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Today’s visit by European Commissioners Timmermans and Avramopoulos to the Greek island of Kos must result in immediate action to end the prolonged suffering of thousands of refugees, including many children, staying in inhumane conditions, Amnesty International said today following a research mission on the island this week.

The organization witnessed a violent attack on refugees last night and has documented the overall dire conditions refugees face on the island. Researchers found children as young as a week old among the crowds forced to wait for days in baking heat to be registered by the local authorities, and interviewed unaccompanied minors being detained in deplorable conditions alongside adults.

“The refugees we met on Kos have fled war and persecution in countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They include children, some with their families but others travelling alone. The hellish conditions the refugees are now forced to endure and the official indifference to their plight is appalling,” said Kondylia Gogou, Greece Researcher at Amnesty International, who just returned from Kos.

Physically attacked

Overnight last night Amnesty staff witnessed a group of 15-25 people brandishing bats physically attack refugees on Kos, while shouting "go back to your countries" and other slurs. They also threatened activists, including an Amnesty International staff member. An activist who was taking photographs had her camera removed and suffered minor injuries. Police did not stop them and riot police only intervened after the physical attacks had started and used teargas to disperse the crowd.

“Last night’s violent attack once again throws into sharp relief the danger to them and activists who help them. Action must be taken now at all levels to ensure they are protected,” said Kondylia Gogou.

Inhumane conditions on Kos

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 refugees were staying on the island while Amnesty International visited. In the absence of any formal reception facilities, most are staying in squalid conditions as they wait to be documented before continuing their onward journey to the Greek mainland and beyond. The majority are believed to be from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, more than 31,000 refugees have arrived on Kos so far this year with a surge since June 2015, according to Greek coastguard staff.

Most of the refugees cannot afford accommodation and are sleeping in tents, out in the open in appalling conditions or in the dilapidated Captain Elias hotel. While local residents and the humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières have been providing aid, municipal authorities have provided very little assistance and have even closed public toilets.

Police on Kos are currently using an old police station to document people before they leave the island. Amnesty International researchers visited the station on September 2 and saw around 100 refugees, including a one-week-old baby girl in her mother’s arms, sitting on the ground in a courtyard. No water was provided to those waiting to be documented. The only respite from the intense summer heat was an umbrella in the middle which provided shelter to few people.

Between 200 and 300 more people were waiting to go inside the police station – many said they waited for days on end. One man, a 28-year-old from Iraq, said he had been waiting for a week.

Information on rights and the identification of vulnerable groups is not provided by the authorities, but by UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) staff deployed on the island.

The situation has often been exacerbated by the reluctance of local authorities to set up a permanent reception centre with enough capacity and the lack of a coordinated and effective response.

In mid-August these failings came to a crunch when more than 2,000 people were locked in inhumane conditions in the local sports stadium. Reports emerged of police using excessive force against refugees waiting to be registered.

Children detained with adults

Amnesty International met four boys, three Pakistanis and one Syrian, all aged 16 or 17, who were being detained in a filthy police cell alongside adult criminal suspects.

Their detention conditions were deplorable – old and dirty mattresses, no blankets, broken lights and a strong stench emanating from a nearby toilet that was filthy and flooded.

“I travelled with another refugee family to Greece…When I showed my passport, the police detained me. My family has not heard about me since I was arrested,” said a 16-year-old Syrian boy who had arrived without family members.

The boy had no access to a lawyer or legal advice in the three days since his arrest.

“With tourist families enjoying summer holidays on Kos and local families gearing up to send their kids back to school, the contrast with the suffering of the refugee children could not be starker,” said Kondylia Gogou.

Recommendations

Amnesty International is urging:

  • Local authorities on Kos to cooperate with the central authorities to set up reception centers and shelter new arrivals in humane conditions until the necessary registration procedures are completed. They must immediately move any unaccompanied minors into appropriate shelter until all procedures are completed and they can be transferred to reception centers for unaccompanied children in mainland Greece;
  • The Greek government to swiftly implement the plans announced at a press conference on September 3, including urgently deploying First Reception Center staff on Kos (similar to those currently on Lesvos and Samos) to assist with the identification of vulnerable groups. It must also ensure that the authority responsible for the management of European Union (EU) funds such as AMIF (Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund) starts its operations as swiftly as possible;
  • The EU to support the Greek authorities with emergency financial support from the EU solidarity and emergency funds to manage the current crisis. Greece also needs logistical and operational support to meet the needs of those arriving on the islands. Even more importantly, EU member states need to relieve the pressure on Greece in the longer term by significantly reforming the EU’s asylum system and by providing more safe and legal routes into Europe for those who need protection. This includes significantly increasing resettlement places for the most vulnerable refugees as identified by UNHCR, more use of humanitarian visas and better options for family reunification.

“This is a crisis at all levels. Local authorities in Greece are unwilling to provide the necessary assistance, national authorities appear unable to, and European leaders are dithering in the face of an ever-mounting humanitarian crisis,” said Kondylia Gogou.

Background

The European Commission’s First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, and Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, will visit Kos on September 4 to monitor the situation as local authorities have struggled to manage a surge in refugee arrivals over the summer.

On September 3, Greek government ministers met in Athens to discuss the ongoing response to the refugee crisis on the Aegean islands.

The ministers announced, among other measures, the creation of a coordination center to manage refugee arrivals; deploying further staff and machinery for the swift documentation and identification of refugees; and that steps are under way to take immediate advantage of the available EU funds. They also called on the EU to provide the financial and logistical support needed.

Police officials told Amnesty International that without additional emergency funding from the EU, it would be immensely difficult to deploy staff and equipment on the Aegean islands and to set up documentation areas where refugees would be registered in humane conditions and improve detention conditions before the end of the year.

According to Greek government figures, 157,000 refugees arrived in Greece by sea during July and August. During the first eight months of 2015, more than 230,000 people arrived by sea. This is more than 13 times the 17,000 people who arrived during the same period in 2014. The vast majority are refugees.