One Year Since Greece Opened New “Prison-Like” Refugee Camps, NGOs Call for a More Humane Approach

Exactly one year ago, the first EU-funded Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) for asylum seekers in Greece was inaugurated on the island of Samos. Concerns were raised from the outset, that residents would be subjected to disproportionate restrictions on their movement and to surveillance measures more associated with prison-type controls than with reception facilities hosting and supporting people seeking international protection. A year later, with two similar CCACs now operational on the Greek islands of Leros and Kos, and another two additional facilities being built on Lesvos and Chios, NGOs who have witnessed the impact are calling for the approach to be urgently revised.

The combined expected cost of building all five CCACs is 260 million euros. Meanwhile, the average distance from the closest towns is 14 kilometers, with no access to regular, adequate and affordable transport services. These EU funds could be used instead to host people in suitable conditions that respect their dignity, and ensure access to healthcare, employment opportunities and promote people’s ability to become part of the society in Greece.  There is also a real danger that this model will be replicated along the border with Turkey and elsewhere in Europe. It is time to reverse this harmful trend, and instead build functioning Greek and EU asylum systems that recognise the humanity of all who are forced to flee.

The continued use of containment measures on both the islands and mainland undermines repeated calls by NGOs for Greece and the EU to focus on integration and social inclusion. The EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion states that the “successful integration of migrants depends both on early action and long-term investment. Providing support to migrants and their receiving communities at the earliest possible moment”. It is time for Greece and the EU to align with this approach.

Compared to the overcrowded, substandard and unsanitary camps people had been forced to reside in previously, some aspects of their living conditions may have improved in the CCACs. However, the cost to people’s rights and wellbeing has been unacceptably high. The increased securitisation and restriction of freedoms has had a devastating impact on the mental and physical well-being of CCAC residents, many of whom report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.

Located in remote areas far from local communities, with 24/7 CCTV and barbed-wire fences, these prison-like complexes go against the core principles of European policy, including for example in the EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion, with disproportionate focus on deterrence, isolation and containment. Instead of being welcomed and supported to rebuild their lives and contribute to their new communities, asylum-seekers are isolated, subject to constant surveillance, and provided limited access to essential services.

NGOs are today calling for the use of border facilities to be limited to frontline assistance, registration and identification of asylum seekers, after which people should be transferred to suitable, dignified housing options, in conditions ensuring their freedom of movement. Community-based accommodation, when adequately supported, should be preferred as the solution most conducive to refugees becoming part of and contributing to their communities, in line with the recommendations in the EU action plan on Integration and Inclusion. 

Prison-like conditions inside Samos CCAC

Surrounded by multiple barbed wire fences, isolated in a valley eight kilometers from the town of Vathy, Samos CCAC currently houses approximately 1,000 men, women and children in one operational area of the camp. There is no safe space for single women, with or without children, or other vulnerable groups that need special reception conditions, despite NGOs highlighting this issue in a joint statement addressed to the Ministry of Asylum and Migration when the plan was announced. For its residents, the prison-like structure, combined with a heavy security presence and stringent entry/exit conditions, creates a pervasive feeling of imprisonment:

You can only enter/exit between 8AM-8PM. When you arrive at the camp doors, one by one they let you inside, to the checkpoint where they check your phone, wallet, pockets, even the small pockets of your clothes. Then when you want to go inside you have to pass through doors with fingerprints.”

Mehdi, 23-year-old man from Afghanistan, Vathy, Samos, 2022

Closed and controlled facilities are not a humane or dignified reception option for people seeking international protection. Restrictions of people’s liberty to exit or re-enter the facility freely can amount to de facto detention and can lead to a violation of their right to private and family life. Without an asylum applicant card (which is necessary to access the center’s security systems), people are prohibited to leave the camp. This applies to new arrivals until their asylum applicant’s card has been issued, as well as to those waiting to appeal a negative decision or to submit a subsequent asylum application.

In addition to this, asylum seekers are the only category of people who are still subjected to a mandatory COVID-19 quarantine when they arrive in Greece for at least five days. This approach creates a constant sense of containment. According to I Have Rights (IHR), an organisation that provides free legal information and legal support on Samos, asylum seekers are detained on average for 12 days after being identified by the Reception and Identification Service. In addition, in 6% of IHR’s cases, people were detained longer than the 25 days that are foreseen by the law, even if identification procedures have been completed, raising serious doubts on the movement restrictions. This decision has been taken by the Asylum Service on the grounds of an increase in arrivals in Samos – even though there are currently fewer than 1,000 people in the facility which has capacity for 2,040.

In the Samos CCAC, asylum seekers are kept ‘out of sight and out of mind’, with limited access to services and opportunities to interact with the local population. Despite this, as of the time of writing there is no appointed doctor for the residents of the camp. Although a doctor from Samos hospital visits the camp twice a week, she only identifies vulnerable people among the residents and does not provide medical care. MSF are filling this gap with a mobile clinic three days of the week. In 2022, 42% of IHR beneficiaries met the legal category of vulnerability in Greece, with 26% being survivors of torture and 12% being survivors of human trafficking. Only 33% of those who were vulnerable were in contact with the CCAC psychologist before their full asylum interview.

Containment policies have a devastating impact on people’s mental health 

Extended stays in CCACs create enormous stress and uncertainty for the asylum seekers residing there:

Living in the camp [CCAC] on Samos is a very difficult experience. They shouldn’t even give it the name ‘camp’; in my opinion it is a prison – there is no difference… Everyone is inside their container, nobody comes outside, everyone is depressed and sick in some way – from loneliness, from their legal situation or status, and other problems they have in their lives. We refugees are not guilty criminals, we are human, we came here with hope.Somali, African, Afghan, Arab – it doesn’t make a difference, we are all in the same situation.”

Mehdi, describing conditions in the CCAC; Samos, May 2022

IRC mental health and psychosocial support teams worked on Samos between 2019-2022 and witnessed first-hand the detrimental effects of Greek and EU containment policies. The focus on walls rather than welcome has contributed to immense feelings of hopelessness and despair among asylum seekers and refugees trapped on the Greek islands.In the last year, 91% of people supported by the IRC mental health programme in Samos experienced anxiety and 87% depression-related symptoms, while an alarming 41% showed symptoms of suicidality. Containment-centered accommodation models have devastating impacts on the mental health of asylum seekers and refugees, who may already have to cope with trauma endured in their country and on their journey towards Greece.

It’s time for answers from the Greek Government and the EU

Greek and EU authorities need to move away from short-sighted policies based on containment and deterrence. They should instead adopt specific measures to promote a sustainable, dignified reception and asylum system for all people seeking protection. To this end, we, the undersigned civil society organisations, call on the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum and the European Commission for specific answers on the following issues:

  1. As COVID-19 quarantine requirements are being waived across Europe, on what grounds are asylum seekers in Samos and Lesvos held in a quarantine section upon arrival?
  2. When will the designated hosting areas for single women with their children and/or unaccompanied children inside the CCACs start operating?
  3. What is the timeframe and what concrete measures have been taken towards ensuring adequate and specialised staffing of the Medical and Psychosocial Unit inside the CCACs?
  4. Given that ongoing asylum trends in Greece indicate many residents of the camp(s) will be granted asylum, what measures have been taken to establish integration pathways, and how is the impact of having to reside in prison-like conditions for protracted periods assessed with respect to prospects of integration?
  5. Does DG Home agree that elements of the Greek CCACs are incompatible with the EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion? For example, asylum seekers are contained, although the Action Plan proposes autonomous housing options that can speed up the integration process, especially when linked with early provision of integration support’.
  6. What actions can be taken to ensure Greece’s compliance with the Reception Conditions Directive and the asylum acquis more broadly?
  7. Given that the EU has provided material support for the construction and running of the CCACs and oversees Greece’s use of EU funds for these purposes, what steps would the Commission take to hold Greece accountable for possible violations of fundamental rights in these facilities?  

Co-signing Organisations

  1. Action for Women
  2. Amnesty International
  3. ARSIS Association for the Social Support of Youth
  4. Changemakers Lab
  5. Choose Love
  6. Diotima Centre for Gender Rights & Equality
  7. Europe Must Act
  8. Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid
  9. Greek Council for Refugees (GCR)
  11. International Rescue Committee
  12. Irida Women’s Center
  13. Just Action
  14. Lesvos Solidarity
  15. Lighthouse Relief
  16. Mobile Info Team
  17. Northern Lights Aid
  18. Refugees International
  19. Refugee Legal Support (RLS)
  20. Samos Advocacy Collective
  21. Samos Volunteers
  22. Symbiosis-School of Political Studies, Council of Europe Network

Banner Photo Caption: Inside the Closed Controlled Access Center of Samos island created by the Greek government with the support of the EU. Asylum seekers have complained about the lack of shade, the quality of food, and the distance from the town. The camp has residents from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and other African countries. Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.