Monday, 11 October 2021

New Aegean camp pushes refugees out of sight

This article was published by Al Jazeera.

SAMOS, Greece – Workers are still laying down asphalt in the high-security end of the camp where deportees will be held, but the overall shape of Samos’ new, 15 hectare refugee reception centre is clear. 

A large, central area contains neighbourhoods of colour-coded mobile housing units for Arab speakers (green), Afghans (blue) and people of African origin (red). Between them are shared play areas for football, basketball and volleyball. A purple area is set aside for Covid-19 quarantine. A separate section of the camp will process new arrivals. 

Some of the 350 asylum-seekers bussed here on September 20-21 were grateful to be moved from the old camp in Samos’ main town of Vathy, which will be bulldozed. Built for 700 people, it had ended up housing 9,000. People arriving from Turkey, only 1.5km away across the Aegean Sea, had built a shanty town of tarpaulin huts nailed onto frames of salvaged lumber. 

Agong Patience arrived from Cameroon only a month ago, and she was hopeful about these new beginnings. 

“In the new camp, God is beginning everything with new life, there will be a light, a special light that God will make there, because he has moved us from the old site to the new site,” she says. 

As she organised her kitchen utensils in her new house, Fatima Wakinchila from the Democratic Republic of Congo sang the praises of the government. “Everything is organised,” she said pointing to the luxury of shelves. “I have two stove tops. It’s clean. Thank you Greece.” 

This reception centre is the first of five the European Union is building on east Aegean islands at a cost of about 220 million dollars. Together, they will hold up to 13 and a half thousand people. The aim is to provide asylum seekers with humane living conditions while their cases are decided, and put an end to pictures of squalour and disorganisation that have embarrassed Europe. 

“The situation in the old camp was terrible because we were living with rats and no lights,” says Thompson Ewoma, who arrived two years ago as an unaccompanied minor from Cameroon. In the desperate conditions, inter-ethnic tensions festered. “In the winter time we bathed in cold water because there was no electric heater. We went to a container to bathe in hot water but we had some problems with Arab people.” 

But Ewoma also worries that the Closed, Controlled, Access Centre of Samos, as the new camp is called, is located on a thyme-covered mountaintop 7km from Vathy. Outside its double chainlink fence topped with barbed wire there is no-one to talk to, nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down. 

“When I first arrived, this place would be amazing,” he says surveying the barrack-like rows of mobile houses with solar water heaters and air conditioning. “But now I have been for two years in the city. I used to go down to the city to swim… to relieve my stress, I used to talk to people… So I’m not really happy.” 

A refugee washes grapes a day before Samos' camp at Vathy was closed

Some aid groups are trying to rectify that. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have already landscaped a clinic five minutes’ walk from the camp. Samos Volunteers, who run informal education and recreation programmes, are establishing a presence on a nearby rocky field. 

As camp functionaries showed refugees how to operate card readers and fingerprint scanners on steel turnstile doors, Samos Volunteers stapled windbreaker fabric onto a wall made of wooden palettes. 

“It’s still a camp,” says Bogdan Andrei, who’s been with Samos Volunteers for five years. “It does offer better material living conditions, but other than that there’s no improvement. I would say even bringing people in such an isolated place could have an even stronger impact on their well-being, on their mental health, on their capacity to rebuild their life and integrate.” 

Manos Logothetis, secretary-general of the First Reception Service, the government agency that runs the camps, hopes refugees and Greek merchant will heed his call to set up small businesses inside the camp to sell groceries and services to residents. But that, some fear, will only reinforce the camp’s isolation. 

Giulia Cicoli is one of them. She founded Still I Rise, an informal education centre that has worked hard to enrol refugee minors in formal Greek education. She believes that without interaction with local society, refugees are denied the opportunity to take the next steps in their lives. So insists on bussing her wards to premises established in Vathy.

“The conditions here have got so bad, so inhumane, that now, a closed place that has - hey - a bed, a shower and electricity, is great. And for two weeks everybody is ok with that,” Cicoli says referring to the initial registration period. 

The Greek government has pledged to adjudicate new asylum cases within two months. After that, believes Cicoli, the trouble will begin. 

“So you do your interview, you’re rejected in a very short time and then you are kept in detention waiting to be deported back to Turkey,” she says. 

Since March last year, Turkey has refused to readmit refugees whose asylum applications were rejected in the EU. This runs counter to its obligations under an agreement struck with the bloc in 2016, and has led to unrest on Greece’s east Aegean islands, which are the main entry point for refugees coming from Turkey. The government’s response has been to decongest the islands, build new camps far from populated areas and speed up processing. Its emphasis on the islands is effeiciency, not integration. 

Greece typically detains deportees for 18 months, the maximum period allowed without trial. “You cannot stay in that place for 18 months. You cannot even stay for two months,” says Cicoli. She also worries that new outbreaks of coronavirus could be used to lock the camp down. 

Logothetis says 2,500 deportees are awaiting return to Turkey. “If Turkey rejects them and says, ‘no I am not taking them back’, then the only chance we have is to send them back to their own country. So if there is a delay of these 18 months that you describe, it is not on us.” 

In practice, deportations are difficult because a deportee’s home country has to recognise them as a citizen and accept them. If this doesn’t happen before the 18 months are up, Greece releases deportees with orders to leave the country. That allows them to get in touch with smugglers to go deeper into Europe. 

The New Democracy government’s aversion to integration is evident  in its own figures. Resident refugees fell from 93,037 at the beginning of 2020 to 64,756 at the end of the year, despite 14,848 arrivals. Departures, voluntary and involuntary, registered at 11,317. There is a gaping hole of more than 31,812 absences the government figures do not explain. 

Andrei says the answer is simple. “We know very well that there is not a proper integration programme in Greece, and even people who have received asylum here are moving on to other countries.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.