The human rights organization Amnesty International accuses the Greek authorities of illegally detaining migrants in an EU-funded camp for asylum seekers on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea.
Information from the human rights organization Amnesty International, released on December 2, accuses the Greek authorities of illegally detaining around 100 migrants at a camp on the Greek island of Samos.
According to a press statement from the organization, the Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, made a decision on November 17 which has yet to be published. This decision ruled, says Amnesty, that "those without valid government-issued IDs (asylum cards) are barred from leaving the camp for an indefinite period of time."
Amnesty goes on to state that according to their information, migrants concerned are either those who have had their cards withdrawn "as a result of unsuccessful asylum applications or newcomers yet to be issued with a card."
Amnesty: At least 100 people barred from leaving
After visiting the camp in question, which is supported by EU funds, Amnesty thinks that about 100 of the 450 residents fall into one of these two categories, and have thus been barred from leaving the "prison-like premises for more than two weeks." Amnesty classifies this as a “violation of their right to liberty."
Adriana Tidona, a migration researcher with Amnesty International described the Samos camp, saying it resembled a prison much more than "a place to house people seeking safety." Tidona said that in her opinion, the camp was a "gross misuse of EU money, and a gross abuse of the residents' rights."
Amnesty says that the European Commission contributed €276 million to fund several camps like the one on Samos. On November 27 they inaugurated similar closed controlled facilities on the islands of Leros and Kos. Two more are expected to follow on Lesbos and Chios.
Closed controlled center
The camp on Samos is categorized as a "closed controlled center". It is situated about six kilometers away from the main city, Vathi. It has been built to house up to 3,000 people but at the moment is housing around 450.
Surrounding the camp, states Amnesty, is "double barbed wire metal fencing, CCTV throughout and the 24/7 presence of patrolling police officers and privately contracted security officers." Residents in the camp are only allowed in and out between the hours of 8am and 8pm, and even during the day, are subject to security checks and magnetic gates.
Amnesty says that among those affected by the November 17 ruling are also families. That means, they say, they are missing out on classes and community activities at a nearby NGO-run center called "Alpha land."
Alpha land is run by an independent group of Samos volunteers and offers a welcome center, three classrooms and a women’s space on its premises. Classes run at the center include sewing, conversation classes, music, bike servicing, art workshops and a laundry service as well as psychological support and counseling.
Two Afghan men who are subject to the new conditions spoke to Amnesty on condition of anonymity. The first man 'A'* is living in a container in the camp with his family. He said he arrived in Greece in January 2020 and has had his asylum claim rejected "multiple times," and then had his asylum card withdrawn, meaning he is unable to leave the center.
A said "They have been treating us like prisoners. You really go insane in this place. You can't go back, you can’t go forward." A said he was having trouble sleeping and felt his life had "no purpose" and was filled with "a lot of anxiety."
A’s children, according to Amnesty, have been allowed out of the camp to attend school.
A second Afghan man who Amnesty called 'H'* said he had had his asylum claim rejected twice and had not left the camp for five days when he spoke to the organization. Previously, he said, he had been active outside the camp. "I was studying English and volunteered outside the camp," he explained. Now, though, since the ruling was put in place, H says he feels "that I am a prisoner. In the old camp, at least, I had my freedom."
Amnesty also says that "asylum seekers across Greece have not been provided with any financial assistance for two months after it abruptly stopped when the management of the EU-funded cash assistance program transferred from UNHCR to the Greek authorities."
NGOs denounce measures in Greece
Twenty-seven NGOs in Greece, including Save the Children, told Amnesty that they think about 34,000 asylum seekers are affected by this halt to funding. On November 25, Save the Children said the situation had brought a "hunger crisis” to Greece, as not only financial aid had been stopped but also the provision of food and water to recognized refugees and asylum seekers in the country.
One Afghan man said he was worried about feeding his children, saying "I can’t leave my babies hungry." Mothers had reported their children crying at night through hunger, not having enough money to buy milk to mush up their babies biscuits, and children going to school hungry.
The group of NGOs said that this halt to cash was "stripping asylum seekers' of their dignity and depriving them of the lifeline many depended upon." They said some were resorting to "begging and other negative coping mechanisms to survive."
Amnesty says they have repeatedly "expressed concerns" about this treatment, saying the "residents of Samos camp are being deprived of their liberty automatically and en masse, on untransparent and illegitimate legal grounds, without being able to challenge their confinement, for an indefinite period of time."
Amnesty has called on Greece to "urgently withdraw this decision and lift the restrictions on the residents of Samos camp." Adriana Tidona added that the European Commission should also ensure that within camps it is funding there was a "respect for fundamental rights."
EU and Greek response?
Neither the EU Commission nor the Greek government appears to have answered Amnesty’s accusations at the time of writing. However, the EU announced on December 2 that it would be providing a further €325 million in aid to Turkey as part of its Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) program to help refugees there.
The Greek news agency AMNA reported on November 27 that the EU Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas said that the new closed facilities on the Greek islands should be seen as "tangible proof of Europe’s full solidarity toward Greece."
On the same day, the Greek Minister of Migration called the camp openings a "new era." Mitarachis said that the building of the camps allowed Greece to "extract our islands from the migration problem and its consequences."
He said facilities at the camp would be a "vast improvement" to the old camps and informal settlements where people had been living, wrote the Greek Reporter. The newspaper said the camps boasted "running water, toilets and more security," features that "were absent from the previous facilities, which became infamous for their horrendous living conditions."
Although, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR's latest figures, only 8,145 migrants have arrived in Greece so far in 2021, and a little more than 9,000 in 2020, more than 59,000 arrived in 2019 and more than 32,000 in 2018. Many of those people are still in Greece.
In September 2021, UNHCR estimated that Greece had recognized around 98,000 people as either refugees or asylum seekers. The majority of which came from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. Not all of them are still present in Greece, the document cautioned.
*Not his real name