Against a backdrop of systematic pushbacks, the number of arrivals to the Aegean islands has decreased by almost 80%. Meanwhile, Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis is praising the efficiency of a “strict but fair immigration policy” defined by prevention and deterrence measures. The inauguration of the first of five new EU-funded “closed controlled” camps on Samos has been met with much criticism from local authorities and NGOs, as well as concern from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

New incidents continue to add to the ever-mounting evidence of systematic and illegal pushbacks by Greek authorities. On 18 September, 19 asylum seekers from Somalia and Sierra Leone were pushed back from Samos. The same day 65 people were allegedly pushed back in waters off Santorini. On 20 September, 32 people including children were reportedly pushed back to Turkey “according to regular procedures” off Tainaros where their boat was adrift. On 23 September the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported that 130 were adrift on a boat with a broken engine in the Ionian Sea in Greek waters between Italy and Greece. According to the organisation: “They’ve been at sea for 4 days and cannot be reached for over 6 hours. Relatives are very worried”.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Migration and Asylum the number of arrivals to Greece is down 53% over the first eight months of 2021 compared to the same period last year. For the Aegean islands the decrease is 78% (Chios -89%, Kos and Samos -88 %, Leros -87%, Lesvos -75%). Further, the number of detainees and residents in island camps fell by 81%, to 5,264 people in August 2021 versus 27,576 in August last year. The total of people residing in facilities managed by the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum across Greece fell from 82,119 to 42,181 in the same period. Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis praised the efficiency of his government’s policies stating: “We are continuing in an effective way the implementation of a strict but at the same time fair immigration policy, which no longer allows anyone to make Greece a gateway for smuggling networks”. The Greek policies under the minister have been defined by measures of prevention and deterrence including an ongoing crackdown on civil society organisations supporting refugees.

Greek authorities have started to transfer asylum seekers from the notorious Vathy camp on Samos, a camp that was ravaged by a fire on 19 September whilst under closure – to a newly opened facility. The new centre is the first of five new EU-funded facilities to be established on Leros, Lesbos, Kos, Chios as well as Samos. The Samos centre, which has capacity for 3,600 people, is located in a remote valley, surrounded with barbed wire fencing, and features surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors. New arrivals will be required to spend 25 days indoors during the examining of their documents while rejected asylum seekers are to be held in a “closed” pre-detention area. The EU has funded the 38 million euro camp on Samos and has committed 276 million euro for the five new camps in the Aegean island hotspots. The original memorandum of understanding signed between the European Commission and the Greek government for a pilot project on Lesvos refers to Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centre (MPRIC). However, the Greek government defines the facility on Samos as a “closed controlled access centre”, a title that appears over the entrance of the Samos facility. UNHCR representative in Greece Mireille Girard expressed reservations about the “closed” nature of the camps, stating “asylum seekers need protection, they are not criminals or a risk for the community, they are people who need help. For us, camps should be open. The government has assured us that they will be”. The government’s contradictory messaging on rights safeguards and punishing “illegal migration” has been the subject of criticism with Notis Mitarachi stating at the opening ceremony: “The new closed-controlled access centre will give back the lost dignity to people seeking international protection, but also the necessary conditions of safeguarding and restraint for illegal migrants who are to be returned”.

The opening has been met with local resistance. Both the Regional Governor of North Aegean Kostas Moutzouris and the Mayor of Eastern Samos Georgios Stantzos declined to participate in the inauguration ceremony with the latter stating it was not a cause for celebration. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF): “There is no doubt that this new centre will only further dehumanise and marginalise people seeking protection in the European Union”. The organisation’s mental health team on Samos state: “We witness on a daily basis the deterioration of people’s mental and physical well-being. The opening of the new prison camp is changing the collective identity of the refugees, their self-esteem and image: their dignity. Europe is breaking them”. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an ECRE member, denounces the policy of confinement of asylum seekers undermining their integration in the country. Bashir, a resident of the former Vathy camp states: “The new camp is not a camp, it’s a prison. There is barbed wire all around it. There is even a deportation and prison camp within the camp. I think the island is already some kind of a camp, because it is so remote. In a way it is like a camp in a camp in a camp”. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), which has issued guidance on fundamental rights considerations in the use of initial-reception facilities at external borders, recommends avoiding a prison-like environment and respecting the right to liberty.

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Photo: ECRE

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.