Greece: Inhumane policies keep children and other vulnerable people trapped in overcrowded camps

Moria Camp

Greece 2019 © Anna Pantelia/MSF

ATHENS/NEW YORK—After thousands of new arrivals in recent weeks, approximately 24,000 people seeking asylum in Europe are now trapped in dangerously overcrowded reception centers on Greece's islands in the Aegean sea, including children and other vulnerable people whose needs are deliberately neglected by Greek and European Union authorities, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

Despite many more new arrivals, the Greek government has transferred fewer people to the Greek mainland since May. On August 31, the government finally transferred about 1,500 people to the Nea Kavala camp in northern Greece, where they are still lodged in tents with limited services—an inadequate response at best. Thousands more who have been officially recognized as vulnerable remain in hazardous conditions, despite being entitled to be moved elsewhere for specialized care.

"This is not a new emergency: the severe overcrowding has been harming thousands of men, women, and children every day for years," said Tommaso Santo, MSF head of mission in Greece. "We have seen it in the past and we continue to see it today. Should we conclude that the Greek and European Union authorities are hoping that these shameful conditions will deter new migrants from arriving?"

On the island of Lesbos, about 10,000 people currently stay in the Moria reception center, which has an official capacity of only 3,100 people. Almost half are children, including 747 unaccompanied minors. Five to seven unrelated people are often forced to share a tent or a container to sleep in, with only blankets to divide the space. Many children sleep on pieces of cardboard on the ground.

Moria Camp
Anna Pantelia/MSF

This summer, as sea arrivals reached numbers not seen since 2016, MSF's pediatric mental health teams on Lesbos saw about twice as many new patients. In July and August, 73 children were referred to MSF teams: three had attempted to kill themselves and 17 were harming themselves.

"More and more of these children stop playing, have nightmares, are afraid to go out of their tents and start to withdraw from life," said Katrin Brubakk, MSF mental health activity manager on Lesbos. "Some of them completely stop talking. With the increasing overcrowding, violence, and lack of safety in the camp, the situation for children is deteriorating day by day. To prevent permanent damage, these children need to be removed from Moria camp immediately."

MSF's pediatric clinic on Lesbos currently treats nearly 100 children with complex or chronic medical conditions, including young children with serious heart conditions, diabetes, and epilepsy, as well as injuries from war. All are waiting to be moved to the mainland to access the specialized treatment they need. 

On the island of Samos, almost 5,000 people live in and around Vathy camp, which was designed for 650 people. Many are outside the official camp with almost no access to toilets, showers, or water. Rats are increasingly common, and even the water available in the camp is contaminated with bacteria.

For the last two months, 36 percent of people requesting mental health support from MSF in Samos presented with severe symptoms such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, drug abuse, or self-harm. Many continue to be traumatized in an environment where they report more frequent harassment, sexual assault, and other violence.

The already inadequate medical services on the islands have been further reduced in recent days as the contracts of the Greek Ministry of Health staff have not been renewed. On Lesbos there are currently two medical doctors providing primary health care to almost 10,000 people, and only one full-time medical doctor each on Samos and Chios for thousands of people.

The humanitarian and medical needs of asylum seekers are mostly left to aid organizations and volunteers, even though these services are the responsibility of the government. MSF has been working on the Greek islands for the past four years and continues to provide hundreds of medical consultations each day on Lesbos, Samos and Chios, in coordination with other nongovernmental organizations. We also provide sanitation facilities and distribute basic relief items on a regular basis. 

MSF calls on the Greek government, the European Union and its member states to act according to their responsibilities and put an end to this unacceptable and harmful crisis by:

  • Urgently evacuating children and the most vulnerable people on the islands to safe and appropriate accommodation on the Greek mainland and/or in other European states;
  • Urgently increasing the number of medical staff in Greek reception centers so that people can receive the medical and mental health care they require as soon as possible;
  • Immediately identifying and implementing rapid and sustainable mechanisms to avoid the recurrent overcrowding on the islands, which continues to cause suffering and harm to thousands of people; and
  • Urgently terminating the current containment policy in order to protect people's dignity, prevent unnecessary suffering, and respect their fundamental rights.