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UNHCR Concerned Over Refugee Conditions on Greek Islands

FILE - Syrian refugee Walaa, 26, sits inside her family's tent at the Souda municipality-run camp on the island of Chios, Greece, Sept. 7, 2016.

The United Nations refugee agency urged Greek authorities Friday to quickly move asylum-seekers to the mainland from overcrowded facilities on Greek islands, saying conditions remain bad and expressing concern over a predicted cold weather snap.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva that conditions at many sites “remain very poor” despite improvement efforts.

“The need for better protection will become all the more acute this weekend when temperatures on the islands are expected to drop. We are worried,” Edwards said, according to a summary of his statements.

FILE - Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Oct. 6, 2016.
FILE - Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Oct. 6, 2016.

More than 15,500 migrants or refugees are stuck on Greek islands. On Lesbos, 5,537 people were crammed into facilities designed for 3,500, while in Samos 1,944 people were in facilities built for 850, according to Greek government figures.

Under a European Union-Turkey deal to reduce migration into Europe, those arriving on islands after March are held and face being returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

Edwards noted that only vulnerable asylum-seekers or those who have completed the registration process could be transferred to the mainland, and delays in registration or identifying vulnerable cases “contributed to serious overcrowding.”

Separately, Europe's border agency Frontex said Friday there had been a significant drop in the number of migrants reaching Greek islands from Turkey in 2016 compared to the previous year.

Preliminary estimates showed a 79 percent drop in the number of migrants detected in Greece to 182,500, largely due to the EU-Turkey agreement and Balkan border closures after March. Since March, it said monthly arrivals on the islands numbered between 1,800 and 4,400. At the peak of the refugee wave in the fall of 2015, Greek islands could see thousands of arrivals each day.

More than 62,000 migrants and refugees are stuck in Greece. A European relocation deal was reached in late 2015 to relocate 66,400 people from Greece to other European countries within two years, but so far only 7,760 people have left or are scheduled to leave the country. The UNHCR called that “unacceptably low.”

“UNHCR appeals to EU member states to respect their previous commitments and offer additional spaces without further delay,” the agency said.