ATHENS - Bullet casings, weapons and unexploded mortars have been found at a military firing range-turned refugee camp in Greece, endangering the lives of thousands of asylum seekers and aid workers. International activists, though, are most concerned about potential lead poisoning which the heavy metals and their residue have left behind.
The shocking revelation comes amid calls by Human Rights Watch for authorities on the island of Lesbos to suspend ongoing construction at the Kara Tepe camp and instead survey the soil of the former firing range for ordnance and potentially poisonous concentrations of lead.
“Academic research has shown that firing ranges are sites with soil lead contamination, meaning that anyone living or working on a former firing range could be exposed to lead through dust or soil," said Katarina Rall, a senior researcher at HRW who was involved in an extensive study of the Kara Tepe camp. "So based on the research, we are concerned about the risk of lead poisoning for those living and working there, in particular, small children and pregnant people.”
Dozens of pictures of ammunition scattered across the camp have been handed over to the authorities, but Human Rights Watch’s concerns and warnings have been dismissed, according Rall.
“The Greek government has dismissed our concerns, but they did not provide any evidence of comprehensive soil testing," Rall said. "In fact, they told us that they did not test the soil prior to moving the people to the camp.”
A Defense Ministry spokesman contacted by VOA said special ordnance crews had cleared the former shooting range and surveyed its ground for poisonous metals when the camp was built in September. The camp is designed to relocate more than 12,500 migrants and refugees left homeless after a fire razed the island’s main encampment in a region nine kilometers north of Kara Tepe.
They said the findings of that report would be released in the coming weeks.
Human Rights Watch though, is calling for fresh tests to be conducted and blood samples taken from the more than 2,500 children at the refugee camp on Lesbos.
Rall says the group also wants ongoing electricity and water works projects at Kara Tepe to be halted until the new surveys are completed.
“Lead is toxic and can be extremely harmful to human health, especially young children and during pregnancy," Rall said. "According to the WHO, there is no safe level of lead and putting thousands of migrants, adults and children along with aid workers on top of a former firing range speaks volumes of the attitude of the Greek government on the importance it attaches to the rights of migrants.”
Migration ministry officials refused to comment on the allegations.
The allegations though, add to growing criticism of Greece and its handling of a lingering migration crisis which the government in Athens says it can no longer manage alone.
More than 100,000 asylum seekers remain stranded in this country, four years after a million mainly Syrian refugees flooded Europe in the biggest migration push since the Second World War.