EU Leaders Need to Take Immediate Action to Save Lives in Greece this Winter

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FAIRFIELD, Conn. (December 14, 2016) —Thousands of people are at risk this winter as the EU-Turkey deal keeps refugees and migrants stuck in dangerous and degrading conditions in Greece, a coalition of more than 20 humanitarian agencies and human rights organizations warns. The organizations, most of which work with migrants in Greece, warn that men, women and children could die because of worsening winter conditions. EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday to discuss migration need to take urgent action to improve the situation on the ground and save lives.

In a joint statement to European heads of state and government, the 21 organizations including Save the Children, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Rescue Committee outline the horrendous situation faced by people who have reached Greek shores seeking safety and dignity. Despite overcrowding and rapidly deteriorating conditions, refugees and migrants are not being transferred from the islands because EU governments fear they will not be able to deport people from the Greek mainland to Turkey under the deal signed in March.

Thousands of people have been trapped for months in camps that are ill-equipped for long-term stays, especially in winter. Many, including children and babies, are living in freezing cold tents and even on beaches, where they struggle to stay dry as temperatures drop and storms grow more ferocious.

Only three weeks ago, a 6-year-old child and her grandmother died when their tent in the Moria ‘hotspot’ on the island of Lesbos caught on fire, because the cold forced them to cook inside. In another case, a family suffered carbon monoxide poisoning after they were not given a heater and had to procure their own.

Many refugees and other migrants, including children, are immediately detained before they can even request asylum, which is a violation of their rights. Families are being broken apart in the process of relocation, or when only some members are granted family reunification. Asylum procedures are slow and unnecessarily complicated. The relocation mechanism is slow, difficult to navigate and excludes many people.

European leaders need to take immediate action to improve the situation, and they have the power to do so, the organizations said.

"The crisis in Greece is completely avoidable. EU leaders have many tools at their disposal, including relocation and family reunification for the thousands of refugees with parents, siblings and other family members already in other parts of Europe," said Imogen Sudbery, Head of the Brussels Office of the International Rescue Committee. "The question is, do EU leaders have the common strength and humanity to put these tools to use?"

"Politics and bureaucracy must not be allowed to get in the way of helping children and families escape the oppression and violence they have experienced in their home countries and find safety and a better life," said Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children. "Leaders can do better and they must."

"The EU-Turkey deal has manifestly failed the men, women and children who came to Europe in search of sanctuary," said Iverna McGowan, Director of the Amnesty International European Institutions Office. "This deal which ignores and – even worse – causes suffering and human rights abuses must not become a blueprint for others."

The NGOs also warned European governments against replicating the EU-Turkey deal with other countries under the ‘partnership framework’ with African governments. The overarching aim of these deals is to keep migrants away from Europe.

At Thursday’s EU summit, European leaders have the opportunity to address the dire situation for migrants on Greek islands. EU leaders need to urgently take the following steps, the coalition of humanitarian agencies and human rights organizations said:

Prioritize the immediate transfer of people from overcrowded sites on the islands to locations on the mainland that meet European law standards for reception, rather than pressuring Greek authorities to keep people on islands in substandard conditions.

Redouble efforts to take asylum seekers out of first countries of arrival, including Greece, by enabling swift and efficient access to family reunification, relocation and a secure refugee status; it is imperative to start with the most vulnerable groups, irrespective of their nationality, and give people better information and support when selecting the destination country.

Ensure that every person has access to protection and to a fair and efficient asylum process; the desire to speed up processes cannot come at the expense of access to asylum.

Save the Children gives children in the United States and around the world a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We invest in childhood — every day, in times of crisis and for our future. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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