Police are failing to protect people during frequent incidents of violence in closed centers on the Greek islands known as “hotspots,” Human Rights Watch said. The centers were established for the reception, identification, and processing of asylum seekers and migrants. None of the three centers Human Rights Watch visited on Samos, Lesbos, and Chios in mid-May 2016, separate single women from unrelated adult men, and all three are unsanitary and severely overcrowded.
“In Europe’s version of refugee camps, women and children who fled war face daily violence and live in fear,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Lack of police protection, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions create an atmosphere of chaos and insecurity in Greece’s razor wire-fenced island camps.”
On visits from May 9 to May 15, Human Rights Watch found all three facilities to be severely overcrowded, with significant shortages of basic shelter and filthy, unhygienic conditions. Long lines for poor quality food, mismanagement, and lack of information contribute to the chaotic and volatile atmosphere in the three hotspots, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 13, a fight involving about 200 men raged for several hours in the Vathi hotspot on Samos, a 250-bed facility that held 945 people that day. Human Rights Watch visited the center on May 14, and saw smears of blood on floors, blood-stained clothing, jagged holes in the shelters where rocks had been thrown, and broken glass and other detritus from the fight, and examined bruises and lacerations on men’s and women’s heads and bodies. Many residents said the police providing security for the site withdrew when the fighting broke out. According to aid workers with Boat Rescue, a Dutch nongovernmental organization that provides health care at the facility, 14 people were hospitalized, including some with broken arms and legs.
Human Rights Watch was forced to cut short its May 14 visit to Vathi due to security concerns, but visited again on May 15.
Camp residents and service providers said that fights are a daily occurrence at Vathi and that the police withdraw when the fighting starts and do not intervene to protect people. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, which was present on each of the three days Human Rights Watch visited, said that Vathi has no camp manager. No one appeared to be in charge on the days Human Rights Watch visited. Residents at the other two camps, Moria on Lesbos and VIAL on Chios, also said that police don’t intervene in fights.
Despite a police order that directs all police working with refugees and migrants to ensure protection and security for women and children, the centers on Chios and Samos have no segregated sections for single women, family groups, or women with children. Human Rights Watch observed unaccompanied children and families living in common areas at Moria. Moria has sections for children and families, but they are not large enough to accommodate all the women and children in the center.
Women reported frequent sexual harassment in all three hotspots. “The men get drunk and try to enter our tent every night,” said a 19-year-old single woman from Eritrea living in Vathi. “We went to the police and asked to be taken to a separate part of the camp from the men who try to abuse us, but the police refused to help us. We fled our country for exactly this reason, and here in this camp we are afraid to leave our tent.” Women in the Moria hotspot on Lesbos and VIAL hotspot on Chios spoke of similar problems and expressed deep concerns about their and their children’s safety.
Since a March 20 migration agreement between the European Union and Turkey, Greek authorities have automatically detained all asylum seekers and migrants. On April 2, the Greek parliament hastily adopted a law that allows blanket “restriction of movement” on new arrivals inside closed facilities at border entry points – such as the islands – for up to 25 days during reception and identification. UNHCR and several nongovernmental aid agencies suspended many of their activities when the hotspots were converted into detention centers, though UNHCR continues to monitor conditions and provide limited services.
The hotspots, officially called “Reception and Identification Centers,” are nominally administered by the Greek government’s First Reception Service, under the Migration Policy Ministry. Two EU agencies are a more visible presence: Frontex, the EU’s external borders agency, which conducts the initial registration, nationality screening interviews, and fingerprinting in collaboration with the Greek police, and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which conducts admissibility interviews and makes recommendations on admissibility to the asylum procedure to the Greek Asylum Service. The Asylum Service is also present in the facilities, though their offices were closed in Vathi on the days that Human Rights Watch visited. The Greek police are responsible for camp security.
Greek and EU authorities should take immediate steps to ensure the security and protection of women and children in the hotspots as well as all other residents, Human Rights Watch said. Women, children, and families should be provided with secure sleeping, toilet, and bathing facilities separate from those for single men. Greece should not detain people in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities.
The blanket detention of all asylum seekers and migrants in closed facilities is unjustified, given the possibility of less restrictive options, and amounts to arbitrary detention. The hotspot facilities on Greek islands should be converted into open camps with appropriate services and security measures, Human Rights Watch said.
No one who has indicated an intent to seek asylum should be detained in facilities on the islands absent evidence that the detention is necessary and for a legitimate purpose or reason, such as that the person presents a specific and individualized security threat.
EU countries should accelerate the fulfilment of their obligations under the temporary relocation scheme. They should urgently make sufficient places available and facilitate the relocation of asylum seekers whose claims were considered admissible from the Greek islands hotspots. Individual circumstances such as family ties should also be taken into account.
“When Greece detains people in overcrowded conditions unfit for animals and fails to provide them with basic police protection, it creates a climate where violence flourishes,” Frelick said. “Although the EU is not directly responsible for camp security, it was appalling to watch Frontex personnel hurriedly leaving the Vathi camp as tensions mounted on May 14. The EU and Greece should immediately remedy this shameful situation, quickly end arbitrary detention, and ensure humane treatment of people in their custody.”
Lack of Police Protection
Human Rights Watch heard consistent accounts from camp residents in all three locations of the routine lack of police protection.
Among the accounts about the large-scale fight on May 13, in Vathi, a 36-year-old Syrian woman living in one of the containers said:
Yesterday I felt like I had left one war only to come here to another war. The fight happened right outside my door. They were jumping on the roof of my container. They smashed holes in the walls. I was very frightened. They were drunk. Some tried to enter the door of my container but we pushed against the door. Thank God they didn’t enter.
A 20-year-old Syrian woman living in a small tent in Vathi said:
Yesterday, a big fight happened. We were afraid. We went to the police to protect us. But the police withdrew inside their compound to protect themselves. They would not let us in. We broke down the door to go to the police courtyard. We knocked on their door and asked them to help the people who were hurt. The hurt people stayed on the ground for two hours before the police took them. Whenever there is a fight, the police stay out of it. There are fights every night. Blood and broken bones.
A 24-year-old Pakistani man who was attacked during the fight said: “It happened because people have been very much frustrated. They are in this facility for two months, three months…. They fight for very small things.” An 18-year-old Pakistani man who was injured said: “I feel insecure here. I was sleeping and people came in my container and hit me with an iron pipe.” Human Rights Watch observed his broken teeth and stitches on his lower lip.
Camp residents said fights occur daily, particularly in the food lines, with no police intervention. The 36-year-old Syrian woman said: “Whenever something happens, the police just leave and stay in their container and lock the door. If a fight breaks out in the food line, they lock down the food distribution just to protect themselves. The worst thing is they laugh at us.”
Large-scale fighting – together with a withdrawal of police during the fighting – also occurred in the other locations Human Rights Watch visited.
Several Syrians in the VIAL hotspot on Chios, which is built around an abandoned alumininum factory, described a large attack by Afghans lasting a couple of hours on May 7 or 8, a few days before Human Rights Watch visit. People showed researchers holes in the interior walls of the factory where they said rocks had been thrown. A 27-year-old Syrian man, who lives there with his 20-year-old wife and his 60-year-old mother, said: “A few days ago, the Afghans attacked us. They threw rocks and stole our mattress. Now we only have blankets. When we asked the police for help, they just disappeared. The police told us, ‘It is not our business what you refugees do between yourselves.’”
A 20-year-old Syrian man said: “The Afghans came and attacked us. They attacked from both sides, throwing rocks. Two people were sent to the hospital. Three days ago, an Afghan hit a Syrian woman here.”A 29-year-old Syrian man in VIAL said:
It happened at night three days ago. [He rolled up his pant leg and showed a cut on his leg]. It started with two drunk Afghans who came into this building and they were yelling and we told them to go, but they refused, and then more Afghans came from both sides and attacked us. The two policemen here ran away. They left the building as soon as the fighting started. We went to call the police but they fled the building. About 30 minutes later, a police bus came, but the police stayed outside the camp, outside the main gate; they didn’t even bring the bus up to the building where we were being attacked. We gathered the women and children and barricaded them into one of the office containers. We don’t feel safe here.
All the Syrians Human Rights Watch interviewed who were living on the floor in the converted factory building in VIAL said they wanted to be near the camp’s administrative offices for their safety. Afghans live in containers around the factory building.
Similarly, all the Afghan families and women Human Rights Watch interviewed in VIAL expressed the same fear about fights between Afghan single men and between Afghans and Syrians.
A 27-year-old Afghan woman living in VIAL with her husband and two children, ages 7 and 4, said:
To tell you the truth, with the war going on between Afghans and Syrians [in the camp] I don’t feel safe at all. From the moment we arrived here I haven’t slept well even one night. I am mostly worried about my children. They [the men] fight, they throw stones, windows are breaking and glass is falling down, and they might get hurt. When we were in Afghanistan, after the threats to my husband, I was always begging him that we leave. But now that we came here, I am really worried about our security.
A 35-year-old Afghan woman living in VIAL with her three daughters – 14, 12, and 10 – and her 8-year-old son and 9-year-old nephew, described similar fears: “There are always fights. Even women are getting hurt in the fights and we don’t have men to protect us and we are afraid. In one fight we were inside the main building but outside there were so many stones being thrown that they could kill a human. The situation is very hard but we don’t have another choice.” Her 14-year-old daughter said: “This is not a proper place for women and children. We are not safe here. Every night the men drink and fight and try to enter our room.”
In the Moria hotspot on Lesbos, a 36-year-old Afghan man said, “The food lines are very long. All the time there is fighting. There are fights between the Afghans, and Pakistanis, and the Syrians for places in the food line. Because the police do not help, we have had to come together to try to organize the lines ourselves.” A 22-year-old Afghan man at Moria said, “I spend five or six hours waiting in line for food. Fighting between different nationalities breaks out. The police are small in number. They can’t do anything. There are 40 or 50 people fighting and only four or five guards.”
A 27-year-old Palestinian Syrian man said, “Here the police don’t protect us, even when people throw rocks at us. We line up a very long time for food. There is no safety at all. In a prison it would be better organized than here.” A 26-year-old Afghan man at Moria said, “People are fighting and the police just watch like it is a dog fight. They even clap their hands like it is a show for them.” His wife said: “There is no security in the camp. We do not feel safe here. I cannot leave my documents in the tent, I always carry them with me. At night, men get drunk and abuse people. The police are not here.”
On March 31, the headquarters of the Hellenic Police issued an order to all police agencies engaged with refugees and migrants that requires separating women and children from men in closed facilities. The directive orders police operating in refugee and migrant centers “to prevent incidents of violence and abuse” against women and children… Full report here.