It has eight restaurants, seven basketball courts, three playgrounds, a football pitch, special rooms for vulnerable people, and is purportedly eco-friendly.
But Greece’s new “closed” migrant camp for 3,000 asylum seekers on Samos is also surrounded by military-grade fencing, watched over by police and located in a remote valley, and has been likened by critics to a jail or a dystopian nightmare. Its message is clear: if Europe-bound asylum seekers reach the country, they are going to be strictly controlled.
“Maybe the barbed wire is shiny and new in their centre, but this cannot be sold as an improvement,” said Patrick Wieland, of Médecins Sans Frontières.
Manos Logothetis, who oversees refugee reception at the Greek migration ministry, sees it differently. “For the first time in the history of migration, a beneficiary will be able to sit in a restaurant that is air-conditioned and safe,” he said, listing the “decent living conditions” that the new facility, which cost €38m (£32m), will offer.
“That’s a big change from the long food lines and mud and filth we had before, but yes it is also going to be more regulated, more controlled.”
The EU-funded installation – one of five multipurpose reception and identification centres due to open on Greece’s frontline Aegean islands – was officially inaugurated on Saturday as, in the migration ministry’s description, the “closed controlled access center of Samos”.
In the wake of the inauguration, Logothetis told the Guardian that all the eating areas and other facilities listed by the ministry would be in operation by the week of 27 September.
For Athens and Brussels, both keen to end an era of notoriously overcrowded camps associated with squalor and degradation at the EU’s external border, the sprawling structure is intended to mark a break with the shameful images that have emerged from Greece since the refugee crisis erupted.
Six years after a million Syrians fleeing civil war traversed the country en route to Europe, the Samos camp is being presented as a showcase of improved migration policies, “swifter and fairer” asylum procedures and the end of ad-hoc solutions to one of the continent’s greatest challenges. The EU has earmarked €250m in total for similar reception centres to be built on Kos, Leros, Lesbos and Chios.
A new camp on Lesbos – the island that has received more refugees than any other to date and was once home to the infamous Moria installation before its destruction by fire last year – is expected to be operational by mid-2022.
“We have created a modern and safe new closed, controlled access centre ... that will give back the lost dignity to people seeking international protection, but also the necessary conditions of safeguarding and restraint for illegal migrants who are to be controlled,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said at the opening ceremony.
But critics have likened the reception centres to prisons. For NGOs who have railed against them, the new camps are symbolic not only of Greece’s hardened stance towards migration – on Thursday Athens announced it would be launching an international social media campaign to deter migration flows from Afghanistan – but the harsh policies pursued by an increasingly fortress-minded Europe.
Behind their modern sheen lurks menace, opponents say, citing the dramatic restrictions that will be imposed on the movement of people inside the facilities.
When the Samos camp takes in its first residents on Monday, new arrivals will be required to spend up to 25 days indoors as their documents are examined before being allowed out between 8am and 8pm daily. Deportees whose asylum requests have been rejected will be held in an entirely closed pre-removal section.
Designed to accommodate almost a thousand people, this detention section and its facilities are not open to view. It is one of eight zones into which the 62-hectare (154-acre) site at Zervou in eastern Samos is divided. Only two zones, including the one where up to 240 unaccompanied minors will be housed, have so far been toured by international officials.
On Friday Médecins Sans Frontières called the installation a disgrace, describing it as a dystopian nightmare. “How audacious that while we see what’s happening in countries like Afghanistan, the EU and Greece are busy inaugurating a new prison for asylum seekers on Samos,” said Wieland, the group’s resident field coordinator. “This is the perfect illustration of how criminal the EU policy on migration is – holding and detaining people who are escaping violence and punishing them for wanting to be safe. It is a disgrace.”
About 500 men, women and children are about to be moved into the camp from a facility on the outer edge of Vathy, the island’s town.
At the height of the crisis, the older camp housed about 9,000 people although it was designed to accommodate no more than 680 – overcrowding that spurred exasperation and fury among islanders.
Refugee numbers have dropped precipitously on the islands, with the Greek migration ministry this week reporting an 81% decline over the one-year period from August 2020 after concerted efforts to transfer people to the mainland.
But while numbers are no longer overwhelming, aid workers worry that for asylum seekers already struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the highly controlled camp is only likely to make things worse.
“It’s hard not to see how their mental health won’t be affected,” said Simone Innico, an aid worker with the grassroots organisation Samos Volunteers. “Being locked up like common criminals when all these people have done is come to Europe seeking refuge and sanctuary can only backfire.”
Logothetis acknowledges the criticism. He said the EU itself had questioned the multilayered fencing surrounding the Samos facility. “But the purpose is to follow the law, and the law says we have to screen them and register them to make sure they don’t have fake [papers] and aren’t terrorists, aren’t a danger and that takes time.”
Europol, alone, usually took five days to screen an applicant, Logothetis said. “It was a step that was missing previously,” he said of the decision to detain asylum seekers. “They could register and the next moment be drinking coffee in the main square because there was no capacity to keep people in.”
Long before the fall of Kabul ignited fears of a replay of the 2015 refugee crisis, the febrile situation on Greece’s easternmost islands caused headaches for successive governments.
A pact reached with Turkey in 2016 played a major role in turning the outposts into vastly overcrowded buffer zones. Although aimed at stemming migrant flows, the accord stipulated that asylum seekers who made often perilous sea journeys from the Turkish coast would have to remain on the isles until their asylum applications were processed.
Alarmed by Ankara’s actions last year when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced he was opening the gates to Europe, sending thousands of migrants to the Greek frontier, the prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ centre-right administration has toughened its stance: reinforcing border patrols, completing a 40km-long steel wall along the land frontier that Greece shares with Turkey, and, rights groups claim, resorting to controversial “pushbacks” of people attempting to access Greek territory – actions Athens has fiercely denied.
More recently it has begun using sound cannon – long-range acoustic devices, capable of firing bursts of deafening noise – to deter migrants along the land frontier.
The migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, argues the policies have “turned an uncontrollable crisis into a manageable situation”.
Logothetis said: “We all have different audiences, different narratives. In Greece people are very tired with this refugee story and they blame us for making centres that are so big. Others complain that they’re small and the fencing is too severe but we have to be prepared. We have to have a contingency plan and be ready for the next emergency.”
• This article was updated on 27 September 2021 to include clarification from Manos Logothetis about the operational date for facilities, and to add details on the pre-removal unit.