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Refugees facing ‘appalling conditions’ in Greece

Derek Gatopoulos and Theodora Tongas
Associated Press

Athens, Greece — The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says refugees at camps in Greece are still living in mostly “appalling conditions” with poor access to health care and a lack of provisions to identify the most vulnerable.

In the highly critical report issued Thursday, the agency commonly known by its French name, Medecins sans Frontieres, argued that the European Union and Greece had “collectively failed to establish humane and dignified reception conditions.”

More than 60,000 refugees and migrants — many escaping wars in Syria and Iraq — have been stranded in Greece following European border closures this year. Most still live in tents at about 50 refugee camps.

Around 14,000 of them are confined to islands in the eastern Aegean Sea where they are being processed for potential deportation to nearby Turkey.

“The leaders of Greece and the EU keep telling us this is a success, but it isn’t. The reception system for refugees in Greece has failed,” said Loic Jaeger, country mission head for MSF.

“There have been a few improvements but they are too little and too slow. How much time should it take for the richest countries in the world to accommodate 40,000 people?”

At the garbage-strewn refugee camp of Ritsona, 50 miles north of Athens, children walk barefoot and families in tents used wooden pallets for flooring to stay above the mud and try to stay warm.

“It’s very bad. How can I explain: I mean very bad,” Syrian refugee Yousef Hanash said. “Can you imagine living in a tent with six persons and if you have a newborn baby how the situation will be?”

Hanash said he came to Europe as a last resort, unable to keep his family safe after his cheese factory was destroyed in the war and he moved around Syria.

MSF says people at risk included pregnant women and people with mobility problems, while it described conditions facing mental health patients as “dire.”

“We are talking about torture victims, psychiatric patients, people who use wheelchairs, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women. They are not identified and helped,” said Apostolos Veizis, head of MSF’s medical operations in Greece.

“Women give birth and the next day they are sent back to camp to sleep in a tent filled with mud.”

The group urged the government to seek alternatives to the refugee camp system and improve a screening process to identify vulnerable migrants, improve training for health screeners, while it called on the European Union to provide emergency financial support to the state health system.

Greece’s government has repeatedly defended its record in dealing with the refugee crisis, noting that more than a million refugees and migrants traveled through the country since the beginning of 2015, stretching state resources already under pressure from years of recession after the country came to the brink of financial collapse.

With winter approaching, the government is racing to replace tents with trailers at most camps and is planning to use more abandoned factories as shelter space.

Earlier this week, the U.N. refugee agency said it had launched a program to distribute winter clothes, sleeping bags and thermal blankets to about 38,000 camp dwellers on the Greek mainland. UNHCR worked with a number of charities to complete the distribution by the end of the month.

MSF is one of the most active agencies in Greece in dealing with the refugee crisis, with programs at more than a dozen sites and providing support at most others.