain overstretched and inadequate.
So far in 2015, some 3,460 lives have been lost on the Mediterranean, 360 in the last four weeks (some 250 of these in the Aegean Greek territorial waters). UNHCR is working with the Hellenic Coast Guard to facilitate the deployment of additional experienced life guards and has provided equipment to support the on-going rescue efforts on Lesvos.
In light of the continuing strains on Lesvos, UNHCR is establishing presences at six strategic locations along the island’s north shore to provide newly-arriving refugees with immediate life-saving help, working with volunteers and our new medical NGO partner WAHA (Women and Health Alliance International), whose capacity is also being enhanced. This will be in addition to the existing assembly points where UNHCR and partners already provide places to rest, clothes, food, clean water and medical support. Eight buses and three mini vans are being used to transport new arrivals from the beaches to the reception sites, and this will be expanded as required.
We are also appealing to the authorities to create additional accommodation and reception capacity as a matter of urgency. There are only 2,800 reception places for the 12,000 refugees and migrants currently on the island. As a result, many people, including women, children and new-born babies have no choice but to sleep outside, lighting fires to keep themselves warm. This situation creates additional protection and safety concerns and is a cause of tension with the local community.
Urgent improvements to facilities for refugees in the island’s east at Moria and Kara Tape, under the respective responsibility of the police and the municipality, are also needed, including lighting, latrines and heating as well as site management. For the time being, refugees have to find themselves a place where to sleep in the few shelters available creating conditions for the “strongest” to find a shelter to the detriment of persons with specific needs. UNHCR, partners and volunteers have to constantly intervene to prevent these situations from happening. It is critical to designate a site manager with the appropriate authority and resources.
At Kara Tape there have been improvements in living conditions, thanks to the efforts of the municipality with the support of UNHCR (including through the provision of 172 refugee housing units and 38 tents) and other humanitarian actors. However, conditions at the Moria site remain below minimum standards. UNHCR stands ready to assist the authorities to further improve and expand reception capacity.
In addition to these actions, UNHCR staffing on Lesvos is being increased. Thirteen additional staff have been deployed, many speaking the language of the refugees, and bringing the total staff on Lesvos to 30. We have brought in more humanitarian aid with 295,000 relief items, including 37,000 blankets to keep people warm, over 45,000 coats to protect people from rain, as well as hygiene and baby care kits, sleeping mats and plastic sheeting. These are being distributed by NGOs and volunteers. In addition to supporting the work of different NGOs, UNHCR is helping volunteers with accommodation, and storage for goods and humanitarian aid. NGOs and volunteers have been playing an essential frontline role on Lesvos and UNHCR is working with the municipality to improve coordination among humanitarian actors.
Proper reception is essential for protecting refugees and migrants, and vital for effective management of the situation. The recent agreement as part of the Leaders’ meeting on the Western Balkans route on 25 October on establishing more reception places in Greece will be a key factor in stabilizing the situation, but fast implementation is needed. UNHCR is working with the EU and Member States to support this initiative.