Migrants and refugees wait in a queue for the doctor at the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. Authorities on the Greek island of Lesbos have partly reopened the country's largest…
FILE - Migrants and refugees wait in a queue for the doctor at the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, Sept. 25, 2019.

GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency is urgently warning that thousands of asylum seekers on three Greek Aegean islands must be moved to the mainland to prevent the dangerously overcrowded conditions in the camps from worsening.

The surge of new sea arrivals hit a peak in September.  That is when more than 10,200 asylum seekers — mostly Afghan and Syrian families — landed on the Greek islands, the highest monthly number in three years.

The U.N. refugee agency reports this has just worsened conditions on the islands of Lesvos, Samos and Kos, which host 30,000 asylum seekers. A fire broke out Sunday in the Moira center on Lesvos, killing one woman and heightening tensions.  

Following the fire, the residents became angry and physically clashed with the police at the center, which houses 12,600 asylum seekers, five times its capacity. UNHCR spokeswoman Liz Throssell says similarly overcrowded and deteriorating conditions exist on the other islands as well.

“Keeping people on the islands in these inadequate and insecure conditions is inhumane and must come to an end. The Greek government has said that alleviating pressure on the islands and protecting unaccompanied children are priorities, which we welcome ... but urgent steps are needed and we urge the Greek authorities to fast-track plans to transfer over 5,000 asylum-seekers already authorized to continue their asylum procedure on the mainland.”  

Unaccompanied children

The asylum seekers include more than 4,400 unaccompanied children. Throssell says their plight is particularly worrying, noting only one in four of these children is in a shelter appropriate for his or her age. She says the children are living in extremely risky and potentially abusive conditions.

FILE - Children are wrapped in thermal blankets as migrants from Afghanistan arrive on a dinghy on the shore near the village of Skala Sikamias, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Sept. 17, 2019.

“Some 500 children are housed with unrelated adults in a large warehouse tent in Moria," she said. "On Samos, more than a dozen unaccompanied girls take turns sleeping in a small container, while other children are forced to sleep on container roofs.”  

The UNHCR is appealing to European states to accept these children and provide them with safe and decent accommodations as a matter of priority. It says the EU also should expedite the transfers of children eligible to join family members, so they do not have to endure unsanitary, dangerously overcrowded facilities.