The new closed camp on the island of Samos opened on September 18, 2021 | Photo: MSF
The new closed camp on the island of Samos opened on September 18, 2021 | Photo: MSF

A number of French presidential candidates and politicians have held up Greece as a model for its border and migrant management, including French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. That's despite the "prison-like" conditions in Greek camps called out by rights groups and the practice of illegal pushbacks which has been condemned by the UN.

What they have been saying:

"What Greece has done in terms of border control is absolutely exemplary," said French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse during a visit to Athens and the island of Samos in mid-January 2022. The LR (Les Républicains) presidential candidate praised the "model" of the closed camps for migrants which, according to her, provide "a reception for everyone who arrives at the border (...) in very good and dignified conditions." She reiterated her support for Greek migration policy on February 22 on French radio station France Inter.

A few months earlier, French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, also visiting Samos, had also praised the "Greek model" of ultra-secure camps, wishing that this system "be applied in other Mediterranean countries, such as Italy, Spain and Malta." For Darmanin, "if all countries worked like Greece for the control of external borders, then migration management would be less of a problem in Europe."

Read more: Greece to fortify border to stop migrants, seeks EU funds

What are they talking about?

Greece's first closed camp for asylum seekers was inaugurated on September 18, 2021, in Samos, an island in the Aegean Sea. At the end of November, two other similar structures were opened on the islands of Kos and Leros. The Greek government plans to open two more in Lesbos and Chios.

The sites are surrounded by barbed wire fences topped with surveillance cameras. There are metal security gates with digital recognition and turnstiles at the entrance, authorized exit times between 8am and 8pm. The structures were built to "secure the migrants" who are there, according to the Greek government.

The European Union has invested €276 million in the construction of these new facilities (including €43 million for Samos), in order to help Greece, in the front line in the reception of migrants in Europe with the arrival since 2015 of more than one million people.

Read more: 'My name is Parvin': Iranian woman files claims of torture and abuse against Greece

Why the Greek 'model' isn't one?

These ultra-secure centers praised by Pécresse and Darmanin have been strongly criticized by rights' groups for being "open-air prisons". Forty-five NGOs and civil society groups have called on the EU and the Greek government to put an end to these facilities since they opened.

They say that these centers "hamper the identification and protection of vulnerable people, limit access to services and assistance for asylum seekers, and exacerbate the adverse effects of displacement on people's mental health."

In October 2021, a severe storm had damaged the "model camp" in Samos. Many housing containers had suffered water leaks. "The center was built at the bottom of a valley so the water runs down onto it from the mountaiins," worried a source of Samos Advocacy Collective who assured that "the island is well known to be regularly exposed to heavy rains."

In the other Greek camps, where migrants are sometimes stranded for several years, the situation is no better. This strategy of confinement has been denounced in particular in Ritsona, north of Athens, and in Nea Kavala, near the Macedonian border. Huge walls have been built around these places, which has destabilized the migrants. "I don't know why. It seems that [the Greek authorities] don't want us to be able to live together [...] Everywhere we look, we see these walls," said a Congolese refugee from Nea Kavala this winter. "Build schools, not walls," said an Afghan woman from the Ritsona camp.

Since October, thousands of migrants have also been excluded from receiving food aid distributed by the Greek state. Neither legal refugees nor rejected asylum seekers, who are still living in these structures, can receive meals. According to NGOs, 60% of the people in the camps on the mainland are affected by these restrictions.

There are also many criticisms of the Greek authorities in terms of border control. Greece is regularly accused of illegal pushbacks and violence, which Athens categorically denies. However, stories of migrants in the Aegean Sea have been documented many times by associations and the media, including InfoMigrants.

In one such example, a Guinean man told InfoMigrants in 2020 how men in uniform had pierced the boat he was in to prevent him from reaching the Greek coast. "They pushed us back into Turkish waters and then the men [dressed in Greek coast guard uniforms] pierced the front of our inflatable boat with their sticks and left, leaving us alone in the middle of the sea. Slowly, our boat started to deflate. The water was getting inside. We called the Turkish coast guard, they came for us about half an hour later and took us back to Turkey."

A retired Greek police officer told InfoMigrants in 2021 that he himself had been illegally sending back thousands of exiles from the Evros region to Turkey for years "on the orders of my superiors".

"My colleagues would often call me to say they were coming with a group of migrants. My role was simple: I would get them on my boat, often at nightfall, and bring them back to the Turkish coast. A pushback did not last very long. The army was obviously aware of this. Everyone knew what I was doing," the ex-police officer told InfoMigrants, speaking under the condition of anonymity.

"I almost never had to send back women and children, the vast majority were men. They came from Pakistan, Iran, Syria... In all, I sent back more than 2,000 people, in almost 20 years."

These pushbacks, both on land and at sea, can lead to tragedies. Earlier this month, 19 migrants were found frozen to death on the Turkish side of the border after allegedly being turned back by Greek border guards, according to Ankara.

Last week, an investigation by several major European media outlets alleged that Greek authorities had thrown migrants into the sea so they would make their own way to the Turkish shore. According to the journalists, the Greek coast guard beat up and threw three people into the water without lifeboats or life jackets last September. Two of them drowned as a result. Another man has been missing since the end of January, after suffering the same fate.

On February 21, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi once again criticized Greece for its management of migrants. Grandi said that his agency was "alarmed" by the "recurrent and consistent reports" claiming that the Greek coast guard is failing to assist refugees at sea. The UNHCR had recorded nearly 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the start of 2020. In his statement, Grandi said he feared that these "deplorable" acts were becoming "normalized."

"What is happening at European borders is legally and morally unacceptable and must stop. Protecting human life, human rights and dignity must remain our shared priority," he added.


More articles