Samos is one of the Greek island off the Turkish coast. At the closest point, you have the feeling you can easily touch the other side if you stretch your arm a little. Not surprisingly, many refugees and migrants attempt to cross the border to the European Union here with small boats.
In 2007, a new detention centre was opened on the hills above the island’s capitol Vathy. Before, migrants were detained right in the city centre, behind the main church and the city hall, in the first floor of an old, run-down building. All those that passed this jail said that the conditions were unimaginable and made many people sick. With funding from the European Union, the new detention centre is nothing like that. It consists of 14 buildings made from metal, most of them are used for the detainees while some are administrative buildings. The whole camp is surrounded by a double barb-wired fence, CCTV cameras as well as loudspeakers are everywhere: bidirectional communication to the advantage of the guards. The camp even has a children’s playground as well as a basketball court. Too bad that there are no basketballs available, so the court is mainly used in summer, when the capacity of the camp does not suffice and newly detained migrants have to sleep there, on the bare ground (like in 2009).
So, Vathy detention centre is a model detention centre, nothing like Pagani or Venna or all the other horrible places where migrants are kept. Proudly, the EU flag flies over the entrance gate, and supposedly, there are social workerw in the centre. There also used to be a lawyer…Speaking of the EU: The European border agency is heavily involved in Samos. In 2010, they have organised for border guard bodies of other EU member states to come with ships and helicopters, helping the Greek coastguard to intercept and detain migrants. Currently, there is talk of up to 50 Frontex staff on Samos. This has lead to first complaints, since two Frontex helicopters have replaced the helicopters of the fire brigade in Samos airport.
But it is not only the policing of the border Frontex is lending assistance to. Since last December, Frontex has been active in the detention centre with self-proclaimed translators. There are present in the camp daily, and detained migrants have described their work: they enter the camp and interview the detainees in groups of two to four people, forcing them to sign documents without translation, indicating different ages, nationalities, dates etc. The relevance of this is deportability: There is a Greek-Turkish readmission agreement, but Turkey only accepts citizens of neighbouring countries (like Iran, Syria, Iraq, etc). This mean that e.g. a Palestinian cannot be deported to Turkey, while if he magically became an Iraqi, it would suddenly be possible. The Frontex officers put pressure on the detained migrants in order to obtain information using the argument that if they tell the truth they will soon leave the camp, otherwise, if they do not cooperate, they will remain incarcerated for a period of six months to one year (as permitted by the law). In April 2010, around 100 migrants detained in Samos went on a hunger strike to protest against this identity forging practice of Frontex and created quite a stir. However, their hunger strike came to an end when officials from the responsible ministry arrived and said, they would have to make an asylum application or be deported anyways.
This year, the camp is not as full as last year. One reason for this is that there are regular mass transfers of migrants to Athens, where they are kept in the police department for foreigners. This however does not explain the actual emptiness of the detention centre. Migrants are still arrving to Samos and are intercepted by either Greek coastguard or Frontex. It however seems that a lot of the detained migrants are rather kept in police stations both in Vathy and Karlovassi (the two main cities of the island). There is also information about an informal detention centre/camp operating in Agathonisi (a small island near Samos).
It is very difficult to keep track of the detained migrants are they are transferred around by the police. But it seems that most are sent to Allodapon in Athens, and then further on to the detention centre in Venna. From reports of migrants, it seems that the conditions in the central holding centre in Athens are horrible, with overcrowding, beating and torture. Some are released with the white paper, while others are transferred on. It is not that the migrants properly disappear, but the system makes them invisible, makes them disappear temporarily and then wash up again as part of an impoverished population in Athens, or Patra, or… while some are also deported to Turkey.
Because of all this, there will be a noborder weekend in Samos from the 27th to the 29th of August, with the aim of protesting the current treatment of the migrants, the presence and practices of Frontex and to continue a discussion in the local society about racism and the obligation to welcome migrants, not detain them. Join us!