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How many people – many vulnerable and sick, and all needing support after terrible ordeals – can be squeezed into a facility built to accommodate 600? Thousands, if what we saw on our visit to the migrant reception and identification center (or “hotspot,” as such facilities have been dubbed) on a hillside on the northeastern Aegean island of Samos just 3 kilometers from its capital is anything to go by.
The number was 3,500 on the day of our visit, according to camp director Maria-Dimitra Nioutsikou. Of these, more than 800 have had their “geographical restrictions” lifted, meaning that they are allowed to leave the island, “but stay here because they don't have anywhere to go if they travel to Athens,” Nioutsikou says, explaining that they would rather stay in tents designed for summer camping and wait to be assigned a spot at a camp on the mainland. In the meantime, every day sees new arrivals from Turkey, pushing the camp's population higher.
From January 1 to September 21, 4,314 people landed on the island's shores and from March 1 to September 19, 2,400 were granted passes to travel to the mainland.
Despite the rising numbers, however, nothing is being done to expand the facility and improve living conditions, which are rapidly deteriorating. Beside the container homes that represent the “official” camp shelters, hundreds of “beneficiaries” – as they are bureaucratically termed – are living in small summer tents. Some of these were distributed by the camp's authorities, but many were purchased by the migrants themselves.
Blankets handed out by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) are draped over these tents to provide what additional protection they can from the elements. The tents have also spread beyond the camp proper into nearby olive groves. “We have explained the legal ramifications of trespassing,” says Nioutsikou, who estimates that there are some 300 migrants and refugees currently living beyond the camp's perimeters.
“They use the center's services and are provided with food, but there is an accommodation problem. We don't have any more space, so we're operating both as a hotspot and as an open hospitality center.”
What with the new arrivals and the deadlock with transfers, the Samos hotspot has fast become another official facility where thousands are forced to live in despicable conditions, similar to the notorious Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, as they wait to see the results of the millions of euros that have been dispensed on their behalf.
Iraqi Fatah came to Samos with his wife and children. He came with 10,000 euros in cash – “to help us make a start” – but after eight months of waiting for his family's asylum applications to be processed, is now down to 2,000 euros. Mohammed is also from Iraq and came here just a few days ago with his wife and two children, one of whom is just 5 months old.
They have been staying in a tent for 20 days as they wait for space to become available in one of the container homes, which can sleep as many as six people and are often shared by two families.
"It's very difficult. So many people sleeping in such a tiny space. If you have children you cannot stay in a summer tent," Hasan says.
Palestinian Marwan also lives in a tent even though he is disabled. He relies on his neighbors to go to the toilet and to have his food brought to him. He has a wheelchair but it's not much good for getting him up the muddy slope that leads to the official facility.
Every so often we hear names coming out in a tinny strangled announcement from the hotspot loudspeakers, the sound traveling down to this miserable gully that houses the camp outside the camp. When the residents realize that we're outsiders and interested in their predicament, they try to get our attention, to stand out from the crowd in the hopes that we can somehow help them.
The migrants from sub-Saharan Africa – from Congo, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Somalia and Ethiopia – seem to be the angriest. They have formed their own little tent city high up on the hill. Most are men traveling alone and they're at the bottom of the list for eligibility for a container home in the camp.
“I know it sounds harsh, but we're often obliged to choose who is the needier among two people in need,” says Nioutsikou. “If a bed opens up in a container home and we have two pregnant women, we'll chose the one who's more advanced. If someone has sick children, they will be given priority over someone with healthy children. That's how it goes.”
A few kilometers away in Vathy, the island capital with just 5,000 residents, the crew of a coast guard patrol boat is resting on the pier. Bad weather has stemmed the flow of new arrivals. When night falls, most businesses on the waterfront lock up, as the public squares fill with young migrant men, many of them drinking alcohol and occasionally becoming rowdy.
“Five or six migrants are arrested every day for thefts or acts of violence,” says Giorgos Kollaros, the president of the local bar association, which has taken recourse to the Council of State over the conditions at the hotspot. “We no longer allow our teenagers to go out alone. The town has changed completely.”
As we step out of his office into the twilight, we see a Syrian couple strolling with their toddler, who's clutching a teddy bear in his arms. “They probably have some money and were able to rent an apartment; they are the lucky ones. I often see them around,” says a waiter who watches us watching them.
Overcrowding has stretched resources to their limits at the Samos hotspot. Health services are provided by the Health Ministry's Center for Disease Control & Prevention (KEELPNO) after all the nongovernmental organizations that were active here left and the number of personnel is inadequate. There is also a serious shortage of interpreters, who are absolutely necessary as many of the migrants do not speak English.
Harem, a 20-year-old Palestinian, is one of the few people at the Samos camp who appear to be happy. “I'm leaving,” he says before we even have a chance to ask him how come. He arrived here in November 2017 as he fled Gaza after surviving three attempts on his life. “I guess you can say that I am lucky after all.”
He was granted a residence permit for the European Union just before he completed a year on the island. “They had written my name wrong and it took two months to correct it, so the delay was longer,” he says.
Harem was supposed to fly to Belgium to meet his brother on September 30. “I didn't want to leave Gaza. It is the most beautiful place in the world; there's nothing like it. But it happened and now I need to rebuild my future,” he says.
The 20-year-old is determined to study psychology. “I've helped a lot of people at the Samos camp, just with the stuff I read on the internet. Imagine what I can accomplish if I actually study!” He never wants to come back to Samos, or to Greece for that matter. “The police are always stopping me, asking for my papers,” he says as he pulls out his residence permit. “What did they give me this for? Doesn't it mean that they trust me? That I am free?”
Harem may never want to come back, but his father, mother and sisters are just a hundred kilometers away, at the Vial camp on the island of Chios. They haven't received any papers yet.
The 20-year-old refused to have his photograph taken. “What if I make it in Belgium? What if I do something important? I don't want people saying, ‘This guy lived in a tent under a tree like a monkey.’”