At the Lesvos RIC temporary reception centre, on Greece’s third largest island, just 30 kilometers from the visible Turkish coast, waves hit the shore where the camp begins. Built in September 2020 to house, among other things, migrants stranded after the infamous Moria camp fire, also known as Mavrovouni is de facto the only detention center, as described by NGOs, left standing in Lesbos . In this former firing range, the military and police presence is evident. “What the hell are you doing here? Who gave you permission to take pictures?” Police officers yell at us in English before entering the center. One of the agents, visibly annoyed, demands our papers. We have permission from the Ministry of Migration to enter, but the shouting does not stop. Lesbos RIC is one of the most opaque camps in the new batch of refugee and migrant management centers in Greece. With the pandemic came the information blackout in the camps: they exist, but the organizations that can access them are few. The media barely entered and no photos of its interior appear on the Internet, only aerial views.
This incident with the police shows the 180 degree change in the government of conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis compared to his leftist predecessor, Alexis Tsipras. From the lack of control and open doors to Greek and foreign NGOs and activists, journalists and of course the immigration mafias, the new Greek administration has changed – with European help – the formula: better conditions for asylum seekers. asylum in the camps and express file procedures (up to two weeks) in exchange for increased surveillance, police presence and strict control of entry and exit (only one person per family can leave during two hours, only to cover basic needs and not every day) which several observers compare to what is suffered in prisons.
One of the first victims of this new Greek strategy were dozens of NGOs who had their permits revoked. Several volunteers are hanging around the compound of the RIC of Lesbos. Once inside, the camp officials offer to guide us through the corridors and sections of Mavrovouni: “We can see that the atmosphere is calm and the situation under control. There are no fights or knives like the press does so much”. Order and security have arrived on the island after the Hole of Moria.
As soon as they enter Mavrovouni, in front of the control booth, dozens of asylum seekers line up to take photos and obtain their corresponding blue Greek passport or subsidiary protection, after successfully passing the procedures and interviews of asylum.
in different languages
The camp is divided into four sections, also marked by several poles that include signs with vocabulary in different languages (at the entrance to one the word “rabbit” is taught) to delimit the play areas for children, oblivious of the drama they are experiencing their parents: blue, for the most vulnerable; red, for families; yellow, for singles; and green, which borders the sea and was disabled due to the noticeable decrease in the camp’s population. Only 3,000 people, mostly men – about 950 minors – live in the camp. 70% come from Afghanistan, 10% from Somalia and 6% from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A year ago, the number of people in the camp had tripled, according to authorities.
In recent weeks, the camp has seen virtually no new arrivals and those entering are usually from sub-Saharan Africa. For now, the dreaded surge of Afghans after the Taliban came to power two months ago is not in sight (most of those residing had already arrived on the island). At the entrance to the center is the health section, run by the Greek state in collaboration with NGOs, which assesses the most vulnerable population. The new ones are isolated in the quarantine zone, currently occupied by 14 people. Many get vaccinated, part of a voluntary process for camp residents.
“Hi! At two o’clock, I’m going to get my passport. It’s a beautiful day!” rejoices Mohamed, a young Somali on a bicycle. Less cheerful, Kamel (29), an asylum seeker who worked as a decorator marriage in Cameroon, a country he left because of his homosexual status, sexual orientation persecuted in his country with sentences ranging from six months to five years in prison, he says he has no family. He is alone in his new life in Europe. He arrived by sea from Turkey “on a very dangerous journey” Precisely this week, three children and a woman died on board a shipwrecked east of the Chios Island, Aegean Sea.
In the camp they have a catering service, health care, library, English, Greek and Mathematics lessons, prayer spaces and of course Wi-Fi and free legal advice. When we visited the centre, direct financial assistance to asylum seekers had stopped amid the transfer of powers from UNHCR to the Greek state. Grants range from €75 for one person in government-provided accommodation with food included to €420 for a family of four or more residing in self-contained accommodation.
The Mavrovouni camp has an expiry date: it is temporary while waiting to build the new Lesbos camp, planned for the end of 2022 and which will follow the models of that of the island of Samos, inaugurated in September and which replaces the worst of the existing ones all in Greece. It represents the new era: better quality in the services provided but high security, with accordions and isolated from urban centers, comment sources familiar with the construction process, which will be entirely financed by European funds and will be built in the middle of the forest in a place in the Vastria region (45 minutes by car from the capital of the island). It was a sine qua non for local communities that the countryside found itself isolated, which critics say represents a step backwards in integration.
“From Cáritas we see several problems with the current management of government arrivals: on the one hand, with the express procedures it is not possible to correctly identify the shortcomings; another is the recognition of Turkey as a safe country, so that people (from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia) will no longer be able to apply for asylum if they arrive through Turkish territory. There is no collaboration between the two countries for returns,” recognizes Maria Alverti, director of Caritas Hellas.
Greece denies returns
UNHCR has documented up to 450 cases of forced returns since the start of last year, accusations denied by Greece, which holds Turkey responsible for pushing migrants en masse towards the collapse of the Hellenic islands. A month ago, EU Interior Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she was “extremely concerned” by reports revealed by a journalistic investigation into alleged violent evictions in Croatia and Greece itself.
Unlike those of mainland Greece, key to the decongestion of the islands (where in a year and a half it has gone from 21,500 to only 5,000 inhabitants), the center of Lesbos is a reception and detention center closer to the Temporary Stay Centers for Spanish Immigrants ( CETI) – managed by the Interior, which implies greater police presence. “The Moria fire was a very dramatic situation which gave rise to the demand for ‘More Morias’. A year later, camps were established near Athens under better conditions. We have seen that they are not so toxic,” describes Spanish MEP Maite Pagazaurtundúa.
The EU policy of reception at the entry points, with the cooperation of Greek governments, has turned Lesbos and the other Aegean islands “into miserable and dangerous warehouses of souls”, criticizes communist MEP Kostas Papadakis (not attached), from the Delegation for EU-Turkey of the European Parliament. Papadakis recalls that last year, the “Lanos” storm that hit the country meant that “the asylum seekers staying there were left without heat or electricity”. In addition, he adds, the area where the camp is located is a former shooting range and studies have shown that there is a high concentration of lead, “which endangers the lives and health of babies. , children and even pregnant women” who stay there. in the camp.
Back in Mytilene, the capital of the island of Lesbos (114,800 inhabitants), which is preparing to receive Pope Francis between the end of November and the beginning of December, few want to talk about immigration after a decade in which they welcomed tens and up to hundreds of thousands of arrivals in a few weeks.
As a symbol of solidarity with the war in Syria and the massive arrivals from Turkey, five years later, the neighbors no longer even want to hear about asylum seekers prowling their streets. This request has come true. At 9am on a weekday Wednesday, not a single migrant is in sight even though Mavrovouni is only 15 minutes away. On the other hand, army patrols and police motorcycles, which monitor the parks, looking for anyone who may have slept on the benches, are noticeable. Immigration is a taboo subject.
Passport not to stay in Greece
The Greek government boasts of having half as many migrants arriving in the first half of 2021 as last year, in the midst of a pandemic. And the NGOs complain that “their strategy is to put even more obstacles so that those who arrive do not stay in Greece”, explains Raquel Verdasco, of the Jesuit Refugee Service. Few of those who arrive in Greece want to stay in the country. “In the camps, there are not only asylum seekers”, he explains, “but also people who have already been rejected and those who have refugee status”.
“They are in uncertainty: as recognized refugees, they have the same rights as Greeks, but they don’t know the language and therefore have no chance of finding a job. Many choose to continue living in the camps,” he adds. They are at an impasse. For this reason, many are ruling out learning Greek and focusing on Germany through their new passport.