VATHY, Samos — Greece's prime minister flew to the eastern Aegean island of Samos Friday to view a new camp for asylum seekers that has replaced the island's old, squalid facility, and said his government's migration policy has "crushed" migrant smuggling networks.
Speaking in the remnants of the old camp on the edge of the island's main town of Vathy, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he would continue to press European Union countries to come up with a common policy that would share responsibility for migrants among the member states.
"We will continue to work in order to persuade those European countries who consider that this problem does not concern them, to change their stance and contribute to this big, joint European effort," Mitsotakis said.
Migrant entries into Greece have fallen by about 90% compared with those of 2019, the prime minister noted. "We have crushed the smuggling networks that were taking advantage of human pain and disappointment," he said.
The camp at Vathy had become "a shame for human dignity," Mitsotakis said. Originally built to house just over 600 people, the camp become Greece's most overcrowded, with around 7,000 people living in the facility and a shantytown of tents and makeshift shacks that sprang up in the olive groves around it.
Now empty, only stray cats remain among its tattered remnants. Clearly used to people when the camp was occupied, the friendly strays wandered among the sudden influx of visitors during the prime minister's trip, with one curling up next to a podium set up for speeches during a brief ceremony handing the site back to the local municipality.
A new, 43 million-euro ($50 million) EU-funded camp opened in September in the hills of Samos away from the main town. Officially designated a "closed controlled access center," it consists of air-conditioned container housing in the form of family houses and dormitories, with a capacity of 3,000 people.
Officials have stressed the facility is intended to house people temporarily for a few months while their asylum applications are processed, after which they will either move to the mainland or be deported.
Although bleak, with row upon row of container housing in segments separated by razor wire-topped fences, conditions are an improvement on the Vathy camp.
Asylum-seekers are housed in neighborhoods according to nationality, and there are basketball courts and playgrounds among the container housing. Currently around 300 people are living there, half from Afghanistan and the rest from Syria and African countries.
But its remote location and stringent security has raised concern among rights groups, some of whom have described the conditions there as prison-like.
"There is no doubt that this new center will only further dehumanize and marginalize people seeking protection in the European Union," medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said in a statement when the facility opened.
"Millions of euros have been spent on the construction of this facility that comes with military-grade barbed wire fences and advanced surveillance systems. All of this to detain people whose only 'crime' is seeking safety and stability," MSF said. "In addition to the mass rejections of asylum applications, this new center is another symbol of the complete rejection of refugees and of their right to seek asylum."
Greece plans to create similar camps on another four eastern Aegean islands that lie near the Turkish coast.
Camp residents can freely leave the facility during the day, with the entrance open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.. Access is controlled by entry cards and fingerprints, and the facility is strictly supervised. Authorities have said they will keep buses running several times a day between the new camp and Vathy.
Greece lies on one of the most popular routes into the EU for people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In 2015 at the height of Europe's migration crisis, around a million people entered the EU, the vast majority risking a short but dangerous crossing to Greek islands like Samos from the nearby Turkish coast.
But Mitsotakis' conservative government, elected in 2019, has cracked down on illegal migration, beefing up patrols on land and sea borders. It has come under strong criticism by rights groups, refugees and some EU officials who have accused Greek authorities of carrying out summary deportations of people crossing into Greek territory, without giving them the chance to apply for asylum. Greek authorities deny the accusations.
"Greece has borders in the sea and on land. Europe has borders in the sea and on land, and our obligation is to guard these borders. Without in any circumstances endangering human lives," Mitsotakis said. "For every prevention of illegal entry that occurs at sea, there are another so many cases where our coast guard, with self-sacrifice, saves human lives."
By ELENA BECATOROS Associated Press