SAMOS, Greece — Fifteen minutes outside the town of Vathy stands a just-completed compound, surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence.
The entrance, only open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., is equipped with turnstiles, magnetic gates and X-ray machines. Guards check both ID cards and fingerprints for those coming in.
The facility is the first EU-designed, EU-funded migrant camp in Greece — the start of a €276 million response to the overflowing, substandard tent cities that sprung up on Greece’s Aegean islands in 2015 as Syrians fled a civil war.
Essentially, it’s what the EU envisions as the future of processing migrants who land on Greek shores, including Afghans who might arrive seeking escape from the Taliban. In addition to the Samos facility, the EU is funding similar camps on the islands of Leros, Lesbos, Kos and Chios. It is meant to provide a higher standard of accommodation for asylum seekers, while also separating them from local communities, who have been protesting their presence for years.
“This is the first of a new generation of reception centers in the Aegean islands,” said Beate Gminder, who helps oversee migration management for the European Commission, as she unveiled the new facility on Saturday.
In many ways, the sprawling encampment is an unquestioned upgrade from the tent cities, which were often rife with rats and the smell of human waste and garbage.
The redesigned camp is organized into “neighborhoods,” each equipped with separate restaurants, sports facilities, playgrounds, shared kitchens and canteens. Toilets, running water, air conditioners and wi-fi are all major improvements. There is a separate area designed for unaccompanied minors, guarded by Greek police and a private security company 24 hours a day.
“The new closed, controlled-access center will give back the lost dignity to people seeking international protection, but also the necessary conditions of safeguarding and restraint for illegal migrants who are to be returned,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said Saturday at the camp’s opening ceremony.
Yet the camp’s fortress-like remove and strict policing have advocates skeptical of such benevolent rhetoric. The 14,250 square meter compound is not visible from the main town and is almost completely cut off from the island’s local communities.
“There is no doubt about the intention of creating this massive place in the middle of nowhere, isolated from the rest of the society,” said Patrick Wieland, the Samos field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. “Everything is designed for confinement and deterrence. Putting them in a prison-like camp is going to be worse than it was before.”
For years, Greece’s conservative government has vowed to shut down the tent camps on the Aegean islands and replace them with “closed” centers, meaning facilities that would restrict migrants’ movements. But under pressure from EU officials and international organizations, Greece ultimately settled on the compromise rules that will govern migrants at the Samos facility.
Residents will be allowed to leave the camp from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with four buses available to transfer them throughout the day. Gates will remain closed at night and those who fail to return will face disciplinary actions, ranging from losing the right to leave for several days to being transferred to a pre-removal area, according to a government official.
Migrant advocates acknowledged the need to move past the old model, even if they had serious reservations about this “new generation.”
The prior camp in Samos, which spread across a hill near the port of Vathy, was originally designed to hold roughly 680 people, but eventually swelled to 10 times that, surpassing 7,000 people. Another migrant camp in Moria, Europe’s largest, burned down last September.
“Vathy was probably the worst camp in Greece, so it’s good to put an end to this chapter,” said Mireille Girard, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Greece.
“But the term ‘closed’ is something that concerns refugees,” she added. The U.N., she said, has discussed the “frequency and affordability” of the buses with Greek authorities.
For its part, the Greek government doesn’t seem to want foreigners thinking the new facilities are too welcoming.
The country’s Migration Ministry said this week it would launch an international and social media campaign to outline the living conditions Afghans should expect if they choose to travel to Greece. The effort will place videos and banners on the Viber messaging platform and Afghan websites, as well as on YouTube, Dailymotion and Facebook. Similar announcements will also appear in Afghan newspapers.
The EU’s stance
The new facility embodies the delicate line the EU is trying to navigate on migration — attempting to both respond to countries’ calls for more help policing their borders while also ensuring EU funds don’t go toward controversial methods, including border fencing and immediately turning away migrants, which can be illegal.
Greece is at the forefront of the issue. The country shares both land and sea borders with Turkey, which has served as a waystation for people heading to the EU from destabilized countries like Syria — and perhaps now Afghanistan.
In addition to the EU funds for the migrant facility, Greece is seeking money for new border fencing and patrol units.
In recent days, the Greek government applied for EU funds to extend a fence that spans the Evros River at the Greek-Turkish border, according to a senior government official. The Commission has yet to respond. To this point, the EU has refused to pay for border fencing.
“It will be interesting to see if the Commission will be able to turn down funding again,” the official said. “For Athens, it’s a symbolic move rather than the immediate need for funds to cover the cost of some €20 million.”
Other countries will be watching. Lithuania, which is beefing up security measures to stem migration flows from Belarus, has also asked the EU to fund border fending.
Separately, Greece has asked the Commission for €15.8 million to cover coast guard patrols and sea border surveillance in the Aegean Sea. So far, the Commission has rebuffed the request, insisting the payments must be linked to Greece establishing an independent monitoring authority to ensure asylum seekers are not turned away illegally.
Who’s moving in?
Samos makes sense as the starting point for the EU’s efforts to redesign its intake process for refugees.
The island lies just over a mile from the Turkish coast and was one of the main entry points for asylum seekers in 2015, when some 1 million people crossed into Europe, mainly from Syria.
For the moment, though, the massive camp in Samos, designed to house 3,000 people, will be largely empty. Most asylum-seekers on the island left over the summer, either because their asylum claim was processed or they were fearful of being placed in a closed facility.
Still, roughly 500 people remain, and 300 of them are expected to be transferred to the new facility starting Monday. The previous camp will be shut down by the end of the month and handed over to the local municipality.
“We remain ready for any additional pressure that might happen because of Afghanistan, but Europe should have a common European response to the crisis,” said Mitarachi, the migration minister. “In no way [can it] leave the countries of first reception alone to face any big geopolitical challenge.”
Despite the camp’s remote location, locals have been protesting for months against the new facility, demanding that all migrants leave the island.
“We strongly disagree with the size of the structure,” said East Samos Mayor Georgios Stantzos, who didn’t attend the camp’s opening, in a statement. “Planning, collaborations and militancy are needed to keep the structure empty or with the minimum capacity of migrants on the island.”
After Samos, Greece will open its next camp in Leros next month. Then it could be a while. Agreements are still in the works with the local authorities in Chios and Lesbos over constructing camps there. And in Lesbos, a new camp that was supposed to be up and running before last winter is now targeted for fall 2022, according to government officials.