On 16 May 2023, following an alert from the Alarm Phone - a hotline for boatpeople in distress - Geo Barents rescued 26 people in distress on an unseaworthy boat located in international waters off Libya. Among them were one pregnant woman and eight children.

Greece: MSF concerned about pushbacks, arbitrary detention, and violence towards migrants

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) expresses its serious concerns on the continuous deterioration of the situation of migrants and refugees on the Greek Island of Lesbos, where there have been numerous and various allegations/reports of exposure to violence, such as alleged abductions and alleged pushbacks, detention and deprivation of food and shelter. MSF calls on Greek authorities to investigate reports of hundreds of missing migrants—assumed to be forcibly pushed back to sea—and to implement safe and dignified reception conditions for those who remain on the island.

Reports of missing people

MSF teams working on Lesbos are alerted by UNHCR—the United Nations refugee agency—and other actors when migrants arrive on Lesbos and need urgent medical treatment.

“Since MSF started providing emergency medical assistance to people arriving by boat to Lesbos in June 2022, we have been unable to find approximately 940 people that were never found at the reported location.” said Nihal Osman, MSF project coordinator in Lesbos.  

Several patients have told MSF staff about being traumatically intercepted and forcibly pushed back to sea on previous attempts to reach Greece. “When we are alerted of newly arrived people in urgent need of medical assistance, we spend hours—sometimes days—looking for them as they are often hiding in forests,” said Osman. People we find have told us about encountering masked men posing as doctors to gain their trust, or as recently reported in the New York Times article even as MSF. “If this is confirmed, it is unacceptable and serious manipulation of humanitarian aid’. In some instances, MSF has encountered in the surrounding of the locations of interventions unidentifiable vehicles without plates, often driven by individuals with black covers on their faces.

Humanitarian assistance for new arrivals is seriously reduced due to fears of criminalization. MSF is now the only independent actor providing aid to migrants arriving on Lesbos.

Cruel deterrence tactics in the biggest camp in Greece

Migrants and asylum seekers arriving on Lesbos are sent to two centers according to the location of arrival: Mavrovouni and Megala Therma. In Mavrovouni, one of the several EU Funded Closed Controlled Access Centers (CCAC), up to 2,700 people have been accommodated in 2023. CCACs were marketed as an improvement in living conditions for migrants but were designed to severely restrict people’s movement and keep them contained in prison-like facilities. On May 17, Greek authorities stopped providing food to recognized refugees and people who are denied international protection, announcing plans to evict them. Furthermore, children belonging to families that were denied international protection are stripped of their social security numbers making them ineligible to receive basic vaccinations, violating their rights.

“Tensions have risen in the CCAC as a result,” said Osman. “Patients complain about the humiliation they suffer standing in line for hours, and the frustration related to the reduction of food. The ministry is using food as leverage to force people to leave the facility.”

MSF condemns the use of deprivation to force people out of the facility “Stripping hundreds of people of their basic rights, including access to food and shelter with no alternatives could have serious consequences on people physical and mental health”, said Osman

Arbitrary detention in Megala Therma camp

In Megala Therma, on the northern coast of Lesbos, where MSF has been providing healthcare since 2020, the situation is alarming. Formerly a government COVID-19 quarantine center, the facility now houses migrants before they are transferred to the Mavrovouni CCAC. 

People in Megala Therma are not registered and essentially are arbitrarily detained for days, in some cases for more than two weeks, before being transferred to the CCAC of Mavrovouni.  

Living conditions in Megala Therma are dire. People are put into overcrowded Refugee Housing Units that have no beds—sometimes 14 people are squeezed into a unit with space for five. “Everyone, including children, are housed together, irrespective of their vulnerabilities without consideration for safety and protection procedures,” said Osman.

The facility is also isolated, making it considerably difficult for medical actors to access the facility to respond to medical emergencies. “MSF doctors visit twice a week, but if medical emergencies occur on any other day, no one is on site to respond and it would take an ambulance more than an hour to reach the patient,” said Osman. 

“Megala Therma camp is emblematic of the cruel and dysfunctional approach adopted in CCACs, supported by EU member states and funded by the European Commission. MSF has extensively criticized and denounced these harsh policies.” 

MSF calls on the Greek authorities and the European Commission:

  • For an immediate investigation into allegations of people being threatened, abducted, and ill-treated by unidentified masked people who are systematically engaging in pushbacks and endangering people’s lives on land and at sea.
  • To end the arbitrary detention of unregistered new arrivals in Megala Therma, ensuring their prompt access to registration and identification, dignified reception conditions and proximity to basic services.
  • To ensure quality, timely medical care, including emergency medical care in the dedicated reception facilities. People’s legal status must not lead to the exclusion of people from crucial vital services such as food, shelter and healthcare. Access to healthcare, protection and humanitarian assistance needs to be granted to all new arrivals seeking protection in Greece, in line with EU reception directive.