As winter closes in on Greece, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today that improving living conditions for asylum-seekers and migrants is the ‘number one priority’ for humanitarian actors in the country and urged the European Union to speed up its relocation efforts.
Describing the broader effort to meet shelter needs a major challenge, UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told the regular press briefing in Geneva that “people living in tents out in the open have been moved to alternative accommodation and that the agency’s accommodation scheme, funded by the European Commission, has provided 20,000 badly-needed places for refugees and asylum seekers.
But serious challenges remain, and many others are in substandard shelters lacking proper protection from winter conditions. According to UNHCR, conditions vary greatly, with some sites lacking services, such as psychosocial counselling, health care and interpretation, or even proper security.
“Over the past months, in a joint effort by humanitarian organizations and authorities under the coordination of Greece’s Ministry of Migration Policy, conditions have been improved in the majority of the over 40 official sites, including through upgrades of infrastructure,” said Mr. Spindler, adding that UNHCR is involved in carrying out improvements and maintenance at 15 of those sites.
Additionally, people living in tents in eight Government-run sites had been moved into UNHCR prefabricated houses.
“So far, over 2,600 people have been moved into the prefabs and by the end of the year this figure will rise to 7,500,” continued the spokesperson. “To help matters in all sites, UNHCR and non-governmental organizations have been working to keep people warm and dry. This has involved delivering over 200,000 sleeping bags, blankets and clothes, and other winter relief items,” he added.
EU Relocation Mechanism
This week, the agency’s accommodation programme reached its target in providing 20,000 units for the European Union (EU) Emergency Relocation Mechanism and for especially vulnerable asylum-seekers. The programme, which started in January, supports the Greek Government’s response. While 58 per cent are small temporary apartments, run by UNHCR’s partners, another 25 per cent are discounted hotel rooms. Mainly subsidized by the EU, the programme also hosts asylum-seekers in building rentals as well as with Greek host families. The UN refugee agency is also providing specialized shelters for some 600 unaccompanied children, where they are provided with care and counselling.
UNHCR elaborated that as many waited to be relocated, beneficiaries were provided with psychosocial, legal and interpretation services. As of 7 December, only 6,259 asylum seekers had left Greece under the EU Relocation Mechanism – less than 10 per cent of the 66,400 agreed last year.
“This is an unacceptably poor response,” said Mr. Spindler “causing unnecessary uncertainty for people, affecting children including those who are unaccompanied, and prolonging a humanitarian situation for Europe that should have been resolved months ago and which risks encouraging people to move on with the help of smugglers.”
On behalf of UNHCR, he appealed to European countries to “do the right thing, by ending this situation without further delay.”