Last week we asked a friend whose son works as a policeman in the port why he thought the police were so violent in searching out the refugees who tired of waiting and fearing a negative response to their asylum application tried to leave the island clandestinely – without the necessary papers. They do this in a variety of ways usually by hiding in or on the trucks leaving Samos for Pireaus. If they are discovered they are routinely given a beating before being released back to the camp. It appears from what he replied that the port police on Samos are penalised by losing wages if any unauthorised refugees from Samos are caught in Athens or Pireaus. In other words this threat to their livelihoods drives them towards violence in the hope that it will deter the refugees trying to escape Samos.
In the first week of July the police launched a major sweep to locate refugees who had exhausted the asylum process and are to be deported. 138 such refugees were caught although many more are thought to be in hiding. When refugees are in this position they do all they can to evade capture. The police routines are predictable. For example they tend to come into the sleeping cabins in the camp at around 6am looking for those who have been refused asylum. The refugees in turn move around the cabins and don’t stay in their allocated places. It is a life lived on the edge, always vigilant and always insecure.
The police presence on Samos is now significant. The island is rapidly losing those laid back characteristics which were commonplace on Greek islands. For the refugees in particular as well as for those local people still offering help and solidarity to refugees there is a tangible sense of being under police surveillance, including being photographed and stopped and questioned. It is a presence evident in the many new police vehicles of all kinds especially in Samos town where the camp is located. Less obvious are the many plain clothes police who wander the streets and bars and especially at the ports when the ferries arrive and depart.
A couple of our friends with their new born baby visited last week from Athens. Before leaving from Piraeus their papers were checked three times at the ferry by different plain clothes police. The same happened when they returned a week later. They are from Algeria and Somalia. We were standing with them waiting to board the ferry when a young guy in shorts and tee shirt sidled up to us and asked them for their papers. He identified himself as a policeman. This happened again 10 minutes later when another plain clothes policeman demanded to see their papers. And all these additional checks come after being checked at the gates to the terminal by private security workers before allowed access to the ferry area.
Last week there was a fire in cell where refugees are detained awaiting deportation. Sometimes they are held in the cell for weeks. This single room has 4 toilets and a shower. The floor is covered with foam mattresses. The only windows are high so there is no view of the outside world. There are no exercise facilities and they are locked in 24/7. The cell is on the ground floor of the police station and is under constant camera surveillance. At the time of the fire there were 33 people held in the cell and the day time temperatures had risen to over 40c. Fortunately there were no deaths but four refugees plus 6 police officers needed hospital treatment for smoke inhalation.
On July 9th the Samos police workers issued a statement saying that it was by sheer luck that there were no fatalities and demanded to know who preciselywas responsible for imprisoning so many refugees in such a small space and complaining that they were being damaged by being expected to manage an inhumane policy.
The fact is that police cells all over Greece are being used in this way: cells which at best were expected to house detainees for a few days and never intended for long term incarceration. Greek prisons are not known for their positive qualities but the police cells go well beyond anything you will find in prison. The appalling conditions and the lack of basic rights are well known and have been the subject of endless condemnatory reports but nothing changes.
All of this taking place under a Syriza government that claims to be progressive and humane. It is nothing less than shameful.