Infants Starving in Squalor Created by EU-Turkey Refugee Deal

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Infants Starving in Squalor Created by EU-Turkey Refugee Deal

Asylum seekers—mostly women and children—are trapped in Greece in conditions so inhumane that infants' lives are being endangered, rights groups say

A baby born to a young Syrian mother in a makeshift refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece, where tens of thousands have been trapped since the EU-Turkey deal closed Greece's border with Macedonia. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Conditions for refugees have deteriorated in Greece in the wake of last month's controversial EU-Turkey deal to such an extent that newborn babies are being deprived of milk, endangering their lives, refugee advocates and rights groups say.

"Approximately 25 babies under the age of six months, whose mothers are unable to breastfeed, are being given roughly 100ml of milk formula just once a day on the island of Chios, according to photographs sent by detained refugees and testimonies provided by phone," the Guardian reported Tuesday.

"The conditions here are not good and we are sleeping on the ground; our blankets are soaked with water. There are no bathrooms. This is why people are getting sick."
—a Syrian asylum seeker in Idomeni, Greece
"Britain's Royal College of Midwives said the situation, if confirmed, would contravene international protocol," the newspaper continued, "and suggested that some refugee babies in Greece may be receiving just a quarter of their recommended daily intake."

Many women and children are trapped in Greece in the detention centers that have been created in the midst of the refugee crisis, while others are stuck in the massive makeshift camp at Idomeni, a Greek city bordering Macedonia that closed its borders as part of the deal last month. Police in Idomeni recently assaulted asylum seekers with tear gas and rubber bullets for attempting to cross into Macedonia.

Humanitarian groups have condemned the detention centers as violating international law and human rights, and conditions for asylum seekers throughout Greece have grown so squalid that refugee children are in danger if the situation doesn't change, the groups say.

"The conditions here are not good and we are sleeping on the ground; our blankets are soaked with water. There are no bathrooms. This is why people are getting sick," a Syrian woman who was nine-months pregnant told Amnesty International in Idomeni.

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A German doctor, Andreas Gammel, recently drove to Idomeni to volunteer his services to the 11,000 to 13,000 people who are estimated to still be stranded there "in appalling conditions," as last week's Amnesty International report (pdf) described it.

"A Syrian woman who had given birth via c-section in a clinic in Thessaloniki eight days beforehand approached me," Gammel told Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung. "She had been sent back after the procedure to the detention center with her newborn. The women couldn't breastfeed because the child wasn't able to latch because of the medicine, the aftereffects of narcotics."

"Her wound had become infected, it was oozing and supperating, and so the woman also needed antibiotics. For all these reasons, she had to switch the child to formula, but after just two days she wasn’t able to arrange for any more formula to be delivered. The child suffered from diarrhea. It was life-threatening for the infant," Gammel said. "He was in great danger of dehydrating."

Many women in these detention centers and camps find themselves unable to breastfeed their infants because of the tremendous amount of stress they are made to suffer under, rights groups and medical workers say, and so supplying infant formula is a matter of life and death.

The Guardian chronicled the difficulties asylum seekers encountered when trying to procure infant formula on the Greek island of Chios, which has been transformed into a detention center:

A 35-year-old Afghan construction manager, detained in a detention centre on Chios since 21 March, said he had been forced to mix water with bread to stop his five-month-old daughter going hungry.

The man, who said he worked as a contractor for the British army in Afghanistan but asked not to be named for fear of victimization, said: “They are only giving us half a cup of milk for all 24 hours—but that’s not enough. There's no more milk for lunch or dinner or during the night. This is a big problem. There are maybe 24 or 25 babies under six months.”

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which maintains a presence on Chios, confirmed the claim and said the number of infant children may even be higher. "It's clear that baby milk [formula] is not being routinely distributed,” said Dan Tyler, the NRC’s protection and advocacy officer on Chios. "I did a series of meetings with refugees last week, and mothers brought up [the issue of] baby milk all the time.

"But it stems beyond baby milk: there is a lack of basic care for children. There is a hygiene crisis. Infant children are sleeping in highly inappropriate arrangements, on the floor … It's absolutely a baby-unfriendly environment."

Refugees are barred from procuring formula for their infants on their own, Gammel pointed out: "There's enough infant formula in Greece, but it isn't reaching these women. One solution would be to take the father to a store where he could purchase infant formula. But no one wants transport this man. If someone is driving a refugee in their private car, the police might assume they're a smuggler. The father can only go as far as his feet can carry him."

Human rights advocates have roundly decried the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey since its inception, and these latest reports of starving infants only add fuel to their critique of the controversial agreement.

"EU States have only exacerbated this crisis by failing to act decisively to help relocate tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, the majority of whom are women and children, trapped in Greece. If EU leaders do not act urgently to live up to their relocation promises and improve conditions for stranded refugees and migrants, they will face a humanitarian calamity of their own making," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia, in a statement.

"The EU-Turkey deal is fundamentally flawed and should be repealed," Human Rights Watch (HRW) argued last week.

"The current situation in Greece for desperate asylum seekers is perverse," argued Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch Eva Cossé. "People fleeing danger are detained in unacceptable conditions while they await a likely return to unsafe Turkey or languish in the dysfunctional Greek asylum system."

"The medical situation in that place is the most harmful to pregnant women and children," said Gammel of his time in Idomeni, "but people there are especially suffering from hopelessness."

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