“The new camp is not a camp, it’s a prison. There is barbed wire all around it. There is even a deportation and prison camp within the camp. I think the island is already some kind of a camp, because it is so remote. In a way it is like a camp in a camp in a camp.”
Bashir*, former resident of the camp
The first of the new “Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres” on the Aegean islands is supposed to be inaugurated on Samos this weekend. At the end of 2020, EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson promised seamless asylum procedures and integration measures for those seeking protection, and announced good accommodation conditions in line with EU law. The EU is investing at least 250 million euros in new humanitarian camps – for more people and with air-conditioned living containers where people can cook for themselves. That sounds good. Yet the residents of the current old camp in the town of Vathy have well-founded doubts – based on their experiences. And they are afraid.
From Vathy, the road to the new camp leads steeply up the mountain. The scooter visibly struggles with the incline and the air shimmers with heat. One serpentine follows the next and I am glad when an overtaking car keeps enough distance. After more than twenty minutes I finally arrive at my destination. A large sign emblazoned with the twelve stars of the EU explains that the Zervou Camp is being built here.
I stand in front of a metre-high barbed wire fence – in front of a huge construction site somewhere in the nothingness of the mountains of Samos. Involuntarily, unease rises. Even with the best will in the world, I cannot imagine that this place is supposed to offer adults – and even children – a dignified life. A man in a high-visibility waistcoat approaches me. "Staying on the construction site is not allowed". Although I have not left the gravel road, I follow his order – knowing that the police on the island are always criminalising people who take photos of the hotspot camps. There should be no publicity here.
Symptom of a system
When people will be moved into the new camp after the weekend, it will be the first of the planned hotspot camps on the Aegean islands. They all share a common characteristics: Due to their geographical location, they cut the camp residents off from access to the cities and their supply structures. And thus also from everyday life: from the light-heartedness of the cafés, from the liveliness of the marketplaces. But it is these places that enable people to forget, at least for a short time, that they are – or are supposed to be – refugees. Nevertheless, the Zervou Camp is advertised as a humanitarian model camp.
Samos is thus also representative of the EU's inhumane migration policy. Flanked by humanitarian and human rights discourses, conditions are created that disenfranchise people and make them ill. The old camp in Vathy also has living containers and they were air-conditioned – until the air-conditioning broke or the electricity was switched off.
Clinical studies underline that the stress factors after the flight can be an even more important psychological burden than possible traumatic events before or during the flight. Social connections to the local population are repeatedly mentioned as a crucial factor for the mental health of refugee camp residents. In contrary, the impossibility of social connections is emphasized as a detrimental factor. Last year, a study by the Samos Advocacy Collective drew attention to the disastrous impact of the camp on people's mental health. Remaining in limbo causes emotional injury. The uncertainty of waiting, the fear of illegalisation and deportation and the persistence in the precariousness of the camp are fundamentally stressful. Even a new camp will not change this.
Places that disenfranchise and sicken
Back in Vathy I feel shattered. And I am glad I took the scooter. By bike I might have given up. On foot, I probably wouldn't have even tried to reach the construction site of the new camp. In town I meet Mohammed. The small man manages to smile as he explains the (over)living conditions in the old camp: "When I arrived, I was fine. Now I can't sleep well for more than two hours. You can really see how the body degenerates here: We have to live with bed bugs and cockroaches. You know, in Africa they have prisons, if they send you there, within two days you have changed. It destroys you. And here we live like in an African prison." Mohammed is far from alone when he says: "The camp itself is a violation of the human rights of those who live there.”
In front of the clinic that the team of the medico partner organisation MedEquality has set up in a small office, a men is curled up inside himself. You can see that he must still be young, maybe in his mid-twenties. His body is slim and muscular, but he bends with pain. "The camp makes you sick," Stephanie* confirms. The trained nurse works as a volunteer at the clinic: "Many people come to us with gastrointestinal issues, which are clearly caused by the food in the camp. Although some of the food arrives packaged, it is often already mouldy. There is literally only one doctor in the camp. Right now he is ‘only’ responsible for a few hundred people. In 2019, there were over seven thousand. Back then, people would have just died if we hadn't been there."
Will the new camp create better conditions? The MedEquality staff members have profound doubts. Nevertheless, they do no longer see a perspective for their work on Samos. Given the great distance of the new camp from the town, no patient is likely to come to their makeshift clinic any more. "And it could still be that they just don't let people out of the camp at all," Stephanie adds resignedly.
There is no reliable information about the camp move for the people in the camp. "All we know is that it is situated somewhere up there on the mountain and that no one in the camp is responding to our enquiries." Mohammed moves from one foot to the other. The unease is evident on his face; he has little reason to trust the authorities. A human rights activist who is living in Samos confirms: "No one knew who would be in charge of the new camp management – not even the old camp management that actually will also be in charge of the new camp. That’s absurd."
Anything seems possible. In recent months, many people from the old camp have been given permission to leave the island and cross over to the Greek mainland – something that was unthinkable before. At the same time, only a few boats with new refugees from Turkey have arrived on Samos – why this is the case is anyone's guess. Certain is only that there have been several documented illegal pushbacks in recent weeks. An eyewitness report describes that in at least one case a person was simply thrown into the sea by the coast guard before the island could be reached.
In the evening, the Frontex boat – sailing under the German flag – leaves the port of Samos. Only a short distance away, the warship of the Greek navy also sails out of the bay. It's dark, but you can follow its GPS signal via app. Then, suddenly, it disappears from the radar. Switched off. You can only guess where they are and what they are doing. But you don't know.
Out of sight, out of mind?
When the Zervou Camp opens on Saturday, September 18, there will also be protests against the new camp and the repressive migration policy. In Vathy, there will be a joint demonstration by camp residents, activists and other islanders who are trying to oppose the policy of closure.
Mohammed's words remain in my memory. As he says goodbye, he sums it up: "The new camp is not a good thing for Europe. I think it is criminal to criminalise us. It is a shame to keep people in such a situation. When they tell me, 'Oh, we have a nice bed, we have a nice kitchen for you,' I'm not concerned with a nice bed or a nice place to sleep. It's about having the freedom to move around and live with others. I am not just speaking for myself, but for all those who live with me in the camp on Samos. Because if we don't speak out, no one will hear from us."
* Name changed