Greece: Migrants? Living Conditions in Lesbos Detention Center Spark Discontent

Greece 2009 © MSF

Migrants and undocumented workers live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at Pagani detention center in Lesbos.

It has been more than two months since Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) resumed providing psychosocial support to undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in the Pagani detention center on the island of Lesbos, and the situation continues to be extremely worrying.

Poor living conditions, constant distress, and uncertainty for the future are a living reality for the people detained in the center. As a result, more and more often during the last weeks, the detained population has been openly protesting the living and sanitary conditions. Unfortunately, the more vulnerable groups detained, such as women, children, adolescents and people with special medical needs bear the consequences of these tensions and are suffering from the inhumane living conditions. Moreover, due to the unrest, the provision of psychosocial support to these vulnerable groups of migrants by the MSF team becomes extremely difficult.

“Tensions inside the detention center are seriously hampering our efforts to help the people who need our support,” says Martha Falk, the MSF psychologist working inside Pagani. “Every day I am faced with a worrying situation as people detained in the center are reaching their limits.” Every day, Martha, with the help of two interpreters, is trying to provide mental health support to those in need through individual and group sessions. However, the needs for psychosocial support are much greater and day by day the MSF team realizes that they could have provided much more help if at least the basic humanitarian needs of the migrants were met.

Greece 2009 © MSF

Children and women are crammed together into cells at the detention center.

The MSF team talks to people who come from war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, and lived through traumatic experiences in their homeland and often during their journey to reach Europe. Some people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms of anxiety and agony. Undoubtedly, the condition of their mental health is greatly aggravated by the fact that they are detained in a place where sanitation is poor and cells overcrowded.

The facility is not suited to accommodate people at all, and according to local authorities, it has a maximum capacity of 300. However, the number of detainees is often more than 800 people; a few weeks ago it reached 1,200. Many of the detainees are unaccompanied minors, women with children under the age of five, pregnant women, and people with special medical needs.

“When I visited yesterday, October 21, the detention center of Pagani, I saw that in the women’s cell which is approximately 200 square meters, there were 211 people, approximately 140 women and 70 children,” said Micky van Gerven, head of mission for MSF in Greece. “ Many of the children were under the age of five or even younger, less than one year old. The conditions in the cell were awful, as the two toilets and the two showers are out of order and a considerable part of the floor is flooded with water. Most of the women and children are sleeping on dirty mattresses on the floor.”

As conditions inside the Pagani detention center continue to be extremely difficult, immediate actions should be taken by local and national authorities to address the humanitarian needs of this population, taking especially into account the needs of the most vulnerable.

Since the beginning of September 2009, MSF has also been providing psychosocial support to undocumented migrants in two other detention centers in northern Greece, in Fylakio (Evros) and in Venna (Rodopi), with the help of two psychologists and three translators. MSF also tries to assess the situation inside these detention centers in order to see if needs are adequately covered.