ATHENS -- International aid organizations are troubled by the conditions inside Greek government-run refugee centers after authorities hastily evacuated the makeshift refugee camp in Idomeni at the Greece-Macedonia border last week.
Approximately 4,000 migrants and refugees have been transferred to state-run facilities, the Greek Ministry of Migration told The WorldPost, while another 4,500 are still camping out in Polykastro, Greece, not far from Idomeni.
The Greek government runs all formal sites that refugees live in, except for one site it manages jointly with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, explained UNHCR spokesman Chris Boian.
Most of the facilities were set up quickly to provide shelter while people apply for asylum.
“We weren’t even informed of the new camps opening,” Kathleen Prior of the International Rescue Committee told The WorldPost. IRC staff members in Greece had to quickly transition to these new sites, she added.
Gabriele Casini, an aid worker with Save The Children, said there was a “distinct feeling that, at the moment of transfer, these camps were not ready. Everything was done very, very hastily. People were taken to places that were not ready to welcome them."
Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei captured the bleakness of the new refugee centers during a visit to the Oreokastro camp, a former tobacco factory.
The thousands of people living in Idomeni were transferred to about seven different locations, where conditions “vary considerably,” Boian said. The site at Nea Kavala, for example, has existed since February and conditions for its 2,500 temporary residents are “relatively good, lots of space, lots of fresh air, food, support, non-food items and supplies,” according to Boian.
While the UNHCR agrees with the Greek government’s decision to dismantle the Idomeni camp, the agency worries that the alternatives could, in some cases, be worse.
The new centers are “derelict warehouses and factories, inside of which tents have been placed too tightly together,” Melissa Fleming, head of communications for UNHCR, said in a statement last week. “The air circulation is poor, and supplies of food, water, toilets, showers, and electricity are insufficient.”
Everything was done very, very hastily. People were taken to places that were not ready to welcome them. Gabriele Casini, aid worker with Save The Children
“They are lacking basic services, services that, at present, are not sufficient for minimum standards -- hygiene, toilets showers, washing points” Casini said. “We went into a camp where there was absolutely no running water, 200 people and just four toilets.”
Other humanitarian organizations in Greece expressed similar concerns. Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF, worried about patients the organization had been treating in Idomeni who suffer from chronic ailments such as diabetics and epilepsy.
“People were telling us they were worried about not having access to medical care in the new places they were going. We gave them as many backup supplies of medications as we could before they left,” said Katy Athersuch, an MSF Greece staffer. People living in the three camps that MSF visited in northern Greece suffered from overcrowding and inadequate water supply, she added.
The Greek government appears to be overwhelmed but committed to addressing complaints about the camps as efficiently as possible. “The situation is difficult, but we are working on improving it as fast as we can," said migration spokesman Giorgos Kyritsis.
"There is no doubt that people are better off in these facilities than they were out in the open in Idomeni," he said. "And except for the occasional problems with power cuts, etc., with which we deal immediately on the spot, it is not true that there is no water or electricity supply in the facilities."
Conditions will improve substantially in the coming weeks, Kyritsis added, and the current facilities should contain makeshift homes with all the necessary supplies by fall. “There is no exact manual as to how to handle an unprecedented situation like this. Inevitably, there is a lot of trial and error," he said.
Greece plans to build new centers and continue filling pre-existing centers, UNHCR's Boian said. Some of the locations that could be used include apartment buildings, hotels and the fields around airstrips.
The country is bearing the primary burden of managing the refugee crisis despite coping with its own financial woes, Kyritsis said, spending 300 million euros ($336 million) on the crisis in the first few months of 2016 alone.
Many refugees had hoped Greece would be a transitory stop on a journey into Western Europe, but some are now accepting that asylum in Greece might be the only way to avoid being sent back to Turkey. Turkey and the European Union signed a deal in March to curb refugee and migrant travel in the Mediterranean, which has left tens of thousands of people trapped in Greece.
“It’s very clear that Greece is struggling to cope with the influx and doesn’t have the resources, economic or human, at the moment to deal adequately with this crisis,” Casini said.
“This is not Greece’s problem alone to solve,” Boian said. “This is a European challenge. The E.U. needs to come together and rise to the occasion; it’s really time to go into high gear.”
Danae Leivada reported from Athens. Willa Frej reported from New York.