There is a serious humanitarian crisis on the island of Samos in Greece, where over 4,000 migrants and refugees are trapped in abysmal conditions, while tensions with the local population are worsening each day. Just like the better-known situation on Lesbo island, the Samos hotspot, with its maximum capacity of 1,500 people, is unbelievably overcrowded. That’s why outside the camp, the lush pine-covered hills of the beautiful Aegean island are lined with tents and precarious shacks, with no electricity, few water distribution points and only twenty toilets. There are very few doctors or psychologists here. If nothing else, volunteers from local NGOs are trying to wash the bedding in order to prevent total degradation. But the winter is cold, the food is scarce and right next to the impromptu camps there are heaps of rat-infested garbage. The non-existent services and the presence of thousands of desperate men, women and children right outside the city are making cohabitation with the 33,000 residents of Samos, who normally live on tourism and are beginning to manifest their frustration, increasingly difficult. Stamatis Vlachos, project manager for Caritas Hellas explains the situation to SIR. There has been an overall decline in arrivals to Europe last year (139,300 in 2018) and a shift in migration routes: Greece is now in second place after Spain, with around 32,500 arrivals compared to 30,000 in 2017. After the crisis in 2015, which saw 1 million arrivals on the Balkan Route, and after the 2016 agreement with Turkey to close off the border, “people are once again landing on the islands”, says Vlachos. “Right now the emergency is on the island of Samos, near Lesbo”.
“There are too many people in the camps and few basic infrastructures. This is creating many problems, including health and hygiene issues. The local population is demonstrating and organizing strikes. It is an explosive situation”.
Some people have tried leaving up to 17 times. Those who manage to land on Samos departing from Turkey with traffickers hail mostly from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, but also from some African countries (Cameroon and DR Congo). Of these, 53% are men, 22% are women and 25% are children, and there are 229 unaccompanied minors and many families among them. Many have suffered violence during the journey, which brought them through Libya and attempted crossings to Greece. “People usually try crossing the Mediterranean once. If they don’t make it, they change route and try again. There are people here who have attempted crossing 10, 15, even 17 times until they managed to reach their destination, to be reunited with family or friends”, he explains.
They would all like to leave Greece. Most of them would rather not seek asylum in the one of the 26 centres across Greece, because that would “stop them from going to other places in Europe”. The waiting list for a first hearing with UNHCR, the United States High Commission for Refugees which examines asylum applications, extends to 2021.
“People are without papers, they are in a waiting stage and are looking for forged passports in order to move on”.
The humanitarian organization has also recently denounced the severity of the general situation in Samos. Many migrants manage to catch a plane from Athens to other European countries, or go through other Greek islands, in each case using forged documents. “Traffickers have organized a very sophisticated system”, says the Project Manager of Caritas Hellas. “Migrants show up as tourists who happen to be here on holiday and would like to return home, in Northern European countries. They sometimes dye their hair or put on tinted contact lenses. Greece is not a land of great opportunities, there is a crisis and unemployment is high, so everyone wants to leave”.
The agreement with Turkey and the responsibilities of Greece. Caritas Hellas has no structure here but tries to work in cooperation with local authorities, concentrating on specific areas. “Previously, the emergency in Samos was similar to the one in Lesbo, but it has gotten worse. I know that the European Commission has given very negative feedback to the conditions of the reception system here”, adds Vlachos, placing the blame on the agreement with Turkey (which received 3 billion euros from the EU, and which is set to receive 3 billion more if the agreement is kept), as well as on Greek authorities, which have been unable to deal with the situation. According to international media, the European Union has allocated 1.4 billion euros to Greece for the reception of migrants and for border controls for the period 2014-2020, of which 579 million have already been given. But in 2017 the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) opened an investigation into possible abuses.