Updated: Jan 9, 2020
The Inside Story
The city of Vathy lies on a picturesque section of the Greek Island of Samos’ northern coast. In areas nearby, Turkey can easily be seen from the shore, making the island a hub for migrants seeking entry to the EU. Almost every day people arrive on these shores. Currently, there are well over 4,100 asylum seekers on the island, most of whom are from Afghanistan (37%) with the rest from The Democratic Republic of the Congo (17%) Iraq (12%), Syria (8%), or elsewhere. The numbers are set to rise further, with a massive and unexpected spike in sea arrivals occurring in recent weeks.
The camp where the majority of the migrants reside is roughly 600% overcapacity. It was built to house 650 people, but today it houses over 4000. This has forced many residents to live in a rough shantytown composed of old tents and shacks littered around a copse of trees bordering the camp — an area many refer to as “the Jungle”, an obvious echo of the informal camp that existed in Calais until its demolition in 2017.
The conditions there are unfit for human settlement. The rubbish and detritus littering the floor have attracted rats and snakes that live amongst the impromptu dwellings and the people within. In addition to this, the unsteady, hole-ridden ground has made walking in the jungle area unsafe, so elderly residents or those with mobility issues find it extremely difficult to head to the town, and to access the services within. One person, who volunteered in a women’s centre told me that a number of pregnant women have suffered miscarriages due to the stress of living in such a place.
What is driving this stress, is a sense of stagnation. Most people in the camp are waiting for asylum interviews, approval to move to the mainland, or an appeal. Initially, the asylum process was designed to take only a couple of months, but given the sheer number of people in the camp, the frequency of new arrivals, compared to the relatively few officials in charge of processing asylum claims, the process can, and often does, take a year or more. This has led to many illegally trying to gain passage aboard the ferry to the mainland, but most are caught in the attempt. One man from Afghanistan told me, with frustration, of how his family saved up a considerable fortune to get him to Europe, only to end up stuck on the island. His family remains in Afghanistan.
The recently elected Nea Demokratia (New Democracy) party in Greece has vowed to improve this process, limiting processing times to a maximum of six weeks, as well as raise the standards of living conditions in the camps, but it is too early to say how effective these measures will prove to be. With numbers of deportations set to rise, many of the Samos-based humanitarian groups are concerned.
There are plans to move the camp further inland. Currently, the Samos camp stands on a junction, roughly fifteen minutes from the city centre. This has allowed migrants access to shops, services, and beaches around the city. In addition to this, over the past few months, a number of NGOs have opened drop-in centres in the city.
One NGO, Med’EqualiTeam runs a drop-in medical centre. Another, Action for Education runs a youth centre and language school, catering for 18–23 year-olds, the largest age group in the camp. As no NGO is allowed to operate in the camp itself, it is feared that the moving of the camp would cripple the existing aid infrastructure. This will leave the migrants in Samos unable to either receive the support of NGOs and grassroots organisations, which many have come to rely on or improve their lives once finally settled. Aside from language learning, some organisations like Glocal Roots, Action For Education, and One Digital World operates computer classes and vocational skill lessons for refugee women.
Through One Digital World’s curriculum, women, some of whom have never used a computer before, come to learn the fundamentals of computer science, networking, and even basic computer programming. Some refugees participate directly with teaching, passing on to others the skills of their former lives.
Many of the requirements currently satisfied by NGOs can also be fulfilled by the Greek state. According to Greek law, even children without residency or identity papers have access to the school system, and of course, all have access to medical care. But, considering the sheer number of people who require these services, and the country’s recent economic problems, it could prove to be the case that demand far exceeds Greece’s capacity to supply. Across Greece, migrant and refugee children struggle to access the education system, and even mainland camps have deeply insufficient medical services.
In recent weeks, the relationship between camp residents and the Greek residents of Vathy has deteriorated. A couple of weeks ago, a town celebration ended early when representatives of the Mayor took to the stage and accused migrants and asylum seekers of effectively killing the island’s tourism industry, which many businesses on the island need to survive.
Many shops, bars, restaurants, and even beaches have either outright banned migrants, or have taken measures to limit the number who use them. Some asylum seekers have even said they have been forcibly removed from one of the more popular beaches by private security guards.
This strained relationship has made Vathy, the main town of Samos, a place with three communities. The resident Greek community, the refugee community, and the international volunteers or NGO staff. The refugees and volunteers mostly interact with each other, leaving the Greek residents disconnected. This poses clear problems regarding integration, with refugees learning more English, French, and German than Greek (this isn’t to say that there isn’t any interest, there just aren’t sufficient teachers), and international volunteers learning little Greek, or knowing Greek culture. One former volunteer described it as being a “bubble”, leaving their assignment in Greece knowing more about the culture, language, and customs of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, than Greece. This may brew frustration with local communities, seeing hundreds or even thousands of foreign visitors spending months in the community, but not engaging with it.
Worse still, according to one NGO worker, many of the local Greeks believe that those who reside in the camp and its squalid conditions do so by choice — that the refugees and asylum seekers live dirty lives. This could be improved through greater integration and communication, and it is possible that more can be done to improve integration efforts, but until then, it is easy to see how miscommunication and disconnection could create further stress and antagonism between communities. But the NGOs, mostly being small and underfunded, simply lack the capacity to improve integration.
Despite there being clear efforts to improve the situation by the Greek state and others, there are simply not enough resources to provide for everyone’s basic needs. So, while it is possible that the moving of the camp to another location on Samos could deal with the massive overcrowding problem, the distance from the existing aid infrastructure could prove to be massively detrimental for the migrants stranded on the island.