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'The worst mistake of my life': how COVID-19 trapped Europe’s asylum seekers in lockdown limbo

On the Greek island of Samos, asylum seekers face desperate conditions – with little hope for the future.

Victoria Noble
23 November 2020
Refugees warm themselves in a camp on Samos, Greece.
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Angelos Tzortzinis/DPA/PA Images

“It was very crowded. The first thing you would notice when you opened the door of the container was the smell of 26 people in such a small room. It was overwhelming.”

Mamadou* is one of 3,900 people living in the refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos. He recently spent ten days in quarantine after coming into contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

As a second wave of the virus sweeps across Europe, travel restrictions have been reintroduced and social lives have once again been put on hold. Europeans have become comfortable with the vocabulary of self-isolation and social distancing.

But for Mamadou, these words mean something very different. ‘Self-isolation’ means being locked in a shipping container with dozens of people – including some who are likely to be infectious. Being told to wash your hands is meaningless when there are no toilets or running water.

And with the majority of asylum applications on pause, there’s no means of escape.

“Crying in my dreams”

The first cases of coronavirus in the refugee camp on Samos were reported on 14 September, according to several sources familiar with the camp. As of early November, 102 refugees had tested positive. Shortly after, they – along with their recent contacts – were placed in quarantine in a shipping container.

According to Mamadou, the only furnishings were three-level bunk beds with mattresses that were infested with bed bugs. Basic food – rice, bread and tinned sardines – was delivered through the door of the containers. Videos shared by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical NGO, show pregnant women and families being held together in containers with no beds or running water.

“In the isolation boxes, they did not respect any of the rules and regulations for proper isolation,” says Mirjam Molenaar, Medical Activity Manager at MSF. “I have proof of holes in the floor [...] and cockroaches.

“Some of the boxes were actually locked so people had to bang on the walls to be let out to go to the toilet.”

Mamadou did not test positive for coronavirus while in quarantine, but he has other health conditions that require treatment. “I didn’t see any doctors or nurses for the whole period of quarantine,” he says.

Who puts potential COVID infected people in such a small container with loads of people?

According to MSF, there are currently only two Greek military doctors and three nurses in camp. But the experience of quarantine had a significant impact on Mamadou’s mental health. While locked in the container, he had nightmares that people were trying to kill him.

“In the night in the containers, I was waking up, crying in my dreams, and waking up other co-detainees. I had lots of time to think negative thoughts.

“I had lots of time to think about the fact that it’s completely unfair and a nonsense to lock people up without any reason,” he adds. “It was tough, it was very tough.”

Mamadou believes that quarantine was “very badly managed” by the Greek authorities.

“Who puts potential COVID infected people in such a small container with loads of people to contaminate themselves amongst each other?”

“Completely inadequate”

The EU has given €526 million to Greece to support migration services this year. Over €8 million of this has been allocated to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to tackle COVID-19.

But it is hard to see how this money has been sufficient to support the pandemic response in Samos. NGOs perform some of the most essential tasks, and MSF alone supplies over 80,000 litres of water to the camp every day.

The jungle_1 (Source - Samos Volunteers).jpg
A view of ‘the jungle’ next to the refugee camp on the island of Samos | Samos Volunteers

Molenaar believes the response to the pandemic has been “completely inadequate”. She notes that the camp’s management had months to prepare, given that the first cases only arose in September.

“At the beginning of the year, MSF offered to help the Greek health authorities to come up with a response for COVID. They said no. Then we offered help to set up Infection Prevention and Control measures. They said no. Then we offered again, with this outbreak. They do not want help.”

Despoina Anagnostou, from the UNHCR field office on Samos, told openDemocracy that COVID-19 cases in the camp had dramatically reduced since September, with only two people in quarantine as of 6 November.

Molenaar is sceptical. “Many people refuse to go and be tested, because they are afraid. They do not want to be put in the boxes so they are basically hiding out in camp,” she explains. “I think the number is higher.”

openDemocracy contacted both the Greek Ministry for Migration and Asylum and camp management at Samos about their response to the pandemic but did not receive a reply.

“Infection spreads like wildfire”

Most asylum seekers live in the “jungle”, an area of tents and makeshift shelters with little running water. The main camp – an old military base officially known as the Samos Vathy Reception and Identification Centre – only has capacity for 650 people, according to the NGO Samos Volunteers.

The jungle_5 (Source - Samos Volunteers).jpg
‘The jungle’ | Samos Volunteers

UNHCR has moved around 360 of the most vulnerable to safer accommodation outside the camp. But over 3,900 people remain in the camp, according to the UNHCR’s own statistics, while Samos Volunteers says that 25% of these are children who are mostly under 10 years old.

Molenaar says that sanitation facilities are “absolutely abominable”.

“There are no showers, there are no private toilets, water is from a jerry can. If you are going to the bathroom, the ability to wash your hands is minimal.” Social distancing is made more difficult by the rules of the camp.

“People have to line up to receive their food and this line often lasts for two to two and a half hours,” Molenaar explains. “When people stand in a line with hundreds of people just waiting and waiting for food, they are all close and on top of each other.”

“Infection spreads like wildfire.”

Sanitation (Source - Samos volunteers).jpg
Sanitation facilities in the camp | Samos Volunteers

The situation in the jungle has been made even more difficult by a series of natural and man-made disasters. On 30 October, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the island, destroying many buildings and triggering a mini-tsunami that flooded the town of Vathy.

Two Greek teenagers were killed in the town after a wall collapsed on them. Although the camp wasn’t damaged, many refugees congregated together to seek safety.

PA-56354562.jpg
A damaged house after the earthquake in Samos, Greece, on Oct. 30, 2020 | unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Two fires that broke out in the camp on 2 and 11 November had a more direct impact, destroying shelters and leaving many refugees with nothing. In total, over 1,000 camp inhabitants were affected, according to information provided by UNHCR and Samos Volunteers.

Jean*, an asylum seeker from Cameroon, lost his tent and most of his possessions in the fire on 2 November. The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum said it was caused by a short circuit in the camp, according to local media.

“It happened around 4am. I heard someone shouting out ‘Jesus, Jesus, fire’ and, when I stepped out, it was all flame,” Jean recalls. “There are gas bottles that we use in cooking so when the flames were burning, they [the gas bottles] were exploding. So I had to run away from the tents before it spread faster than you could imagine.”

Jean was then forced to sleep with four other people in a small tent provided by an NGO.

“The fire didn’t help the spread of COVID,” Molenaar notes. “Once again, people are on top of each other.”

The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum and camp management at Samos also failed to respond to our questions about conditions in the camp.

Aftermath of 2nd November fire (Source - Jean)_2.jpg
The aftermath of the fire on 2 November. | Anonymous camp resident

“Time just goes by”

Despite natural disasters and the fear of infection, for many refugees the government-imposed lockdown has been the worst part of the pandemic. Although the camp has been in lockdown since the first cases emerged in September, the protocols change daily.

Sometimes there are long queues to leave the camp; sometimes there is a three-in, three-out system; and sometimes camp residents are only allowed to leave for specific reasons, like a medical appointment.

Jean says that fines have also been introduced. One of his friends was recently fined €150 for wearing a mask below his nose. Given that a single refugee receives only €75 a month in financial support, it will be difficult to pay.

Victor*, a refugee from Sierra Leone, says he has even been arrested for leaving the camp.

“The other day I saw a snake in my tent,” he recalls. “I ran out of the tent and I went down to the city. I met some police officers, they arrested me and asked me lots and lots of questions.”

“How could you go and tell me to sleep where I saw a snake?”

The lockdown has also hampered access to supplies. Water shortages are common, and food – which is supplied by the Greek military – is often past its sell-by date and mouldy, according to all three refugees interviewed for this piece, as well as several aid workers. Jean has suffered stomach problems and a doctor advised him to “avoid eating the food in the camp” after he was hospitalised for a month from an infected rat bite.

As a result, many refugees leave the camp to get provisions from the local town – but this has since been jeopardised.

When the lockdown is imposed, says Victor, “we just have to come back to the camp and wait for the food they are giving us there, but the food is not sufficient for us to survive.”

Food_2 (Source - Sarah Griffiths).jpg
Food handed out to residents in the camp that is nearly a month past its sell-by date. | Sarah Griffiths

Even more painful is the loss of freedom – freedom to escape the hellish surroundings for a few hours, and freedom to imagine the future.

Before lockdown, both Jean and Victor regularly visited the Alpha Centre, a community centre run by Samos Volunteers, which offers educational classes and activities to provide a break from camp life. Since it closed due to lockdown, both have found losing their routine and sense of purpose difficult.

“It’s really difficult [to have] the mindset that somebody has taken away your freedom,” Jean says. “I must confess it’s been a very traumatic situation. First of all, you are stuck in a confined environment, you don’t have access to a whole lot of things. Secondly, it slows down the asylum process, nothing is being done.

“And time just goes by. Time is just passing.”

Asylum on pause

At only two kilometres off the coast of Turkey, Samos is one of five Greek ‘hotspot’ camps designated by the EU to receive and process asylum seekers after the refugee crisis of 2015.

Although the EU has provided €2.77 billion over five years to help Greece manage the crisis, some believe this is at the price of protecting other member states from unwanted migration.

According to recent reports, the Greek coast guard has recently escalated the situation by illegally blocking boats of refugees from reaching the Aegean islands. Human Rights Watch states that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, may also be complicit in these pushbacks.

On average people have to wait at least a year for the interview.

Refugees who do make it to Samos find themselves effectively detained on the island, as regulations introduced in 2016 stipulate that asylum seekers have to wait for a decision on their application before moving to the mainland. Refugees face a huge backlog in waiting for an interview with the authorities to plead their case. There are also long delays in hearing the outcome of this interview.

Mathilde Albert, co-ordinator at the Refugee Law Clinic Berlin, an NGO that provides legal assistance, has become used to a dysfunctional system. “The notification for the interview is usually for 2021 or 2022, and then usually the interview will be postponed,” she explains. “On average, people have to wait at least a year for the interview.”

The situation has not been improved by the pandemic. The Greek Asylum Service (GAS), which manages applications, paused all asylum applications during their closure from March to May. Although they used this time to catch up on outstanding applications – Albert says that hundreds of decisions were issued on Samos in just a week – interviews for most refugees are yet to resume. According to Albert, the situation is a “big mess.”

She acknowledges that clearing the backlog on decisions was beneficial, especially because some refugees had been waiting since 2018, but there are “maybe five lawyers on the island so there were many rejections and people could not appeal”.

Suspending interviews has been even more disruptive. Refugee Law Clinic Berlin has worked with one refugee from Togo who arrived in January 2019 and has still not been provided with an interview date. His interview has been cancelled four times already.

“Many people I know whose interview was supposed to happen in March or April in the previous lockdown, haven’t been rescheduled yet,” Albert explains. “They are stuck with no improvement in the situation and no results on their claim so it is a very unfair system.”

Both Jean and Victor have been on the island for around a year. Both their interviews were scheduled for December, but it is unclear whether they will go ahead.

In Samos, interviews are run by the GAS with the support of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). According to Albert, GAS caseworkers only had access to five computers during lockdown, and there are only twenty-five employees to manage all applications from Samos.

openDemocracy put these claims to the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum but, again, received no response.

“The worst mistake I ever made”

Greece’s latest national lockdown, in which citizens can only venture outside in particular time slots, will last until at least the end of November. The UNHCR told openDemocracy that it has been advocating “for a full inclusion of refugees in Greece in the national health surveillance, preparedness and response plans” and that efforts should be focused on moving “people who are immunocompromised and at high risk”.

Yet there are no assurances that the refugees on Samos will be treated differently this time. Jean came to Samos to escape war-torn Cameroon, but he says he now wishes he stayed at home.

“I wouldn’t advise my enemy to come here. I prefer you die in a war in your country than come here.”

“It’s the worst mistake I ever made in my life.”

*Names have been changed

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