UNHCR is urging parties to the recent EU-Turkey agreement on refugees and migrants to ensure all safeguards are in place before any returns begin. This is in light of continued serious gaps in both countries. 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.
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 are still either not working or absent. There are currently around 51,000 refugees and migrants in the country, 5000 on the islands and 46,000 on the mainland. Recent arrivals spiked on 29th March at 766 after several days of arrivals averaging about 300 people a day.
On Lesvos, conditions have been deteriorating at the Moria “hotspot” facility, which since 20 March 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.
On Samos, 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. 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 20 March 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 Eidomeni near the border with former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are dismal. 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.
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 at present 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 hopes that the Temporary Protection regulation required for granting or reinstating temporary protection status for Syrians readmitted from Greece will be adopted soon.
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.
Sea arrivals down in Greece, up in Italy
Sea arrivals in Greece for the first three months of 2016 are at over 150,700 albeit with lower arrivals in March.
Sea arrivals on the other main Mediterranean route – from North Africa to Italy -stand at 18,784. This represents a more than 80 per cent increase over the same period in 2015 (10,165 people), with March arrivals showing a four-fold increase. These are predominantly Nigerians, Gambians, Senegalese, Malians and other West African nationals. So far UNHCR is not seeing big increases in Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis using this route. On Thursday, a boat carrying 22 Syrian and Somali nationals was reported to have arrived at Otranto in South-eastern Italy, having travelled from Greece.