Massive protests by islanders are challenging the government's narrative on new prison structures in the Aegean.

Massive protests by islanders are challenging the government's narrative on new prison structures in the Aegean.

Two years after the violent crackdown on citizens in Chios and Lesvos who oppose the transformation of the islands into prisons for refugees and migrants, dissatisfaction with the refugee response is growing. The narrative of successful management of refugees (border security, decongestion of the islands, fast registration and identification procedures) promoted by the government does not seem to convince the islanders, who see huge new structures being built despite the decrease in the refugee population on the islands. Legal disputes, dozens of decisions of political groups, bodies and mass peaceful demonstrations unite people across different political positions once again against the government policy and the EU’s dictates for “superstructures” on the Eastern Aegean islands.

Brussels seems to be satisfied with figures showing a significant reduction in the number of refugees residing on the islands and with a drop in arrivals. However, ongoing allegations directly connect such figures to the practice of illegal push backs, often witnessed by islanders themselves. In many of the islands where residents’ resistance has been ignored in the past, the climate has become explosive once again. Residents in Samos are shocked to see the authorities ignoring even court decisions regarding the prohibition on refugees’ exit from the new superstructure. The EU insists on a policy of confinement of asylum seekers on the islands, while the Minister of Migration and Asylum himself speaks of a violation and failure of the EU-Turkey Statement.  

Mass reactions on Chios and Lesvos

Although the regional authority and the municipal authorities on Chios and Lesvos are affiliated to the ruling party, which would allow the Ministry’s planning to proceed uninhibited, the situation shows a radical distancing on the part of several officials regarding planning for the new centres. The regional authority is opposed to the construction of new centres on the islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos and supports the demands and protests of the residents.

On Chios, the Municipal Council has unanimously or by majority vote adopted more than ten decisions in the last three years, which set as a red line the creation of a facility for up to 500 people only for registration and identification.

On Lesvos, the Municipal Council accepted the proposal to build a new centre in Vastria by a narrow majority, amid complaints about the decision-making process.

The atmosphere on the islands has been particularly loaded since the beginning of this year, when mass reactions started on Chios against the construction of the new Closed Controlled Facility (Κλειστή Ελεγχόμενη Δομή, KED). In total there were three points of protest: in the area of Tholos, where the KED is expected to be built; in Mesta (south port) where an overnight protest took place on 5 January with a significant presence of citizens until the dawn of the next day, thus preventing the landing of machinery (excavators) of the contractor company GEK/TERNA from the ship Pelagitis. On the morning of Thursday 6 January, another attempt was made to land the machinery at the main port of Chios, but the protesters did not even allow the ship to dock.

The ship was ordered to continue to Lesvos. There too, citizens organised to prevent the machines from landing. A protest was held at the port of Mytilene and the reaction of many actors was immediate. 

"The island cannot bear another camp. Islands are not prisons," a resident of Lesvos who participated in the protest told Refugee Support Aegean (RSA).

The ship headed to Thessaloniki without disembarking the machinery.

On Chios, residents had already made their intentions known since the summer and had started patrolling the area around the Tholos area. The Municipal Council of Chios and dozens of unions and bodies of the island have opposed the construction of the KED and are claiming in court proceedings a significant part of the land where the new centre is planned to be built. Local bodies agree only on a centre for registration and identification of refugees with a capacity of up to 500 people.  

Similar reactions come from Lesvos residents against the construction of a KED in the area of Vastria. In fact, a large part of the land where the new structure is planned to be built has been designated as a forest area and is close to a landfill site.

The Fire Service of the island opposes the construction of the new structure in this area due to the high risks of fire in the adjacent forest area, while a Forest Service opinion considered the construction of a new fire zone outside the new structure a prerequisite.

Despite the above, the government decided to ignore the voices of the islanders and proceed with its plan for the construction of the two superstructures on Chios and Lesvos. The president of the Chios NODE (the ruling party’s branch on the island), in an attempt to convince the islanders of the need to build the closed structure, recently went so far as to compare migration flows to the coronavirus and the structures to the vaccine. In a speech given on Chios immediately after the protests, the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, tried to convince the residents that the creation of the KED would bring a solution to migration. During the speech, hundreds of citizens participated in a motorcade to protest against the government’s plans. In light of the developments, an extension of one month (until 18 February 2022) has already been granted to the contractor GEK/TERNA by decision of the General Secretary for Migration Policy, Patroklos Georgiadis.

The first “EU golden cage” 

In Samos too, the reaction of the local authorities was essentially ignored. In September, the inauguration of first KED on the island was lauded by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, EU officials and the resounding absence of the entire local government and protests of stakeholders outside the new structure. In November 2019, the Mayor of Eastern Samos George Stantzos and the Municipal Council had announced their resignation in response to the government’s plans to create a closed camp. Northern Aegean Regional Governor, Kostas Moutzouris, had stated at the time that capacity on Samos should be for 1,700 people. A superstructure was ultimately developed on 154 acres of land in the remote location of “Zervou” in the Municipality of Eastern Samos, with a capacity of 3,000 people and under maximum security conditions. The entire facility is surrounded by a double NATO-type security fence. No one can dispute the obvious improvement in living conditions, even if these have not really been tested under increased numbers of residents and in times of crisis. However, this does not alter their true character as dehumanisation centres where asylum seekers and refugees are held in maximum security prisons for an unknown period of time, at a distance from local communities. At the entrance, control systems such as turnstiles, magnetic gates, x-rays, two-factor access control system (identity and fingerprint) have been installed for controlled entry and exit from the structure even for staff, thereby creating a dystopian situation of denial of freedom and privacy for refugees and employees. Additionally, a Closed Surveillance System (CCTV) has been installed throughout the structure which uses “smart” software to promptly alert of any emergencies and to transmit notifications and images to the Local Incident Centre, to the Centre for Management of Incidents & Emergencies Athens and to the Control Centres of other involved bodies.

Recently, civil society organisations and solidarity groups on the island have expressed their concerns about the illegal detention regime that has been imposed since mid-November on those who do not have an asylum seeker card after a rejection decision or on new arrivals who have not yet been granted such a card.  While on 17 December the first-instance Administrative Court of Syros ruled that the prohibition on an Afghan asylum seeker from leaving the new structure was illegal, the denial of exit for those without an active asylum seeker card continues, according to the local solidarity group “Movement for Human Rights – Solidarity with Refugees”. In a statement on 13 January, the group noted, among others,the impact of this regime on refugees: 

Στιγμιότυπο από τη διαμαρτυρία στη Λέσβο
Photo from the protest on Lesvos

"Their psychological situation, according to their testimonies, is bad. Some are dropping out of school, others are seeking psychiatric medication. If the Governor unlawfully took the measure as stated in the decision [from the Syros Administrative Court of First Instance], why does the illegality continue? How can we tolerate the torture of people, young people, children, by putting them in barbed wire next to us?"

Panoramic photos of the KED in Samos, Kos and Leros: Ministry of Migration and Asylum)

Structures isolated from urban areas on Leros and Kos

On 27 November, the KED on Kos and Leros were inaugurated in the presence of the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, and the Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas. On Leros too, there had been opposition from the local authorities against the construction of this structure from the outset. The Mayor of Leros, Michalis Kolias, did not attend the inauguration of the new structure as a sign of protest. In January 2021, he appealed to the Council of State against the construction of the new centre. The decision on the case is pending. “The money spent on the construction of this centre could have been given for infrastructure projects in Leros. For the past year we have had almost zero inflows. What is the new centre for? I am in favour of creating a small structure, not such a monstrosity in a place for which we did not even consent and which even has detention facilities”, Kolias told RSA. The new KED on Leros is developed on an area of about 60 acres in Lepida, on a hillside 6 km away from Agia Marina, the capital of the island.  It has capacity for 2,140 people and 29 people currently live there, while the current number of staff seems to be 300, despite zero arrivals. 35.3 million € (including VAT) have been allocated to its construction.

Similarly, the new KED on Kos is established on a very large area of about 90 acres, on the site of the former “Makrigiannis” camp, on both sides of the existing structure in the village of Pyli. It has capacity for 2,140 persons and it is not yet operational. Similar to the one in Samos, it has double NATO-type fencing, as well as turnstiles with card readers, using fingerprints, in the distinct sections of the structure for controlled entry and exit. Provision has also been made for the installation of Closed Surveillance System (CCTV). 

The new structure in Kos cost 39.36 million €, including VAT. Residents contacted by RSA speak of a “no-go area” within a radius of several metres around the structure. This is a remote area about 15 kilometres from the town of Kos. There had been strong reactions from local residents in 2016 outside the “Makrigiannis” camp in Pyli where the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) was being built. Then Mayor of Kos had sent a letter to then Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, requesting the revocation of the decision to create a registration centre on the island and urging the government to discuss the Municipality of Kos proposal to create only one registration site on the island and for those registered to leave within 24 hours. Despite the protests, the RIC was built. In 2019, it was overcrowded, with refugees living in squalid conditions and trapped on the island under geographical restrictions based on the toxic EU-Turkey deal. In December 2019, the Municipal Council voted against the expansion of the existing structure. As a sign of protest, neither the Mayor nor any member of the Municipal Council attended the recent inauguration of the KED.  The fact that the new closed structure is located in a non-tourist area and that refugees are not visible in Kos town seems to have eased tensions for the moment. The presence of the structure seems to be tolerated so far by the local community to the extent that scenes from the past with increased arrivals are not repeated.  However, there is dissatisfaction regarding the huge sums spent on the creation of the new structure despite the immediate needs to be met in order to improve the infrastructure on the island, including first and foremost the island’s hospital.

Against this backdrop, six years after the implementation of the failed EU-Turkey deal that has only brought misery to the refugee population and suffering to island communities, it is clear that the Greek authorities and EU institutions must respect the local communities and the sensitive geopolitical situation of the islands and not create polarisation and social divisions by exploiting the xenophobic and racist reflexes fuelled by current policies.

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