13. September 2019

On the edge of the EU where human dignity is disregarded

Upon the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal in 2016, the Greek island Samos, located close to the Turkish mainland, has become a place where asylum seekers arrive to Europe and are trapped for an indefinite time. Lea Rösner, a LL.M. student in International Human Rights Law, who had been giving legal information to asylum seekers, speaks about the situation on the Greek island, her work and experiences.

An Interview with Lea Rösner and Lydia Wachs 


I met Lea in Dresden during our Bachelor studies in International Relations. Throughout our studies, I witnessed her becoming increasingly committed to the legal situation of asylum seekers in and at the border of the European Union. She was one of the first students in the Saxonian capital to take courses in migration law in order to become part of the Refugee Law Clinic Dresden. After reading her alarming and at the same time moving reports this summer about the realities on Samos, where thousands of men, women and children live in an overcrowded reception facility, I asked her to share some of her impressions upon her return from Greece in September 2019.


Lydia: “Jungle” is often being used to describe the surroundings of the camp on Samos by asylum seekers themselves. What was the camp initially intended for and how are the living conditions now?

Lea: The EU’s heads of state and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed on the so-called ´EU-Turkey Deal´. They decided that Turkey should be considered a ‘safe third country’ to which asylum seekers could be sent back. In addition, they implemented the ‘hotspot approach’ and set up camps like the one on Samos. The ‘hotspots’ were supposed to function as reception facilities where initial identification and registration takes place. The majority of asylum seekers there is not allowed to leave each one of the five Greek islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos for the duration of their asylum procedure.

Although the camp on Samos is constructed for 650 people, more than 5,000 people live in the camp right now. They either live in provided containers or outside the actual camp, in the so-called ‘jungle’ that consists of tents and continues to grow. Over the past few weeks, we witnessed that new arrivals were neither provided with a place in the containers nor with a tent. Thus, people – including families with babies and small children – slept on the ground inside the camp, the ‘jungle’ or even on the streets.

The sanitary facilities are insufficient, they are dirty and broken. The food is of really bad quality. Sometimes it is mouldy or contains maggots. People also have to queue for many hours in order to receive their meals. To make it short, the living conditions in the camp are horrific.


Lydia: Are there schools and health care services?

Lea: The Greek state is obliged to provide access to health care to all asylum seekers on Samos. But in reality, the provision of medical care is disastrous. Especially in the medical centre within the camp, there is a serious lack of doctors and psychologists in light of the number of people who really need medical treatment. Thus, they are often left without care at all. Schools do not exist, they are not foreseen in the ‘hotspot approach’. Children who fled their homes, who might be on the move for several years including their stay on Samos, miss out on school education. Only a couple of NGOs teach children, while some very few children can go to a local school.

Lydia: For how long do the people usually have to stay at the camp, how many succeed in leaving Samos and where do they go from there?

Lea: People arriving to Samos at the moment get dates for their asylum interview in the years 2020 or 2021. This means that they are stuck in the camp for the next one or two years. Also, once people have passed their interview, they need to wait for a decision in their asylum cases. This might happen fast, but we also know many people who are still waiting after several months or even more than a year.

In fact, nothing is predictable on Samos. The long awaited interview in the asylum procedure can be preponed any time. However, it can also get postponed repeatedly due to unknown reasons, due to a lack of translators or because the person did not have the chance to see a doctor, who would have issued a medical report. Particularly cruel about the ‘hotspot system’ is that people are generally not allowed to leave the island until they are granted asylum in Greece. 

But of course, people try to leave Samos illegally in order to stay on the Greek mainland or they try to make their way to other European countries. Some people succeed. However, since the so-called closure of the Balkan route in 2016 and increased border security, it became very difficult to reach other European states. Also, according to the current legal framework (Dublin III regulation), in most cases, the state where a person has first entered the EU is responsible for his or her asylum application. Thus, people who make it to other EU states fear to be sent back to Greece. 


Lydia: But this asylum procedure on Samos does not apply to “vulnerable persons”, does it?

Lea: Correct. People who are considered “vulnerable” by the Greek authorities are to be transferred to the Greek mainland in order to complete the asylum procedure there. However, the conditions in the camps on the mainland can also be devastating. The definition of vulnerable persons according to Greek law includes e.g. minors, the elderly, persons suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), victims of torture or rape. 

A position held by many asylum seekers on Samos – which I share – is that this system is absurd because people who might have experienced civil war or persecution, who crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece in a rubber boat, are vulnerable per se. In addition, we were often told that the inhumane living conditions in the camp as well as the state of uncertainty contribute to a deterioration of people’s physical and mental health condition. We were also asked: “Should I hurt myself in order to maybe be able to leave the island?”


Lydia: You spent two months on Samos to give legal information to asylum seekers. What does this mean in practice, and what activities and services did you and your team offer? Which other aid organisations, NGOs and governmental institutions provide assistance to asylum seekers on Samos, and do you cooperate with each other?

Lea: I worked with the Refugee Law Clinic Berlin on Samos. We organised workshops to explain the asylum procedure to asylum seekers, gave details on the different parts and answer questions. We also made individual appointments and assisted people in preparation for their asylum interviews or in other requests and concerns they have, e.g. questions regarding family reunification within Europe.        

There are also other NGOs and organisations that provide indispensable assistance ranging from medical services to food distribution, teaching activities for children and teenagers, language classes for adults, providing a safe space for women, etc. Certainly, the NGOs cooperate with each other. But communication with the governmental institutions (thus, the camp administration and the Greek Asylum Service) remains very limited. 


Lydia: Have you witnessed difficult situations or tragic incidents, and how do you and your colleagues cope with these experiences?

Lea: The entire situation on Samos is difficult and challenging. As an asylum seeker on Samos, you live in a repressive system in which you are treated without dignity and left without any self-determination. You can only wait and wait, with hardly any access to basic services.

We were confronted with this situation on a daily basis. This is depressing and frustrating. Of course, there were some particularly aggravating experiences. For example, when minors are registered as adults but only as minors they can apply for being reunited with family members in other EU states – but the age assessment might take place only in six months’ time. Or children not being registered as part of their family and thus being separated from their parents. Or a Pakistani national who has effectively no access to medical services at all because he is not allowed to bring his own translator to the doctor. Then, at the same time, a Pashto translator is not provided by the authorities.

For me, the most difficult moments were related to medical emergencies. Several times, we talked to persons who urgently needed medical treatment or were suicidal. We were given very few options in these situations. The medical system in place is, in fact, not responding to medical emergencies. Persons who are suicidal might be sent away when they go to the hospital or not be given an appointment when they try to reach the psychologist in the camp. In one case, we accompanied a person to the psychiatrist. However, afterwards, he again attempted to commit suicide.

My colleagues and I tried to maintain a normal routine after working hours. But, of course, for everyone living in the camp, ‘working hours’ and ‘after working hours’ do not exist.  


Lydia: At the general elections in Greece this summer, migration was one of the key topics. In the end, the centre-right party Nea Dimokratia won an outright majority. How is the atmosphere on Samos and how do locals react to the growing number of refugees?

Lea: Many locals on Samos have welcomed the arriving refugees in the beginning. By now, the atmosphere has changed. A majority of locals seems reluctant. However, it has to be added here that locals on Samos should not be left alone with the situation. If the Greek government or other EU states or even the EU Commission had wanted to improve the situation on the Greek islands, they would have found a way to do so. So far, there is no political will. 

With regard to the new Nea Dimokratia government, one has good reasons to be pessimistic. Recently, the government has announced that they want to increase border security and deportations while undermining asylum seekers’ procedural rights.  


Lydia: Would you say that the inhuman reality for asylum seekers in the EU is underrepresented and manipulated by the far-right through lies and fear?

Lea: Yes. Due to the Dublin III system that I mentioned before, relatively few people arrive in Germany by now. Still, the far-right in Germany (and likewise in most European countries) construes asylum seekers as a threat. They construe them as dangerous, as criminals or persons who want to take advantage of ‘our’ social systems. Obviously, this is not true. Everybody who leaves his or her home country has a reason. Many people leave due to persecution or war.

In addition, we often talk about refugees but rarely see and listen to their perspectives. This contributes to making their inhuman realities invisible and excluding their urgent matters from the political and media discourse.


Lydia: How does it feel to leave Samos after two months to go back to Germany – a country with growing indifference, where most people have gotten used to stories and images of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea?

Lea: It leaves me sad and angry because I know that the situation on the Greek islands will not improve. People are still stuck in these horrific living conditions. But nobody cares. Probably, we’d need to acknowledge that migration can change societies – but not necessarily in a bad way. Sadly, at the moment, policies of restricting movement, of closing down or externalising borders, of letting people die prevail.

Lea Rösner is a LL.M. student in International Human Rights Law at the University of Essex. She interned with the Refugee Council of Saxony and Amnesty International, was a member of the Refugee Law Clinic Dresden and worked for the Refugee Law Clinic Berlin on Samos in July/August 2019.


Lydia Wachs is currently a MA student in Arms Control & International Security at King’s College London. She is a member of the board of Polis180 & editor of the Polis Blog.

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image Source: Farnaz Nasiriamini


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