The brand new centre, located 5km away from Vathy city in Samos island, is still partly under construction, but most of it is ready. Located in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by three layers of fence & barded wire, it is designed to host up to 3,000 people, of which according to the Greek Minister of Migration, 2,100 will have a “controlled access” and 900 will be in detention waiting to be sent back to Turkey. Patients and people who live in Vathy reception centre describe it as an open-air prison. © MSF/Evgenia Chorou

Samos, Greece: Inauguration of new prison like camp

The new Multi-Purpose Reception & Identification Centre (MPRIC) on Samos island is an escalation of European migration policies aimed at deterring people from coming and punishing those who make it. Not only is it dangerous, but also harmful to people’s physical and mental wellbeing, as detailed in Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s recent report ‘Constructing Crisis at Europe’s Borders’. People will be held in shipping containers, surrounded by high, barbed wire fences, with controlled entry and exit. This cannot be sold as an improvement in people’s living conditions. Locked up children playing in playgrounds surrounded by barbed wire fences in a remote location completely cut off from the rest of society is not better conditions, it’s a disgrace. What is happening in reality, is that the EU and its leaders are intensifying a policy of violence which is causing a worsening health and protection crisis. 

How many people are on Samos camp and how are they?

The population in Vathy camp on Samos has dropped significantly. In view of the transfer to the new centre, hundreds of people have been moved to camps on the mainland by authorities.  Many others, fearful of what might happen to them in the new camp, are taking the risk to leave to the mainland on their own and compromise their asylum process, rather than face the prospect of being moved to into prison-like conditions in Zervou. Just ahead of the transfer to the new camp, there are around 600 people in Vathy camp. Those who remain in Vathy camp describe it as a “ghost camp” and feel abandoned, as their fear and anxiety for what they will face in the new centre is growing. This limbo combined with the perspective of moving to a prison like camp is just adding to their already heavy suffering and despair. Many people tell us “that they will be moved from one prison to another”.

Don’t you think that the new centre will be safer and will provide better living conditions to its residents?

The new facilities will be in isolated and in remote areas of the islands. MSF has seen the one already being built on Samos, where we work. People will be held in shipping containers, surrounded by high, barbed wire fences, with controlled entry and exit. Although in theory people might be able to enter and leave the camp, in practice it is located in a remote area around two hours walk from Vathy town, so without transport people are effectively trapped. This cannot be sold as an improvement in people’s living conditions. Locked up children playing in playgrounds surrounded by barbed wire fences in a remote location completely cut off from the rest of society is not better conditions, it’s a disgrace. What is happening in reality, is that the EU and its leaders are intensifying a policy of violence which is causing a worsening health and protection crisis. As one of our patients said when he found out about the new center “they are moving us from one prison to another”. The European Commission, European member states and Greek authorities must take responsibility. Rather than pursuing a brutal, inhumane and illogical system, Europe must instead adopt policies that protect human lives and do not jeopardise people’s health and well-being. 

Is MSF going to work inside new centre?

MSF on Samos is aiming to move closer to the new centre. It is our priority is to stay close to the population and ensure patients can access the MSF clinic.

What is the solution to this situation?  

For European leaders, the solution is to create an illusion that migration is a danger that must be stopped. This is not a solution; it is the cause of the crisis. Rather than spending millions on the segregation and humiliation of people seeking protection in Europe, the EU should instead invest in consistent and safe reception, relocation and integration programmes. MSF has been treating the physical and mental wounds of harmful migration policies for nearly four years and, astonishingly, rather than addressing the situation, the EU and its member states intend to intensify and institutionalize its containment and deterrence strategy. The European Commission, European member states and Greek authorities must take responsibility and evacuate people from the island hotspots and immediately halt the creation of the Greek island centers. The only purpose of centres on the Greek islands must be the provision of urgent assistance, facilitation of access to protection and relocation to safe reception.   

How will people be supported in the new centre?

There is no clear, communicated plan about how people will be supported in the new centres. This is worrying and irresponsible, particularly given the years of neglect MSF has witnessed where not even the most basic life essentials have been provided to asylum seekers on the Greek Islands. At the moment there is not even transportation plans for people to move to the city.

Will the new centres be closed?

The centres are designed to be more restrictive versions of the current facilities like the previous ones in Moria and Vathy. Their aim is to facilitate and reinforce containment, detention and deportations of people arriving in Europe and reinforce segregation of refugees from the rest of the society. In short, they are built to keep refugees out of sight and out of mind! It is disgraceful and shocking that all this is happening on EU soil.

What do you know about the surveillance system that is going to be used in the new centres?

According to media reports, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum will soon develop and deploy a surveillance system that will include CCTV system and video monitors, drone flights over the facilities to detect incidents, perimeter violation alarms with cameras, control gates with metal detectors and x-ray devices and an automated system for public announcements, broadcast from loudspeakers.

How much money is the EU providing for the new MPRICs?

Greece has benefited from €3.32 billion of EU support for migration since 2015. Millions has been allocated for the construction of new restrictive MPRICs on the five Greek island hotspots. In March 2021, the Commission awarded a grant of €155 million to the Greek authorities to build new reception centres on the Greek islands of Lesvos -, Chios and expand Evros facility. Recently the Ministry announced that cost for the construction of these camps will be 164 million euro. This award comes on top of €121 million awarded in November 2020 for the construction of reception centres on the islands of Samos, Kos and Leros. For surveillance systems more than 6 million euro have been granted to Greece.

Despite all this money the conditions in the hotspots remain dire and people are left neglected in extreme and unsanitary conditions. MSF and other NGOs have continuously had to step in. For example, in 2019 MSF provided 5000 winter kits to people in the Vathy hotspot, at a cost of 150, 000€+ and requiring more than 30 MSF staff to do the distribution.

Instead of sending the Greek Government millions of Euros to segregate migrants in dehumanizing and harmful facilities, there should be more investment and support for safe accommodation, protection and integration programs on the Greek mainland and other European countries.

What about the situation on mainland Athens, is it better than the Greek island hotspots?

While the hideous construction of these new centres is happening on the islands, a silent injustice continues on the mainland. Many people, despite having geographical restrictions and active asylum procedures on the islands, with the tolerance of the Greek authorities, are travelling to Athens having nothing else to lose. They end up sleeping rough or in precarious conditions. At the same time, thousands of recognized refugees instead of being supported to rebuild their lives, are facing eviction and life on the streets, all these during the pandemic. If migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are not living in the streets of Athens, or in other unsafe accommodation, they are suffering in overcrowded camps on the mainland, where the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Plans proceed for increased security and control with the building of concrete walls around camps and dystopian surveillance systems including drones and thermal cameras, which will be installed in 39 camps across the mainland and the Greek islands.