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A REFUGEE rescue charity has called on the European Union to use decommissioned cruise ships to evacuate the thousands of refugees trapped in overcrowded camps on Greece’s Aegean islands.
German aid organisation Sea Watch warned today that while the continent is gripped by the coronavirus crisis, those seeking international protection from “the humanitarian disaster at Europe's borders” are at risk of being forgotten.
“Leading cruise operators have already suspended their cruises until at least April,” the charity said, adding that most of these ships could carry several thousand people and have comparatively well-equipped medical stations.
"Necessary quarantine and protection measures against corona must be implemented everywhere to prevent exponential spread, including in refugee camps,” said Sea Watch medic Aline Wedel, currently deployed on Lesbos.
“This means immediate evacuation of the overcrowded Greek camps and accommodation in places where people are protected from the virus. The cruise ships can do both. We must leave no-one behind.”
Sea Watch chairman Johannes Bayer said: “The refugees on the Greek islands, but also the local population, have been left alone by Europe long enough.
“If the EU Commission does not act now, the humanitarian catastrophe that is already taking place there will cost many more lives.”
The charity is offering to help the commission and cruise ship operators with logistical and medical support to carry out the evacuations.
“More than 140 German cities and municipalities have declared their willingness to take part; 40,000 free places are available in the German federal states alone,” Mr Bayer said.
“With current loans of over €8 billion, the German state is one of the leading financiers of cruise ships on the one side, and on the other, Germany was one of the mastermind states behind the devastation of the Greek health system in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007.
“Anyone who fails to ensure that people are evacuated now will be complicit in the possible death of hundreds.”
Mission Lifeline, another German charity, is preparing to evacuate children and, if they are with them, their mothers on charter flights from Greece to Berlin. It already has a plane and has carried out such evacuations before.
Some European countries, Mission Lifeline co-founder Axel Steier told the Star, are using the coronavirus to justify a “fortress Europe” policy and violate the Geneva and human-rights conventions.
“We decided to start to finance a charter flight and bring as many children and mothers out of the Greek camps to a safe place in Germany or elsewhere in western Europe.
“After only two or three days, we already collected enough money. Since then, for two weeks now, we are waiting for the permits from German government.
“Despite the consensus agreement of some EU countries, including France, Germany, Portugal, Finland and Ireland, to bring up to 1,500 children here, nothing at all has happened.
“We keep collecting information, pictures, statements, directly from Lesbos to keep public pressure and attention at a high level, to finally receive the necessary permits.
“The people in Moria and the other camps cannot wait any longer. They will otherwise pay the price with their lives.”
Monitor ship the Mare Liberum has warned that new maritime restrictions imposed by the Greek government at the weekend will mean rights abuses will now go unwitnessed.
Crew member Marie, who declined to give her full name, told the Star that all other vessels, such as fishing boats and commercial ships, are exempt from the new laws.
“We are very worried about the safety of those that are being forced to cross the sea in rubber boats and fear that, in the absence of civil actors in the Aegean, this gives room for undocumented push and pullbacks,” she said.
“We truly hope to be able to continue our human-rights monitoring as soon as possible.”
Human Rights Watched warned last week that the Greek authorities had denied the fundamental right to seek asylum to at least 625 newly arrived migrants on Lesbos between March 1 and 18.
Senior crisis and conflict researcher Belkis Wille said: “For up to two weeks the authorities have been holding women, men and children — many of them fleeing war and persecution — in the open in cold temperatures, denying their right to seek asylum and preventing them from getting the humanitarian and legal assistance they need and are entitled to.
“Greece may be facing challenges on many fronts — from the coronavirus to a surge in arrivals — but it does not mean it can suspend fundamental rights or humane treatment.
“People will continue to arrive on the Greek islands and the authorities should not keep them in the open in poor and unhygienic conditions, barred from the asylum system.
“Such policies are abusive and illegal.”
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