This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at the press briefing, on 1 March 2016, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
UNHCR is warning today that Europe is on the cusp of a largely self-induced humanitarian crisis. This is in light of a rapid build-up of people in an already struggling Greece, 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.
As of last night (Monday), the number of refugees and migrants in Greece and needing accommodation had soared to 24,000. Around 8,500 of these were 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.
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. With our partners UNHCR continues to supplement 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.
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 (122,637 of these landing in Greece). This is approaching the total for the first half of 2015 (147,209). This year so far, 410 lives have been lost.
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.
UNHCR is continuing to support the response operation: We have set up field offices in 8 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, we are 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.
Increased regular pathways for admission of refugees from countries neighbouring Syria will also help in the overall management of this situation. 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. They thus save lives. UNHCR will convene an important conference on this topic in Geneva on March 30 and hopes for concrete offers in this regard.
UNHCR is urging Greece and States along the Balkans route to act quickly to avert a disaster and approach this emergency in a spirit of solidarity and sharing of responsibility. Safe access to asylum, shelter and basic assistance, and treating people with dignity and respect must remain essential elements of the response.