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Aid groups fear disease outbreaks among surge of migrants to Greece

German Red Cross distributes soap, diapers to 19,000 migrants on Greek islands as 'dire' conditions for refugees worsen

The German Red Cross will start distributing hygiene kits to migrants on Greek islands in mid-September, the organization said on Tuesday, in response to complaints from aid workers on the island of of Lesbos over squalid living conditions in the camps, which lack water and electricity.

The aid group hopes to prevent outbreaks of gastrointestinal diseases and skin infections by distributing the kits — containing two-month supplies of toothpaste, soap and diapers — to more than 19,000 newly arrived refugees on Lesbos and other islands in the region.

“The situation of refugees on Lesbos — the gateway to Greece from the Turkish coast — is dire,” said German Red Cross president Rudolf Seiters in a statement. “To prevent the spread of disease in this situation, improving the hygienic conditions of life is extremely important.”

The rate of migrant arrivals has spiked in recent weeks. Frontex, the European Union’s border control agency, said on Tuesday that the number of migrants arriving in the EU more than tripled to 107,500 in July compared to last year. The agency said urgent action is needed to improve the living conditions of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Greece.

“This is an emergency situation for Europe that requires all EU member states to step in to support the national authorities who are taking on a massive number of migrants at its borders,” said Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri.

On the Greek island of Kos, the migrant crisis mandates special attention, according to the United Nations, with more than 7,000 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers arriving in July. That rate doubled figures for June, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a medical charity.

About 2,000 people in Kos have been housed in a stadium with no access to bathroom facilities, shade or safe sleeping quarters. Many have been there for up to 25 days without receiving any assistance from the Greek government, Agence France-Press reported.

“If the [Greek] central authority would come up with leadership and vision and appoint somebody who would coordinate this response, then we and other international organizations would be ready to come and help," said William Spindler of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

MSF has previously warned about the spread of diseases on Lampedusa, a tiny island off the Italian coast, as well as Kos and other gateways to Europe, following the influx of a record number of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Nearly 340,000 people have crossed European borders this year compared to 280,000 in all of 2014.

MSF's health workers provide counseling and medical consultations at various checkpoints, including Kos' Captain Elias hotel, an abandoned building where hundreds of refugees have sought shelter, and in Idomeni, a village on the border of Greece and Macedonia. 

The most prevalent conditions include respiratory tract infections, skin conditions, sore muscles from walking long distances and gastrointestinal diseases from living in detention centers, MSF said. Many migrants also suffer blisters and other wounds during the long journey to Europe.

Migrants are also particularly vulnerable to neglected diseases such as tuberculosis, which has a very long incubation period that can make the infection harder to detect.

The psychological trauma migrants suffer by fleeing war zones further complicates their treatment, MSF said. “Many of the people have suffered traumatic events in their home countries and have had to endure an exhausting and dangerous journey,” said MSF psychologist Aggela Boletsi.

Last week riots broke out on Kos after police tried to move migrants from the main town's parks and squares to a stadium, using batons and fire extinguishers on people who in many cases are fleeing war zones and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Naturally, many people get scared when confronted with such a heavy-handed approach,” Boletsi added.

Most people arriving in Kos by boat are fleeing war zones in Syria and Afghanistan, where smugglers charge thousands of dollars for a ticket across the Mediterranean in rickety boats and rubber dinghies.

With wire services

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