SAMOS, Greece – New “closed” refugee and migrant detention camps on Greek islands – the first is ready on Samos, within sight of the coast of Turkey, which has allowed human traffickers to keep sending more – may be better than the notorious facilities they're replacing but activists and human rights groups don't think so.
The one on Samos has eight restaurants, seven basketball courts, three playgrounds, a football pitch, special rooms for vulnerable people, and designed to be environmentally friend, the British newspaper The Guardian reported.
In a piece, the paper's Helena Smith noted for all its upgraded creature comforts that it's surrounded by military-grade fencing, watched over by police and located in a remote valley.
The message was clear: refugees and migrants seeking asylum are no longer welcome, Greece holding up to 100,000 of them at one point, including thousands on five islands near Turkey.
“Maybe the barbed wire is shiny and new in their center but this cannot be sold as an improvement,” said Patrick Wieland, of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known as Doctors Without Borders.
But Manos Logothetis, who oversees refugee reception at the Greek migration ministry, said that, “For the first time in the history of migration, a beneficiary will be able to sit in a restaurant that is air-conditioned and safe,” he said, noting “decent living conditions” in a 38-million euro ($44.52 million) compound.
“That’s a big change from the long food lines and mud and filth we had before, but yes it is also going to be more regulated, more controlled,” he said, just before a fire tore through the Vathy camp that's being replaced.
Since the refugees and migrants began coming – more than a million – in 2016, heading first to Turkey to flee war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands, especially Syria and Afghanistan, they were being housed in Greece in what rights groups called squalid and inhumane conditions.
After the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA had an open door policy, the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has taken a harder line, extending a border wall along the Evros River on the northern border with Turkey and stepping up Aegean patrols looking for dinghies carrying more hopefuls.
The EU said it would put up 250 million euros ($292.86 million) more for camps on the islands of Kos, Leros, Chios and Lesbos, which holds the most and has been the symbol first of welcoming refugees and migrants and now not wanting them.
The much-criticized Moria camp on Lesbos burned down in an anti-COVID-19 lockdown protest and has been replaced by a temporary tent city but no work has begun the new closed facility a year later.
Greece's government can dress it up but critics said the closed facilities are just disguised prisons with a shine.
The Samos camp will see arrivals required to spend up to 25 days indoors as their documents are examined, while deportees whose asylum requests have been rejected will be held in a more secure pre-detention area.
“How audacious that while we see what’s happening in countries like Afghanistan, the EU and Greece are busy inaugurating a new prison for asylum seekers on Samos,” said Wieland, MSF's Resident Field Coordinator.
“This is the perfect illustration of how criminal the EU policy on migration is – holding and detaining people are who escaping violence and punishing them for wanting to be safe. It is a disgrace.”
About 500 men, women and children are about to be moved into the camp from a facility on the outer edge of Vathy, the island’s town. The camp once held almost 9,000 people although it was designed for 680.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw numbers of new arrivals fall even more than they did after a 2016 swap deal with signed between EU and Turkey, which has still let human traffickers operate and isn't taking back in any numbers those denied in asylum in Greece, despite the agreement.
“It’s hard not to see how their mental health won’t be affected,” said Simone Innico, an aid worker with the grassroots organisation Samos Volunteers. “Being locked up like common criminals when all these people have done is come to Europe seeking refuge and sanctuary can only backfire.”
Logothetis said that, “The purpose is to follow the law, and the law says we have to screen them and register them to make sure they don’t have fake (papers) and aren’t terrorists, aren’t a danger and that takes time.” Indeed, two years or more.
He added: “In Greece people are very tired with this refugee story and they blame us for making centres that are so big. Others complain that they’re small and the fencing is too severe but we have to be prepared. We have to have a contingency plan and be ready for the next emergency.”
“This is the first of a new generation of reception centers in the Aegean islands,” said Beate Gminder, who helps oversee migration management for the European Commission, as she unveiled the new facility, reported Politico.
“The new closed, controlled-access center 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,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said, the site added.
“Vathy was probably the worst camp in Greece, so it’s good to put an end to this chapter,” said Mireille Girard, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Greece.