Alarming conditions for refugees in Samos
A team from Mare Liberum recently travelled to Samos. Video, photos and report document their observations on the human rights situation on the island.
On the Greek island of Samos, it is only a five minute walk up a hill, from the Vathi central square until the infamous “hotspot” is in sight. This “hotspot”, the refugee camp, pours over the hills on the outskirts of town. Its official capacity is 650 residents, but the actual number of inhabitants is unknown. Official numbers by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, report 3,200 refugees currently living on Samos as of May 2019; other NGOs believe there are more than 5,000.
The numbers change daily as some people are transferred to camps on other islands or the mainland and new arrivals continue to land in Samos. Barely a night goes by without a boat managing to dodge the patrolling coast guard and cross the 1.6 kilometers of water between Turkey and Samos at its closest point. The dinghies carry between 30-60 people on average.
Around the official gated camp where people live in containers, the so called “jungle” spreads, which is where the majority of the refugee population is situated. The terrain is not at all lush, as the name jungle would insinuate, but it is unruly. Hundreds of 5 euro beach tents and shelters made with plastic and spare pieces of wood are placed on the hillside, between piles of trash. The whole camp is covered in garbage as any official waste disposal system is not functioning. NGOs like Refugee4Refugees, founded by Omar, a Syrian refugee who is on the island since 2015, try their best to clean up the site. Refugee4Refugees has managed to dispose of 15 tons of trash in the last few months, but the camp is still a vile dump. Rats are everywhere, some the size of a one liter bottle, which in turn attracts snakes up to two meters in length.
Debbie*, 22, is from Ghana. She arrived on Samos four days ago. She is five months pregnant and alone on the island. She says she does not know who her child's father is: "I was raped in Turkey by two men." When Debbie arrived in Samos, she saw a doctor from the camp who handed her some papers in Greek writing. It's her diagnose and referral to another doctor. She does not know how to read it nor who to ask for its translation. She doesn’t know where to go next. She lives in a small tent with a stranger she met just days ago. There is no sanitation in this area and, therefore, hygiene is extremely poor. The only water available for washing comes from a small hole in the ground near a mountain of garbage.
The camp is informally divided into different sections by ethnicity. To the west of the “hotspot” are mainly people from Palestine and Iraq. Sitting in the sun, with an absent-minded look, is Mahmoud. His friends say he is crazy. Mahmoud crossed the Aegean swimming from Turkey to Samos with his friend Abdul because they could not afford to pay the smugglers. At sea they became separated. Mahmoud immediately alarmed the police when he arrived on the island. After an unsuccessful search and 17 days without news, Abdul’s body was found. Mahmoud and a group of other refugees held a small funeral for Abdul. One of them shot a video when they opened the body bag during the ceremony. It shows Abduls lifeless torso, grey and bloated from over two weeks in the water, bite marks on his chest.
About five minutes from the camp is Alpha, a community and educational center, where refugees can take courses in English and Greek or music and computer skills. Bogdan, who founded the center with his NGO Samos Volunteers, says things went from bad to worse after September and October 2018 when an additional 4,000 people arrived. He sees his students’ mental health deteriorate in front of his eyes, especially after two or three months of being on the island and living without toilets, showers or any feeling of safety. "Not knowing what is going to happen to them, that is the hardest part," says Bogdan, and he adds that between the thousands of traumatized people, the camp and the jungle share one psychologist.
Several NGOs like Samos Volunteers and Refugee4Refugees try to ease the situation by offering educational spaces and activities, legal support, or aid in the distribution of tents, sleeping bags and hygiene products. However, Bogdan says the conditions in the camp do not seem to be improving, instead they are getting worse: “Nothing functions. Everything is broken. What do you want to prioritize? I don't want to prioritize anymore.”
Meanwhile, tensions within the camp are rising. In January, the francophone African community organized large protests against the terrible conditions of the camp and “jungle”. They attempted to march again in May, but police forces violently stopped them from speaking out. Volunteers and journalists on the scene were also taken in for questioning; their phones were checked for pictures and videos captured at the protest .
Émery, from the Congo, was there that day. He lives in a tent he set up for him and his wife just a few meters from the main road, where the African portion of the “jungle” begins. The hills here are steep, which makes it even harder to put up an upright tent, and the area is closer to the garbage dump, were the stench is the worst.
Émery and his wife have been living here for 10 months, without any change in sight. Hopes turned into frustration and frustration turned into anger. Émery is a learned man. He speaks English, French and Portuguese and talks about the colonial powers that have been exploiting Congo's mineral resources for generations, about racism and capitalism in Africa and Europe. “We come to take back what the West has stolen from us. They exploited our bodies and minds for hundreds of years. If they don't want us here they should leave Africa for Africans. How can we survive?" He says that all his suffering might be worth it, if it allows his grandchildren have a better life.
But his optimism is interrupted by thoughts of how inhumane life is in Samos, where he says he and his neighbors are treated worse than animals. After demonstrators were beaten down by the police, his patience came to an end. "There will not be a next protest," says Émery, and he sounds like he means it. "Next time there will be fire. We will light this place on fire."
*The names of all residents of the camp and jungle have been changed to not jeopardize their asylum application process