Trying to see a doctor, getting hold of insulin treatment for diabetes, seeking legal advice prior to an asylum interview—all of these are a challenge for the refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers stranded in the isolated and highly securitized Zervou center on the Greek island of Samos.
Zervou is one of five planned “closed-control access centers” designed as restrictive reception facilities for all asylum seekers arriving on the Aegean islands while they await the asylum process. Three centers have opened in the last 14 months—on Samos, Leros, and Kos islands—and two more are scheduled to open in 2023 on Lesvos and Chios. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) flagged serious concerns about the centers ahead of their opening, stating they were part of an aggressive European Union-funded containment policy to detain and deport people seeking safety in Europe. As feared, MSF teams working in Zervou since it opened in September 2021 have witnessed significant mental health issues among people housed there.
Asylum seekers arriving in Greece have often fled conflict or persecution in their home countries and witnessed or experienced extreme violence along their journeys. When they reach Samos, they are taken to Zervou—a center surrounded by double layers of barbed wire and monitored by 24/7 surveillance.
“People in Zervou tell us of having survived trafficking, sexual assault, forced labor, and beatings,” said Nicholas Papachrysostomou, MSF head of mission in Greece. “Some have seen their family members die during previous forced returns or during shipwrecks. The prison-like centers fail to provide for their basic needs and harm their mental and physical health.”
Only people with an asylum identification card can enter or leave Zervou center. But registering for a card can take more than 25 days, meaning all new arrivals are essentially detained without the freedom to leave. The center’s management has allowed people without identification cards to leave for medical or legal appointments, but this could change at any moment.