As heat wave hits Greece, Lesvos CCAC residents continue to be denied access to clean water and food

Picture: Outdoor water distribution points in the Lesvos CCAC. Picture taken by a camp resident.

In Greece, one month after receiving asylum, people are cut off from all government assistance, including food and water distributions. This rule also applies to people whose asylum claims are rejected with a final decision. On Lesvos, 77 percent of the approximately 1,300 residents of Lesvos’ Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) are either recognised refugees or have had their asylum claim rejected. While exact figures of how many of these roughly 1,000 people have already been cut off from food and water distribution are unknown, protection actors estimate that this policy currently affects at least 500 residents of the camp.

The cutoff from government assistance often happens before people receive their refugee IDs and travel documents, or proper documentation that would allow them to work and support themselves. For single parents, the process to obtain documents is delayed even further, as they must go through lengthy and expensive court procedures before getting travel documents and the right to travel with their children. It should be noted that people who have had their asylum cases rejected are also trapped on the island – as they do not have permission to leave the island. They not only are being denied food and water distribution, but also do not have the right to work to support themselves.

This policy of denying food and water to people practically stuck in camps, based on their legal status, has been ongoing for over a year in Lesvos. This is despite repeated advocacy efforts from human rights and humanitarian organizations, and despite the clear indication from a coalition of UN Special Rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, who on 3 July 2023 (that is a years ago) stated that the “deliberate food insecurity imposed upon individuals who are not part of the formal asylum process (including recognised refugees and individuals whose protection claims have been rejected) in Lesvos, constitute clear violations of their human rights to sufficient access to food, healthcare, and clean water.” The targeted and discriminatory deprivation of food and clean water may even amount to inhuman and degrading treatment. Under international law, as confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights, a state has an obligation to protect people who are under their control, e.g. by being subjected to detention-like conditions and by being fully dependent on the authorities for their most basic human needs, from harm.

In recent weeks, Greece has been hit by a heat wave, with temperatures in Lesvos consistently above or close to 40 degrees Celsius. Lesvos CCAC, since its construction, is known to be exposed to the elements, by the sea, without any shade or shelters allowing adequate insulation from extreme temperatures. Throughout June, many residents were housed in IKEA-produced Relief Housing Units (RHUs), which are designed for short-term accommodation of a maximum of a couple of days but have been used to house people in Lesvos CCAC for lengthy periods, now for over four years. These RHUs are made of plastic, without any air conditioning, creating an “oven effect” for those forced to live there.

The camp authorities’ justification of this policy has been to state that according to the law, recognised refugees and rejected refugees are not eligible for food and water distribution, disregarding the universally recognised right to health and the right to food and water (also recognised in the Greek constitution). Camp management claims that the running water available in the camp is potable. However, this water is only available from non-hygienic distribution points inside bathrooms or from exposed outdoor pipes that are consistently dirty and overheated (see picture). Moreover, there is no distribution of containers to gather this water or appropriate storage facilities, nor adequate equipment for people to wash bottles and containers they might find on their own. In the last months, health actors in the camp have already noticed an increase in waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, despite a decrease in the camp population.

While people living in Lesvos CCAC were refused water based solely on their legal status, this contrasted sharply with the scene on Lesvos’ main market street in Mytilene. At the height of the heat wave, on 12 and 13 June, the Greek Red Cross distributed chilled water to market-goers. NGOs working inside the camp also adjusted their schedules to avoid the hottest hours of the day, starting their shifts at 7 pm instead of 5 pm due to the high temperatures. The Greek public health authority (EODY) recommended that people stay hydrated to protect their health, and an urgent warning was issued to tourists visiting Greece.

These continuous and unjustified differences in treatment in accessing vital services between the local population and the seemingly ‘less-deserving’ camp residents are not only unlawful and shameful but also put people’s lives and health at risk. This must immediately stop.

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