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21 September 2021 – Greece

Barbed Wire Around the New Refugee Holding Camp in Samos, (Petra Molnar Twitter,
Barbed Wire Around the New Refugee Holding Camp in Samos, (Petra Molnar Twitter, "18 September 2021," Twitter,

On 18 September 2021, Greece opened the first of five new facilities to confine asylum seekers and migrants on the Island of Samos, close to the border with Turkey. Similar facilities are planned on the islands of Leros, Lesbos, Kos, and Chios. Fully funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund of the European Union, the “Closed Controlled Access Center” on Samos cost 43 million Euros with a total budget of 276 million Euros for all five facilities.

Nearly 500 asylum seekers (out of the 7,500 who originally lived in an older camp, which itself was only intended to house 680 asylum seekers), were moved to the facility on 20 September. The Greek Migration Minister hailed the facility as a “modern and safe new closed, controlled access center … that 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 controlled.” NGOs and migrant rights activists, however, have expressed serious concerns about the new center which they claim is essentially a prison.

It is indisputable that the new state-of-the-art facilities provide asylum seekers with improved, safer and cleaner living conditions than they previously had in the old camp on Samos, including bunk-bed sleeping quarters, air-conditioned restaurants, kitchens, basketball courts, childrens’ playgrounds and a football pitch. But all this is located in a remote valley 10km from the city of Vathi where people had lived for years, behind layers of military-grade barbed wire fencing, police and CCTV surveillance and accessed through a double-layer security system of turnstiles, magnetic gates and x-ray scanners where asylum seekers’ electronic badges and fingerprints are checked each time they enter and leave. CCTV cameras and loudspeakers are located throughout the facility, indicating a regime of constant surveillance. According to reports, newly arrived asylum seekers will have to spend the first 25 days in the center while their documentation is checked, after which they are allowed to leave between 8am and 8pm on specially provided buses. Asylum seekers whose cases have been rejected and are awaiting deportation will be held in a closed pre-removal area.

UNHCR, migrants rights groups, and humanitarian service providers have all expressed reservations about the new facility. Forty-five NGOs, including Amnesty International, wrote to the EU and the Greek Government urging them to abandon plans to restrict the freedom of movement of people living in the new center. The medical aid charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, has expressed serious concerns about the impact of closed detention on the mental health of already extremely stressed asylum seekers. They reported that 64 percent of their patients on Samos Island had expressed suicidal thoughts and 14 percent were at actual risk of suicide. “As psychologists working with the people who are at the frontline of Europe’s tightening migration policies, we witness on a daily basis the deterioration of these 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” said MSF in a statement on 17 September. The psychological strain on asylum seekers has been aggravated by the fact that migrants were held in COVID-19 quarantine long after the lockdown for the rest of the country was lifted, with severe impacts on their mental health.

The head of UNHCR in Greece also expressed concerns about the new center on Samos. “The word ‘closed’ is used often and it is worrying,” she said. “The position of UNHCR is that people seeking asylum need protection, they are not criminals and they do not represent a risk to the community, they are people in need of assistance. For us, the camps must be open, the government has assured us that they will be.”

Commentators note that the new facility on Samos reflects a hardening of attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers across Greece and the EU as well as a growing determination that Greece should not become the “gateway to Europe” for a new wave of refugees as it did during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Greece has hailed the sharp fall in asylum seekers coming to the country as a major achievement, but critics note that this is largely due to its policy of turning back–in contravention of its international legal obligations–everyone who comes through Turkey, claiming that that country is a “safe third country” despite widespread reports of abuses committed by Turkish security forces.

Greece is employing a range of additional tactics to deter migrants and asylum seekers, including the construction of a 40km steel wall along Greece’s border with Turkey and–most recently–the reported firing of long-range acoustic devices, whose deafening noise is intended to keep back migrants along the border. The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum reported that the number of migrants in the country had fallen by 49 percent from August 2020 to August 2021 (from a total number of 82,1189 in August 2020 to 42, 181 in August 2021). On the Aegean islands the drop in the number of arrivals was even more marked from 27,576 people in August 2020 to 5,264 in August 2021, a decrease of 81 percent. Samos itself witnessed a drop of 88 percent in the number of migrants between August 2020 and August 2021.

The new “closed controlled access center” on Samos is intended to be a model for managing asylum and migration across Greece and to remove the spectre of migrants living in squalid camps on Greek islands. The burning question though is why there has to be a trade-off between improved living conditions and people’s liberty and freedom of movement. Can people not be provided with more dignified and acceptable living conditions without 24-hour surveillance and restrictions on their freedom of movement? There is a danger in Greece that what is essentially increased detention is being dressed up as “improved accommodation” and people are facing unnecessary, unreasonable, and disproportionate restrictions on their liberty and personal freedoms.