‘A scene out of the middle ages’: Dead refugee found surrounded by rats at Greek camp | Global development | The Guardian10 Maggio 2021 0 Di Luna Rossa
Chios case highlights deplorable conditions on Greek islands despite EU allocating millions of euros to improve facilities, aid workers say
Helena Smith in Athens
At a desolate refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios earlier this week, a young man died alone in a tent. By the time the guards arrived on the scene, about 12 hours after the Somali refugee’s death, the body was surrounded by rodents.
Asylum seekers who had initially alerted staff spoke in horror at seeing rats and mice swarming about.
It was Orthodox Easter Monday, a national holiday in Greece. The 28-year-old, who has not been named by Greek authorities, is thought to have died of natural causes.
In a short statement, the Greek migration ministry ruled out foul play and said the “unfortunate man” was found by a military doctor to have bites on his ear and hand. “The precise cause of death will become known from the autopsy that is to be conducted.”
Although a registered refugee, the Somali man had been required to remain in Chios’s Vial hilltop holding centre because of Covid-19 restrictions. Island detention centres have been subjected to draconian lockdown measures since just after the start of the pandemic last year.
“We host them and feed them because they are humans, we can’t kick them out,” the camp’s governor, Panagiotis Kimourtzis, told the Guardian. “It’s only logical that rodents would appear when someone has been dead for so many hours. The camp was built very quickly in 2016. The [camp] is in nature, surrounded by fields. We do everything possible, we use pesticides, but there is only so much we can do.”
The young Somali, like the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who preceded him, left a country notorious for violence and poverty. Nearly six years after the onset of Europe’s refugee crisis, the tragic end of what would have been a long and risky journey has again highlighted the deplorable conditions of island “reception centres” in Greece.
For aid workers in Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos – the five Aegean islands on the frontline of migrant flows – the incident offers further proof of failings of the containment policies EU leaders have pursued on the borders of a continent seemingly desperate to keep asylum seekers out.
“There is only one truth and that is that Greek island camps are synonymous with overcrowding and inhuman conditions,” said Dr Apostolos Veizis, executive director in Greece of the international humanitarian organisation Intersos. “People are exposed on a daily basis to rats, rubbish and violence. In clinics across the islands children are often admitted with signs of rat bites. It’s shameful and appalling that they have to live in such disgraceful conditions when it really needn’t be the case.”
Arrivals of asylum seekers into Europe have dropped dramatically in the past year. An estimated 11,472 men, woman and children are now registered on the Aegean outposts, according to Greece’s ministry of citizen protection. Vial, which hosted 5,000 people in December 2019, now accommodates about a fifth of that number, the result of tough migration polices which include “decongesting” the islands.
“Yes, there are fewer people and camp conditions have improved but they are not good,” said Leda Lakka, who heads the UN refugee agency’s office on Chios. “There are rats, around Vial and in Vial. That’s a fact. There are also makeshift shelters. That’s a fact too.”
Athens received about €3bn (£2.6bn) in EU funds to manage the migration crisis between 2015 and 2020, but critics claim evidence of spending cannot be seen on the ground, where conditions have been deplored by one of Europe’s top human rights watchdogs.
“If it had been used properly we would not be talking so many years later about a scene out of the middle ages where a dead man is attacked by rats,” said Veizis, who has worked on the islands for more than a decade. “All the camps are horrible. Every day people fall sick, mentally and physically. You have to wonder if treating them like this, not as humans but as numbers, is a deliberate policy choice of the European Union so that more don’t come.”
With the support of the EU, Athens’ centre-right administration has pledged to replace island facilities with state-of the-art “closed” installations.
Last week the government’s “transparency portal” confirmed that close to €270m in EU funds had been allocated to complete new camps by 31 March next year. Of that amount, €155m had been earmarked for new reception centres in Lesbos and Chios.
Greece, like other EU states, stands accused of pushbacks of migrants and refugees. But in triumphant mode the country’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, recently said that with tightened border controls after Turkey’s threat to flood Europe with asylum seekers, more people had left Greece than had arrived since March last year.
The number of migrants and refugees in accommodation facilities had also dropped from 92,000 a year ago to 56,000, he said.
“In the last 12 months, more people have left the country legally, with deportations, voluntary departures, or relocations,” he was quoted as telling EU counterparts. “There are about 60,000 recognised refugees in our country, fewer than what the country believes.”
With thousands of asylum seekers in Turkey hoping to make the dangerous Aegean crossing, just as the 28-year-old Somali did, migration experts believe that could change. And while Greece’s refugee population has decreased significantly, the prospect of any return to normality for those trapped on the islands remains elusive – despite an accelerated vaccination drive and the possibility of tourism resuming in the coming weeks.
“For a long time the UNHCR has been expressing concerns about the precarious conditions in island camps,” said Stella Nanou, an agency spokesperson in Athens. “Beyond the material difficulties and challenges, there has been the uncertainty of the pandemic, which has added to the frustration of people who so often can see no light at the end of the tunnel.”
A postmortem examination was due to be carried out on the dead man in Lesbos later today.