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'We don't see human rights here': Families flee brutal wars for prison on Greek islands

With thousands arriving from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, rising numbers of refugees trapped in appalling conditions feed humanitarian crisis
Refugees protest at the Moria detention centre in Mytilene last April ahead of a visit from Pope Francis (AFP)

LESVOS, Greece - Dire conditions for refugees trapped on Greek islands this winter, including overcrowded and unsafe camps, scant services and a complex and arduous legal process, have spiralled into a humanitarian crisis.

On the islands, UNHCR says that 80 percent of the nearly 5,000 arrivals in September had fled war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, with two-thirds of them women and children.

We can’t go back to Moria. The camp is very unsafe. We don’t see human rights here

- Afghan teenager and hunger striker 

Even as the Raqqa and Mosul have been seized from control by the Islamic State (IS) group, many refugees in this latest wave have fled these and other IS-besieged areas and entered the chaos on islands like Lesvos, Samos and Chios already traumatised or physically wounded.

In Lesvos this week, tensions boiled over as security forces quashed late-night riots by refugee youth at the island's notorious camp at Moria, days after police officers themselves protested against the facility's dangerous work environment. Moria now holds over 6,000 people, more than triple its capacity.

At the port of Mytilini, Mayor Spyros Galinos led aggravated residents protesting against the Ministry of Migration's handling of the crisis, while police evicted hunger strikers, including three teenage sisters from Afghanistan, from the town's main square.

Refugees protest outside the Moria detention center in Mytilini this month, demanding to be released from Lesbos (AFP)
"We can't go back to Moria," the oldest sibling from Helmand province said. "The camp is very unsafe. We don't see human rights here."

'Hard but neccessary'

Human rights and humanitarian aid groups have called for Greece to end its controversial containment policy under the EU-Turkey deal on 18 March 2016, by which the Greek government runs a complicated border procedure on the islands.

Lawyers from the Greek asylum service (GAS) and EU asylum support office (EASO) first evaluate whether a migrant can be ruled "inadmissible" for entry, before looking into individual protection claims.

Turkey is now considered "safe" for many nationalities to return to and file asylum from there, especially from north and west African states, as well as southeast Asia. The country's highest court, the Council of State, ruled two months ago that Syrians could be pushed back to Turkey too.

However, rights groups warn that those who are returned are often held in isolation in Turkish detention centres, with no cell phones and little understanding of the legal process. Additionally, Turkey is known to breach critical non-refoulement principles in international law, and forward asylum-seekers back to their home countries.

Admitting that conditions on the islands are "difficult," this week Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras nonetheless told French newspaper Le Figaro that the deal between the EU and Turkey "is hard but necessary. It helped put an end to the daily deaths in the Aegean." 

Blocked borders, chaotic conditions

Greece has an estimated 60,000 migrants, housed in camps and apartments across cities and countryside on the mainland, stopped from moving further into Western Europe by blocked borders.

For one pregnant mother from southern Iraq, the miserable and chaotic conditions at Moria are all too real. Her family of six are squeezed into a thimble-size tent dug into the side of a muddy olive grove outside the camp's razor-wire perimeter, surrounded by makeshift shelters for mostly single men.

We sewed our tent from canvas we found in the garbage

- Iraqi widow from Baghdad living in Moria Camp

She said her 13-year-old daughter was threatened with sexual assault by teenage boys at the public toilets during the night and now sits inside the tent during day.

A neighbour on this cold and rainy hill is a widow from Baghdad, also travelling with four children. She depends for safety on her son, a 16-year-old boy whose fingers on one hand were chopped off by IS fighters.

"We sewed our tent from canvas we found in the garbage," she said as she held official papers marking her family "vulnerable". "The situation here is terrible."

The intent of the EU-Turkey deal to keep refugees out of Europe appears to be working. UNHCR says around 26,500 asylum seekers landed in Greece this year, down sharply from last year's figures of nearly 173,500.

In 2015, more than one million people arrived on European shores, mostly in Greece. Now the numbers are drastically down across both the eastern and the central Mediterranean routes due to EU strategies of keeping boats at bay.

Refugees arrive at Lesvos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, in Mytilene last year (AFP)
In Greece this past summer, EU funding for services shifted from international charities to the national authorities, despite warnings of profound capacity gaps.

Organisations like UNHCR say the situation on the mainland is now stable. Despite lower numbers, it is the Greek islands - like Libya's detention centres and coastguard in the central Mediterranean Sea – that are again on the frontline of Europe's migration crisis.

"There is a combination of bad management, governance and complicity in making sure people don't arrive on Greek islands," said Giulia Lagana, an analyst with the Open Society European Policy Institute.

"There is a will within the EU to have a deterrent effect, and a general inability to manage funds and get a proper response from the Greek government."

'Nowhere to go'

In a dank and dirty squat outside of Mytilini that is often raided by the police, one 17-year-old boy from Pakistan attempts to clean a cooking area with a wounded hand.

Turned down for asylum status twice, he lives with a similarly vulnerable population of boys mostly from Afghanistan and is afraid to visit a clinic for treatment for fear of arrest and deportation. "I have nowhere to go – no country," he said.

Refugees living tents at the port of Mytilini in 2015 (AFP)
Local residents in Lesvos have grown weary and impatient with arriving migrants, despite the financial benefits for local businesses from humanitarian groups and bulked up EU forces such as Frontex.

Volunteers like Stratus Pothas, who has remained committed to improving conditions for refugees on the historically left-leaning island, find themselves increasingly isolated.

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They draw sympathetic parallels between the influx of nearly 3,000 refugees a day in 2015 and the mass expulsion of Greeks from Turkey almost 100 years ago.

Exacerbating tensions now on the island is the lack of communication, or "parallel worlds" of the international organisations and refugees on one side, and the island's residents on the other, Pothas said. "We have to build a movement across Lesvos – we have to unite the communities here."

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