In the first week of December 2018 a delegation drawn from 11 groups including political parties, commercial organisations, hospital workers, and the Mayor of Samos, traveled to Athens to meet with Dimitris Vitsa, the minister responsible for refugees. Sadly, but inevitably refugees had no presence. The very people who could speak with direct experience of the problems confronting the refugees on Samos were excluded. (It should be noted, that this broad based delegation included a few groups and parties that are generally sympathetic to the refugees.)
The coverage on Samos of the visit inevitably highlighted the problems which were threatening to ‘overwhelm’ Samos and made life ‘unbearable’ for the residents of Samos town who had to live with the Hot Spot. With over 4,000 refugees on the island all of whom are either in the Camp (1,895), in tents around the Camp (2000) or in rooms and houses in the town(235), the situation was unanimously seen by the delegation as untenable. Now that the rains have started the squalor of the camp has deepened. There is no escaping the reality of the Samos camp as a place of nightmares. According to Vivi Michou, Director-General of the European Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs, the camp on Samos is now worse than Moria on Lesvos (Ekathimerini, Dec 2, 2018) It was she said fast becoming a bomb on the verge of explosion.
The purpose of the visit was to press the government to act without delay. First to ‘de-congest’ the island by moving refugees off Samos to the ‘hinterland’ or by deportation. Second to close the Hot Spot in Samos town and to relocate it in a place away from a significant local population. But this event was also distinguished from earlier meetings between Samos representatives and government minister by the expressions of open frustration and distrust in central government. ” Let me remind you that the last time we visited the then competent minister Mr Mouzala..we had no result. Let me also recall the promises of the current minister when he visited the island and in the press too. No effect” (Nikos Katsarakos, Deputy Chief of Staff, Samos, Samos Blog 4th December 2018) .Patience is exhausted. The meeting was held in a context that encouraged uncompromising accounts in which some important truths were masked as the entire focus was on the threats to Samos coming from the refugees and the presence of the Hot Spot in Samos town.
It is generally the case that most of the discussions of refugees on Samos are poorly informed and largely evidence free. The absence of refugee voices is significant and cuts out an important source of information and allows for the unchallenged emergence of a taken for granted common sense about the ‘problems’ we face with refugees on Samos. But it is a common sense which distorts and simplifies and is not accurate. First there is NEVER any acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of refugees are kept in Samos town. Travel out of the town and around the island and you will see no refugees. They have no presence in peoples’ minds or places. It is Samos town which has the ‘problem’ (if there is one) not the island. This factor alone exposes the popular myth that the island’s core tourism business has been badly hit by the presence of refugees. All the main tourist centres of Samos are virtually refugee free. Indeed this past year has seen a significant increase in tourist arrivals and activity and further growth is expected for 2019.
Equally widespread is the myth that in Samos town “everyday life is unbearable for the locals; life is worn out”. And who would know better than Christodoulis Stefanadis, ‘the renowned professor of cardiology at the University of Athens’ who wrote the above after a short visit to the island. This is the quality of the evidence which is commonly trotted out. We never hear from the shop keepers or coffee shop owners where refugees spend their time and money; we never hear from locals sitting in the platia or by the sea who watch the refugee families and children promenade and pass their time; we never hear the voices of people who welcome the vibrancy the refugees bring to the town, especially in the winter months. Nobody talks about the normal every day human inter-actions between refugees and locals and the absence of stress on the streets.
Such silences not only misrepresent what is actually happening but contributes to the one dimensional perspective of the refugees as PROBLEM, and in the case of Samos THE problem. But in truth as more at last are coming to realise, the problems on Samos are not the refugees but the incompetence and criminal behaviours of the responsible authorities. As the Samos mayor pointed out Greece has to date only spent 37% of the 1.6 billion Euros allocated by the EU to the government. No shortage of resources can explain why the camps are such overcrowded hell holes.
Across the globe there are cities and states which are recognising and welcoming the contributions of refugees and migrants. In these places, refugees are seen as a positive social force with the potential to contribute significantly to their new societies. As I write the Global Forum of Mayors has been meeting in Marrakesh. Some 100 people from city authorities – mayors and officials from Quito to Kampala – took part in the gathering, which discussed how to meet the needs of both refugees and migrants. Fillipo Grandi head of UNHCR in addressing the Forum said: “We are full of admiration for all the mayors who have taken up a different kind of narrative to hostility and xenophobia. I really commend you for your courage and staying the course in crafting a more effective and principled approach to the refugee crises.” (emphasis added) UNHCR News, 9 Dec 2018).
This is exactly what is required in Greece and on Samos. A different kind of narrative to the single lens approach of viewing refugees as nothing other than a problem which sustains current inhumane and sterile policies and practices. And as long as Samos remains a frontier island of Fortress Europe, it will continue to receive refugees. Refugees have been coming for decades if not more. With climate change and continual warfare there is every reason to believe that the flows of people seeking life will grow. It will not go away.
More immediately the on going adherence to the 2016 EU/Turkey pact locks Greece into maintaining the frontier islands as the principal centres for processing refugees and migrants coming through Turkey. The EU has not shifted its position that it does not want a repeat of 2015 with thousands of refugees moving through the islands and on to mainland Europe with virtually no delay. The frontier islands have a crucial role in this strategy as detention places to manage the refugee flow into this part of Europe. Although formally acknowledging the human rights of refugees, the EU practice is critically influenced by an ill-informed belief that deterrence plays a role in reducing refugee arrivals. And as the liberal use of fences and razor wire at the camps vividly convey these are not designed to be places of comfort and care. Likewise, the indifference of the managers to the scale of garbage throughout the camp is equally graphic in its message that refugees count for little.
There is a pressing need for a fundamental re-think about the future for both Samos and the refugees if we are to stop the endless stumbling from crisis to crisis; always too late; always insufficient and always mired by incompetence and organisational chaos and not the least lacking in intelligence. And who suffers most? The refugees. It is patently obvious what there is now is a disaster and indefensible.
Random evacuation of large numbers of refugees has long been practiced as refugee numbers overwhelm the Hot Spot. The latest announcement made during the recent visit to the minister that the government will remove 2,000 refugees from Samos by December 15th illustrates that this default strategy stays in place. There is a total absence of any consideration for the refugees who find themselves being up-rooted with virtually no notice to be bundled on to a ferry. Many refugees whilst not happy to be detained on Samos are very wary about being transferred, especially those with young children. The poor conditions of thousands of refugees in Athens are well known amongst the refugees and it is a plight they are desperate to avoid. There is now a significant number of refugees living in Samos town who have the papers to leave Samos but refuse to do so preferring to fight for their asylum on the island rather than in Athens.
That it is highly unlikely that such a large number of refugees can be evacuated in such a short time will further reinforce the lack of trust locally in central government. As the Samos Blog observed on December 13th since the minister’s promise to remove 2000 refugees by December 15th a total of 30 refugees had left Samos with 304 new arrivals in the same period. It is also more than likely that already stressed relations will completely break down when the government also fails to deliver on its promise of last week, that it would shut down the camp in Samos town and move it to a more remote location away from the islanders. This, the minister announced would happen by February 2019. The deadline seems impossible. Just 2 days ago the authorities were advertising for land to rent stating that there was no public or army land available in a suitable place for a new Hot Spot! It will be interesting to see what response there will be as it is going to be a brave Samian who will offer their land for a new camp.
The assessment that the Hot Spot as a bomb ready to explode is almost certainly correct. In the 12 years I have been involved with refugees here I would say that this has been my opinion also. For all my 12 years the camp has been to put it simply, a hell hole. There are no good years. And for all those years despite occasional eruptions there has been no explosion of the sort we all anticipated. Why not? This is such an important question. Nobody now denies that conditions in such camps as in Samos and Lesvos are disgusting, inhuman and cruel. Many are increasingly expressing their shame that Greece is now known for some of the worst refugee camps in the world. But still no explosions on Samos; yet.
There is no single explanation, but in the case of Samos at least, the close location of the camp to the town centre is a significant factor. It acts as a pressure release. Within minutes of leaving the camp you are in the town, amongst the shops and platias, with a long sea walled promenade. It is where you can feel human again, not just from being out of the camp but also from being in a place free from arbitrary death or danger. And with open eyes the evidence is before you as you watch groups of friends or families strolling along the streets, sitting on the sea wall, talking, laughing, listening to music; people relaxed and relaxing.
The town also offers resources not available in the camp and above all it houses the island’s main hospital which again is within walking distance. The hospital is a major and much used resource by the refugees.
Despite being the disaster it is, the Hot Spot is the biggest employer in Samos town and on the basis of UNHCR allowances alone, the refugees bring into Samos around 4 million euros a year most of which is spent in Samos town. None of these economic factors come into consideration in part because those shouting the odds have immersed themselves in the myth that the people of Samos town are all overwhelmed, living in fear and basically existentially challenged.
The decision to move the Hot Spot out of Samos town is precisely what one might expect from an approach that lacks intelligence and is driven by myth and prejudice.
Without question Samos town has been changed by the refugee presence. The ethnic mix here has been transformed in a short span of years. In 2006 you would be hard pressed to see a black face anywhere on the island. But this is no longer so for Samos town. On warm evenings the sea front is full of refugees from so many countries. It is an extraordinary and beautiful sight but also completely new for the people here.
How people come to terms with such huge unanticipated changes in the places they live is influenced by many factors but for sure the unrelenting negativity and myth making that refugees attract, especially from those with some kind of power, status or authority does nothing but hinder how people come to see the refugees. If all you hear is that refugees are a problem because they bring crime, illness and disease and possibly terrorism it is hardly a surprise to find that many want to see them gone. There is no nuance in these accusations and certainly no evidence provided in many cases. No one feels the need to note that the overwhelming number of criminal charges against the refugees here concern irregularities with their papers and not against the people and property of Samos town. Similarly with disease and illness refugees are left living in a health catastrophe created and sustained by the authorities. Such basic necessities as an adequate water supply to the camp have not been secured despite it being an issue for over 10 years. Refugees are appalled by the squalor of the camp and scared of the health risks they face 24/7. It is a filthy and dirty place in which people with so little try their best to survive.
Incompetence and Impunity
Here on Samos there is a long history of doing things badly and then doing nothing about it. We have expensive road improvements which within three years crumble and are then abandoned. We have a beautiful swimming pool which has been completed for over a decade and never opened. We have sewage works which have never been used. We have a collapsing hotel on the waterfront which has remained deserted for 12 years or more. We saw the sea front of Samos town paralysed for 3 years as a major new sewage system was installed in an attempt to get rid of the foul odours which dominated the town during the summer months. Millions spent, and lives and business disrupted. But the smell remains. But it is not just incompetence it is the impunity which comes with it that is so significant. There seems to be no consequences for doing a bad job. Whenever and wherever incompetence combines with impunity bad things happen. This is clearly the case with the camp.
It is ridiculous for example that the role of the municipality is so limited when it comes to the management of the camp. It has no automatic right to enter, each entry has to be officially processed and agreed with the camp administration. Despite being responsible for waste on the island, with respect to the camp this is limited to the provision of a few large wheely bins outside the main entrances. Even this is contested. For unspecified safety reasons the camp administrator had two of the bins removed. The municipality has asked the ministry for permission to increase the number but has as yet after 3 months no response. According to Athens Voice (11 December 2018),
“The municipality of Samos has done a project funded by the European Union and the European Commission to provide water to the hot spot, drinking water, that is, in the € 300,000 category, which has been properly implemented. However, according to the mayor, the municipality does not know how it is being utilized within the CTV, as it needs a special permit to enter the reception centre. ‘We are only responsible for waste management and water supply and nothing else, we have called for government intervention to amend the regulation to be beneficiaries in order to do things, but there is no progress. Even for simpler things, like to put two televisions, we needed a month.’” So why is it that there are only 2 sources for drinking water in the camp and virtually no functioning toilets? Outside under the trees with the hundreds of tents there is no water and no toilet provision. Is it surprising to see the bottles of urine littering the place?
The consequences of such gross incompetence and mismanagement are not hard to see:
(These photographs are from Vice and published Dec 11 2018 under the heading Photographs from an Unknown Hell: Samos Refugee Camp).
It has taken far too long but there are now clear signs that some at least have shifted their focus from the refugees as potential carriers of disease to a focus on the camp as being responsible for the public health threat facing Samos. One early indication was the action taken last month by the regional Governor who issued a public health notice on the Camp administration demanding immediate action on cleaning, water supplies, food quality and hygiene and toilets. The notice gave 30 days for the camp authorities to solve these problems otherwise an order would be issued to close the camp. Nothing happened. The Governor’s intervention was not allowed. The conditions raised by the Governor were not challenged, only the procedure. Now a large health group of various interests with the Samos Bar Association are taking similar action for the same reasons. Here are some extracts from their (long and detailed) statement, addressed to Vitsa (the minister) and Maria-Dimitra Noutsikou the Hot Spot administrator, which illustrate a welcome refocusing of the problem away from the refugees to those with power and responsibility:
“Your indifference in dealing with the immigrants on Samos and the unfortunate delays in the asylum processes results in the deprivation of the refugees, their mental exhaustions and their incredible suffering as they live in miserable conditions and many of them are mentally and physically ill…
Beyond doubt indirectly by your policy, actions, omissions, and unlawfulness, you are raping the refugees since the majority want to leave the island; and you destroy the city of Samos where the inhabitants live in fear, uncertainty and insecurity….
Until today, despite the appeals and outrages of the local community, the agencies and the Municipality of Samos, despite your promises, statements and letters on de-congestion , your excuses, staffing problems you and your camp administrator have done nothing….failing to observe and enforce immigration laws, failing to ensure safe living for the immigrants, and responsible for environmental pollution, uncontrolled dumping of waste and sewage sludge… with dangers of infectious diseases including tuberculosis. The sanitary bomb might not have exploded yet but with the sloppiness and indifference you show to the refugees the chances are many. ….
It is our intention to request the intervention of the Prosecutor of Samos because we believe that your actions, acts and omissions in the performance of your duties in the management of the refugees constitutes criminal offences.” (from Samos Blog, Dec 9, 2018).
It is impossible to predict how these events will unfold. We can say with certainty that the commitment to remove 2000 refugees in order to relieve some of the overcrowding in the camp will not happen, as promised by tomorrow. Although there will certainly be a significant evacuation before too long. But as the flow of arrivals albeit smaller than in the summer continue such measures are always short term. As for possible prosecutions there are many reasons to think that they will not materialise if past actions are a guide. The central government has shown no hesitancy in changing the law if it feels the need, as it did in overturning the ruling of the supreme court a year ago when it declared that Turkey could not be automatically assumed to be a safe place to deport all refugees as intended under the EU Turkey pact. Likewise the attempt of the regional governor to use the law to enforce some basic health and hygiene standards was thwarted by administrative fiat. It is very clear that central government has given considerable powers to the hot spot managers who seem free to act as they wish without any accountability locally. It can be expected that the government will continue to protect the managers. But the naming of names and looking more clearly for reasons why the Camp should be such a humanitarian disaster feels like a step in the right direction.
But these are but small steps. Until there is a fundamental shift in perspective about the refugees and their needs and an end to the negative mythologising of refugees there will be no positive change. Yet Samos could gain so much if it was prepared to follow the example of the mayors and cities represented at the Global Forum in Marrakesh last week.
We live in hope!