By Cecilia Sanfelici
Two months ago, a new camp for asylum seekers was opened on the Greek island of Samos in a provocative and criticized inauguration ceremony attended by Greek and European authorities. Hanging over the entry gate of the new camp is a sign reporting the name Closed Controlled Access Center of Samos. This new facility is part of the five camps, entirely financed by the European Commission, that are being built or are planned to be built on the five Greek islands that since 2015 hosted five hotspot camps. The construction of the new site in Samos cost approximately €40 million.
Numerous concerns about the closed and prison-like nature of these camps were raised by us and numerous other organizations before the opening of the first one in Samos. Barbed wire, military double fences, 24/7 digital surveillance, electronic gates that work with a badge and fingerprints, and a security check to go through when re-entering the camp are some of the features that make this new reception facility resemble a prison. The curfew and the remote location of the camp from the main town and public services result in physical and social isolation of the camp residents. And this, in turn, leads to physical and social invisibility.
Photo: the external walls of the Ritsona camp
Meanwhile, last Saturday 27th November 2021, two other Closed Controlled Access camps were inaugurated on the islands of Kos and Leros. Costing respectively €33.5 million and €30million and having a capacity of more than 2000 people, these two new reception facilities bring the total number of closed camps built on the Aegean islands to three and the inhumane policy of Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis closer to its goals. He said that the new camps represent "a key pillar of our strict but fair immigration policy." The Vice-President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas attended the three opening ceremonies and on these occasions stated that the new structures ensure that asylum seekers can live in dignity and full compliance with European standards and laws.
This is far from the reality. Not only do closed camps severely restrict fundamental rights and freedoms of asylum seekers. They also normalize de facto detention as the standard reception practice. The camp in Kos has become the emblematic example of the indiscriminate use of detention for all people seeking asylum. According to European law, detention of asylum seekers and refugees can only happen on a limited number of grounds - for instance, for identification purposes, deportation and public grounds. However, in the last five years, the unlawful and arbitrary use of detention, and the use of “public interest” as the ground for detention, has been documented as a serious yet widespread practice across Greece.
Photo: the old Reception and Identification Centre on the island of Samos
This is what is currently happening in Samos, too. Since Tuesday 16th November, 2021, some camp residents in Samos were forbidden to leave the camp due to the lack of a valid asylum applicant ID card. This rule is reportedly the implementation of an order by the Ministry of MIgration and Asylum but never communicated neither to camp residents nor to NGOs operating on the ground. It affects two categories of camp residents: firstly, newly registered people who are still waiting for their ID card to be issued; secondly, people who received a negative decision on their asylum request. About half of the population currently living in the camp has no way out, with limited exceptions such as accessing medical and legal assistance. Food and clothes distribution is instead not considered as a valid reason for people to be allowed out of the camp, despite these being basic needs that are either not available or scarcely available in the camp.
The developments in Greece are thus taking a sad and worrying trend, as closed camps - together with the closing of external borders - are being perceived by both Greece and the European Commission as the only possible solution to migration, which is in turn perceived as a problem that has to be dealt with.