The Greek Island That Became an Open-Air Prison for Refugees

The Greek Island That Became an Open-Air Prison for Refugees

The Greek Island That Became an Open-Air Prison for Refugees

A three-year-old EU-Turkey deal has made living on Samos a nightmare, especially for women.


Samos, Greece

When Leila, an elegant Afghan woman of 34, goes to bed, she squashes up beside her husband on the narrow bottom mattress of a bunk, while her teenage daughter and 11-year-old son share the bed above. Eighteen inches away, another family is crushed together on another bunk, and down the row stretch 20 more. These families are living in a metal shipping container, their only privacy the gray blankets they hang around their beds. To sleep, they must steel themselves for a night of itching caused by the bedbugs and scabies that have left welts all over their bodies.

In the daytime, matters are no easier. To shower, they must wait their turn for an hour or more among their 40 or so neighbors in the container. To eat, they must rise at 3 AM to wait in line until 9 in the morning for the juice box, bread, and fruit they each get for breakfast. To wash their clothes, they must make their way to one of the eight taps of cold water available to the 4,000 people living around them, many of whom never get to live in containers at all. Instead, they must make do with tents, while 1,000 more are forced to live outside the camp in the woods in pup-tents or hovels made of pinned-together blankets and tarps, with no electricity, water, or bathrooms.

Leila, who dresses in black abayas with lacy sleeves and bodices, was once a businesswoman and teacher who instructed devout women in marketable skills such as sewing and growing saffron. Now, she and her family are among the thousands of asylum seekers who have fled war, persecution, and torture only to become trapped on the island of Samos, the most overcrowded refugee camp in Greece. Samos has come to represent the cruelty of a deal between the European Union and Turkey that has left some 75,000 asylum seekers in limbo.

The deal, signed on March 20, 2016, was a response to the millions of refugees arriving in Turkey and Europe in 2015. It began with the bargain that every refugee arriving illegally on a Greek island would be exchanged for a Syrian refugee in Turkey; a bargain based, as Amnesty International put it at the time, on the “untrue, but willfully ignored, premise that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers.” The deal also included a gift of 1.6 billion euros to Greece for keeping refugees out of the rest of Europe. The fate of that aid money, little of which has been seen by anybody working with refugees, is now under investigation by the EU anti-corruption agency in Brussels.

If the main goal behind the deal was to discourage refugees from crossing the sea, the strategy initially seemed to work; the number of new arrivals did drop. But by the summer of 2018, it was picking up again. Despite harsh winds and storms, this past winter saw a rise in people crossing the sea to Greece, with 2,652 arriving in January alone, 488 more than the January before. As of April 14 of this year, 9,233 asylum seekers had landed in Greece, 1,444 on Samos, and many more are expected to come as the weather warms. Just on March 19, the day before the third anniversary of the deal, two rubber boats were hauled to the island, one containing 62 people from Africa, the other 55 from Syria and Iraq. I found the boats lying on the seafront dock: long flaps of rubber, half inflated, filled with sodden sweaters, children’s shoes, inner tubes, soaked lifejackets, and the black plastic bags that had served as people’s suitcases.

The effects of the deal are particularly visible on Northern Aegean islands like Samos, because they lie so close to Turkey and attract the most refugees. Before the deal, people arriving here were moved to the mainland or Europe within a few days or weeks. But after the agreement, because it stipulated that asylum seekers could not leave an island until they had passed an interview to determine whether they could safely be sent back to Turkey and because Greece’s asylum service is underfunded and overwhelmed, many were forced to wait on the islands for months or even years. Furthermore, thousands have been kept on the islands even after passing that interview, because the Greek government would claim that there was no room on the mainland either. Currently this bottlenecking has trapped about 15,000 people on the islands.

Recently, the Greek government has been transferring more people off the islands to remote camps or hotels on the mainland to await their first interview. The waits for those interviews are growing longer—up to two years for most—and even if one passes that, more years of waiting lie ahead: first for the second interview to determine one’s asylum status, and then for further interviews if one was denied and then registered an appeal. Meanwhile, the Samos camp is as overcrowded as ever. For every boatload transferred to the mainland, just as many asylum seekers arrive.

“When we arrived here in December, there was no place to sleep, so we had to buy a tent with our own money and set up in the woods outside the camp,” Leila told me in Farsi, while another Afghan refugee translated. (Because Leila is awaiting asylum, she requested I change her name to protect her identity.) “I was too shocked by the conditions to even think about how cold or squashed I was, but I thought at least there would be rules and security. But there are no rules. People have fights in the camp and you see them bleeding, but no one does anything. Men drink and party all night, so it’s too loud to sleep. It was so frightening at night, we had to go to the toilet together, holding hands.”

As harrowing as these conditions are for everyone, they are especially dangerous for women, who make up 22 percent of the camp’s population and whose needs are often ignored. Men stand at 54 percent, the rest children.

“At night, we are afraid to go out,” said Zainab, a 23-year-old widow from Somalia dressed in a bright yellow hijab, while a refugee from Palestine translated her Arabic to English. (Zainab, too, asked me to disguise her real name.) “So we go to the bathroom before it is dark, then we go inside our tents and stay there till morning. For women here, the night becomes a prison.”

Zainab told me she’d had to leave her 4-year-old son in Somalia with her mother to escape being forcibly married to a member of the Al Shabab militant group. “I don’t even know if I am a widow,” she added. “My husband had to flee Al Shabab, or they would have killed him. He went to Libya two years ago. Nobody has heard from him since.” Her eyes filled with tears as she showed me her son’s picture. Zainab arrived on Samos five months ago, and will have to wait two years for the interview that will determine her asylum status; years in which her son will grow from a toddler to a boy without her.

She showed me the temporary ID card that all asylum seekers are given when they arrive on Samos. On it, under her name and birthdate, was the date of her next interview and a red stamp that means she is not allowed to leave the island.

“It is so dangerous for children in Somalia,” she continued, wiping away her tears. “I came here hoping to find safety, to make a life here and send for my son. But I can’t make any life here while I’m stuck in this camp. I feel crushed. I cry a lot to myself.”

Women who arrive here alone like Zainab are supposed to be given heightened vulnerability status and transferred to the mainland quickly. But in reality, many have no protection at all, aside from a refusal to go out after dark and a little padlock on the zipper of their tents.

Women also have to deal with sexual harassment and bullying. Because the camp toilets are clogged and foul, the floors caved in, the walls black with filth, those who live in tents need to use the toilets and showers in containers. Yet most of the containers are occupied only by men, many of whom won’t allow children or women in, while others charge money. One woman told me she caught a man spying on women as they washed. As a result of all this, women often avoid the bathrooms altogether, washing in basins instead, and using a system of plastic bags and buckets as toilets, or urinating into bottles.

“The rates of infection are very high because of how unsanitary the camp is,” Dr. Sophie Gedeon told me. Gedeon runs a small medical NGO called Med’Equali outside the camp, where four doctors and two nurses serve between 90 and 100 refugees per day. The camp has only one official doctor, two nurses, and no dentist. Many refugees told me of waiting hours to see the doctor, only to be sent away with an appointment to wait more hours on another day.

Fear of sexual violence also plagues women in camp, which is especially traumatic for survivors of rape and torture during the wars they came to Samos to escape. Majida Ali, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Samos in 2016 and now works as cultural mediator for the camp doctor, said she sees about two victims of rape in the camp a month. Yet the camp offers only one psychologist, whose main job is to assess the trauma of every asylum seeker for his or her case. This means that nobody in the camp gets to see her more than once.

The camp, which is run by the Greek government with UNHCR help, opened in February 2016 as an emergency Reception and Identity Center (RIC)—that is, a temporary processing post. Placed on the side of a mountain just above the town of Vathy, it occupies a former military base designed to hold a mere 648 beds and is surrounded by concrete walls and hurricane fences crowned with coils of razor wire. Enormous lights atop tall poles glare all night long.

Inside, dozens of white shipping containers like Leila’s climb in rows up the hill, with thousands of tents stuffed between them. Heaps of garbage clutter the alleyways, and laundry hangs from fences, barbed wire, and tent tops. Rats run from one pile of filth to another, while children pad barefoot through the mud and dust.

In just the past few weeks, people have become so resigned to their long stays at the camp that they have built a village of huts made of gray UNHCR blankets and blue plastic stretched over wooden frames, where they cook on gas cylinders or over campfires, and use buckets for toilets.

Life in the Samos camp was always dire, but since the deal, it has grown steadily worse. Last summer, as temperatures climbed into the 100s, the water ran for only two hours a day, all the toilets were broken, and the camp stank of sewage. By winter, there were days when the camp ran out of food, some containers were so crowded that people were sleeping on the floor, while heavy rains and winds were washing people’s tents and few possessions down the hill in a river a mud. By spring, conditions were so appalling that on the eve of the deal’s third anniversary, Oxfam and 24 other NGOs sent a letter to EU leaders saying the deal has led to policies and practices in Greece that are “short-sighted, unsustainable, ineffective and dangerous.”

The overcrowding is also irritating local residents. At first, many helped the refugees, feeding them for free from their restaurants, greeting them with dry clothes and water as they clambered, wet and terrified, out of the rubber dinghies that brought them here. But Samos is an island that depends on tourism, the town of Vathy is small, and many locals are fed up. On February 7, Vathy shopkeepers closed for a day in protest, demanding the Greek government do something about the growing number of refugees. As I write, 70 local parents are refusing to send their kids to school with refugee children, claiming the latter will spread disease.

“When we walk in the street, people cover their mouths as if we are contagious, even the children,” Zainab told me. “We go to shops to buy something and people say it’s not for sale, then they sell it to a Greek. My friend and I went to a restaurant and bought some food, then took it to a table to sit down. But the owner told us, ‘You can’t eat here, get out!’”

As troubling as the racism, lack of security, and foul conditions are, though, they are not the biggest problem. The real problem is never knowing when or whether you will be granted asylum and permission to leave the island or be sent back to Turkey, where you might even be returned to the country you fled.

“All we do is wait and worry. We can make no plans, we have no control over our futures,” Zainab said. “We only want to live a normal life here—not a luxurious life, just a life that is safe. We want to be useful. But here we can do nothing for anybody, not even ourselves.”

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