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Mitsotakis views new Samos camp, says migrant smugglers ‘crushed’

The prime minister flew to the eastern Aegean island of Samos Friday to view a new camp for asylum seekers that has replaced the old, squalid facility on the island, and said his government’s policy on migration has “crushed” migrant smuggling networks.

Speaking in the remnants of the old camp on the edge of the island’s main town of Vathy, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he would continue to press European Union countries to come up with a common migration policy that would share responsibility for migrants among the member states.

“We will continue to work in order to persuade those European countries who consider that this problem does not concern them, to change their stance and contribute to this big, joint European effort,” Mitsotakis said.

Migrant entries into Greece have fallen by about 90% compared with those of 2019, the prime minister noted. “We have crushed the smuggling networks that were taking advantage of human pain and disappointment,” he said.

The camp at Vathy had become “a shame for human dignity,” Mitsotakis said. Originally built to house just over 600 people, the camp become Greece’s most overcrowded, with around 7,000 people living in the facility and a shantytown of tents and makeshift shacks that sprang up in the olive groves around it.

Now empty, only stray cats remain among its tattered remnants. Clearly used to people when the camp was occupied, the friendly strays wandered among the sudden influx of visitors during the prime minister’s trip, with one curling up next to a podium set up for speeches during a brief ceremony handing the site back to the local municipality.

A new, 43 million-euro EU-funded camp opened in September in the hills of Samos away from the main town. Officially designated a “closed controlled access center,” the center consists of air-conditioned container housing in the form of family houses and dormitories, with a capacity of 3,000 people.

“The facility of shame is closing, the new facility is already operating – this amphitheatrical, beautiful space is being handed over to the local community, just as we promised,” said Mitsotakis.

It was a “new facility, a modern facility, a secure facility, a facility with controlled entry and exit, a facility whose purpose is to temporarily accommodate … refugees and migrants who arrive on Samos until it has been decided whether they should be granted protection status. That is, whether they are to be given asylum or, in case that they do not get asylum, have to be returned under international agreements to their countries of origin or to Turkey. This is stipulated by the joint EU-Turkey declaration of 2016,” the prime minister underlined.

Officials have stressed the facility is intended to house people temporarily for a few months while their asylum applications are processed, after which they can either move to the mainland or will be deported.

Although bleak, with row upon row of container housing in segments separated by razor wire-topped fences, conditions are an improvement on the Vathy camp.

Asylum-seekers are housed in neighborhoods according to nationality, and there are basketball courts and playgrounds among the container housing. Currently around 300 people are living there, half from Afghanistan and the rest from Syria and African countries.

But its remote location and stringent security has raised concern among rights groups, some of whom have described the conditions there as prison-like.

Entry is only allowed between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. and IDs and fingerprints are scanned at the gate.

“There is no doubt that this new center will only further dehumanize and marginalize people seeking protection in the European Union,” medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said in a statement when the facility opened.

“Millions of euros have been spent on the construction of this facility that comes with military-grade barbed wire fences and advanced surveillance systems. All of this to detain people whose only ‘crime’ is seeking safety and stability,” MSF said. “In addition to the mass rejections of asylum applications, this new center is another symbol of the complete rejection of refugees and of their right to seek asylum.”

Greece plans to create similar camps on another four eastern Aegean islands that lie near the Turkish coast.