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28th Jan 2022

Asylum seekers dread new EU camps on Greek islands

  • Mavrovouni RIC was set up as a temporary site on Lesbos island after fires destroyed Moria one year ago on 8 September. It is still under construction. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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Fears surrounding future EU-funded camps on the Greek Aegean islands are contributing to a mental health emergency among asylum seekers, with some fleeing to the mainland.

"If it will be the same as it is now, I prefer being returned to Afghanistan and killed by the Taliban," said Mohammed, a 39-year old father of three young daughters.

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  • Rahima Yosufi spent eight years as a police commander in Kabul (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Mohammed, who asked not to have his last name published, spoke to EUobserver on Tuesday (7 September) in Lesbos.

Asked why he would rather be killed, he broke down. Mohammed's case is far from isolated.

Around 63 percent of the 3,500 people currently living in the Mavrovouni so-called temporary camp in Lesbos are from Afghanistan.

Mavrovouni was set up in the wake of the fire which burned down Moria, a notorious, ghetto-like camp in Lesbos, one year ago to the day.

Facing the sea and Turkey in the very near distance, Mavrouni is walled and fenced in from most sides. It has since turned into a dusty and windstrewn construction site, with some 200 containers and large tents for housing.

Electricity and water is only now set to be connected to the municipality, possibly by the end of the month.

The long term plan is to move everyone into a new permanent EU-funded facility amid European Commission promises of "no new Morias."

Those December 2020 declarations also came with €121m in EU funding for three other receptions centres on the islands of Samos, Kos, and Leros.

People leave Samos island ahead of new EU camp

All were to be completed this month. Yet only Samos is close to ready, with an inauguration date set for 18 September.

"People are leaving the island [Samos] and this is happening suddenly," said Vagelis Stratis, the Samos-and-Chios area manager for the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

"They don't want to move to the camp, they travel to Athens," he said.

Meanwhile, construction has not even started in Lesbos, the largest of the islands. Dimitris Vafeas, deputy commander of Mavrovouni, said the new site will not be ready until March next year.

Worries are mounting that it will lock asylum seekers behind large concrete walls and far away from ordinary Greeks. The site for the new proposed camp is over 40km away from Mytline, the capital city of Lesbos.

It comes amid a backdrop of a Greek government that has been tightening asylum laws since late 2019, and most recently again this week.

It follows a summer Greek ministerial decree which declared Turkey safe for asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria.

And it comes in times of Covid, which has imposed tighter restrictions on Mavrovouni camp residents when compared to the local population.

Mental-health crisis

"The mental health crisis in Lesbos, it is a humanitarian emergency," said Dukas Protogiros, a senior psychologist at an IRC-run mental health centre in Mytline.

"It's going to be a de facto detention centre, it's going to be like a ghetto. They will not have any interactions with the locals," Protogiros said of the new, yet-to-be built EU camp.

Protogiros also pointed to Mavrovouni, noting it too has heightened the mental stress on people as they face uncertain futures.

Since the fire gutted Moria last 8 September, some 96 percent of people being treated by the IRC suffer from depression. Most are from Afghanistan.

Another 80 percent have other issues, like substance abuse and social isolation, says the NGO.

Among those complaining is 28-year old Iraqi, Zahra Al Aidani. "This camp is a prison for us," she said of Mavrovouni.

Al Aidani and her husband were fined €300 last week, she said.

She said a police officer inside the camp had given them the permission to step out for the day, but a second police checkpoint, only metres outside the main gate, then stopped them and slapped the fine. "It was not our fault," she said.

Others are more forgiving of Mavrovouni, noting that security has improved when compared to Moria.

"Life is 100 percent easier in Mavrovouni than in Moria," said 29-year old Mustafa Anwari, an Afghan national and former car mechanic married with three small children.

They obtained asylum status eight months ago. But he has yet to receive any official papers, like passports or ID cards. It means they remain stuck and without any cash assistance in Mavrovouni.

With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Anwari is also in constant worry for his recently arrested 16-year old brother in Kabul.

Similar limbos have afflicted many others, adding to confusion and stress, as families try to find some stability for their children.

Rahima Yosufi, a 45-year old Afghan woman, spent eight years as commander of the women's ward at the Pul-e-Charkhi Prison in Kabul.

She fled for her life, she says, and now also lives in Mavrovouni with three of her adult kids. Although they received asylum, none are working and her son is enmeshed in an administrative nightmare over a passport.

They have no choice but to remain in Mavrovouni, where they at least get some food, shelter, and services.

But their fate is far from certain. Once the new, EU facility is up and running for asylum seekers, Mavrovouni will shut down and possibly leave them homeless.

"We don't have any choice at the moment," she said.

Disclosure: The IRC paid for the flight to and from Lesbos as well as two nights hotel.

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