Kos is one of the Greek Aegean Islands near Turkey and one of five ‘hotspots’ in Greece - the EU’s approach to receiving and identifying asylum seekers at its external borders. The island is south of Lesvos, Chios and Samos and the situation for refugees and asylum seekers here is rarely mentioned in media coverage of the Aegean crisis.
The situation for displaced people on Kos has changed dramatically over the past year as asylum procedures have sped up and illegal pushbacks by the Greek government from Greek to Turkish waters have prevented most would-be new arrivals from reaching the island. The number of refugees and asylum seekers on the island has decreased from 4,000+ in January 2020 to an estimated figure of 795 people at present.
Most asylum seekers are living in either the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) - known to residents as the ‘open camp’ - or in the island’s detention centre. Since January 2020, the practice on Kos has been to detain all asylum seekers upon arrival (with the exceptions of people recognised as unaccompanied minors, pregnant women or women with newborns under 6 months). As a result of the new asylum law which entered into effect in Jan 2020, over the past year, it has been commonplace for new arrivals on the islands to be arrested and charged with entering the country illegally and then held in this detention centre for the duration of their asylum procedure. The new asylum law greatly expanded the grounds for detaining asylum seekers in Greece and also increased the maximum time people can be detained.
Citing Covid-19 restrictions, the police refuse the UNHCR, NGOs and human rights observers access to the living areas of the detention centre. However, anecdotal evidence from residents suggests that conditions are very poor. Residents live in containers and it is reported that the food is of poor quality, sanitation facilities are dirty and there are rodent infestations. Families with young children are among those being detained in this facility.
Following recent changes to the Greek asylum law, once someone receives a positive asylum claim they are no longer able to stay in the RIC or detention centre and have 30 days to find somewhere else to live. As a result, NGO actors on the island are supporting several hundred people living in apartments in the city. Apartment accommodation is precarious and can be difficult to register for. Moreover, the withdrawal of a funding programme earlier in the year left many people homeless, either living on the streets or circumstantially forced to move back to live in the open camp.
As of May 4th statistics from the Greek authorities put the number of people living in the open camp at 123 and 185 in the detention centre, although it is thought that figures may be slightly higher.
Since early 2021, the asylum procedure has been considerably sped up. Whilst theoretically this is a positive development, NGOs report that it has limited new arrival’s access to legal aid in the short window of time before their first interview. The first interview is particularly important in determining the decision on someone’s asylum claim and it is essential that individuals have good knowledge about the process and requirements of them at this stage because appeals are rejected at a very high rate.
The EU is providing funding for 5 new structures – essentially camps – on the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros. On Kos, the new structure is being built next to the existing open camp and detention centre - located together on a hill at the island’s centre - and is expected to be completed in June with capacity for 3,290 people. Actors on the island who have seen the new camp under construction claim that it looks like a ‘giant prison’.
Europe Must Act continues to campaign for temporary dignified reception conditions on the islands and European countries to share the responsibility for processing the asylum claims of people arriving at Europe’s borders through relocation to their own territories. As an individual or organisation, you can join the movement!