Across the Aegean islands we are seeing a shift in the processing and handling of displaced people arriving to Greece. A shift that is often harmful and unjust to those seeking safety. The number of registrations of newly arrived persons to the islands continues to rise and with this, the authorities continue to resort to detainment as a standard procedure and impose living conditions that violate human dignity. Alongside inconsistent and changing processing measures, those newly-arrived to Greece and the non-governmental actors that work to support them, are grappling with these new asylum and reception systems that are arguably creating more issues than they are seeking to address.
Between the 1st July and 31st August, over 4,000 arrived at the CCAC’s (Closed Controlled Access Centers) on the Aegean islands of Samos and Lesvos. Since then, those responsible for their reception have implemented a policy of de facto detention. Upon arrival on one of the two islands, people are automatically placed in the CCAC and prohibited to leave while they are awaiting registration (between 2-4 weeks).
This violates Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which declares people’s right to liberty, as well as infringing on Article 3, to be protected from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as Greek and EU law, which requires that detention only be used as a last resort and an be tied to an individualized detention order. This mass processing omits legal justifications and individualized assessment, both of which should be required to enact these measures.
The conditions in which people are being detained siphons dignity from peoples experience arriving at Europe's borders seeking safety. Instead of protection, the authorities response has focussed on restricting personal freedoms and instilling constant surveillance on those having just made often difficult and traumatic journeys.
On Lesvos, arrivals to the CCAC are housed in large overcrowded halls, where unrelated men, women, and children are placed together with no privacy or safety measures. The facilities are undignified, with no electricity, insufficient bedding, food and water.
Similar conditions exist on Samos,where up to 35 people are placed together in containers, or inadequate outdoor accommodations, set up to provide some sort of shelter for the many new arrivals. Paradoxically, these new structures were specifically set up on the islands not to repeat the images of overcrowded camps of the past.
Yet the CCACs on both Samos and Lesvos have reached a point of critical and degrading conditions. There are currently over 4,000 people in Samos’ CCAC, placing it at over 200% of its capacity, with a similar situation on Lesvos, with a population of over 5,000, 150% of its capacity. The de facto detainment creates no other option for people but to be confined to these overcrowded centres. At the same time, the CCACs are not maintained in a manner that allows for appropriate accommodation or services for all those who have arrived.
Many humanitarian actors operating on the islands and across mainland Greece have expressed their concern for the authorities’ actions and have called for an immediate end to this unlawful practice. Condemning the inability of the authorities’ to prepare for the predicted increase in arrivals and the subsequent poor management of the situation and the maintenance of people’s human rights.
In both the cases of Samos and Lesvos, there is a scarcity of access to amenities. In overcrowded conditions, people are locked up with a lack of sufficient or nutritious food and drinking water, and also a lack of safe hygiene facilities with sufficient running water. The dehumanizing treatment resulting from restriction of personal freedom combined with poor sleeping spaces and inadequate access to basic services leaves many children, men and women in distress.
Moreover, many newly arrived persons, with immediate medical needs, struggle to access medical services due to reduced capacities by Medecins sans Frontiers, one of the few NGOs present, while detained in the CCAC. People experiencing pre-exisiting medical conditions, pregnancy or psychological distress as well as those having experienced sexual violence, lacking access or actively denied medical support.
With many organisations prohibited from operating within or accessing the CCACs, retrieving reports and evidence of these conditions remains difficult. Furthermore, those locked within the CCACs cannot access the many essential services organisations provide in the surrounding areas. According to many actors based on the islands of Lesvos and Samos, the pre-exisiting struggles for basic provisions have been exacerbated by the new prison-like structures. With the growing needs of people and lack of support within the CCACs, the organisations willing to help remain ready and active, however they can.
Transfers to the mainland
Once they are registered, many people are rapidly transferred to camps on the Greek mainland. These accommodation facilities serve as the venues where they will navigate the asylum process, attendnterviews and await decisions on their cases.
These days, organizations working at e mainland camps find themselves in a challenging position, as they must adapt to the renewed influx of newly arrived individuals, who often haven't had the chance to acquire new clothing, hygiene items, receive legal assistance, or access medical and psychological support. A report by our partner organisations Samos Volunteers and I Have Rights, based on testimonies, documents the impact of this situation on the psyches of the quasi-interned people.
These non-governmental organizations, which are already operating under difficult conditions, are adjusting their services and capacities as best as they can. This situation follows the transformation of camp structures in recent years towards closed, prison-like structures. In combination with the fact that previously involved international organizations have largely withdrawn from most camps, more control was given to Greek authorities. Unfortunately, this shift has not resulted in improved reception facilities; quite the opposite is true. While a lot of organisations decided not to work inside these prison-like facilities in order not to support this new form of organised detention, their ways of adaptation have been challenged in the past months. These adjustments have introduced their own set of frustrations and complications. Organizations struggle to plan their services systematically because they frequently lack information about when and how individuals will be released from detention, further challenging their flexibility.
There is also concern that, due to the hurried nature of the current registration and transfer process, some registrations may overlook or neglect vulnerabilities. Additionally, people may not have had adequate translations or sufficient time and explanations to fully grasp the complexities of the asylum procedure. At the same time, individuals are only registered without initiating their asylum cases. In theory, this should occur after the transfer to the mainland. In practice, most camps on the mainland are also overcrowded, making it increasingly difficult to commence a new asylum procedure within an already dysfunctional system. Recent reports from Athens highlight a concerning trend: individuals transferred from Lesvos are seeking refuge in the central Victoria Square in Athens due to overcrowded camps, reminiscent of the chaotic and unplanned reception system of 2015.
Looking to the Future
All of these developments are unfolding while policymakers in Brussels and elsewhere are deliberating the new Common European Asylum System (CEAS). This system aims to extend the legal detention periods at the EU's external borders to up to eight weeks for individuals from countries with low asylum acceptance quotas. The implementation of this reform would exacerbate the already dire conditions in the camps on the islands.
While the initial conception of these facilities was intended to create a more structured and efficient approach to asylum procedures, the CEAS reform implies the complete opposite. With deportations at a standstill due to diplomatic tensions between Greece and Turkey, concerns arise that even more people could become trapped on the islands, without access to running water, psychosocial support or legal counseling.
Another issue comes to the forefront: While the 'jungles' on Samos and Lesvos and the living conditions of the people residing there occasionally allowed for documentation and public outcry, the news coverage, unfortunately, makes it exceedingly difficult to capture the daily reality for displaced individuals. While we strongly advocate for expeditious and equitable procedures, we are currently witnessing a shifting of responsibilities towards the Greek mainland.