Currently, there are over 7,600 individuals living inside and around Samos hotspot. That is nearly 12 times more that the hotspot’s official capacity which is for 648 persons. The conditions remain exceedingly dangerous despite the multiple reports and media publications for the unbearable situation that persists in the hotspot for years now because of the overcrowding and insufficiency of necessary provisions and despite the protests of the refugees and the island’s residents. The creation of a new structure with announced capacity of 5,000 plus people, few kilometres away from Vathy, has intensified the existing xenophobic climate on the island. Members of Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) have visited the island recently and spoke with refugees residing inside and outside the hotspot. The refugees spoke about their entrapment and the unbearable reception conditions that create a permanent humanitarian crisis with no end in sight.
According to the official statistics, the total number of refugees on the island of Samos has reached more than 7,900 individuals, which is approximately the number of the permanent population in the broader region of Vathy. Out of those, only 270 individuals – characterized as exceptionally vulnerable – reside in 52 flats on the island. 
According to data by UNHCR, the majority of refugees and migrants on Samos comes from Syria (35 %), Afghanistan (21%) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (14%). 30 % of the population are children (7 out of 10 are below 12 years-old) while the percentage of women reaches 21 % of the population. Overcrowding in the Samos hotspot is not something new as already since the summer of 2018, the population that resided there was six times more than its official capacity. RSA had noted also last February the particularly precarious conditions that refugees faced.
Vathy hotspot is situated in a hill only few meters away from the οutskirts of the town. Because of the imposition of the ‘geographical restriction’ and the lack of alternative accommodation choices on the island, many refugees remain for long periods (for several months and even years) inside the hotspot and in the wider area around it in neighbouring land. At least 3.500 individuals (including many vulnerable) are forced to to live in tents or makeshift shacks with very little protection from the weather conditions and lack of essential access to WASH facilities and basic relief items.
Since the end of September, Médecins sans frontières (MSF) secured the provision of safe potable water to the population that currently resides outside the hotspot, by installing taps (270,000 liters of water are distributed each week) while in November they installed 80 chemical toilets.  This intervention took place with an emergency program with the aim to deter health problems that could be linked with the lack of water and hygiene.
An unbearable situation
Despite the provision of assistance by NGOs and volunteers, the situation remains unbearable for the thousands of refugees who are trapped in the informal camp that has been established for some years now outside the hotspot. L., a 19-year-old pregnant refugee from Somalia who lives in a tent with her family says: «During the duration of my stay here, I am scared from my life, my children and my husband’s lives. We feel helpless in this dire place». Κ. is a single woman from Cameroon and she tells us about the fear she experiences: «I do not feel secure. I am on my own and have no protection. Some volunteers gave us sleeping bags».
In the dirt tracks that lead to the top of the hillside of the informal camp, adults with children carry almost non-stop with barrows water containers from the taps installed by MSF in central points. In many points of the hillside, refugees are building shacks with stones, wood and tarpaulin in order to protect themselves from the cold. Outside the hotspot, there is now a densely populated shantytown. «I made this house by myself with wood and plastic that I bought. The only thing that the state and organizations gave us are blankets, water and food» says A., a Syrian male who lives with his wife and four children in a makeshift shack on the top side of the hill. «My child is ill. There is so much cold at night. I bought blankets but when it rains we are unprotected. We live in summer tent in the jungle [he refers to the forest area surrounding the hotspot] and no one informs us on when we will be transferred to the mainland. We are looking forward to get out of this hell», says O. a 45-year-old man from Iraq. It is worrying that the transfers of vulnerable refugees from Samos to the mainland have reduced significantly in the last month. In the period of 21-27 October, 766 individuals were transferred but between 18-24 November, only 28 individuals were transferred from Samos to the mainland.
In early November, more than 5.500 asylum-seekers and refugees received cash assistance in the form of pre-paid cards. Those who do not live in a container and do not have the ability to cook their own food are forced to wait for more than three hours in a queue in order to get a meal. «I spend all day waiting in the queue for food. I have not time for anything else», says an Afghan refugee who arrived on Samos with his wife 15-days before our meeting. The couple lives in a tent outside the hotspot. Many people from the informal camp try to cook in makeshift ovens they built with soil and stones on the ground. Vulnerable refugees who do not have the ability to stand in the queue for food or cook by themselves such as people with disabilities or the elderly receive meals from the so-called Project Armonia in the town centre. Volunteers from this initiative provide daily meals to more than 600 people. In the area where the project is hosted, refugees can get food and dine there.
In the bottom part of the hillside, where one shack is nearly next to another which can be reached only if one crosses labyrinthine alleys, among the tarpaulins and the tents, we found a 57-year-old woman from Afghanistan. She says: «I am scared. Every woman is scared. There are no toilets near our tents. Because of fear during the night, you cannot go to the toilet. There are enough people around here and there is a lot of noise. We do not feel at ease and we do not feel secure» The woman lives in a tent with her four children, two of those are minors. She has been in Samos for four months and has not yet received a date for her asylum interview. In this part of the informal camp, no toilets or taps have been installed because of the sharp dip of the ground. The way that the informal camp has extended inside the forest area, appears to have been out of control and the competent authorities expressed their intense concern in case of a fire. On 14 October, a fire broke out in the hotspot resulting in hundreds of refugees abandoning the area. The fire destroyed a large part of the hotspot including tents and containers. Prior to the fire, there had been clashes between refugees of different nationalities.
People and Mice
The conditions are particularly difficult also inside the hotspot. M., a man from Syria, lives with his family in a large container that they share with other families. He says: «We have 2 m2 to sleep. During the night, the atmosphere is unberable. We close the windows as there are mice everywhere outside. Our baby cannot breathe, and I get out with him outside our container, so he can breathe. Food is not sufficient and of not good quality. It is like they cook for animals». Μ. seeks desperately to find a shelter for his family in a flat either on Samos or in the mainland.
Two doctors for more than seven thousand people
According to information collected, the National Organization for Public Health (NOPH) has the following staff in the hotspot: One doctor who conducts the screening of new arrivals; four nurses; two psychologists; two social workers; two midwives; and one coordinator. There is also one army doctor who reportedly works at the hotspot for three hours every day. «I am sick constantly during the three months that I am on Samos. I suffer from diabetes and so far, I have not managed to see a doctor. They tell me constantly «come tomorrow», says Μ. a 62-year-old man from Afghanistan.
S. a young Somali and victim of torture, describes: «I have two blankets and sleep with my jacket to keep warm. I have problems with my papers. I am here for four months. Recently, the only thing that bothered me day and night was to find something to eat. The hotspot psychologist told me a psychiatrist must see me. For twenty days I tried to approach him, but I did not manage it», he stresses.
The lack of basic hygiene structures in the informal camp outside the hotspot causes significant problems. «They give us shampoo, but we have no water to wash. We need to use the land for toilet. The situation is difficult mainly for children. Many of the children suffer from diarrhoea», says an Afghan mother.
Children suffering from breathing problems, diarrhoea and skin problems even bites from mice during the time they slept are reportedly being transferred to the hospital. In the town centre, there is an MSF clinic that provides mental health and sexual/reproductive health services to pregnant women and victims of sexual violence , as well as a clinic of the NGO Med’ Equali. There are also significant gaps on Samos in relation to health and pharmaceutical care for refugees. Following the government’s decision last July to stop granting social security numbers (AMKA) to asylum-seekers, new arrivals and those who already do not have AMKA do not have access to free public health and pharmaceutical care. The recent law on asylum (Law 4636/1.11.2019) provides the granting of a Temporary Number of Insurance and Health Care for Third Country Nationals to asylum-seekers (Article 55 para. 2) that will secure access to health care services. However, the law has not been implemented in practice as the issuance of a Joint Ministerial Decision is pending. It should be noted here that on Samos a limited number of specific medicines is reportedly provided by NGOs.
Children with no access to formal education
The lack of access of at least 1.600 refugee school-age children that reside in the hotspot to regular education is of particular concern. It should be noted that last March, there were intense reactions by part of the Parents’ Associations that decide for the pupils to abstain from their classes in a primary school of Vathy. The cause was the beginning of the operation of a Structure for the Support and Education of Refugees (DYEP) attended by 14 refugee children in that particular school building. In January, the Civil Servants’ Confederation (ADEDY) reported that a teacher together with other colleagues was attacked during a meeting of the Samos Parents’ Associations. The meeting concerned the education of refugee children. At the end of October, a Samos court examined a civil lawsuit lodged by the Parents’ and Guardians’ Association of the Ano Vathy Primary School against a substitute female teacher. The association requested the amount of 50.000 Euro and accused the teacher, who defended the rights of refugee pupils, of insulting them when, as they alleged asked them «are you racist?», something that the teacher herself is denying. The decision is expected in the forthcoming months.
In the schools of North and South Aegean, the DYEP have not started to operate so far this year. At the end of November, only 35 children who lived in flats of the ESTIA scheme in Vathy town were attending classes in the secondary and primary schools. The children who live in the hotspot have access only to non-formal education provided by various NGOS. UNHCR through its implementing partner PRAKSIS offers lessons addressed to children of primary school age (6-12 years-olds). NGO Still I Rise provides non-formal education activities to children aged 13-17 Samos Volunteers offer language lessons to young people over 16 and adults. The initiative Action for Education also provides non-formal education activities for young adults aged 18-24 and also for young children (aged 2-7) in a separate area named The Nest.  All the provided services of non-formal education concern a limited number of children and have a temporary nature.
Unprotected unaccompanied refugee children
The living conditions for unaccompanied or separated refugee children are exceedingly concerning. At the end of November, 363 unaccompanied or separated children lived in the hotspot and only 65 of those lived in a designated area while the remaining of the children had to stay in an area with adults. At the same time, there are cases of unaccompanied children who live in the informal camp surrounding the hotspot that have not been identified yet by the competent authorities as well as those of unaccompanied children registered as adults. Such is the case of as 17-year-old unaccompanied refugee who lives in tent with adults and feels exposed even to sexual harassment or violence. He says: «…. I am not safe, because I do not have a family I do not have anyone to help me. I attend English classes to an NGO in town, but I cannot concentrate. It is impossible for me to learn something». He says that he has already attempted three times serious self-harm as he cannot stand the situation he experiences. The minor until now has no effective access to a psychologist or a doctor and has received no protection or special care as an unaccompanied minor despite his stay on the island for many months.
Additional needs for legal assistance
Regarding the provision of legal assistance, there is no registered lawyer of the state-funded legal aid scheme on the island. A total of ten lawyers from the NGOs Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), METAdrasi, PRAKSIS, ARSIS and MSF provide advice and legal representation for asylum procedures and further administrative procedures. Additionally, legal assistance is provided by lawyers of the NGOs Avocats Sans Frontières of the Law Clinic. Following the reform of asylum legislation, it is expected that there will be a need for increased legal assistance for asylum-seekers as the appeal document against the first instance decision rejecting the asylum claim must refer obligatorily to specific grounds upon which the appeal is based θα πρέπει υποχρεωτικά (Article 93 of Law 4636/1.11.2019).
New structure, new protests
Works for the build of a new structure have already started in an area called Zervou that is situated 5 km away from Vathy town. The area is neighbouring with the village of Mytilinioi, where residents have expressed repeatedly their opposition towards these plans. The new municipal authorities of Samos have opposed against the prospect of this structure operating as a closed centre for more than 5.000 persons as announced at the end of November.
Giorgos Stantzos, the Mayor of Eastern Samos, threatened to quit recently in case that the government implemented its plan for a closed structure of large capacity. The municipal council asked the closure of the hotspot and the materialization of a plan for a new reception centre with capacity for 1.200 persons in Zervou that is already at the initial stages of construction. At the same time, it does appear that there is a plan for the creation of basic structures in Vathy town for e.g. public toilets or showers in order to cover the increasing needs and reports continue of xenophobic conduct by local businessmen and residents.
Giasemo Kehagia from the Movement for Human Rights – Solidarity for Refugees identifies the explosive situation that pervades on the island and the difficulties that solidarians face to change the negative view of public opinion: «The situation is known in Samos centre, if the number of refugees on the island does not reduce to the official capacity of the existing centre (meaning to 700 people), nothing can substantively change. The entrapment of such a large number of people in these conditions pushes the local society in continuous protests and xenophobia. Dignified conditions in an open centre for a small number of refugees, appears to be the only solution to improve the situation».
SOLIDARITY AND HUMANITY IS NEEDED
The situation in Vathy on Samos is at its limits because of the continuously increasing overcrowding, the gaps in health and pharmaceutical care, the tensions between refugees of different nationalities inside and outside the hotspot that on many occasions are the result of the dire conditions and of the intense aggravation expressed by the locals for the daily presence of a large number of refugees in the town. A part of the needs mainly for vulnerable refugees is covered by the presence of volunteers and NGOs and the solidarity by part of the local population and the refugees who support each other. The stay of individuals in need of international protection in inappropriate and dangerous conditions must not become normalcy, under the indifferent gaze of the other EU Member States.
RSA and PRO ASYL are demanding a large-scale relocation programme from Greece: the hotspots must be cleared. Those seeking protection must be transferred to the mainland, temporarily accommodated in dignity until they are quickly transferred to other EU states. In view of the precarious reception situation on the mainland, everything possible must be done with European support to ensure that decent standards are created there.
The two organizations also call Greece to abandon the recently announced measures for the creation of closed centres with capacity for thousands of individuals and extensive detention that will breach blatantly the rights of refugees and migrants and will intensify xenophobic reactions – that have been created to a great extent due to the toxic impact of the EU-Turkey deal- in local communities
RSA and PRO ASYL appeal for unaccompanied underage refugees from Greece to be admitted quickly in Germany and other European countries – in the best interest of the child! Willing countries could use the existing legal route within[KG1] the framework of the Dublin procedure in the interest of child protection.
Finally, RSA and PRO ASYL demand that family reunification of asylum-seekers with relatives in Germany should no longer be systematically undermined. Germany systematically rejects applications for take-over by family members from Greece on the grounds that time limits have expired. Under the catastrophic living conditions in the Greek hotspots, there is no rule of law. Parents and children have hardly chances to exercise their right to family reunification.
- Source: UNHCR, 27 November 2019. ↑
- Source: UNHCR, 27 November 2019. ↑
- Source: MSF, 11 December 2019. ↑
- An indicative example of the extent of the humanitarian crisis in the informal camp outside Vathy hotspot is the fact that according to MSF in September, each refugee had at his/her disposal only 1.5 liters of safe potable water. International standards require 20 liters of water for the daily needs of a refugee – in order for his/her health to be maintained in tolerable levels. ↑
- Source: UNHCR, Samos Weekly Snapshot 18-24 Νοεμβρίου 2019 ↑
- Source: UNHCR, 27 November 2019. ↑
- A week ago, the Union of Samos Firefighters send a letter to various authorities including the Samos Prosecutor’s Office where they expressed their concerns for the situation that exists in the track around the hotspot with the building of makeshift shacks and the difficult of secure crossing of fire trucks in case of a potential fire. See https://www.samos24.gr/s-o-s-%cf%80%cf%85%cf%81%ce%bf%cf%83%ce%b2%ce%b5%cf%83%cf%84%cf%8e%ce%bd-%ce%b3%ce%b9%ce%b1-%cf%84%ce%b9%cf%82-%cf%83%cf%85%ce%bd%ce%b8%ce%ae%ce%ba%ce%b5%cf%82-%cf%80%ce%bf%cf%85-%ce%b5%cf%80%ce%b9. ↑
- See https://rsaegean.org/en/samos-hotspot-fire-highlight-unsustainable-conditions/. ↑
- See https://msf.gr/en/node/6211. ↑
- See https://medequali.team/. ↑
- According to UNHCR data invoked by SYRIZA MP Nikos Filis in a question he submitted about the delays of the Ministry of Education regarding the education of refugee children in Samos RIC, there are 1.600 school-age children and none is attending school.https://www.avgi.gr/article/10811/10490494/erotese-katethese-o-nikos-philes-gia-tis-tragikes-kathystereseis-sten-ekpaideuse-ton-prosphygopoulon ↑
- Source: UNHCR, 27 November 2019. ↑
- Source: UNHCR, 27 November 2019. ↑
- Source: UNHCR, 27 November 2019. ↑