At the temporary reception center Lesvos RIC, on Greece’s third largest island, just 30 kilometers from the visible Turkish coast, the waves hit the shore where the camp begins. Built in September 2020 to accommodate, among others, migrants stranded after the fire of the infamous Moria camp, the one also known as Mavrovouni is de facto the only detention center, as described by NGOs, that remains standing. in Lesvos. At this former shooting range, the military and police presence is evident. “What the hell are you doing here? Who gave you permission to take photos?” some police officers shout at us in English before entering the center. One of the agents, visibly upset, demands our documentation. We have permission from the Ministry of Migration to enter, but the screams do not stop. Lesbos RIC is one of the most opaque camps of the new batch of centers for the management of refugees and migrants in Greece. With the pandemic came the information blackout of the camps: they exist, but there are few organizations that can access them. Hardly any media has entered and no photos of its interior appear on the internet, only aerial views.
This incident with the police officers shows the 180-degree change of the government of conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis with respect to his predecessor on the left, Alexis Tsipras. From lack of control and open doors for Greek and foreign NGOs and activists, journalists and of course immigration mafias, the new Greek administration has changed – with European help – the formula: better conditions for asylum seekers in the camps and procedures of express files (up to two weeks) in exchange for greater surveillance, police presence and strict control of entries and exits (only one person per family can leave for two hours, only to cover basic needs and not every day) that several observers compared to what is suffered in prisons.
One of the first victims of this new Greek strategy have been dozens of NGOs that have had their permits cancelled. Around the Lesbos RIC compound, several volunteers loiter. Once inside, those in charge of the camp offer to guide us through the corridors and sections of Mavrovouni: «You can see that the atmosphere is calm and the situation is controlled. There are no fights or knives as the press reports so much. Order and security have come to the island after the Moria hole.
As soon as they enter Mavrovouni, in front of the checkpoint, dozens of asylum seekers queue to take photos and obtain their corresponding blue Greek passport or subsidiary protection, after having successfully passed the procedures and interviews for asylum.
In different languages
The camp is divided into four sections, also marked by several posts that include signs with vocabulary in different languages (at the entrance to one the word ‘rabbit’ is shown) to delimit the play areas for the children, oblivious to the drama they experience. their parents: the blue one, for the most vulnerable; the red one, for families; the yellow one, for single men; and the green one, which borders the sea and has been disabled due to the notable 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 the Congo. A year ago, the number of people in the camp was triple that, according to authorities.
In recent weeks, the camp has hardly received any new arrivals and those who enter are usually from sub-Saharan Africa. At the moment there is no sign of the feared wave of Afghans after the Taliban came to power two months ago (the majority of those residing had already arrived on the island). At the entrance to the center is the health section, managed by the Greek State in collaboration with NGOs, which evaluates the most vulnerable population. The new ones are isolated in the quarantine zone, which is currently occupied by 14 people. Many are getting vaccinated, in a voluntary process for rural residents.
“Hello! At two I’m going to get my passport. “It’s a great day!” celebrates Mohamed, a young Somali on a bicycle. Less cheerful is Kamel (29 years old), an asylum seeker who worked as a decorator at weddings in Cameroon, a country he left due to his status as gay, a sexual orientation persecuted in his country with sentences of between six months and five years in prison. He says he has no family. He is alone in his new life in Europe. He arrived by sea from Türkiye “on a very dangerous journey.” Precisely, this week three children and a woman died who were on board a shipwrecked boat east of the island of Chios, in the Aegean Sea.
At the camp they have food service, health care, a library, English, Greek and mathematics classes, prayer areas and of course Wi-Fi and free legal advice. When we visited the center, direct financial aid to asylum seekers had been stopped in the midst of the transfer of powers from UNHCR to the Greek State. Aid ranges from 75 euros for one person in government-provided accommodation with food included to 420 euros for a family of four or more residing in accommodation with its own kitchen.
The Mavrovouni camp has an expiration date: it is temporary while waiting to build the new Lesvos camp, scheduled for the end of 2022 and which will follow the patterns of the one on the island of Samos, inaugurated in September and which replaces the worst of all the existing in Greece. It represents the new era: better quality in the services provided but with high security, with concertina and isolated from urban centers, say sources familiar with the construction process, which will be financed completely with European funds and will be built in the middle of the forest in a place of the Vastria region (45 minutes by car from the island’s capital). It was a sine qua non of the local communities that the countryside was isolated, which for critics represents a step backwards in integration.
«At Cáritas we see several problems with the current management of Government arrivals: on the one hand, with express procedures it is not possible to correctly identify deficiencies; another is the recognition of Turkey as a safe country, so people (from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia) will no longer be able to request asylum if they arrive through Turkish territory. There is no collaboration between the two countries for returns,” acknowledges Maria Alverti, director of Cáritas Hellas.
Greece denies returns
The UNHCR has documented up to 450 cases of forced returns since the beginning of last year, accusations that Greece denies, which blames Turkey for driving migrants en masse to collapse the Greek islands. A month ago, the European Commissioner for the Interior, Ylva Johansson, said she was “extremely concerned” by the information uncovered by a journalistic investigation into alleged violent expulsions in Croatia and Greece itself.
Unlike those in mainland Greece, key to decongesting the islands (where in a year and a half the population has gone from 21,500 to only 5,000 residents), the Lesbos center is for reception and detention – more similar to the Temporary Stay Centers for Spanish immigrants (CETI) – managed by the Interior, which entails a greater police presence. «The Moria fire was a very dramatic situation that gave rise to the ‘No more Morias’ petition. A year later, camps have been established near Athens that have better conditions. We have seen that they were not so toxic,” describes Spanish MEP Maite Pagazaurtundúa.
The EU policy of reception at entry points, with the cooperation of the Greek governments, has turned Lesvos and the other Aegean islands “into miserable and dangerous warehouses of souls”, criticizes the communist MEP Kostas Papadakis (not registered ), of the Delegation for EU-Turkey of the European Parliament. Papadakis remembers how last year the ‘Lanos’ storm that hit the country caused “asylum seekers staying there to be 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 life and health of babies, children and even pregnant women.” who are staying in the camp.
Back in Mytilene, capital of the island of Lesvos (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 have received dozens and up to hundreds of thousands of arrivals in a few weeks.
From being a symbol of solidarity with the Syrian war and the massive arrivals through Turkey, five years later the neighbors do not even want to hear about asylum seekers roaming their streets. That demand has become a reality. At nine in the morning on a weekday Wednesday, no migrant is seen despite the fact that Mavrovouni is barely 15 minutes away by car. On the other hand, Army patrols and police motorcycles do make themselves noticed, which monitor the parks, looking for anyone who may have slept on the benches. Immigration is a taboo topic.
Passport not to stay in Greece
The Greek Government boasts that in the first half of 2021, half as many migrants have arrived as last year, in the midst of the pandemic. And NGOs complain that “their strategy focuses on putting even more obstacles so that those who arrive do not stay in Greece,” explains Raquel Verdasco, from 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,” she explains, “but also people already rejected and those who have refugee status.”
«They are in a limbo: as recognized refugees they have the same rights as Greeks, but they do not know the language and therefore have no options to obtain a job. “Many choose to continue living in the camps,” he adds. They are at a dead end. For this reason, many rule out learning Greek and focus on reaching Germany thanks to their new passport.