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Reportage. Tens of thousands of traumatized refugees, including unaccompanied minors, lack heat, shelter and health care. Suicide attempts are increasing. Greece’s ‘island prison’ policy is still in place, and governments are refusing to act.

Greece’s ‘refugee prisons’ are at the brink of humanitarian catastrophe

Refugee camps are bursting at the seams. Tents lack floors or heating. Women and children are camped along the streets or in the woods. And hundreds of children, often without an adult to take care of them, don’t have the attention and health care they need.

For Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees, the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea are now an outdoor jail. Humanitarian organizations say living conditions in the camps of Chios, Samos, Kos, Lesbos and Leros are no longer tolerable. Often entire families are forced to find makeshift shelter themselves. Europe has watched the situation without intervening, even as the Greek government seems unable to cope. It is expected to worsen with the coming of winter.

“People are now sleeping in the streets or at Sappho Square, in the center of the town,” Lesbos Mayor Spyridon Galinos told the Kathimerini newspaper recently. “With the first rainfall, we will suffer flooding and we will have trouble managing this situation.” He also highlighted that among the desperate abandoned refugees, there are pregnant women, disabled people and children.

It is estimated that about one quarter of the 60,000 refugees who landed in Greece are stuck on the Aegean islands since the Balkan route was closed in March 2016. The refugees who landed after the signing of the E.U.-Turkey agreement are forbidden to move to the mainland. Meanwhile, arrivals on the islands have not stopped, and the numbers, though not comparable to those of 2015, have started to go up: more than 5,700 landings by September (compared to 3,080 last year). A quarter of the arrivals of this year, 1,394, came in the first three weeks of October alone.

These last refugees are mostly Iraqi and Syrian families. These new arrivals have further exacerbated the already critical living conditions inside the camps. At the Moria camp, in Lesbos, and on the island of Samos, designed to accommodate a total of 3,000 migrants, today there are more than 8,300. In Chios, there are 1,964 people, though the camp has a capacity of 800 beds.

“Moria, as well as the other hotspots, are now machines that create suffering,” says Stefano Argenziano, head of migration for Doctors Without Borders (MSF). “Moria is a kind of jungle, and most of all, there has been a bureaucratic gridlock so even those who are entitled to be transferred to the mainland, remain imprisoned on the islands.”

Women and children are particularly at risk, representing respectively 20 and 40 percent of arrivals. Laurent Chapuis, UNICEF coordinator in Greece, said that of the nearly 3,000 unaccompanied minors who are in Greece, “currently about 1,800 are waiting for a place in a refugee camp and live on the streets, in reception centers or are blocked in islands in distressful conditions.” Again, according to the UNICEF, only one-third of the children “get shelter and adequate care.”

These terrible conditions inevitably have repercussions on the physical and mental state of the refugees kept on the islands. MSF said the mental and psychological condition of the asylum seekers had become an emergency “created by poor living conditions, negligence and violence.”

“During the summer, on average, six to seven patients a week reached our clinics after suicide attempts, self-harm or psychotic episodes — 50 percent more than in the previous quarter,” Argenziano said. “People telling us they’d rather be dead than be here. Let’s not forget that we’re dealing with people who have survived extreme violence, torture and bombardments. And then here in Greece they have suffered so many indignities.”

UNHCR has asked the government of Alexis Tsipras to quickly adapt refugee camps for winter, while Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, Action Aid, Amnesty International and 15 other NGOs appealed to the premier asking him to put an end to the “containment policy” of migrants on the islands and allow them to move to the mainland.

The fact is, as the Greek media have pointed out, the government seems to have no plan to handle the new emergency — as the mayor of Lesbos, Galinos, knows well. In recent days, he also wrote to Tsipras denouncing how the structures have now exceeded their capacity. “We are just waiting for the bomb to explode,” Galinos said.

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