Thousands of protestors took to the streets on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos in response to the country’s ongoing refugee situation. The protests come as migrant numbers on the islands continue to rise.
At Moria, the largest migrant center on Lesbos, some 19,000 asylum seekers are being housed. Its official capacity is only 3,000 people. Some of the refugee camps on these islands suffer extreme overcrowding, several holding approximately ten times the recommended number.
International human rights organizations are criticizing the overcrowded camps for lack of access to adequate food, water and healthcare, including poor safety standards for women and girls.
Migrant crisis in numbers
As war in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries have continued over the past years, Europe has seen a large increase in the number of migrants coming to its shores. Many flee to Europe seeking a better life.
Greece – with its geographical position in the Mediterranean Sea near the Middle East and North Africa – is a natural gateway to the rest of Europe. This has made the islands on its southern fringes especially attractive to migrant boats seeking refuge. In 2016, Greece saw a massive influx of migrants. It had over 26,000 asylum claims that year, compared to just 3,300 in 2015.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that some 60,000 migrants arrived in Greece by boat in 2019. The journey is often dangerous, especially by sea. Earlier this month, 12 migrants drowned and 21 others were rescued when their boat sank off the country’s western shores.
Public sentiment at the protests seemed mixed. Some of the banners suggested Greeks “wanted their islands back,” while others lamented that their home was turned into a “prison for human souls.” On January 22, 2019, Kostas Moutzouris, the North Aegean Regional Governor said he was “annoyed” that Greek islands had been “turned into places of concentration and detention” for thousands of people around the world.
Human rights groups agree that there is a problem. According to Sophie McCann, an advocacy manager with humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), conditions at the camp are out of control.
“The level of human suffering is just indescribable. I struggle to find the right words because none can convey the sheer misery and inhumanity of a situation that in Europe is frankly unbelievable,” she said in September 2019.