An expanse of sheet and metal covering 14,500 m2, crushed by the sun. Rows of containers surrounded by double barbed wire netting, surveillance cameras, X-ray scanners and watchtowers, a drone… All guarded by dozens of police officers and private security agents: welcome to the “Closed Center controlled access from Samos ”.
Far from the city, the center isolates physically, socially and psychologically. © Nurphoto / AFP
Inaugurated on September 18, this accommodation camp for asylum seekers is the first of five new ultra-secure reception centers built on the Greek islands facing the Turkish coast, the entry point for exiles in search of Europe. The project – still underway a month after the start of its launch – cost the European Commission 43 million euros, which is also financing the centers of Leros, Kos, Chios and Lesbos for a total amount of 276 million euros. .
“A model” in the eyes of Darmanin
This is “a new chapter” for Beate Gminder, Deputy Director General for Migration and the Interior at the European Commission, a “model” in the eyes of the French Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, a “Great joy and satisfaction” for Notis Mitarachi, Greek Minister for Migration.
Supported by the European Union, encouraged by France, the conservative government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis carries the Samos camp as a banner of its migration policy. It can be summed up in three words: control, deterrence, restriction. Accommodation conditions should logically be more dignified and comfortable than in the former Vathy camp, the center erected in 2015 and gradually transformed into a slum over the incessant arrivals on the Greek island. But the 25 m2 containers, play areas, air conditioning or Wi-Fi struggle to mask the prison-like appearance of a center where movement is controlled and exits limited between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
“Yes, we sleep better, but the situation is not good,” said Ahmad Alkamrawi, Syrian asylum seeker. He crosses his wrists to mimic the lack of freedom. Arriving in Greece from Turkey after fleeing his hometown of Homs, the 35-year-old has been stranded in Samos and in administrative limbo for more than two years. His asylum application has just been rejected for the fourth time. “They want to drive me crazy,” he laments. In Turkey, they don’t like us, but here the police tell us that it is a safe country, a country of hope for the Syrians. I do not want to go. I am tired. From the new camp, Ahmad Alkamrawi came down to the port to “drink a beer and forget”. He used the shuttle that runs between the town of Samos and the new center located in the town of Zervou, 8 kilometers away. But, at 3.20 euros round trip, the price of the trip is too high to forget on a daily basis, when the financial aid allocated to an asylum seeker amounts to 75 euros per month.
A negative impact on health
The new camp acts as “a psychological weapon to dissuade people from coming”, summarizes Patrick Wieland, head of mission of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in Samos. “Living conditions are better than before, but it remains a prison nonetheless, while asylum seekers are not criminals,” he adds. “There is a very clear impact on people’s health. Before, there was a certain proximity with the local community, today, asylum seekers find themselves cut off from the rest of society, ”explains Patrick Wieland. Denouncing the various pressures and intimidations suffered by his teams and all the NGOs present in Samos, he condemns the “criminalization of migration and humanitarian aid”. “They want to dissuade us from doing our job,” blows the MSF coordinator.
The drop in the number of exiles on the islands is also the result of a policy of illegal refoulements in the Aegean Sea.
Far from the city, out of sight, the center physically, socially and psychologically isolates asylum seekers. “They tell us about their concerns about the impact of fences and barbed wire on their mental health. Asylum seekers are people who need protection, not criminals, they need help, ”recalls Stella Nanou, spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR ), in Greece. Planned for 3,000 people, the new structure in Samos now accommodates less than 400, the result of the decongestion of the islands operated in recent months by the authorities. By relocating to the mainland or turning a blind eye to departures during the summer, the government wanted to reduce the number of asylum seekers to be transferred from one camp to another.
But the drop in the number of exiles on the islands is also the result of a policy of illegal refoulements in the Aegean Sea, officially denied by the Greek authorities, but widely documented by NGOs and journalists. As of March 2020, the research organization Lighthouse Reports has identified more than 600 “pushbacks” carried out by the Greek Coast Guard. The Greek Minister of Migration can thus congratulate himself on having reduced the number of asylum seekers on the islands by 79% and by 35% throughout the country, in one year.
At the exit of the city of Samos, the old camp of Vathy seems intact. In the silence of the deserted slum resound the meowing of stray cats amidst plastic bottles and sanitary napkins. Waste litter the steep dirt paths where shoes, wheelchairs, children’s games, dishes and hookahs have been abandoned in the haste of yet another departure.
The “jungle” of Vathy had hosted up to 9,000 asylum seekers in January 2019, for an initial capacity of 680 people. Overloaded, outdated, then abandoned, it now offers itself as a mirror of new structures. Above all, it reflects the failure of European migration policy.