New Malakasa: Inhuman subsistence, nine months on

“Nothing has improved since we were brought here. Everything is worse now. It is the year of the coronavirus and everyone tries to stay safe. But we cannot be safe here, even without the virus” (Aida*)[1]

INAPPROPRIATE LIVING CONDITIONS

Nine months from the creation of the camp, living conditions remain precarious and worrying for its 984 residents, mainly originating from Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.

Introduction

Nine months after their arrival in Greece, refugees who arrived in March 2020, were deprived of the right to seek international protection due to the suspension of the asylum procedure by way of emergency decree and were automatically placed in arbitrary detention, remain exposed to inhuman living conditions in a newly established facility in Malakasa in the midst of winter and a pandemic.

The so-called “new Malakasa” centre, along with Kleidi, Serres, were initially set up as detention centres in March to accommodate new arrivals held in informal detention sites on Eastern Aegean islands before being detained on board the “Rhodes” Navy vessel. Yet, since the end of March, the two facilities have been incorporated into the state reception system as Temporary Reception Facilities for third-country nationals or stateless persons, managed by the Reception and Identification Service (RIS).

New Malakasa is Ministry of Migration and Asylum a pilot project in independent establishment of reception facilities, contrary to the collaborative approach followed with international actors and organisations for other centres. This camp, along with Kleidi, Serres and the prospective new centres on Samos, Leros and Kos,[2] is covered by the METOIKOS programme funded by the European Union (EU) through Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) emergency assistance.

The Ministry awarded on 10 April 2020 a €4.4m construction and maintenance contract to company VITAEL via direct award. Following the approval on 9 October 2020 of €4.9m in EU funding for construction and maintenance of the facility, the aforementioned project was brought under the METOIKOS programme on 3 December 2020.

The date of delivery to the Greek authorities was set for 4 October 2020 following an extension of works. A subsequent extension moved the delivery date to 4 January 2021. Site management support in the camp has been delegated to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).[3]

The camp plan raises serious safety concerns, given that no provision has been made for the necessary emergency exits. Among other works approved in October with a view to completion by 4 January 2021, the Ministry has approved activities to bring the camp in line with fire safety standards.

LIBERTY REGIME AND ISOLATION

Upon expiry of the legal effects of the emergency decree, persons detained up until that point in New Malakasa were informed that their detention would be terminated and that they would be able to register their asylum applications. Refugees supported by Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) received referral notes on 7 April 2020 in order to appear before the Asylum Service for the purpose of registration. On the same day, however, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum announced that New Malakasa and Kleidi, Serres “would remain closed, for protection of public health reasons”. No one was allowed to exit the facility until the end of April.

The Minister of Migration and Asylum stated on 1 June 2020 the government’s intention for New Malakasa to operate as the first “controlled centre” on the Greek mainland.[4] Entry into and exit from the facility will be tracked via an electronic card. A special gate has been installed at the entrance of the camp for that purpose, albeit not yet in use.

The site is guarded on a 24-hour basis. Only leaders (“focal points”) of families or community groups may exit the camp from 07:00 to 19:00 by using the SMS system applied nationwide in line with COVID-19 movement restrictions, in order to cater for immediate needs.[5] However, public transport to urban centres entails costs of €8 per person for those who do not hold an unemployment card, since New Malakasa is located on a difficult and dangerous road 40km away from central Athens and 2.8km away from the village of Malakasa. Such costs are substantial and often exorbitant, bearing in mind the limited amount of monthly financial support granted to asylum seekers through cash cards. Individuals have to rely on their allowance to cover basic needs such as medicines, urgent transport on medical grounds, mobile phone credit.

“We get €160. That is not enough for all of our needs. We have to be careful how to spend the money, so we cannot move out of the camp often… I have left the camp only twice in nine months, when my baby had to be transferred to the hospital. My husband had to come to Athens to pick us up and bring us back, because I don’t know the way”, says Aida.

A large number of New Malakasa residents still await for their asylum applications to be lodged with the Asylum Service and for their International Protection Applicant Cards to be issued. Without such cards, exit from the facility exposes them to risks of arrest and detention, as they hold no document to prove their right to remain as asylum seekers in the event of a police check.

The feeling of isolation in New Malakasa is exacerbated by the prohibition on entry into the facility, with the exception of staff.

INAPPROPRIATE LIVING CONDITIONS

“I have not seen such kind of living conditions in Syria. I saw war, but I didn’t see these conditions” (Noor*)[6]

Nine months from the creation of the camp, living conditions remain precarious and worrying for its 984 residents, mainly originating from Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. New Malakasa has official capacity for 1,300 people, exclusively set up in 130 tents hosting ten persons each. Some tents continue to accommodate people not related to one another, as had been reported by the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) during its March visit. Although IOM has provided mattresses, many residents cannot use them in their tents due to space limitations.

As a result, almost the entire population lives in tents, and a few even in makeshift shelters during winter and an intensifying pandemic. Tents offer wholly inadequate shelter against low temperatures, wind, and rain. In September, for instance, the authorities moved residents from New Malakasa and other camps to sports facilities due to weather warnings. In addition, heavy rainfall over the past week has caused flooding in the tents, forcing residents to withstand three consecutive days under the rain, cold and humidity. Following requests, people received nylon covers to protect their tents. Beyond the cold, tents do not ensure humidity insulation, thereby exacerbating risks of infection. Aida, who lives in the camp with her husband and their eight-month-old baby and who spoke with us, explains that they and their child constantly suffer from skin conditions.

“We are sitting in a tent full of water, we cannot sleep, we are cold and tired…Everything is wet right now: the clothes we wear and the clothes we don’t wear… How should we protect ourselves and our baby from corona if we cannot protect ourselves from a drop of rain?”, asks Aida.

Exposure to adverse weather conditions is compounded by the lack of electricity in New Malakasa. To date, the camp is powered by generators which do not allow for sufficient electricity for all tents. Power cuts are frequent. One of the generators went out of order due to the recent rains, resulting in a significant part of the camp being deprived of electricity.

The facility is equipped with 80 common showers with curtains and 60 portable toilets, cleaned twice a day. However, New Malakasa has no running water and relies on supply by water tanks. Due to the absence of uninterrupted access to hot water, residents have to boil water and transport it to the showers. Fatima*,[7] a pregnant woman living in the camp with her husband and their young children, has to boil water in a fire to give her baby a bath inside their tent.

“We warm ourselves on the fire, we cook on the fire. We cannot charge our phones. We have no light. I covered my baby in a jacket and I cannot take it off due to the cold. I boil water on the fire to wash it. I don’t know what to do to keep it safe. Every time I have to change it, it’s cold… My son’s skin even turns blue from the cold”, says Aida after days of constant rainfall.

Food distribution is carried out by the Hellenic Army two to three times a day. Complaints are made by the residents regarding the quality and types of meals provided.

VIOLENCE AND INSECURITY

The extremely precarious living conditions and feeling of isolation prevailing in New Malakasa are in no way an improvement from the “ticking bomb” situation described by Police Officers Unions in March or the “unacceptable” conditions denounced by a group of MPs during a visit in July.

Such conditions cause severe exhaustion, insecurity and anxiety to the hundreds of people living in the camp over the past nine months. Residents speak of a lack of security inside the facility and mention frequent quarrels for access to basic services such as showers, conflicts between different nationality groups, sexual harassments incidents, as well as crackdown on their protests.

“There is violence, there is sexual harassment of women… I am scared even to go alone to the toilet after dark. I have to wake my brother up and he comes along to protect me… I see scary things here. I don’t feel safe to go out of the tent… We feel like living in the jungle where one eats the other”, explains Noor.

INSUFFICIENT MEDICAL CARE

The National Public Health Organisation (EODY) is not present in New Malakasa. Health care, provided by the Hellenic Red Cross, is marred by significant shortages in medicines and referrals to doctors and does not suffice to cover needs. Red Cross staff includes a doctor according to IOM data. Yet, no doctor is present in the facility at night and on weekends. Beyond the Red Cross and IOM, no other organisation is active in the camp.

LACK OF COMMON AND ADAPTED SPACES

The camp has no specially adapted space for women or for children. It has no common spaces such as charging points for electronic devices and phones. Residents charge their phones in their tents when electricity provisions allows. They do not have access to Wi-Fi.

“We have no common place, nothing for us or the children to do… We are trapped here and told to wait”, adds Aida.

BARRIERS TO EDUCATION

283 out of the 984 residents of New Malakasa are children. Whereas 114 of them are reported as enrolled in schools, no child has access to public schools, as the competent authorities have not taken measures to transport children to schools. Due to the lack of Wi-Fi in the facility, children are unable to follow the current conduct of classes via videoconference. Only non-formal education activities are offered inside the camp through IOM.

“No one sees our children here. No one recognises them as children. They play all day in the dirt. We forgot what ‘school’ is, what the meaning of ‘kindergarten’ is. There are no human rights. We forgot the meaning of this word here”, states Omar*,[8] father of three children and husband of Fatima.

In the recently communicated case of M.Y. v. Greece, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) will examine the compatibility with Article of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of the conditions under which two unaccompanied children were detained and subsequently resided in New Malakasa.

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of refugees.

Prior to the publication of this article, a first group of 60 persons was transferred to a newly established rub-hall in the camp, according to reports.


For more information:

Notes

  1. Interview with RSA, 10 December 2020.
  2. The three island camps are also referred to as Closed Controlled Island Facilities (KEDN), pursuant to Article 8(4)(f) L 4375/2016, as amended.
  3. Note that, in its recent reply to the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), the Greek government states that IOM “was assigned the overall management” of New Malakasa on 2 April 2020.
  4. Similar to other facilities funded under AMIF through the METOIKOS programme.
  5. Annex ΙΙ, point 2 Joint Ministerial Decision Δ1α/ΓΠ.οικ.80189/2020, Gov. Gazette Β΄ 5456/12.12.2020.
  6. Interview with RSA, 11 December 2020.
  7. Interview with RSA, 11 December 2020.
  8. Interview with RSA, 11 December 2020.

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