Since the European Union (EU) agreement with Turkey came into force on March 20, so-called "hotspots" set up on Greece's main islands in October 2015 to screen and register asylum seekers were transformed overnight into detention centers. Hundreds are now stranded at the mercy of the Greek army and police.
The four functioning hotspots located in Lesbos, Chios, Leros, and Samos used to be where asylum seekers and migrants could start feeling hopeful about their chances in Europe. The facility on Samos currently holds more than 700 asylum seekers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt. Many are women and children.
Most of those detained arrived by boat after March 20. Some arrived before this date but were kept, either because they are not Syrian or Iraqi nationals, or because they are minors who are supposed to be sent to a special facility on Crete, though this facility currently cares for only a few dozen minors while many more are left unattended.
On March 24, the only migrants on Samos were in the island's hotspot. Migrants were told they would be sent to a camp in Athens in accordance with the relocation mechanism set out in the Dublin Regulation, which allows refugees to choose from eight countries from the list of EU states. However, there appears to be no guarantee that their choices will be respected. In general, people don’t know what even the near future holds for them. Many report they were held for days in Turkey before being released on March 20.
On April 4, Greek authorities coordinated with Turkey to deport 124 Pakistani migrants and others from Lesbos by boat, and 66 others from the nearby island of Chios to Dikili in Turkey. Some of the detainees spoke to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams through the metal fence. They are angry and sad, and many feel as if they’ve hit a brick wall. No legal procedures or interviews are being conducted in the camp at the moment.
Khadija, a 42-year-old woman from Idlib, Syria, is being held in Samos detention center with her four children. She spoke to MSF teams from behind the facility's barbed wire fence. "What is going to happen next?" She wonders. "Will they kill us here in Europe? My husband was killed and our house was destroyed by a barrel bomb in 2013. Since then we have been moving from village to village looking for safety, until I lost hope and I brought my children to Turkey. I worked many jobs, but it was so hard for me to manage with four children so I decided to come here to be safe. Yet here we are behind barbed wire like criminals. This is extremely unjust."
Thirty-seven-year-old Waleed left Iraq with his pregnant wife and their two children in February 2016, a year and a half after their hometown of Mosul fell to the Islamic State. It took them a month to reach Samos and after enduring a short yet traumatic stint of detention in Turkey, they are being detained again, waiting desperately for more information.
"There is no mercy left on earth. Look at us, and look at my children!" says Waleed as he stands with his wife, who is seven months pregnant, behind the fence that separates them and hundreds of other asylum seekers from freedom. "I’m doing my best, but is this a way to treat human beings? They are supposed to protect us, not put us in a big cage like animals, without any information on when our case will be processed. My wife is pregnant and she can’t remain a prisoner any longer in this dirty, crowded place, while all the NGOs are pulling out and leaving us in the hands of police."
The situation is also complicated elsewhere in Greece. As of March 28, there were more than 50,000 people trapped in Greece in detention center or camps. Some 11,000 people are still waiting in Idomeni for the border with Macedonia to open, even though the authorities have repeatedly said it would remain shut.
"Things could have been different," says Marietta Provopoulou, general director of MSF in Greece. "Things could have been organized. What we see here is the total failure of European Union to receive one million people with dignity and respect. One million is not a big number for Europe. And each one of this million people has his personal story, his personal suffering. They have done everything to save themselves and their family, and to seek a better future away from war and persecution, in Europe. Like all of us would have done."