A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) described “appalling”, detention-like conditions for refugees being held in Greek reception centers. The report alleges that pregnant women, new mothers, and survivors of sexual assault, among estimated thousands of others, have been subjected to “living conditions [that] do not meet international standards.” The HRW report was based on 49 interviews with asylum seekers and migrants who described being put in dark cells and verbal and physical abuse by Greek police officers at reception centers. In addition, the report found that facilities often lacked translators, compounding the problem.
Hillary Margois, a women’s rights researcher at HRW, described some of the interviews, in which “People told us they were being treated so poorly in these facilities that they felt less than human.” She added, “Greece has a responsibility to uphold basic standards of care for everyone in its custody, regardless of their immigration status.” One woman identified in the report as Leila, a 24 year old pregnant Syrian, described how “I desperately need to go to the doctor to see how my baby is, but the doctor here said, ‘When you move to another camp, you’ll see a doctor there.’”
However, Greek authorities have denied the report’s allegations. Greek police claim to have received zero complaints of physical violence, and said in a statement that they have “zero tolerance for human rights abuses.” It’s important to note that authorities only denied the charges of violence, but did not answer the report’s claims about abysmal living conditions or verbal harassment.
The HRW report marks a step backwards for the human rights of Syrian refugees. The report demonstrates that in the process of restricting how many refugees can enter their nations, western European countries have created overfilled centers in eastern European countries like Greece, in which living conditions have inevitably deteriorated due to the sheer number of refugees attempting to flee to Europe. Greek authorities should increase funding for reception centers to improve the living conditions of incoming refugees and launch a full investigation into the conduct of police officers stationed at reception centers. If necessary, Greece should remove police officers responsible for human rights abuses. Western nations should increase their quotas for refugees to remove the strain from refugee camps in Greece and other nations which are receiving huge influxes of refugees.
The recent report comes in the wake of increasing refugee flows into Greece due to the ongoing war in Syria. Over the course of the Syrian civil war, at least 5 million people have fled the country as refugees. In recent months, European countries have signaled their desire to send refugees back to Greece. Currently, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), 60,000 refugees are already stuck in Greece, unable to leave due to closed borders. Due to its geographical location between western Europe and the Middle East, Greece has become a bottleneck for refugees seeking to resettle in the rest of Europe. Additionally, refugees are increasingly arriving by taking dangerous routes across the water to enter Greece instead of land-based routes. The UNHCR reported that at least 15,000 refugees had arrived by sea in 2018.
The recent HRW report highlights the need for additional support for refugees fleeing conflict in Syria. Given that Syria’s internal situation is unlikely to resolve itself in the near future, western nations should holistically increase efforts to assist refugees both in refugee camps and in the resettlement process to minimize human rights failures in overcrowded refugee camps in nations like Greece and Jordan. Otherwise, continued reports of unacceptable human rights violations from organizations like the HRW are inevitable.
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