The refugee crisis: Desperation on the Greek islands – ‘There are children everywhere’

Yola Verbruggen, IBA Multimedia Journalist

When temperatures dropped and snow covered the small tents housing refugees on Lesvos in January, some placed makeshift heaters inside their polyester homes to fight off the cold. Over the course of just one week, three men died, most likely from carbon monoxide poisoning.

That was last winter, when the majority of refugees on the Greek islands were young men.

Today, with winter setting in, a large number of families with young children live in the camps and aid workers fear that an even greater tragedy is about to unfold.


IBA film: Lawyers on the front line - the refugee crisis in Greece (August 2017)

The EU-Turkey deal has confined people to the Greek islands since March 2016. The consequences are apparent. Around 13,000 people are stranded in overcrowded camps, including children, pregnant women and disabled refugees. Since July, arrivals on the Greek islands have increased, aid workers say, with families fleeing war in Syria and Iraq once again arriving by boat. As of 30 November, the capacity of ‘hotspots’ on Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos has been exceeded by 7,200, according to Human Rights Watch.

Sidika Baysal is Senior Vice-Chair of the IBA’s European Regional Forum and Managing Partner at B+B Law Firm in Istanbul, Turkey. She has strong views on the EU-Turkey deal.

‘The reality on the ground is that the Statement, with its stated intention of “ending human suffering”, is actually prolonging and exacerbating suffering,’ she says. ‘Asylum seekers live in substandard and overcrowded conditions for months on end, some since March 2016. Over the course of the year, there have been deaths, suicide attempts, people engaging in self harm, and children, women, and men exposed to sexual violence.’ 

‘‘With the number of applicants for international protection on Lesvos at its highest since the EU-Turkey statement of March 2016, the number of lawyers is amongst the lowest it has been’

Cord Brugmann
Director, German Bar Association, founder of European Lawyers in Lesvos

To the frustration of NGOs working on the island, the government’s plans for winter are unclear. Refugees are living under increasingly desperate conditions on the islands, while they face uncertainty about the process and the outcome of their interviews to claim asylum, worry about deportation and struggle to deal with their traumas of war and violence.

‘There is not much more capacity for placing people in hotels and the government has not communicated a plan for winter. Last year, there were a lot of single men and people died because of the winter circumstances. Today, there are children everywhere,’ says Emilie Rouvroy, head of mission for MSF Greece. ‘The human suffering that those policies are generating is huge. It’s not acceptable, it’s inhumane.’

To alleviate suffering, there is a desperate need for clarity about the asylum procedures and help to navigate those. Legal aid is scarce on the islands, however.

‘At the moment, with the number of applicants for international protection on Lesvos at its highest since the EU-Turkey statement of March 2016,  the number of lawyers is amongst the lowest it has been during this period,’ says Cord Brugmann. He is the Executive Director of the German Bar Association, which founded European Lawyers in Lesvos together with the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe.

The organisation operates from within Moria camp on Lesvos and, though initially funded by donations from European bar associations, now receives Oxfam funding that it says is ‘vital’ in keeping operations running until the end of 2018. Though not historically part of its mandate, Oxfam increasingly funds legal aid. On Lesvos, it also funds the Greek Council for Refugees.

‘There is a protection and human rights crisis driven by EU policy on asylum. People are stranded because of the EU-Turkey deal,’ says Nicola Bay, Head of Mission for Oxfam Greece. ‘Now it’s about protecting people, which includes providing legal support.’

According to MSF, the scale of people’s mental health needs on the islands is ‘overwhelming’. The organisation says that while most refugees have experienced extreme violence and trauma, ‘it is the conditions they face in Greece, including the continued violence and the lack of appropriate services, which are pushing them into hopelessness and are greatly compounding their mental health suffering’. Moving people to the mainland, the report recommends, ‘is a humanitarian imperative’. Their call is supported by many other NGOs who, in a joint letter to Prime Minister Tsipras, said that ‘only lifting the geographical limitation…can provide a sustainable solution’.

The Greek Council for Refugees has challenged the EU-Turkey deal in court, claiming it is contrary to the country’s constitution, as well as European Union and international law. ‘The Greek Council for Refugees has, correctly in our view, filed an action against the Greek State...The hearing was postponed until February 2018 and this means that refugees will need to survive under the same hard conditions for the whole winter,’ says Panagiotis Drakopoulos, a senior partner with Drakopoulos Law Firm in Athens, Greece.

Despite the widespread criticism and despite the frequent reports about refugees falling victim to violence and slavery there, EU leaders are now proposing a similar deal based on deterring refugees from coming to Europe as a blue print for a migration deal with Libya.

For Ariel Ricker, Executive Director of Advocates Abroad, a legal NGO working in Greece and Turkey, the consequences of the lack of access to legal aid for refugees are clear: '"The lawyer is the little piece of hope that people here have. They make justice, to defend both the refugees and the system of human rights itself.” This is what my client told me when I asked why lawyers are necessary here, and he is right. Without the consistency and strength of a committed and qualified lawyer, there can be no real hope for a fair review of an asylum application,’ she says.