22nd May 2019


Samos: Inside Greece's 'nightmare' EU hotspot

  • In the old part of the camp, the chalets are already showing signs of wear and tear (Photo: Joseph Boyle)

Health workers flit between containers, stepping over tents and body-swerving gaggles of giggling children. It's vaccination day at the camp holding asylum seekers on Samos, a Greek island just 1.5 km from the Turkish coast.

While the children are out in force playing with balloons, boxes, bottles and whatever else they can grab, the adults are taking refuge from the baking heat, lying in tents or ducking under umbrellas.

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  • The camp is formally a closed detention centre, but in fact anyone can wander out through holes in the fence (Photo: Joseph Boyle)

The "hotspot," in EU policy jargon, which was built on a narrow strip of land roughly 400m long and 40m wide that used to be a military exercise area, tumbles downhill towards Vathy, a picturesque port town popular with tourists.

At the top end of the centre, migrants live in pre-fabricated chalets that are less than 10 years old, but already the paint is peeling and the roofs are rusting. Clothes hang off the razor wire fences and tarpaulin is strewn around, providing some kind of shelter for the unlucky ones who cannot find space to sleep in the chalets.

At the bottom end, people stay in gleaming new white containers - of the type used by workers on building sites. They have only been occupied since early June.

"The new area is where the more vulnerable people stay - families, and women with children," Ioannis Koukouvitakis, the deputy director of the facility, tells EUobserver.

Koukouvitakis has been in his job for three weeks. He works for the First Reception Service (FRS), an arm of the Greek government's migration ministry. Beyond the day-to-day running of the centre, the FRS is also formally responsible for identifying and initial processing of newly arrived migrants - although much of this work is actually done by other agencies, such as the police.

He rushes through the camp, signing papers, taking phone calls and overseeing vaccinations, before reaching his office. It is a tiny, airless container with enough room for two desks, three chairs and perhaps four people, if they are standing up.

"By the end of July, we will have 43 people working for us. Administrative, plumbers, electricians, drivers so we can function properly," he says. "Right now, we have eight people including me."

There are more than 1,100 people living in the camp, formally known as a Reception and Identification Centre. Its capacity is 700. Koukouvitakis concedes that the centre is overcrowded - it is a statement of the obvious.

It wasn't always this way. The people who work at the centre have one date etched in their minds: 20 March 2016. The date that the EU's migrant-swap deal with Turkey came into force. This transformed the camp from a processing centre where migrants would simply pass through on their way to the mainland and beyond, to a "closed facility" - a detention centre.

"The focus shifted from the health and welfare of the migrants, to detaining them, stopping them from getting out. That's when things went bad in the camp," says an NGO worker who was at the camp during the period but who did not want to be named.

Decreasing arrivals, legal logjams

Under the EU-Turkey deal, all of the people who arrived before 20 March were cleared from the camps in the Greek islands and sent to the mainland to make way for new arrivals.

The safeguards negotiated with Turkey meant that new migrants whose asylum claims were inadmissible, or those who did not claim asylum in Greece, could be returned. The rest would be quickly dealt with and allowed to move on to the mainland.

The European Commission agreed to pump money and resources into the system and envisaged that these new arrivals would not be there for long.

EU plans do not always pan out smoothly, however.

The Turkey deal did slow the flow of migrants to roughly 40 arriving in Samos each week, down from 4,000 a week at the peak of the crisis last September and October, but the asylum system has not been able to process the claims as quickly as the commission had hoped, and very few people have actually been returned to Turkey.

The EU's asylum body, EASO, based in Malta, is supposed to carry out interviews with asylum seekers before making a recommendation to the Greek Asylum Service on the admissibility of an individual's claim.

But EASO's team was not up to full strength until very recently, and the asylum service did not have enough staff to approve their recommendations anyway.

As a result, only a few dozen claims have been processed. A little over a week ago, the first group of migrants to make it through this process were given permission to leave the island. But jumping this first legal hurdle is just the beginning of another story, with innumerable hard options.

"Already quite a few of those who've been given permission to leave the island haven't done so," says Alba Chenard, who coordinates a group of volunteers working at the camp.

"In the camp, they have friends and connections and some sort of shelter. They're reluctant to swap this for sleeping rough in Athens", she says.

Syrians are being prioritised. They make up more than half of the residents of the camp. Citizens of other countries have not been interviewed by EASO and most have not even come close to filing a formal asylum claim. Some have already been at the Samos centre for more than three months.

Samos hotspot overlooks Vathy, a picturesque port town popular with tourists (Photo: Joseph Boyle)

'Living a nightmare'

As new migrants continue to arrive and hardly leave, the conditions in the camp become more strained. The tensions have led to two notable outbreaks of violence - one in mid-May and the other in early June.

When Human Rights Watch, the international NGO, visited the camp in mid-May, they documented remains of blood on the walls, migrants with serious injuries and a complete absence of management or security. The group's researcher Eva Cosse, who has visited all the other EU hotspots, told EUobserver that the Samos camp was "the worst".

Three weeks after her visit, another bout of violence engulfed the camp. According to witnesses, a group of Algerians attacked some Pakistanis with iron bars. After doling out a beating, the Algerians burnt down one of the containers. The small ruin is still visible - the burnt-out box sits surrounded by tents in the old part of the centre.

"We had to run away and sleep outside the camp," one migrant, who asked to remain anonymous, explains. "It's always this way when there is a fight. We have to sleep out in the open. The police run away too. They can't control things. They just have to watch and wait until it's over."

One consequence of the 2 June violence was that women and children, tired of being cooped up in squalid conditions in the old part of the camp, burst through a fence and squatted in the new containers, which had been lying empty awaiting official approval to be occupied.

"There was just nobody taking any decisions in the camp," says an NGO worker, who also did not want to be named. "These guys who come and work for the FRS, they are burnt out after a few weeks. They try hard to organise things in the camp, but it's just too much. They're really living a nightmare in there."

'They begged us to return'

After the 20 March deal came into force, the UNHCR and medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) pulled out of the centre in protest at its new designation as a detention facility.

Nael Nasser, a UNHCR field officer on the island, explains that the situation on Samos is worse than the other island hotspots.

"On the other islands, there are other kinds of sites people can go to. On Samos, there is only one main site. So there is no alternative to detention for most of those arriving," he says.

More than 1,100 people live in the camp, which has a capacity of 700 (Photo: Joseph Boyle)

The Greek army said it would take up some of UNHCR's functions, such as handing out supplies. The government's FRS was essentially absent, meaning that the only other people helping with camp logistics were volunteers.

"We were working in the camp before the 20 March deal, and when MSF and UNHCR pulled out, we had to make a decision on whether to follow them," says Chenard, the volunteer coordinator.

"We left the camp for two weeks, but the people there were begging us to come back. They needed help."

In the end, Chenard and her volunteers decided that the lobbying power of the UN and MSF was enough to pressure the authorities, so she returned.

"At certain points, there were just three of us distributing clothes to about 600 people. It was challenging. We worked 15-hour days," she says.

The UNHCR has also since returned. But MSF is maintaining its boycott, and has further distanced itself from the deal with Turkey, refusing even to take funding from the EU or any of its member states in protest.

Cascade of rules

Although the centre is still formally a detention site, in practice the designation is untenable. Just four or five police officers are responsible for the security of the entire facility. Even if there was enough physical space for everybody, there is not enough manpower to make it function properly.

At the moment, migrants are free to come and go. The front entrance, which leads on to a dirt road that meanders through pine forests before reaching the main highway, has a hole cut through the wire gates big enough for a person to walk through.

At the other end of the camp, down the hill past the new containers, the back entrance has another man-sized hole. From here, migrants and staff alike can wander the short distance to the centre of Vathy.

Migrants congregate in the main square on the seafront to use the free wifi in the evenings. They are hardly noticeable among the throngs of tourists and children kicking around footballs.

Some business-owners believe tourists have been frightened away from the island by stories in the media, but most locals are relaxed about the hotspot.

However, several NGO workers spoke of a "very small, but very vocal minority" of locals who object to projects that would take vulnerable people, such as unaccompanied children, pregnant women or those with special medical needs out of the camp.

But perhaps the most prominent objector to the presence of migrants on the island is the local government.

"The local authorities are very negative about the hotspot," says Koukouvitakis, the hotspot deputy manager, who has not yet met the mayor despite being in his role for several weeks.

"They complain even about the garbage. They don't want the bins near the road because they think the tourists will be able to smell the bins."

Other agencies working at the camp are equally scathing about the municipality. EUobserver requested interviews with the mayor or any other local official, but received no response to numerous emails and phone calls.

Meanwhile, Samos is bidding to be a European Capital of Culture and some NGO workers think that local politicians might be more interested in that than in the migration issues. Others believe that the local mayor, who is from the conservative New Democracy party, is being uncooperative because the Greek migration ministry is run by left-wing Syriza party of PM Alexis Tsipras.

Whatever the reasons, local politics is just one of many factors buffeting those who work at the camp.

Lack of space is a constant complaint from migrants, NGOs and officials. The other steady complaint is the rapidly changing circumstances in which people work, with new laws, new administrative structures, and new political developments changing the conditions from one day to the next.

"We're just trying to keep up," Koukouvitakis says.

"We are in a difficult situation. We don't know what is happening with the agreement with Turkey. If it carries on, we should be fine. If it ends, we are doomed. Turkey will open the ports, thousands of people will come, and then what?".

Greece struggles to hit EU migrant hotspot deadline

Greece has until 15 February to complete five screening centres for migrants - known as hotspots - as Macedonia erects a new border fence to stem the migrant flow through the Balkans.

EU gives up on Turkey visa deadlines

Turkish citizens will not get visa-free travel to the EU by the end of June, and the commission now admits it cannot give a date for completion of the deal.

EU to ease access for skilled migrants

EU planning to revive its US-type scheme for admitting skilled workers from overseas, underlies that ageing EU societies need young foreigners.

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