A lot has been written about the situation in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios but not so much focus has been placed on migrants living in closed camps in Kos and Leros. Refugee Rights Europe has lifted the lid on conditions there in an in-depth report entitled “Invisible Islands.” They document conditions that some of InfoMigrants’ facebook users have confirmed.
"I live in a closed camp in Greece. The situation is very bad," wrote one of InfoMigrants' Facebook users recently. The man went on to ask the media to raise more awareness about people living in situations like his. "Many people are crazy about being imprisoned in these closed camps without any fate. No human rights, not even the rights of a prisoner are respected here," he said. The man said he had been in the Pili camp on the island of Kos for "more than three years."
He claimed there was "oppression behind the scenes" in the camp and that camera phones were forbidden "so that the sinister secrets of these are not revealed." In a conversation on Facebook, he said that his phone camera had been "broken before entering the camp." He accused camp officials of breaking the phone. He said that no camp resident had seen the lawyers they had been promised, and that officials "took money from you and go behind their work."
Another of InfoMigrants’ Facebook users had a similar story to tell about a camp on Kos. He said he had arrived in December 2019 and had been living outside "the camp" in a tent. He said that he was a medical student but when he wrote back in March he had been "sick for a month." He said his flu and fever was because they weren't provided with "good food" in the camp and that it was cold and raining, and their tent was full of water.
Refugee Rights Europe RRE reports that residents living outside camps on Kos and Leros were forced to move into the official camps during the lockdown. At the time of writing, they said, in April 2020, "Leros RIC is currently hosting 1,997 people in a space with the capacity for 860, and Kos RIC is hosting 2,594 people in a space for 816." They noted that a "further 87 people" are being housed in a PIKPA (center for vulnerable people) "which has a capacity for 120" and that the "Pre-departure and Removal center (PDDC) on Kos is close to capacity, with 447 people held in a space for 474."
More recently, at the beginning of July, the medical student contacted InfoMigrants again, sending videos of what appeared to be a protest within the camp. One man held up a sign reading "I am not a criminal," others appeared to be banging water bottles on the ground in protest. Several men walked in and out of the shot barefoot.
He asked InfoMigrants to "write an article," saying that "for two days, nobody has eaten anything, and there are protests for freedom." He said that people wanted to be able to move to Athens but they had all been rejected. He added that the UN Refugee Agency IOM and asylum services were the only official organizations allowed inside the camp.
Both men suggested that their fate was being ignored in favor of the problems in the bigger and more prominent camps on islands like Lesbos.'Invisible Islands'
RRE’s latest report, “Invisible Islands,” the conditions to
which the men attest are confirmed:
Since the report was written, many of the migrant camps in Greece have remained in semi-permanent or permanent lockdown, despite restrictions being eased in much of the rest of the country. RRE reported that in the island hotspots the restrictive measures due to the lockdown were brought in on March 18. These were extended until May and have remained largely in place ever since.
Different islands have enacted the measures slightly differently, but the government directive said that people could only leave the camps "in small groups of under ten people" between the hours of 7am and 7pm.
Cash and food restrictions
Cash card payments, which provide a monthly allowance for asylum seekers in Greece, were not made at the end of March because the government was busy installing cash machines nearer the camps "to prevent people from going into nearby towns and villages and creating queues," said the report. That meant that camp residents were unable to supplement the food given to them in the camp.
One English teacher referred to as "A." told the RRE researchers: "The food provided to us is inedible and 90% of the food given to us is thrown away...we were fine with the situation before the lockdown but now, as the lockdown is in place, we can't go outside and buy food to cook ourselves. Now we rely on their food which can’t be eaten 100%."
When the cash payments were finally allowed again "people had become desperate," note the report's authors, that they "rushed to leave. This caused panic in the camp which was brutally repressed by the police, as witnessed by "M.", a university graduate and freelance painter and decorator," who has been living in the Kos hotspot for a year.
'The police beat the men and women to separate'
"M." told the report's authors that only 65 people were allowed to leave the camp at a time. "Here we are more than a thousand. It has become a mess. The police beat the women and men to separate," he said.
The hotspots on Kos and Leros are meant to be being converted into closed sites on a more permanent basis, although in April the building work hadn't yet begun, according to a volunteer from Echo100Plus.
The promised medical and isolation facilities, said the report, "are yet to emerge."
Distant and forgotten
Another problem with the location of the hotspot on Kos is its location, notes the RRE report. It is 15 kilometers away from Kos' town center, and is located on a former military base. English teacher "A." told the report researchers: "It's almost in the middle of the forest. It is far away from everything such as supermarkets and hospitals. It's basically [that] we're detained in a military camp that is surrounded by barbed wire, so it's hard for us to go downtown as it costs a lot to go by bus here in Kos.”"
Many people are living in makeshift dwellings built from bamboo, blankets, plastic sheeting and anything else they can find. Access to water is also limited. The water is cut off for "almost 18 hours a day," said the report. Residents have to queue for hours around standpipes outside the containers in order to fill up bottles and buckets. Residents reported feeling "unsafe" in the camp because they were "living around garbage," and there were "fights among refugees on an almost daily basis that happen [as a] result of being detained here for too long." The residents also complained of "oppression and bad treatment that we get from the administration and the police."
On Leros island, migrants are housed in another former military base, which was turned into a psychiatric hospital in 1957. Although the psychiatric facility closed down in 1995, the RRE report notes that "about 200 patients are still present." Essentially, they say that means that "two populations vulnerable to negligence [have been] placed together, almost invisible from the nearest town of Lepida."
One of the founding members of the humanitarian organization Echo100Plus, Catharina Kahane told the authors of the report that they feared that the lockdown would mean the closed detention situation could become “normal,” and would remain in place even after the rest of the country had relaxed.
The authors also criticized the continuing use of detention facilities on both islands during the pandemic, which they say violates Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Because all travel was shut down during the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, people were unable to depart - which means they shouldn't have been detained prior to a departure that could not take place.
The report also noted that there was a "low quality" of asylum interviews for those applying on Kos "marked by the type of questions asked, and people struggling to get through to them in the first place as the line is always busy and the reception is bad."
Because the Greek Asylum Service refused to accept printed or phone-based evidence as part of the interview process, they said that potential asylum seekers on Kos were finding it hard to submit evidence and were not given breaks during their asylum interview, which also contravened the "standard practice laid out by EASO [European Asylum Support Office]."
New arrivals during lockdown
Those who arrived during the lockdown period from Turkey, were put immediately into a detention facility on Leros. There they were held for over three weeks. Detainees, from "low-recognition countries" (i.e. coming from countries from where it is unlikely you could successfully obtain asylum) reported being given nowhere to charge their phone batteries, "leaving them no way to communicate." They were also not able to wash "which resulted in skin infections." Those in the closed detention facility were not given the opportunity to apply for asylum.
In fact, new detention facilities are planned to be built on both Kos and Leros although the RRE report said it was difficult to establish what, if anything, would be built. However, the EU has already pledged money for the construction of the facilities in 2020.
"A total of €280
million will be made available for the creation of five new 'multi-purpose' reception and identification centers on the Greek
islands in 2020," announced EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva
Johansson in May this year.
Meanwhile, residents continue to live in semi-closed conditions. This has a long-term impact on their mental health and well-being; One resident, "M, said he and his wife, who is also a university graduate and a former peace ambassador, had received "no help" from anyone in the camp, and that there was "neither safety nor protection for families."
He added the "police cannot protect us." He told the report authors that his wife and he were "threatened and beaten by people belonging to terrorism," and that after a year in the camp, he was in a "tired psychological state."
'A state of despair'
The authors further say that residents have complained of ill-treatment by the police, too, highlighting "slaps, punches and kicks as well as blows with truncheons and metal objects to the body and head." In addition they said they had received allegations of "blows with a stick to the soles of the feet and the application of a plastic bag over the head during police interviews, reportedly with the aim of obtaining a confession or a signed statement."
Those who allege ill treatment, says the report, were unable to make a phone call or contact a lawyer during their initial questioning by the police. When not being beaten, many residents said the police frequently made racist or xenophobic remarks towards them. And that investigations into any detention or experience of ill treatment were lacking or "delayed."
Even without beating or specific violations, daily life can grind you down in these camps. "M." finished his statement by telling the authors of the document that he had "reached a stage of despair."
RRE says that in conclusion that "the material living conditions in the hotspots on both Kos and Leros clearly contravene Article 119, which outlines that material reception conditions must provide asylum seekers with an adequate standard of living that ensures their subsistence and promotes their physical and mental health, based on the respect of human dignity."
They continue to call for a "strong
improvement" of these conditions in all the facilities on these "invisible islands."