Humanitarian consequences of the dysfunctional Lesvos hotspot (longer version was published on 23 October 2015 by irinnews.org under the title “EU hotpost ‘solution’ deepens refugee crisis”)

This week, Greece opened its first hotspot on the island of Lesvos which has received nearly half of the 508,000 migrants and refugees who have arrived in Greece this year.

The site for the hotspot is Moria, a reception centre near Mytiline, the capital of the island, which in recent months has turned into an ad-hoc camp for the thousands of migrants and refugees arriving daily. During the summer, registration of Syrians had been moved to another site nearby called Kara Tepe, but the opening of the hotspot meant that all registrations were moved to Moria, with one area reserved for Syrians and another for non-Syrians. As the Kara Tepe site emptied on 15 October, huge queues formed outside the registration centre in Moria.

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Inaugurating the hotspot at Moria on 16 October, EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos declared it was functioning well, although there was still work to be done. But visits to the site by IRIN this week revealed a system that is not up to receiving the numbers of refugees currently arriving in Lesvos.

Registration is taking place around the clock, but there is a lack of interpreters, police officers and fingerprint scanning equipment. Germany has donated 12 scanning machines, but commitments made by Germany to provide more equipment and by other member states to provide Frontex with an additional 600 border guards have not materialized. Only 291 officers have been committed by EU member states out of a total of 775 requested by Frontex for Greece and Italy (http://frontex.europa.eu/news/member-states-provide-291-border-guards-to-frontex-to-be-deployed-in-greece-italy-2tVnYY)

By Thursday, the registration of Syrian families had moved back to Kara Tepe, which lacks any scanning equipment, and according to UNHCR there were 16,000 people on the island still awaiting registration. Some people had already spent up to five days in the open, struggling not to lose their position in the queue.

At Kara Tepe, UNHCR and the International Rescue Committe implemented a ticketing system for registering Syrian families and together with other NGOs and volunteers groups are providing tents, food and other basic services. But at Moria the situation is chaotic with all non-Syrians and single Syrian men having to wait in line without water, toilets and shelter from the elements.

There is no system for managing the queue at Moria meaning that the most vulnerable frequently lose their spot in the line, families become separated and extortion is taking place by people with the language skills to communicate with the refugees giving false information that registration has a cost. At night, when NGO workers go home, crowd control becomes even more difficult. Scuffles frequently erupt which has resulted in riot police using tear gas and beatings to try to impose order.

The resources for the hotspot to function well are clearly not available. From NGO to local volunteer workers have expressed frustration at coordination meetings knowing their existing resources could reach more people, if only there was a consistent and functioning registration system that didn’t change frequently. Grassroots volunteer groups find themselves confronted with violence and serious restrictions to human dignity during the night. These frustrations have not been answered in an adequate way, as Greek authorities express helplessness at the situation without external assistance with the registration.

During a visit to Lesvos on 10 October, UNHCR Chief, Antonio Guterres, told the local humanitarian community that UNHCR supports the hotspot approach, which includes registration and asylum processing, while at the same time praising the efforts by overstreched authorities and local community and recognizing the lack of resources. According to local authorities, UNHCR’s support for the hotspot approach has compounded fears among government officials and the local community that those migrants and asylum seekers who do not qualify for relocation to other member states will be stranded in Greece which has no capacity to process large numbers of asylum claims or return those deemed to be economic migrants.

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