UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged Greece to implement urgent measures to address severe overcrowding on the Greek Aegean islands and stressed the need for European solidarity, after a three-day visit to the island of Lesvos and to Athens.
At a press conference on Thursday to conclude his visit, the High Commissioner outlined four priority areas he had discussed with the Greek government.
Grandi called for the urgent improvement of living conditions; the tackling of overcrowding on the islands; ensuring an efficient and fair asylum process; and ensuring the protection of 5,000 unaccompanied children now in the country, most of them living in precarious conditions.
“This country needs to turn a page on how this refugee movement is handled,” said Grandi, noting that there is an opportunity for Greece to address the serious challenges it faces.
On Lesvos, Grandi said he witnessed “extremely disturbing” conditions at the Moria reception centre which now hosts 16,100 asylum seekers — seven times over capacity.
Grandi broadly welcomed the Greek government’s intended measures to alleviate the situation on Lesvos and other affected islands, including a pledge to transfer 20,000 people to the mainland. He urged Greece to accelerate the pace as winter approaches and ensure that proper accommodation and access to services are found on the mainland.
The High Commissioner also welcomed government intentions to speed up asylum procedures. However, he cautioned that faster processes to determine people’s status should not come at the expense of safeguards and standards, highlighting that the majority of arrivals to Greece this year were refugees, mostly Syrian and Afghan.
Grandi expressed support for the Greek Prime Minister’s plans to enact a new policy to protect refugee and migrant children who are alone in Greece, and urged civil society to play an active role in its implementation.
“There is a children on-the-move emergency in this country,” Grandi said. “You need to make sure, even extra sure, because they are children, that they are properly accommodated in safe places and not exposed to risk.”
Beyond the urgent priorities, Grandi underlined the need for long-term solutions to help refugees integrate into Greek society with the active participation of municipalities and non-governmental organizations.
Through the European Commission-funded ESTIA programme, UNHCR and the Greek government are supporting some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers – many of whom go on to be recognized as refugees – with 25,500 places in apartments across Greece, in partnership with mayors and NGOs. Some 80,000 asylum seekers and refugees receive monthly cash assistance through the same programme. Grandi called on the EU to continue its support for ESTIA at adequate levels in 2020.
Grandi praised the compassion shown by Greek communities which have demonstrated exemplary solidarity and hospitality and said that solutions were also necessary to alleviate the impact on host communities.
He also expressed his worry about the growth in Europe of anti-refugee sentiments, xenophobic language, and hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers.
“When you have expressed hate, when you have shouted, what have you really achieved? You are left with the problem and you have narrowed the space for real solutions,” he said.
Grandi called on Europe to back Greece’s efforts to strengthen the country’s asylum system, continue to provide resources to Greece, and expand its solidarity measures by opening up relocation places for vulnerable asylum seekers, particularly unaccompanied children.
“I committed to the government to be a strong advocate for Greece in European and international institutions,” Grandi said.
Finally, Grandi pledged that UNHCR will continue to support Greece in its refugee response and urged the government to use UNHCR as a resource and advisor.