Migrant camp conditions on Greek island of Lesbos 'at a boiling point,' UN says

The United Nations refugee agency urges Greece to speed up transfers of eligible asylum seekers from Aegean islands to the mainland, saying conditions at an overcrowded Lesbos reception centre are "reaching boiling point."

Reception centres are far beyond capacity, UNHCR says, with conditions often grim

Women and children sit at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos on June 27. The UN's refugee agency said that in the most recent month of tracking, more were arriving at the camp than were being transferred to mainland sites, leading to overcrowded conditions. (Elias Marcou/Reuters)

The United Nations refugee agency urged Greece on Friday to speed up transfers of eligible asylum-seekers from Aegean islands to the mainland, saying conditions at an overcrowded Lesbos reception centre were "reaching boiling point."

Lesbos, not far from Turkey in the northeastern Aegean Sea, was the preferred entry point into the European Union in 2015 for nearly a million Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. 

Those three groups still comprise more than 70 per cent of those arriving in Greece, and typically have high recognition rates for their asylum claims, but the overall flow is far less than in previous years, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said. 

Although 1,350 refugees and asylum seekers were transferred to mainland sites in August, this failed to ease pressure as an average of 114 people arrived daily during the month, it said. 

"The situation is reaching boiling point at the Moria reception identification centre on Lesbos, where more than 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants are crammed into shelters built to accommodate just 2,000 people," Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the UNHCR, told a Geneva briefing.

Smoke rises as riot police officers stand guard separating protesting groups of locals and refugees demonstrating on April 22 against conditions in the Moria camp, in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. (Elias Marcou/Reuters)

Some have been there for over six months and one-quarter are children, he said. A reception centre on Samos island holds 2,700, nearly four times the number it was designed for, while centres on Chios and Kos are at close to double their capacity.

"We are particularly concerned about woefully inadequate sanitary facilities, fighting amongst frustrated communities, rising levels of sexual harassment and assaults and the increasing need for medical and psychosocial care," he said.

Children's health of particular concern

Yaxley could not confirm aid agency reports of possible suicide attempts among youth at the centres, but said: "There are an increasing number of children who are presenting with mental health issues. The available response and treatment is woefully inadequate at the moment."

The Greek government has made previous commitments to transfer people to shelters on the mainland, and has received European Union funding for it, Yaxley said.

But other EU countries must help "frontline states" including Greece, Italy and Spain who receive most of the refugees and migrants, he said, adding: "The people arriving in Europe today is a very manageable situation; it's a question of political will."

Hundreds of refugees and migrants have drowned trying to cross the narrow but dangerous stretch of water between Turkey and Greece.