Given the persistent and established practice of pushbacks carried out by the Greek authorities in the Aegean Sea for nearly two years now, only a limited number of migrants have successfully managed to effectively exercise their right to seek asylum after arriving in Greece by sea.
In Lesvos, the “lucky ones” – that is the few asylum seekers who are not illegally pushed back to Turkey – are brought to the Lesvos Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) by the authorities, where they are first detained in a so-called “health quarantine area” of the camp.
I. The “COVID-19 quarantine” area or the shameful jail of the Lesvos RIC
This zone of the camp which is meant to be the medical quarantine for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19, is casually called by other residents of the RIC “zendan”, Farsi for jail, describing best the actual conditions imposed on people in this prison quarantine.
Until today, the quarantine area of the camp remains under police and camera surveillance, surrounded by double fences with barbed wire. New arrivals on the island are normally held in this closed area for at least 10 days, in deplorable conditions, sharing prefabricated units together with unrelated individuals, who are living in the Lesvos RIC and are suspected to be infected with COVID-19.
This month, at least 19 unaccompanied minor children also remained detained in the quarantine area for around 20 days – together with unrelated adults – despite the fact that they had completed their quarantine period and did not have COVID-19 – with the excuse that there is no space for them in either the “Safe Area” of the RIC or housing for unaccompanied minors provided by the NGO Iliaktida.
The prison quarantine of the Lesvos RIC is exposing people forced to stay there to deplorable living conditions which are in no way compliant with COVID-19 preventive measures and unfit for medical isolation.
The fenced quarantine area counts around 15 prefabricated shelters which are usually shared between 5 to 8 persons, sometimes even unrelated individuals (see picture on the right).
Various clients of the LCL who were themselves detained in this quarantine area explained that they were forced to sleep on the floor with their children, without a mattress or bed, and that they suffered from the cold, especially at night (see picture above). In fact, at the start of the winter of 2021-2022, no heating system was installed in those units, leaving their residents only the option to use individual heating systems. Many of LCL clients explained that there were no individual heaters available for them while they were detained there in December 2021.
Moreover, whereas the winter temperatures have reached as low as 0 degrees celsius the last months in Lesvos, the prefabricated units hosting people in quarantine are not adequately winterised and unsuitable to protect people from the cold temperatures and the harsh weather conditions. People detained there have been forced to use blankets to hang around the walls in an effort to insulate as much as possible their otherwise non-winterised shelter (see picture above).
Similarly, apart from one week during the month of January, no hot water was available during the whole winter for people to shower in the shower cabins – which are outside – despite the near-freezing temperatures. Recent quarantine detainees explained to the LCL that those shower cabins were even removed (and not replaced) since the start of February leaving them with the only option to wash themselves, their hands or their clothes, either inside the toilets cabins (see picture) or in front of everyone with the one and only outdoor water tap available in the whole area (see picture).
People detained in this area also explained that no hygiene packs, no soap, shampoo or protective masks were distributed to them during their time in quarantine. As a result, while in the COVID-19 quarantine area, people have no possibility to access adequate hygiene and sanitation nor to effectively protect themselves and others from the virus while being detained there.
Given the awful conditions of the quarantine area, clients of the LCL revealed that many residents of the camp were deterred from mentioning that they are sick or present symptoms of the COVID-19 to the health services available in the camp, out of fear of being detained again in such conditions. In the past, police officers operating in the camp have been escorting families by force from their containers to the quarantine area, where they are held in the circumstances described above.
During their time in quarantine, new arrivals have officially no legal status in Greece and are not in a position to access support from the outside.
Even before their registration as asylum seekers by the Regional Asylum Service, new arrivals to the island are locked up in the quarantine area, without being able to leave, and without access to any information, to the exterior, nor to adequate basic services, including for hygiene or health services. Apart from the one employee of the RIC and public health agency EODY, no one is allowed access to this zone, not even the UNHCR protection and detention officers, NGOs medical staff, or authorised lawyers wishing to visit their clients.
Until recently, the authorities were also refusing to provide people detained there with the list of lawyers and legal organisations available in Lesvos to support them in the asylum procedure. At the same time, people released from quarantine are commonly rushed within a few days through a registration and asylum interviews, impeding them de facto to access legal support or information about their basic rights. Even now that quarantined people have access to the list of lawyers and legal NGOs to contact on the island, the access to legal support remains in practice extremely limited or nearly impossible, as people have only a few days to arrange an appointment, for many leaving time only for a group session about basic information instead of the option of an individual consultation with a lawyer about their specific case, and representation in the interview.
The detention of asylum seekers in quarantine added to the over-acceleration of the asylum procedure just after their release, is highly problematic and unfair because it de facto denies asylum seekers a real option to access individual information or advice before a final decision is taken in their case by the Regional Asylum Service.
Such measures have been implemented in Lesvos since the creation of the Lesvos Temporary Reception and Identification Centers and have already violated the rights of thousands of asylum seekers unable to access legal aid and exercise their right to consult a lawyer, let alone the time needed to gather the necessary documentation, and physical and mental health assessments (including certifications that they are victims of torture), which could be determinative when assessing their asylum claims. It is unfortunately part of a broader tactic by the Greek authorities to reject as fast as possible a maximum number of asylum applications, over unfair procedures, without any procedural safeguards available.
II. In other parts of the Lesvos RIC: dangerous fires are destroying one rubhall after the other
On 14 and 28 January 2022, important fires broke out, once again, destroying entirely and in a matter of minutes, several of the rubhall shelters accommodating hundreds of asylum seekers in the “yellow zone”of the Lesvos RIC. Just like in the former camp of Moria, which was ultimately destroyed by fires, such incidents have become routine in the unsafe Lesvos RIC since its construction in October 2020.
Despite the repetition of those dangerous fires, neither the Greek nor the European Union authorities have taken any measures to host people in safe and dignified places, continuing to tolerate the fatal risk that camps like the Lesvos RIC represent for migrants.
The fires which took place in January 2022, just like the November 2021 fires happened in the yellow zone of the camp, where single men who (for most of them) have had their asylum claim rejected, are forced to live. As of today, it also is the zone of the Lesvos RIC where living conditions remain most miserable and precarious, given that most of the shelters there are rubhalls – metallic structures covered by a polyester skin – which only offer a very rudimentary living conditions, without isolation from the winter’s near-freezing cold temperatures or heavy rains.
As the last series of fires have shown, rubhalls also constitutes an unsafe and hazardous shelter, in particular given that electricity is provided through cables passing along the metallic structure, hanging from the roof, and that the lack of centralised heating system is forcing people living under such structures to use individual heaters under an highly inflammable polyester roof.
In case of fire, the material covering those rubhalls is capable of melting very rapidly, leaving only a very short amount of time for the 50 to 100 people living there to exit through one of the two openings at each end of the rubhall central corridor. In all cases, the causes of the fires seemed to be linked to the use of individual heaters as well as repeated and unprompted cuts of electricity due to the insufficient electricity generators of the camp.
Luckily, in those recent fires, no one was reported to have been hurt or harmed, except in the incident of 14 January where at least one resident was brought to the hospital due to the inhalation of toxic smoke during the fire. Until now, the men living in those rubhalls have managed to escape in extremis, leaving however most of their belongings behind them, including some of their personal documents which are crucial for their asylum claims. In most instances, people who were hosted in the destroyed rubhalls were not immediately offered alternative housing by the camp authorities but were told to find a place in someone else’s container.
As for the fires of 15 and 18 of November which destroyed two rubhalls of the yellow zone in a matter of minutes, the rapidity of the January fires forced its residents and the residents of the neighbouring rubhalls to intervene with water buckets and fire extinguishers to control the flames, as well as with the duty to save and evacuate others. The pictures and videos of the fires also appear to show how police push people away who are trying to extinguish the fire, and shout and kick buckets over to impede people from coming nearer.
Those fires are not new phenomena and have already in the past threatened or cost the lives of migrants forced to live in the Greek “hotspots” camps, be it in the present camp, or in the former Moria where since March 2016 at least 6 persons had died in container or tents fires or from carbon monoxide poisoning. Those incidents are a reminder that migrants arriving to Greece to seek asylum continue to be forced to live in miserable conditions and kept in unadapted and dangerous RIC structures which put their lives at risk and expose them to repeated and indelible traumas, including to the many children forced to live there. As per UNHCR data, children currently constitute a fourth of the population in the Lesvos RIC, out of whom nearly 4 out of 5 are younger than 12 years old. Many of the residents of Lesvos RIC previously resided in Moria camp and were displaced by the massive fires that destroyed the site in September 2020. These people have already experienced the fear and psychological trauma arising from the blaze and its aftermath, and families have reported how their children’s repeated exposure to such dangers has had a deleterious effect on their mental health.
Instead of taking into account this reality, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum has continued to concentrate its efforts on the closure of all existing alternative and safe accommodations available in Lesvos, including for minors, families and people with vulnerabilities or medical conditions. As a result, people seeking asylum are concentrated in undignified and dangerous camps, under a cruel policy of geographic restriction impeding them from leaving the island irrespective of their situation or potential vulnerabilities.
The Greek authorities have been using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to expland detention-like conditions in refugee camps throughout Greece, including discriminatory restrictions of movement and unjustified curfews, be it in the quarantine area or for the wider camp population impeding its residents to enter and leave when they want. The opening and management of the Lesvos RIC have so far been sponsored and praised by the European Commission, which sees the camp as a positive alternative to Moria’s notorious camp, disregarding the reality of the living conditions for the people forced to stay in there, and the danger that this entails for them, which remained vastly unreported.
It should be recalled that the Ministry of Migration and Asylum has received at the end of 2020 an additional 5.36 million euros in emergency funding from the EU to upgrade the “Installations and infrastructures of temporary reception facility in the region of Kara Tepe – Mavrovouni, Municipality of Mytilene” in 2021. Yet, at the same time, the European Court of Human Rights has in 2021 repeatedly found that the living conditions in the Lesvos TRIC were “not compatible with article 3 of the Convention”, that is to say not guaranteeing the European standards on the prohibition on torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, for over 25 clients of the LCL with health conditions or in need of specific healthcare.
The lack of political reactions in Greece and in the European Union to change the realities described above shows, once more, the complicit and silent tolerance for the fatal risk to which migrants are deliberately exposed to serve the sole purpose of upholding Europe’s violent borders.