In the next few months, a Closed Control Access Centre (CCAC) is supposed to open on Lesvos. This is yet another camp surrounded by barbed wire fences and concrete walls, monitored around the clock, and located far away from the city.
"Hell of Moria" - that is how Europe's former largest refugee camp, which over the years had become a symbol of the cruel European isolation policy, was described by many of its residents. “Hell” because of the horrific living conditions, the systematic dehumanisation of the inhabitants, and the politically intended overpopulation. It has been 2.5 years since the camp burnt to the ground. "No more Morias" was the demand of people on the move, politicians, activists, and residents after the devastating fire in September 2020. Greece declared a state of emergency and deployed the military, there were huge solidarity marches across Europe, and millions of euros in donations went to aid organisations on the Greek islands. It is estimated that 20,000 people were forced to sleep on the streets. After some time, the former inhabitants of Moria were taken to the newly built Mavrovouni camp, which was supposed to be a temporary solution. Since then, public attention to the situation on Lesvos and the Greek islands, in general, has decreased significantly. However, this does not mean that the situation for people on the move in Greece has changed for the better or that fewer people are trying to find a place of safety by crossing the Aegean. The number of deaths in the Aegean Sea has risen significantly. 2022 was the deadliest year in the eastern Mediterranean since 2016.
Horrific escalation of border violence and repression
Since 2020, the violence and repression in Greece have escalated continuously. Illegal pushbacks at sea and from land using humiliation, violence, and torture carried out by the Greek authorities have become the new modus operandi against people on the move. The few people who manage to reach the Greek islands face systematic criminalisation. Away from the public eye, without access to adequate legal assistance and support, hundreds of people are convicted every year in Greece for alleged smuggling. At the same time, several repressive reforms, and laws since 2020 have significantly restricted access to asylum and the activities of solidarity structures in Greece. To cover up these human rights crimes, the Greek authorities are trying to silence the critical voices of migrants, solidarity structures, and journalists by increasingly attacking and intimidating them.
Prison camps as an integral part of EU’s war on migration
The way the EU and Greece accommodate people seeking protection is deeply inhumane and incredibly violent, although improvements have been promised since Moria burnt down. The violence continues to be made invisible. Five new “closed” camps on the Aegean islands are part of this war on migration. In 2020 and 2021, Greece received 276 million euros from the European Commission to build five new camps on the islands of Leros, Samos, Kos, Chios, and Lesvos. In September 2021 the first so-called "Closed Controlled Structure" reception center on Samos was opened. It was followed by camps on Kos and Leros. In April 2023, a fourth camp of this kind is scheduled to open on the island of Lesvos.
The supposed goal was to build new accommodation for people seeking protection that meets "EU standards"- to avoid the emergence of a new Moria. In reality, these new camps are structures to detain migrants invisibly, in rural areas, isolated from local infrastructure. The camps are surrounded by high barbed wire fences. There are watchtowers, security personnel patrol inside and outside the camp 24 hours a day. Surveillance technologies such as X-ray scanners, cameras at entrances and exits, drones, turnstiles with smart cards, and cameras with motion analysis are used.
People in the camps have no or just insufficient access to education, legal aid, medical care, and no right to privacy and self-organisation, but are subjected to arbitrary controls using violence by security personnel and police officers. Officially, inhabitants can leave the camps with a chip card, the so-called asylum card, between 08:00 and 20:00, but there are reports of exit restrictions. On Samos, for example, the registration process including access to such a chip card for new arrivals takes up to 25 days, during which time people are effectively detained. The EU Commission has already threatened to take Greece to court for violations of asylum law. There are also reportedly deportation prisons, so-called "prokekas", in the camps. People can be detained there for up to 18 months if they are to be deported.
About one year after the opening of the camp on Samos, Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) warned of serious health consequences for the residents. MSF criticized the prison-like camp structure for not being able to provide basic care to traumatized people and therefore inflicting physical and psychological harm on them. In addition, there is a lack of access to medical services, as medical staff is only in the camp for a limited number of hours per day. According to MSF, all the people in CCAC Samos suffer from mental health problems, on which the poor living conditions and lack of care have a major impact.
Camps as a breeding ground for human rights violations
The new camp Vastria, with space for up to 5,000 people, on Lesvos is located about 40 kilometers from Mytilene, in the middle of a forest. Similar to the other camps, there is no relevant infrastructure nearby, only the largest waste disposal site on the island. Already the new location of the camp shows how migrants are treated on Lesvos: They are unwanted, not accepted, and marginalised! The area is extremely exposed to forest fires in summer. In the event of a fire, evacuation of the people in the camp would probably be almost impossible. In addition, the construction of the main access road to the camp was stopped by the court for environmental reasons. The construction of the camp, however, has not. Likely, the camp will only be accessible by an unpaved dirt road. This will also make it more difficult to evacuate people from the camp in case of an emergency.
Through the repressive 2020 and 2021 laws on the certification and registration of NGOs in the field of asylum and migration, the Greek authorities have complete control over which organisations are allowed to work in the camps and which are not. Repeatedly, journalists and reporters are denied access to the camps, while inhabitants are often not allowed to leave freely. This structure of the "closed" camps has an impact on the monitoring and documentation of violence and human rights violations. The lack of access to the camps for external and independent observers limits the possibilities to investigate and report on possible incidents. This leads to a breeding ground for human rights violations in the camps that are neither prosecuted nor documented. Evidence can also be covered up more quickly or people can be prevented from giving testimonies. Because the camps are isolated from the outside world, it can be difficult for victims or witnesses to feel safe to report incidents or violations. This turns the new closed camps into a black box because it is becoming increasingly difficult to document systematic violence and human rights violations in the camps and thus also to prevent them.
To live a dignified and self-determined life is a human right that cannot be realised in camps. Therefore, even supposed improvements in living conditions cannot be a long-term solution. We need to support the inhabitants of the camps on the islands and the mainland with political solidarity actions because no one should have to live under these conditions.