| Dec 28, 2021
'A Historic Day'
On November 27th, the new, so-called ‘Multi-purpose Reception and Identification Center’ opened on Leros. After Samos and Kos, it is the third camp of its kind on an Aegean island, two more – one on Lesbos, one on Chios – are expected to open in 2022. These new camps are Europe’s response to the catastrophic and inhumane living conditions for migrants in the overcrowded and dilapidated Hotspot camps, where catered food was horrible and medical care insufficient, where rats were nibbling on babies’ toes at night, and children as young as 8-years attempted to end their lives. “No more Morias!” was the slogan that fired the in-total 250-million-Euro project initiated by the EU. So far so good. No question, that the old island camps needed replacement. But judging by the appearance of the new ones, we seem to be in for more of the same: Located in remote places, these camps are made up of lots of concrete and barbed wire fence, rows of uniform plastic containers, that with time and use will look exactly the same as the ones that are now disposed of. The high costs, in the case of Leros, more than 30 million, can therefore only be justified by the technical equipment: cameras for the 24/7 surveillance of the public and the so-called private areas, high-tech check-out barriers, drones surveying the camp from above, floodlighting, etc. These camps might improve living conditions, but foremost they highlight Europe’s new approach to migration: the militarization of borders including the performance of illegal push-backs, criminalization of migrants, and systematic exclusion of newcomers rather than their integration. Europe has opted to become a fortress where human rights (the right to free movement, access to medical care, education and legal support, etc.) only apply to people living within its borders. Whoever else and for whatever reason dares to cross these borders, will be marked as an outcast and locked away in high-tech prison sites, unless s/he has the means to pay for a Golden Visa.
The cynicism of EC Vice-president Schinas calling the day of the opening of the ‘MPRIC’ on Leros a ‘historic day’, could therefore hardly be surpassed. Alternatives to detention are possible and have in fact been in place until a year ago, such as the NGO-run PIKPA, or the ESTIA accommodation programs that housed vulnerable asylum seekers outside the camps. – Leros is full of vacant housing, unused apartments, or even bigger edifices like the former Italian army barracks and the huge and now empty mental hospital building, that could have been restored and adapted for lesser money. These investments would not only have benefitted the migrants but also the island’s infrastructure and hence the locals. – Yes, the 27th of November was a historic day, because a historic chance had been missed!
However, in the meantime, the 57 remaining asylum seekers on Leros have been moved to the new camp, escorted by c. 300 security personnel, who have been hired to guard them (perhaps in anticipation of a blackout that would paralyze the electronic surveillance system). It was a pitiful and ridiculous sight! – The week before, we managed to supply all asylum seekers with winter clothes and hygiene packs. This was for sure the last of the many distributions we performed this year. Whether we can continue to support asylum seekers in the new year, remains doubtful. The local authorities are not very communicative when it comes to planning the future, partly because they do not know themselves. Will the illegal pushbacks performed by the Hellenic Coast Guard stop and boat refugees will start to arrive again? Will camps be used to accommodate so-called illegal migrants that are sent back to Greece from other EU countries? Will all denied asylum applicants, and there are a lot of them in Greece, be forever parked in these camps, as Turkey doesn’t take them back? And providing, the new camp will one day be full, will NGOs like us be given access to the people to provide needed services?
In any case, the inauguration of the new camp was a sad day for our team as it felt like a final stroke to our 6-year engagement on the island. When we came to Leros in October 2015, we were prepared for a short stay. We had planned to temporarily support the islanders who had to deal with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis; we had strived to fill the gaps until authorities were ready to provide decent reception facilities for people in wait, but somehow these gaps never seemed to close and we kept extending our stay. Over the years thousands of clothes, shoes, hygiene items, diapers, blankets, sleeping bags were distributed, innumerable language and computer classes taught, ping-pong, basketball, and football matches played, but foremost our team of volunteers provided time, empathy, and solidarity, things that money can’t buy and that will therefore always remain a gap. In hindsight, it turns out that our operations were always based on the wrong expectations. Quite obviously, the governing bodies had never planned to fill any of these gaps. However, with its new migration policy, the EU has reached a preliminary low point. and keeps undermining its own values and ideals, or at least, what they once called their values and ideals.