A group of Pakistani, Afghan and Bangladeshi migrants have been detained since Saturday in the Samos detention camp, known as Blamari, one nautical mile away from the Turkish coast. Following the agreement between the E.U. and Turkey, this camp, which until last week was a reception center with free access, has been transformed into a “hotspot.” In fact, it has become a prison.
The gate is padlocked, so you cannot get in or out, much less escape over two wire fences topped by a dense crown of barbed wire. The area is patrolled by police officers and the army, but nobody knows exactly who is responsible for the camp, so the soldiers are there just to ward off unauthorized personnel.
“We have been here for 20 days,” said a young man from Gujarat, Pakistan. Several dozen of them went on hunger strike Wednesday. “The Greek authorities will not release the document we need to continue to the continent.”
The cramped center is too small to accommodate the numbers here. Walkways are mostly cluttered with dozens of tents, where many spend the night, in spite of the strong wind sweeping over the Aegean Sea for the last two days. A few Afghan families have obtained the necessary documentation to leave the camp.
“We were driven from the camp,” explains Ahmad Agha, 28, of Kandahar, while holding in his hand the document for him, his wife and their two children. “We went to the harbor, but it is already full of people. Now we are in the streets, without a place to go, we have no money but we need to eat. The ferry to Athens will come in a few days.”
Not far away, another young Afghan stands outside the Blamari gate clutching a bag containing a little fruit and some cookies he purchased in town. He brought them for some friends still trapped inside, and after some insistence, a policeman opened the first gate and locked it behind him. Then, he opened the outer gate and orders the man to deposit the food in the area between the two metal barriers. Next, he closed the outer gate and only then allowed one of the inmates to collect the bag and its contents. This modus operandi leaves little doubt of the prison-like nature of the camp.
To complicate things further, the lack of information has given the Blamari prisoners a deep sense of insecurity. They are terrified of being deported to Turkey, which could mean forced repatriation for non-Syrians or Iraqis. For many who qualify for refugee protections, such deportations would be illegal under international law.
“We want to stay here,” reads one sign pushed against the fence by the Pakistani group. With tears in their eyes, they vent the fear that plagues them: “We are running away from terrorism in our country. Going back means we can be killed.”
For them, however, it is only a matter of time. Because they arrived by boat before the Brussels agreements, they do not risk expulsion to Turkey, and sooner or later, they will board a ferry either to the port of Elefsina or Piraeus. The latter has been converted into a huge tent city for thousands of new arrivals. It will be a different fate for the 17 refugees who arrived to Samos on Monday, after the dangerous crossing by sea from Bodrum, on the Turkish coast. They have been accused of the crime of illegal immigration and placed under arrest in Blamari where they mingled with the other inmates.
Considering the evident disorganization of the camp, there is legitimate to doubt whether the authorities will be able to identify who came before and who came after the implementation of the March 20 agreements. However, the Syrian and Iraqi newcomers only have two options. Either they decide to move forward for asylum in Greece, or they are sent back to Turkey.
In the case of Afghans, Pakistanis and other migrants, going back to Turkish soil is tantamount to forced repatriation. This, despite the fact that Afghanistan continues to be plagued by war, with the Taliban pledging to extend its control over large portions of the country, plus the shadow of the Islamic State, whose influence is also growing in Afghanistan. If this was not enough, Amnesty International this week denounced the forced repatriation of 30 Afghans from Turkey who have been denied access to the asylum procedure. Amnesty said this happened after the Brussels agreement, in violation of European and international law.
The transformation of the reception centers into hotspot was also condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Doctors Without Borders. In a statement released Monday by UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Flemming announced the suspension of all forms of cooperation with the “forcible detention centers” on the Greek islands, in particular transportation to and from the hotspot. Nevertheless, legal and organizational support services for migrants continue, particularly those aimed at facilitating asylum requests.
Meanwhile, the hunger strike continues in Samos. More extreme demonstrations may occur in the tent city of Idomeni, after the events Tuesday when two Syrians sprinkled gasoline over their bodies and martyred themselves, a few steps from the Macedonian border that remained closed, like the eyes of Europe.