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LAST week, the Greek government announced plans to shut down five of the worst refugee camps on the Aegean islands. At first glance this seems like a positive step towards tackling the humanitarian crisis raging on Europe’s doorstep. The camps are bursting at the seams with 30,000 refugees squeezed into five facilities with a combined capacity of just 5,000.
Conditions are unimaginable; in Moria, Greece’s largest refugee camp, there is only one toilet for every 200 people, sewage runs past tents and an unprecedented mental-health crisis has seen children as young as 10 attempt suicide. Something has to be done, and it has to be done now.
Greece’s new right-wing government believes it can tackle the five-year crisis. But its proposals have sparked fears among the island’s NGO workers. As well as closing the camps and transferring 20,000 refugees to the mainland, the administration also plans to create a new border police unit and shut down NGOs that don’t meet certain criteria.
The camps will then be replaced with “pre-departure centres,” which is a more palatable way of saying closed detention centres. NGOs fear that, under the new system, refugees will be thrown into prison-like facilities where abuse is hidden and rights and freedoms denied. These measures would result in a total overhaul of the current humanitarian set-up on the islands — creating a situation that could be far worse.
“NGOs are worried that no one will be around to bear witness to what is happening,” Sophie Watson*, a volunteer in Lesbos’s Moria camp, tells me. Watson, who has worked in the camp for over a year, says that although the conditions are horrendous, closed centres “would definitely be worse.”
“Pre-departure closed centres have a proven history of poor outcomes for those incarcerated,” she explains, highlighting conditions in Australia’s notorious offshore immigration centre on Manus island. “Levels of suicide attempts and successes are high, skin disease is rampant, sexual assault by guards against detainees is high…”
But it’s not just the conditions inside the new centres that worry Watson, it’s the risk they pose to the few freedoms refugees still possess. The long-term volunteer works with some of the camp’s most vulnerable residents, and has intervened in multiple suicide attempts. She stressed that their recovery was dependent on their ability to leave the camp.
“The one critical thing that’s helped people regain perspective is getting a routine down in their day and one critical part of that routine has meant being able to go for long walks, being able to spend time in nature,” she tells me.
“Everybody I’ve met who’s been in a mental-health crisis I’ve told them to go jogging each morning or find reprieve in going to the beach or walking in downtown Mytilene — it gives them a resemblance of a normal life. And I think that that’s been something that keeps people going.”
Without the freedom not only to escape the squalid conditions of the camp, but also his own thoughts, Iranian refugee Ali* tells me he would have “gone crazy.”
After arriving on Lesbos from Turkey, Ali spent seven months in Moria waiting for his asylum application to be processed. During that time he left the camp every day.
“For your mental situation it’s very important to leave the camp because you forget everything when you go somewhere else, when you’re having fun, or when you go swimming. When you have this possibility to leave you feel a little bit human,” he explains.
Currently, refugees living in Moria are free to come and go as they please. Along the 10 kilometre coastal road from the camp to Lesbos’s main town of Mytilene, refugees can be seen on morning jogs, fishing in the sea or heading to the island’s numerous NGOs.
A place of solace for asylum seekers stuck in limbo is the One Happy Family (OHF) community centre, situated 5km from Moria. Over 1,000 refugees visit the centre every day to enjoy dozens of projects including sports classes, a garden, a carpentry workshop, a barber shop, a cafe and an outdoor gym.
Julia Burge, a co-coordinator of OHF, shares Watson’s concerns about the effects closed centres will have on mental health.
“Leaving this place [the camps], this atmosphere for only a few hours per day is essential and contributes, even if minimalistic, to a better wellbeing of people trapped,” the Swiss-national tells me.
Burge also pointed out that depriving asylum seekers of places like OHF harms their chances of being able to adapt and integrate in Europe. She describes OHF as a “village between villages” where refugees are slowly exposed to Greek and European cultures while still being surrounded by their own.
“It is a soft transit place where people adapt, learn and understand from each other to be prepared for whatever is coming for them afterwards.”
Under the Greek government’s plans, refugees will not be able to access places like OHF. It’s also not clear if the community centre will even be allowed to stay on the island next year. Burge tells me that she has received little information about where the new system leaves the 92 NGOs which currently provide most of the services to refugees on the island, including in Moria camp.
The smaller NGOs are not the only ones who’ve been kept in the dark about the new plans, which will supposedly be rolled out in the coming months. The UN’s refugee body UNHCR is also scrabbling for answers.
UNHCR Greece spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov said that the purpose of the closed centres remains “unclear,” and that they are “seeking more details from the government on the planned measures.” The refugee agency also expressed concern over the prospect of throwing asylum seekers into detention as soon as they land on the islands.
“The detention of asylum-seekers should be a measure of last resort and for the shortest time possible,” Cheshirkov said. “Alternatives to detention should always be considered first, based on an assessment of the individual’s particular circumstances.”
The latest plans follow a string of anti-refugee policies implemented by the six-month-old administration. After New Democracy’s election in June, the right-wing party immediately revoked a new law that allowed asylum seekers to access Greece’s national health service.
This was followed in August by mass evictions of 546 refugees and migrants from squats in Athens’s anarchist neighbourhood of Exarchia. Earlier this month, UNHCR criticised the government over a new asylum law which it says will condemn refugees to wrongful deportation and death.
And just last week 28 refugees from sub-Saharan Africa had their asylum applications rejected due to a lack of interpreters. This means their cases were thrown out before they were even given an interview, breaking not only Greek and European law but also international law.
NGO Legal Centre Lesvos said that this decision did not “occur in a vacuum,” but it is part of the degradation of the rights of asylum seekers seen under the new government.
None of this bodes well for the future treatment of refugees transferred to Greece’s new “pre-departure” centres. In fact the government has already heavily suggested the real reason behind the creation of the centres — to dissuade refugees from seeking sanctuary in Europe.
Announcing the proposals last week, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said: “A clear message should be sent to those planning or thinking of coming to the country illegally when they aren’t entitled to asylum.”
Burge, who has been on the island for two years, stresses that the new plans will not solve the crisis — but the deteriorating situation cannot be allowed to continue.
“The situation as it is, as it has been the past years, is not acceptable with or without closed camps. If we keep watching and looking, we will not only be witnesses to a continuous human disaster that could have been prevented but then we are also participating in creating it — because we know it is happening.”
*Names and nationalities have been changed to protect the identities of vulnerable people and those at risk of facing reprisals from the authorities.
Bethany Rielly is a reporter for the Morning Star.
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