Refugees talk vividly about the bleak conditions in a new transit refugee camp near Corinth in mainland Greece that the conservative government opened last August. At the time of Refugee Support Aegean’s (RSA’s) research in mid-October, the camp’s population consisted of over 600 individuals mainly including dozens of families with children transferred there in mid-September following their eviction from four refugee squats in central Athens as well as highly vulnerable asylum-seekers from the overcrowded Aegean islands. RSA spoke with 10 refugee families residing in the camp including pregnant women and individuals with mental health issues or chronic conditions and parents of young children and/or newborn babies. They described very poor and unsafe reception conditions. As the period of their stay in the camp is unclear and the camp has a transitory character, they find themselves in a precarious limbo.
On 13 September 2019, a new refugee accommodation site (camp) was opened following an announcement by the recently elected government at the end of August. The camp was opened in the site of the Corinth former military camp and its reported official capacity is for 672 persons. The camp is managed by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) while – similar to the majority of refugee camps on the mainland – it has not formally been established as a site. Practically, it is being used as a transit camp from where asylum-seekers are distributed to other sites in the mainland or to ESTIA flats.
A camp not ready to run and distant from essential services
In early September, during a meeting with the Corinth mayor and other local politicians, the Minister of Citizen Protection announced the transfer of Afghan families from the islands to Corinth camp for the purpose of decongesting the hotspots. He also announced the establishment of a clinic inside the camp. However, until now, the camp’s residents including pregnant women, parents of newborns and sick persons describe how they have been forced to seek the necessary medical assistance outside the camp, often without the assistance of an interpreter. The local hospital is 2,5 km away and more specialized clinics such as a children’s clinic can be found in Athens or Patras. Both cities are over 100 km away and travel costs can be prohibitive. Some said that they did not receive the necessary treatment as a result. For those without a social security number (AMKA), free access to public healthcare and medicines is particularly difficult due to the serious bureaucratic obstacles that increased following the withdrawal of a Circular by the Minister of Labor in July 2019. Access to other crucial services such as the Regional Asylum Offices of Patras or Athens is also difficult in view of the distance and the expenses.
Ibrahim and Azra* are from Syria. Azra was heavily pregnant with the couple’s second child when the family was transferred to Corinth camp from Leros island. The family does not have an AMKA and Azra* gave birth to their baby son a few days before our visit. RSA spoke with a distressed Azra* in a hospital in Athens because her baby was born prematurely and had to be kept there. Azra* said: “It has been three weeks since we were transferred to Corinth. Since we arrived, I was not able to see a doctor. Then I suddenly felt pain and it was not my due date. My husband called for help. The ambulance came after one hour and transferred me to the local hospital but my baby wasn’t fine so they transferred me to Athens. After the birth, (my baby was put in an incubator) since he was sick. I couldn’t understand anything. Why I had a C-section. Why the baby arrived early. What was his problem. We didn’t even understand the name of the hospital. My husband couldn’t visit us. We have no money. I was discharged on a Sunday and (I was) in a city I didn’t know and far from the camp. My baby had to stay in the hospital. I got a prescription and (I had to pay for the medicines….) I haven’t registered my baby yet. What do I have to do? How I will visit my baby now? How will I give milk?”
Abu Ammar* is also from Syria and he lives in the camp with his wife and three small children. The family was transferred from Samos. Abu Ammar was injured from bullets during the conflict in his country. One of the children suffers from a neurological problem: “Since we arrived in Greece (our boy’s) condition is getting worse. First, we lived for 1 ½ months in a small tent in Samos. Now we are almost a month in Corinth. My three children are crying most of the time. We applied for asylum, but we have no AMKA. The permanent noise here affects our sick 3-year-old. Every 4-5 days, he suffers from a seizure. On Samos, the doctor said he had to be urgently examined by a specialist pediatrician in Athens. They told me the next appointment is maybe in six months. We have no money to go to Athens in case of an emergency. And we cannot move away from here, so we do not miss our transfer.”
“Listen to the crying and imagine to live in permanent noise.”
Unsafe and loud: 14 families living together in one rub-hall
Today the camp consists of 12 inhabited rub-halls each split into 14 rooms by thin wooden walls that are open from above. Interviewees told us that the rooms are furnished with just bunkbeds and cupboards, that the rub-halls are not protected from the weather and that they lack sufficient blankets and clothing to protect them from the cold. They reported also problems with the electricity circuit that result in frequent electricity cuts and permanent noise inside the tents. All of the refugees also described food of very poor quality. The showers and water taps are near the entrance of the camp and the interviewees told us that they have only cold water. Many mothers reported that they have to heat water in their rooms and try to wash their babies and toddlers in front of the tents. Those interviewed also described filthy toilets.
Arezu* is from Afghanistan and she lives in the camp with her husband and three small children. The family received international protection status in Lesvos. She said: “After one year in Moria we were brought to a place far from everything. There are just tents where they put many people inside that are all highly anxious for different reasons. I cannot sleep out of tension. The electricity comes and goes within a few minutes, throughout the day, every day. … There is never silence. You hear children crying, you hear fights, you here people shouting and talking all through the night…”.
Fights and tensions and the type of accommodation provided causes insecurity to its residents. Women and girls in particular described how they felt unsafe to leave their rooms.
Mariam* is from Afghanistan and lives in the camp with her husband, two teenage daughters and one 19-year-old daughter. The family was transferred to the camp from Samos island. She stated: “Sometimes one can eat (the food), sometimes not. Most fights occur in the food line. We don’t feel safe here. The other day, my neighbor asked me for my key to open his door. I was surprised by his idea and told him that it is my key and thus cannot open his door. He laughed and replied, that the keys fit in all doors. Now, I understand I have to leave the key inside the door to be sure no one enters when I am inside. Still everyone can jump over the walls from the neighboring rooms or the hallway. I have young daughters. I came to Europe to protect them from forced marriage and violence. Now I have to protect them again. I do not sleep at night, but I sit in my bed and watch up the walls to be sure no one will come and harm them.”
Protests and conflicts erupting in first weeks of establishment
On 4 October, refugees protested against the living conditions in the camp drawing mainly attention to the poor quality of the food, lack of doctors on site, access to education as well as homes for all. Six days later a fight broke out in the food line between refugees, three of which ended up in the hospital and two got arrested. The Solidarity Initiative for Refugees of Corinth has denounced the conditions in the camp and tries to set up a support structure from the local society.
Constantly changing mixed population
There are various nationalities living in the camp: Afghans, Congolese, Syrians, Iraqis, Kurdish people, Algerians and many others. Most are asylum-seekers, but there are also recently recognized refugees. As long as they are in Corinth, the Patras Asylum Office is responsible for the cases of the ones transferred from the islands – until they will get transferred somewhere else.
One can divide the officially registered residents in two groups: the ones uprooted from central Athens where they were living in refugee squats and the vulnerable ones transferred from the islands to the mainland. There is also an unclear number of unofficially residing residents, who entered the camp by themselves. Most of them hold only police notes and are recent arrivals from the land border who have not yet managed to apply for asylum. Depending on the state of their legal procedure, some residents have cash-cards, while others don’t. Every week new people are arriving from the islands and others are transferred away and distributed all over Greece without any possibility to choose where to go or a chance for families not to be moved further away from their wider family.
Setareh* is from Afghanistan and has been transferred to Corinth from Moria camp on Lesvos. She lives in the Corinth camp with her husband and three small children. Setareh suffers from mental health issues because of the violence she experienced during her first marriage and later from the traumatizing events in Moria, when she had to throw her children out of a container’s window to save them from a fire that broke out on 29 September. Her asylum interview is scheduled in a year’s time. She said: “I need mental health support. We have been through a lot. I need to be with the rest of my family in Athens, but I don’t know where they will send us. Maybe our names will be in the next list. They just tell you one hour before the departure of the bus that you will be transferred. They tell you the camp’s name but not how far it is. If you reject (the transfer), they say your name is off the list of transfers. I cannot go away from my family – my mother and siblings. I need them, and they need me.”
In September and following repeated police raids in six refugee squats in Athens, more than 500 refugees were evicted including families with school-aged children and people with mental health issues or chronic conditions in need of treatment. Many of those transferred by the authorities after a first raid to Schisto camp and after the following raids to Corinth left the camp the same day and tried to find alternative housing solutions. Those who stayed are waiting to be assigned shelter somewhere else in mainland Greece and hope to be returned to a flat or camp in Athens. They described how their children have been pulled out from their school and how the medical and mental health care they received was halted. They said that transport to Athens is expensive for them to continue their treatment. Children in the camp still have no access to school. Among those evicted from the refugee squats were also people holding only police notes, who had arrived recently from the land border and are awaiting their asylum registration appointments.
Parvaneh* is from Afghanistan and she lives in the camp with her husband and two school aged boy. Parvaneh and her family were transferred to Corinth by police after their eviction from a refugee squat in Athens. As a result, Parvaneh’s children were forced to stop going to school that they had been attending for a year. She and her husband had to stop going to essential mental health treatment as they would have to pay 18 euro for a return ticket. Both parents have been through severe trauma in their home country after they lost family members and said the husband was subjected to torture. Parvaneh said: “It was 5am. … A boy came shouting: ‘the police is here!’ The next thing I remember is the police knocking with their batons on our doors and my child waking up in fear. I left everything back to hold my children and my sick husband. My younger son fell and started crying. Inside the bus, I lost control and cried. I suffer from heart pain and breathing problems ever since. … When we came here, I first didn’t understand how far we were from Athens. Most of the others left the camp immediately, but we had no other door to knock for help. … The day of the fight, I locked my family inside the room and stood in front of the door. My husband woke up from the sounds of fight. Since that day he cannot hear in one ear from the stress. … Our elder son is 10 years old. He says, he wants to become an adult soon, a person strong enough to keep his family safe. But most of all, he wants to go back to school.”
Living conditions deteriorate refugees’ mental and physical health
Those interviewed spoke of the traumatic experiences in their home countries, on the way to Europe and also in Greece. Since they arrived in Greece, they have faced inhuman conditions in the Aegean Islands’ hotspots, homelessness in the Greek cities, evictions and/or detention. They saw people dying, survived fires and fights. According to their accounts, their mental health is further deteriorating ever since they reached the camp in Corinth due to the squalid living conditions, the marginality of the camp and the lack of any educational and recreational activities. They feel abandoned, not well informed about legal procedures and their rights and opportunities and even in danger.
Husnia* from Afghanistan lives in the camp with her two children and her sick mother. The family was transferred in the camp from Moria. The single mother fears that soon she will become homeless as the deadline of staying in a camp following their recognition as refugee will soon come at an end: “My mother received asylum first six months ago. Three months later my family. My brothers’ family is still waiting for their interview. We have not yet received our IDs. Time is running out. When we will reach another camp, we might have only a few days left until we complete the six months-period they gave us in state shelter. We are afraid to get divided all over Greece because of our different procedures. My mother’s mental health and that of my brothers’ wife has worsened here. My mom suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. She cannot access therapy here. I am alone with my children. I cannot take care of my mother if they separate us from my brothers’ family. She was supposed to be with him, but she has asylum and my brother is still awaiting his asylum interview.”
“This is the situation inside a rub-hall in the early night when a electricity cut turned once again all lights off. “