By Dimple Vijaykumar
LONDON, 13 August 2015 (IRIN) – The refugee/migrant crisis on the Greek holiday island of Kos is reaching breaking point. Hundreds of migrants evicted from public makeshift camps have now been locked inside an open-air stadium with little access to food, water or toilets as authorities scramble to process their registration.
As they suffer in sweltering conditions, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says it is dealing with cases of malnutrition and exhaustion while officials have been accused of using “heavy-handed force” to control swelling crowds. All the while, more and more people are coming ashore each week on flimsy boats in search of a better life.
Authorities in Greece are clearly overwhelmed by this new wave of migration, especially on small islands like Kos. More than 120,000 migrants and refugees arrived in the country by sea in the first seven months of this year. Since last month, more than 7,000 people – mainly refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq – have arrived on Kos, population 30,000.
Meanwhile, boats carrying hundreds of migrants bound for Europe continue to capsize in the Mediterranean. Just last week, a boat carrying at least 600 people went down off the Libyan coast, sparking international rescue efforts and catapaulting the migration issue back into the media spotlight. More than 200 of those on board are now missing feared dead.
UNHCR’s European Director Vincent Cochetel says facilities to deal with increasing sea arrivals on the Greek islands are "totally inadequate,” despite it now being the main gateway into the European Union for those fleeing war in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Fighting in Libya and the spread of so-called Islamic State means the alternative route from North Africa to Italy has become ever more dangerous.
Kos has suddenly become the frontier of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.
How did we get here?
Greece is no stranger to influxes of migrants and asylum seekers, but the situation intensified when there was a spike in new arrivals to the Aegean Islands in 2012. Even then, unaccompanied minors, some as young as 16, were either spending months in detention centres, sleeping on the streets or faced with exploitation and abuse.
As the Greek financial crisis took hold, locals became less welcoming to migrants. Konstantina Sklavou, a consultant with local NGO Synparxi told IRIN at the time: “If the numbers keep increasing, the minority who are hostile may grow, especially if there is no proper way to receive them.”
Greece was ill-equipped to host hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants . Reform of its failing asylum system never came into effect due to the government’s austerity measures, while notoriously poor detention centre conditions meant those with genuine claims were reluctant to apply.
Have things changed since then?
Three years later, the left-wing Syriza party swept into power, its pro-immigration rhetoric galvanising much public support. IRIN looked at how they pledged to bolster support for migrants inside the country and introduce a more welcoming policy to those seeking asylum. "Syriza takes a strong stand against the demonising of immigrants and undemocratic measures like concentration camps and border walls,” Vasiliki Katrivanou, the party’s head of migration policy, said after the historic win.
But after seven months in government, their promises have yet to come to fruition. In May, our dispatch from Athens predicted that Greece would once again face a summer of migrant chaos. Stathis Kyrousis, head of mission for MSF operations in the southeastern Aegean islands, told IRIN he worried that places like Kos lacked basic facilities for migrant reception.
“The system is already pushed to the edge and given we have the summer ahead of us, we wonder what it is going to look like,” Natasa Strahini, a lawyer and activist based in the Greek island Chios told IRIN.
Our photo feature from another Greek island, Lesvos, in June graphically illustrated the scale of the unfolding crisis. More than 150 migrants were now arriving every day. Zoe Livaditou from the Hellenic Rescue Team, a search-and-rescue NGO, described the situation as “out of control”. Giorgios Kyritsis, mayor of Kos, recently said exactly the same about the situation there.
Earlier this year, Greece’s financial showdown with its EU creditors meant events in Kos and other islands were overlooked, with devastating consequences. In June, IRIN’s report found that systems to receive refugees and migrants were already collapsing, while, on the whole, the Greek government remains slow to react and set up a structure that can cope with this massive wave of migration.
The EU announced new proposals in May aimed at easing the pressure on frontline states such as Greece and Italy by relocating 40,000 asylum seekers to other European states over two years. But with its military campaign targeting the smuggling networks seemingly having little effect, the relocations represent a short-term fix that will do nothing to stop even more boats coming ashore on small islands like Kos next year.
See our full migration coverage here.