Registration points for asylum seekers in Greece have been transformed into detention centres since the European Union’s agreement with Turkey came into force on 20 March.
The European Union says the deal, which will send ‘new irregular migrants’ back to Turkey from Greece, is a way to stem the migrant crisis.
Initially set up on the main islands to serve as registration centres, the four functioning hotspots located in Lesbos, Chios, Leros and Samos used to be sites of hope where refugees and migrants began their journeys through Europe.
Now, the hotspots are being turned into detention centres run by the Greek army and the police.
Since 20 March, anyone landing on the Greek islands is taken directly to the so-called hotspots.
Khadija, a 42-year-old woman from Idlib, Syria, is held in Samos detention centre with her four children. She spoke to me from behind the barbed wire fence.
“What is going to happen next? Will they kill us here in Europe? My husband was killed and our house was destroyed by a barrel bomb in 2013. Since then we have been moving from village to village looking for safety, until I lost hope and I brought my children to Turkey.
“I worked many jobs but it was so hard for me to manage with four children so I decided to come here to be safe. Yet here we are behind barbed wire like criminals, this is extremely unjust.”
The facility on Samos © Mohammad Ghannam
The facility on Samos currently holds more than 700 asylum seekers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt. Many are women and children.
Most of those detained arrived by boat after 20 March. Some arrived before this date but were kept, either because they are not Syrian or Iraqi nationals, or because they are minors who are supposed to be sent to a special facility on Crete.
Migrants were told they will be sent to a camp in Athens in accordance with the relocation mechanism set out in the Dublin Regulation.
This allows refugees to choose eight countries from the list of EU states, and efforts will be made to send them to one of their chosen countries. However, there appears to be no guarantee that the choice will be respected.
On 24 March, there were no migrants on Samos other than inside the hotspot.
Waleed, his wife and their two children left Iraq in February 2016, a year and a half after their hometown of Mosul fell to Islamic State. It took them a month to reach Samos and after enduring a short yet traumatic stint of detention in Turkey, they are being detained again, waiting desperately for information.
Waleed, centre, and his family © Mohammad Ghannam
“There is no mercy left on earth, look at us, and look at my children!” says 37-year-old Waleed as he stands with his wife, who is seven months pregnant, behind the fence that separates them and hundreds of other asylum seekers from freedom.
“I’m doing my best, but is this a way to treat human beings? They are supposed to protect us, not put us in a big cage like animals, without any information on when our case will be processed. My wife is pregnant and she can’t remain a prisoner any longer in this dirty, crowded place, while all the NGOs are pulling out and leaving us in the hands of police,” Waleed said angrily, as his wife and children wept.
In general, people don’t know what the near future holds for them. Many told us they were held for days in Turkey before being released on 20 March.
On 4 April, the Greek authorities coordinated with Turkey to deport by boat 124 Pakistani migrants from Lesbos and a few other nationalities, as well as 66 others from the nearby island of Chios to Dikili in Turkey.
The situation is also complicated elsewhere in Greece. As of 28 March, there were more than 50,000 people trapped in Greece – in detention centres or in camps. Some 11,000 people are still waiting in Idomeni for the border with Macedonia to open, even though the authorities have repeatedly said it would remain shut.
“Things could have been different. Things could have been organised. What we see here is the total failure of the European Union to receive one million people with dignity and respect. One million is not a big number for Europe”, says Marietta Provopoulou, General Director for MSF in Greece.
“And each one of these million people have their personal story, their personal suffering. They have done everything to save themselves and their families, and to seek a better future away from war and persecution in Europe. Like all of us would have done.”