By Selma Mesic, RRE Greece and Balkans Coordinator
Photo of Leros Hotspot by: Bohm Rothenberg
On 3 August, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum announced that the funding they had requested in June for the building out of closed centres on the hotspots Samos, Kos and Leros had been approved by the European Commission. 130 million euros are will be made available by the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration fund (AMIF).
This is a crucial steppingstone forward for the government in implementing their long-standing, disconcerting plan of establishing closed camps in the Aegean ‘hotspots’, which have been ongoing since last year. The plan was to either turn existing camps into closed reception centres, or indeed to open new closed centres. The government has previously stated that the closed camps would allow freedom of movement during the day but would otherwise be under complete lockdown. The plans have been controversial and has garnered substantial criticism by both NGOs and island locals.
It seems the latest news of EU funding provided decisive forward motion. It is worth noting that since the application for funding was submitted in June, the evictions of people granted asylum from reception centres and ESTIA (Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation programme) has left hundreds of people destitute and living in parks in Athens, sleeping in tents or on the grass with no facilities, services or even the cash card support they previously had access to. On the ground organisations trying to service hundreds of people in need are under immense pressure to even provide the mere baseline of food and basic services. The government has sped up its transfers from the islands to the mainland and in June alone 2,000 recognised refugees have been taken from reception centres in the Hotspots, some leaving voluntarily but most forcefully removed. Likewise, 700 refugees have been taken out of the ESTIA program in the same time period. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recently issues a sharp warning of the impact this is having on the most vulnerable, especially people with physical and mental health problems.
We can only conclude that the ESTIA mass evictions and the rampant homelessness was not part of any evaluation made by the European Commission’s on the migration management of Greece. The building of effectively detention centres seems a more essential priority over providing basic dignified conditions and key services for refugees who find themselves with no support or shelter.
It is also not clear how the support of closed centres aligns with the statement made by Ylva Johansson in April about the 280 million euro support in building ‘multi-purpose reception and identification centres’ which were stated to “provide far more adequate up to standard accommodation. It remains to see how the closed centres are meant to achieve this ambition seeing that the conditions are already in an abysmal state of undignified living.
The news however does not come as a complete policy diversion from past discussions of the need to establish ‘controlled centres’, where “people disembarked in the EU after Search and Rescue operations would be processed on the basis of a shared effort with full EU support”. The processing would be based on a fast track procedure which would see people being quickly “differentiated” between those that are deemed to have a right to international protection and those that do not. This human ‘assembly line’ approach of categorisation of groups of arrivals does not align well with the EU’s assurance of ensuring “an individual assessment of each migrant’s case with all guarantees provided for by EU and international law”.
In relation to Kos and Leros specifically, it is unclear what the specific “added value” of this funding would have, considering that the reception and pre-removal detention centres there have been nearly under complete closure for most of this year. In addition, all the hotspots are under lockdown due to Covid-19, notably during a period of opening of Greek borders for natives and tourists, yet the lockdown of centres was yet again extended until 31 August. RRE reported in June about the plans to make the RICs in Leros (Lepida) and Kos (Pyli) into closed centres. Our research showcased the grave isolation and precarious living conditions of the two RICs and the Pre-departure and Removal Centre (PDDC) adjacent to Kos hotspot. Detention practices and conditions in places like the PDDC in Kos have been widely criticised, and RRE is gravely concerned that the new centres would only exacerbate the dire living conditions and lead to further entrenched detention practices.
Along with many other NGOs, RRE has repeatedly stood in opposition to these type of policies, clearly underlining that they lack any basis in human rights or refugee law and that concepts such as ‘Controlled Centres’ and ‘Closed Centres’ threaten to weaken EU protection obligations.
The establishment of these facilities should be halted. They merely reinforce the existing, failed Hotspot approach and detention policies, which violate human rights and trap refugees and displaced people in inhumane living conditions for prolonged periods, while failing to bring about efficient procedures or equitable responsibility sharing.
Instead we are calling for open reception and asylum processing centres. Such centres must under no circumstances hinder access to the EU asylum process (which would contravene Art. 14 UDHR), through the use of arbitrary ‘selection’ procedures, the application of truncated asylum procedures with diminished due process guarantees, or to facilitate unlawful returns of protection seekers to locations beyond EU territory. Open centres must guarantee access to the full asylum procedure as provided under EU and international law. Moreover, such centres must provide humane and dignified conditions, adequate and timely vulnerability assessments and effective security.
 ESTIA is an accommodation and cash assistance program for asylum seekers on islands and the mainland. It provides housing, cash cards with monthly allowance and assists with services. The capacity and occupancy rates are generally between 20,000-25,000 people.