LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) - The flow of new arrivals has slowed to a trickle, but thousands of migrants remain in limbo on Greece’s islands, in grim camps they liken to prisons.
Seven months since the European Union and Turkey signed a deal to shut off the route taken by a million people last year, boats now rarely arrive on Lesbos, once at the centre of the human tide. Beaches have been largely cleared of lifejackets and deflated rubber boats.
But nearly 6,000 migrants are stranded in the island’s two camps, nearly twice their intended capacity. Few are even permitted to travel on to the Greek mainland. Many local people bitterly resent their presence.
Tensions and violence erupt frequently. A fire swept through part of Moria camp, a disused hilltop military base, after a protest in September, forcing thousands to flee.
Police are investigating the alleged rape of a Pakistani teenager by four other Pakistani youths. Women say they are constantly scared of sexual harassment.
“They said here is a camp, but here is a jail,” Kamal Hassan Hussein, a 30-year-old Somali, said outside Moria.
“Everyday we think about how we find food, how we get water, how we go to the toilet,” he said. Queues for pasta or potatoes could be two hours long.
“Here I‘m in jail,” he repeated. “It’s difficult to contact family, its difficult to eat food, it’s difficult to sleep.”
About 5,000 migrants are currently in Moria, originally designed to swiftly identify genuine asylum seekers and those eligible for the EU relocation programme.
Journalists are not allowed in Moria, a camp run by the Greek government. A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said people were sleeping in makeshift, closely-packed tents put up by relief organisations.
“UNHCR has found the camps on the islands still overcrowded, with difficult living conditions,” Roland Schoenbauer said.
Many tents could not withstand winter rain and wind and had no heating, while sanitation in the camps was poor, he said.
Heavy rainfall over the weekend turned the dusty paths between the tents into mud.
Amnesty International says food, including baby milk, is often scarce in Moria, and shower and toilet facilities are “extremely unhygienic”. Migrants say fights break out in food queues, and the police do little to protect the vulnerable.
“LOSE, LOSE, LOSE”
Across the islands, about 15,000 are in camps built for 7,900.
Under the EU-Turkey deal, asylum-seekers cannot travel beyond Greece and, usually, not even beyond the islands until their claims are processed.
“It’s simply not possible to pack more people in the same space,” Schoenbauer said. “It’s a lose, lose, lose situation if the number of asylum-seekers is not brought down on the islands.”
Nearly 50,000 more people, mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, are in camps across Greece, some living in abandoned warehouses.
Many are eligible for an EU scheme meant to relocate 160,000 migrants from Greece and Italy to other European countries over two years, but only a small fraction of that number have been moved so far.
Local people fear the crisis has dealt a mortal blow to the economy of an island once popular with British holidaymakers.
“Tourism has been hit a lot,” said Nikos Baharakis, a pensioner in the village of Moria, near the camp.
Even his brother, who lives in Germany, preferred to holiday on Corfu last year rather than Lesbos, he said.
“The number of migrants must be reduced immediately,” said Fotis Papaefstratiou, a former community leader, “for the island to breathe again.”
Editing by Andrew Roche