It has eight restaurants, seven basketball courts, three playgrounds, a soccer field, special rooms for vulnerable people and is allegedly environmentally friendly.
But Greece’s new “closed” migrant camp for 3,000 asylum seekers in Samos is also surrounded by military-grade fencing, guarded by police and located in a remote valley, and has been compared by critics to a prison or a dystopian nightmare. His message is clear: if asylum seekers destined for Europe arrive in the country, they will be strictly checked.
“Maybe the barbed wire is shiny and new in their center, but that can’t be sold as an improvement,” said Patrick Wieland of Médecins Sans Frontières.
Manos Logothetis, who oversees the reception of refugees at the Greek Migration Ministry, sees it differently. “For the first time in the history of migration, a beneficiary will be able to sit in an air-conditioned and safe restaurant,” he said, listing the “decent living conditions” that the new facility, which cost 38 million euros (32 million pounds sterling), will offer.
“It’s a big change from the long queues for food, mud and dirt that we had before, but yes, it’s also going to be more regulated, more controlled.”
The EU-funded facility – one of five multi-purpose reception and identification centers due to open on Greece’s frontline Aegean islands – was officially opened on Saturday.
For Athens and Brussels, both eager to end an era of notoriously overcrowded camps associated with misery and degradation on the EU’s external border, the sprawling structure is destined to mark a break with the shameful images that have emerged from Greece since the refugee crisis erupted.
Six years after a million Syrians fleeing the civil war crossed the country on their way to Europe, the Samos camp is presented as a showcase of improved migration policies, “faster and fairer” asylum procedures and the end of ad hoc solutions to one of the continent’s greatest challenges. The EU has allocated a total of € 250 million to build similar reception centers in Kos, Leros, Lesbos and Chios.
A new camp on Lesvos – the island which has hosted more refugees than any other to date and which once housed the infamous Moria settlement before it was destroyed by fire last year – is expected to be operational by mid -2022.
But critics have compared the reception centers to prisons. For NGOs who have risen up against them, the new camps are symbolic not only of Greece’s hardened stance on migration – Athens announced Thursday that it will launch an international social media campaign to deter migratory flows from Afghanistan – but also harsh policies led by a growing population of fortress-minded Europe.
Behind their modern chandelier lies the threat, say opponents, citing the dramatic restrictions that will be placed on the movement of people inside the facilities.
When Samos camp welcomes its first residents on Monday, new arrivals will be required to spend up to 25 days indoors while their documents are reviewed, while deportees whose asylum claims have been rejected will be held in an area of “closed” pre-detention. .
Doctors Without Borders called the installation a disgrace on Friday, describing it as a dystopian nightmare. “How daring, as we see what is happening in countries like Afghanistan, the EU and Greece are busy inaugurating a new prison for asylum seekers in Samos,” said Wieland, coordinator group resident in the field. “This is the perfect illustration of the criminality of EU migration policy: detaining and detaining people fleeing violence and punishing them for wanting to be safe. It’s a shame. “
About 500 men, women and children are about to be transferred to the camp from a facility on the outskirts of Vathy, the island town.
At the height of the crisis, the old camp housed around 9,000 people, although it was designed to accommodate no more than 680 – an overcrowding that sparked the exasperation and fury of the islanders.
The number of refugees has dropped sharply on the islands, with the Greek Migration Ministry this week reporting an 81% drop in the one-year period from August 2020 after concerted efforts to transfer people to the mainland.
But while the numbers are no longer overwhelming, aid workers fear that for asylum seekers already struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the highly-controlled camp will only make matters worse.
“It’s hard not to see how their mental health will not be affected,” said Simone Innico, an aid worker with grassroots organization Samos Volunteers. “Being locked up like common criminals when everything these people have done has come to Europe in search of refuge and sanctuary can only backfire.”
Logothetis acknowledges the criticism. He said the EU itself had questioned the multi-layered fence surrounding the Samos facility. “But the point is to follow the law, and the law says we have to filter them and register them to make sure they don’t have any fakes. [papers] and are not terrorists, are not a danger and it takes time.
Europol alone typically took five days to screen a candidate, Logothetis said. “It was a step that was missing before,” he said of the decision to detain the asylum seekers. “They could sign up and drink coffee the next moment in the main square because there was no capacity to keep people inside.”
Long before the fall of Kabul ignited fears of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, the feverish situation on Greece’s easternmost islands caused headaches for successive governments.
A pact struck with Turkey in 2016 played a major role in transforming outposts into overcrowded buffer zones. Although aimed at stemming the flow of migrants, the agreement stipulated that asylum seekers who made often perilous sea journeys from Turkey’s coasts should remain on the islands until their asylum claims were processed.
Alarmed by Ankara’s actions last year when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced he was opening the doors to Europe, sending thousands of migrants to the Greek border, the prime minister’s center-right administration Kyriakos Mitsotakis hardened his position: strengthening border patrols, completing a 40 km long Steel Wall along the land border that Greece shares with Turkey and, according to rights groups, resorting to Controversial “push-backs” of people trying to gain access to Greek territory – actions Athens has fiercely denied.
More recently, it has started using sound cannons – long-range acoustic devices capable of firing bursts of deafening noise – to deter migrants along the land border.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi says the policies have “turned an out of control crisis into a manageable situation”.
Logothetis said: “We all have different audiences, different stories. In Greece, people are very tired of this refugee story and they blame us for creating such large centers. Others complain that they are small and that the fences are too tight, but we have to be prepared. We need to have a contingency plan and be ready for the next emergency. “