UNHCR calls for urgent action to improve conditions on Lesbos

Greek soldiers set up UNHCR tents at a shooting range to accommodate refugees following the fire at Moria camp on September 9. Credit: Keystone/AP/Petros Giannakouris

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has called for urgent action to improve conditions for asylum seekers in Greece, including in the new emergency site on the island of Lesbos built to house thousands of refugees and migrants who were left without shelter following a fire in Moria camp earlier this month.

The fire at the notoriously overcrowded camp on Lesbos earlier this month left more than 12,500 men, women, and children homeless. Despite protests against a replacement camp, some 9,400 people have now been resettled in a temporary site, Kara Tepe. More than 240 new cases of coronavirus have been detected there to date.

UNHCR has called for a more comprehensive and long-term response, both in Greece and Europe.

“The events in Moria are a wake-up call of the long-standing need to address the precarious situation for thousands of people in the islands and to accelerate their safe and orderly transfer to more appropriate accommodation on the mainland”, said UNHCR Representative in Greece, Philippe Leclerc, via a press release on Thursday.

He called for adequate reception conditions,  access to fair and fast asylum procedures, integration for those granted asylum, and swift returns for those not in need of international protection. “Unless all elements of the response are adequately and promptly addressed, we will see more Morias emerging,” he added.

UNHCR has called on European states to help relocate the most vulnerable asylum-seekers and recognised refugees from Greece, including unaccompanied minors. Since the fire, a handful of European countries have answered the call for help, with 10 countries agreeing to take in 400 unaccompanied children between them. Germany has committed to resettling more than 1,500 people on top of the 150 unaccompanied minors it has already taken in.

So far, Switzerland has taken in 20 children. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, federal councillor Karin Keller-Sutter said Switzerland was “very open” to resettling more children and young people in the coming weeks, provided “there is a long-term solution for Greece.” She also noted that Switzerland was one of the first countries on the ground following the fire, dispatching aid material and specialists from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Corps.

Since the fire, the lack of coordinated response and long-term planning for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece has drawn criticism across Europe. On Thursday, the European Union (EU) announced a new pact for migration and asylum seekers – a long anticipated series of legislative proposals that aims to reach a unanimous agreement across the bloc on how to cope with refugees and asylum seekers. Under the terms, all 27 member states would agree to either take in asylum seekers or take charge of sending back those refused asylum.

In a joint statement ahead of the release of the pact, UNHCR and the International Organisation on Migration (IOM) appealed to the EU to move from an “ad hoc crisis-driven approach to asylum and migration in Europe to a common one that is more comprehensive, well-managed and predictable, both within and beyond the EU.”

“The Pact presents the opportunity for Europe to show that it can uphold the fundamental right to asylum, while cooperating on pragmatic policies to identify those in need of international protection and share responsibility for them,” Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement.

“We will welcome genuine efforts to ensure a fast, fair and effective protection regime in Europe, and pledge our full support and expertise to the European Commission and Member States in making it a reality,” he added.

For more coverage on the pact: 'No more Morias': New EU migration policy met with scepticism