MSF, Oxfam pull out of Lesbos hotspot in yet another blow to EU

A Portuguese police officer, part of the Frontex border agency, during a patrol on the Greek island of Lesbos. [Frontex]

International aid organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said yesterday (23 March) it had suspended activities at a refugee centre on the Greek island of Lesbos to avoid being complicit in an “unfair and inhumane” EU deal to send newcomers back to Turkey. Oxfam did the same hours later.

The move came a day after the UN refugee agency UNHCR said it had suspended some activities in Greece, saying reception centres had become “detention facilities”.

UNHCR refuses to play ball with EU, as 'hotspots' become prisons

The United Nations refugee agency has refused to be involved in the refugee returns organised by the EU under its recent deal with Turkey, claiming that the so-called “hotspots” on the Greek islands, where refugees and migrants were received, assisted, and registered, have become prisons.

This comes as another blow to the EU. NGOs helping the Greek government cope with the refugee crisis  have decided to cease operations for practical reasons, as well as in opposition to the “inhumane” EU-Turkey deal.

NGOs abandon Greece, oppose EU-Turkey refugee plan

NGOs helping the Greek government cope with the refugee crisis have decided to cease operations for practical reasons, as well as in opposition to the “inhumane” EU-Turkey deal. EURACTIV Greece reports.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), operating in Lesbos, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) swiftly joined MSF and the UNHCR in voicing concerns and scaling back activities.

‘Unfair, inhumane’

“We took the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria (on Lesbos) because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane,” said Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF’s head of mission in Greece.

The NGOs spoke out after a deal struck last week between EU states and Turkey to force migrants and asylum seekers to return from Greek islands to Turkey.

“We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalised for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants,” said Ingres.

She said MSF had closed “all activities” linked to its operation at the Moria camp on Lesbos, including transportation of refugees to sanitation and medical facilities.

MSF said it would continue to run its transit centre in Mantamados some 30 kilometres further north, where new arrivals receive first assistance, as well as sea rescue activities.

“MSF will also continue to run mobile clinics on the island of Lesbos for those outside of the hotspot location,” the group said.

The EU and Ankara struck a deal last Friday (18 March) aiming to cut off the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands which some 850,000 people used last year as a route to flee the war in Syria.

The agreement went into effect Sunday (20 March).

‘We cannot work safely’

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said Tuesday it would not be party to the deal nor be involved in returns or detention, noting Greece “does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases.”

Separately, the Norwegian Refugee Council said it was suspending “a number of activities” at the Vial centre on the island of Chios.

“We cannot work independently and safely in a police-run detention facility. Now that it is a detention centre we no longer have adequate access to provide assistance to vulnerable refugees,” said NRC head of operations in Greece, Alain Homsy.

Greek authorities last Saturday began accelerating the transfer to the mainland of some 8,000 refugees and migrants who had arrived on the islands before the March 20 cut-off and who now can hope to be resettled across Europe. Newcomers arriving since Sunday are instead now subject to repatriation to Turkey.

Despite the NGOs’ concerns, Greek deputy interior minister Nikos Toskas insisted Wednesday that “we think we can control the situation” as the European Commission and Greece look to mobilise some 4,000 security personnel.

Meanwhile, hundreds of protesting migrants blocked a road in northern Greece which leads to the Macedonia border for several hours on Wednesday.

The protesters, who were met by anti-riot officers, were calling for the reopening of the Balkans route through to northern Europe, a police source said.

Oxfam has today (24 March) suspended all of its operations in the Moria camp, on the Greek island of Lesvos, in response to the deteriorating treatment of migrants due to the recent deal struck between the EU and Turkey.

Giovanni Riccardi Candiani, Country Representative for Oxfam in Greece said: “It is incomprehensible how Europe has basically suspended the rights of these people who are looking for protection in Greece. The detention of people, who committed no crime and who have risked their lives in search of security and a better future, is an offense to the same values that Europe has so passionately defended in the past.”

Oxfam started its operations in Greece in September 2015, as the humanitarian situation of people on the move arriving from Turkey quickly worsened. Oxfam has been providing food and water, plus daily essentials to refugees and migrants in its programs. In Moria camp in particular the hygiene and sanitary conditions are very poor, and Oxfam commissioned the construction of a block of toilets. Despite the general suspension of Oxfam operations in the camp, this urgent work will be completed.

“Our withdrawal from Moria is a tragic testament of how the migration crisis is gradually developing into a moral crisis in Europe. If European leaders are no longer able or willing to uphold the fundamental rights of people, and moral human values, who will?” added Riccardi Candiani.

Oxfam will continue to monitor developments and will remain in active dialogue with the authorities in Greece, and in the EU, raising our concerns on behalf of migrants and refugees who are seeking sanctuary and dignity. Oxfam will continue its humanitarian assistance to those in Kara Tepe camp, which is managed by the municipality of Lesvos, where refugees and migrants do have freedom of movement.


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