Europe faces an imminent humanitarian crisis, largely of its own making, following a rapid build-up of people in already over-stretched Greece, the United Nations refugee agency warned today.
"With governments not working together despite having already reached agreements in a number of areas, and country after country imposing new border restrictions, inconsistent practices are causing unnecessary suffering and risk being at variance with EU and international law standards," Adrian Edwards, Spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a press briefing in Geneva.
Mr. Edwards added that as of last night, the number of refugees and migrants in Greece in need of accommodation has soared to 24,000. Around 8,500 people are at Eidomeni, near the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
"At least 1,500 had spent the previous night in the open. The crowded conditions are leading to shortages of food, shelter, water and sanitation. Tensions have been building, fuelling violence and playing into the hands of people smugglers," Mr. Edwards stressed.
The Greek authorities have responded with the military setting up two camps near Eidomeni with a projected capacity of 12,500 and a nearby third site already under construction. UNHCR is supplementing the Greek response effort.
"We have provided rub halls, tents and refugee housing units, other core relief, plus additional staff and specialists, including protection and technical staff," the spokesperson added.
According to the agency, overall Mediterranean arrivals have slowed over the winter but remain relatively high. Data as of this morning shows that 131,724 people made the journey during January and February, with 122,637 individuals landing in Greece. This is approaching the total for the first half of 2015 (147,209). So far, 410 lives have reportedly been lost.
Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Refugee Crisis in Europe, called for Europe to implement burden-sharing agreements reached last year, warning there is "no plan B."
"Greece needs a safety valve. It is time for Europe to wake up, either we have a massive orderly relocation from Greece or a repeat of what we saw last year, more chaos and confusion," he told the briefing in answer to questions on the current situation on the ground.
He added that some 55 per cent of refugees from Syria currently arriving in Greece are women and children and many are from the north where fighting has recently taken place.
Meanwhile, UNHCR has reiterated its overall position that solving Europe's refugees and migrants' situation and preventing a new crisis in Greece requires a number of clear actions.
Among the most urgent of these when it comes to Greece is the need for better contingency planning, with increased accommodation capacity and other support.
"The authorities are trying to respond now to prevent a further deterioration of conditions throughout Greece. But, more resources and better coordination are critical for averting wider suffering and chaos," Mr. Edwards stressed.
UNHCR is continuing to support the response operation and has set up field offices in eight locations and deployed additional staff including mobile emergency teams who quickly move to wherever the changing situation demands.
However, with increasing border restrictions across the Balkans, the agency says it is concerned that the situation could escalate into a humanitarian crisis similar to that on the Greek islands last autumn.
UNHCR is urging the Greek authorities with the support of the European Asylum Support Office and EU Member States to strongly reinforce its capacity to register and process asylum seekers through the national asylum procedure, as well as through the European relocation scheme.
"Greece cannot manage this situation alone. It remains absolutely vital therefore that the relocation efforts that Europe agreed to in 2015 are prioritized and implemented. It should concern everyone that despite commitments to relocate 66,400 refugees from Greece, states have so far only pledged 1,539 spaces, and only 325 actual relocations have occurred," Mr. Edwards detailed.
Increased regular pathways for admission of refugees from countries neighbouring Syria will also help in the overall management of this situation, UNHCR underlined. More resettlement and humanitarian admission, family reunification, private sponsorship, and humanitarian and refugee student and work visas all serve to reduce demand for people smuggling, onward movements, and dangerous boat journeys, the agency added.
UNHCR is convening a conference on this topic in Geneva on 30 March.