UK

Greek island on front line of Europe’s refugee route builds dedicated ‘prison camp’ with razor wire

Ringed by a tall razor wire fence in a remote part of the pretty Greek island of Samos are long rows of pale grey huts, each with a number, and stretching as far as the eye can see.       

They are spartan buildings guarded by armed police, and the people who live in them have absolutely no chance of escape.

This is a migrant camp with a difference. Its rules are unbending and a loudspeaker blares out messages about meal times in multiple languages to the inmates.

The camp sits at the edge of the European Union and is less than a mile across the east Aegean sea from Turkey.

The 375 souls here this week expected a warmer welcome in the West: a hotel room or a free house, perhaps, schooling for their children and state handouts in their pockets. What they found was far from that dream.

On Greek island of Samos a migrant camp is guarded by police and razor fence, and it is a regime that could be coming to Britain soon. ‘This is the model of migrant camp that England hopes to copy

Until this summer, 9,000 migrants had the run of the island. They lived in a rat-infested shanty village without lights, hot water or sanitation right beside Samos’s capital, until it was bulldozed and most of the inhabitants sent to Athens

Until this summer, 9,000 migrants had the run of the island. They lived in a rat-infested shanty village without lights, hot water or sanitation right beside Samos’s capital, until it was bulldozed and most of the inhabitants sent to Athens

The Home Secretary Priti Patel (Pictured) visits a migrant centre in Greece. She hopes to bring the regime to Britain

The Home Secretary Priti Patel (Pictured) visits a migrant centre in Greece. She hopes to bring the regime to Britain

The camp sits at the edge of the European Union and is less than a mile across the east Aegean sea from Turkey (Pictured)

The camp sits at the edge of the European Union and is less than a mile across the east Aegean sea from Turkey (Pictured)

The camp is divided into colour-coded zones: Afghans (blue), Africans (red) and Arabs (green) all separated to stop fights between the factions who accuse each other of racism and use fists or worse to solve differences. Migrants can leave the camp only if they use their fingerprints to pass through steel-turnstile checkpoints so that the camp authorities know where they are at all times.

They are counted in at night and each migrant has been vetted to ensure they are not a terrorist trying to slip in posing as a refugee, or posing any other security threat.

And it is a regime that could be coming to Britain soon. ‘This is the model of migrant camp that England hopes to copy.

‘Your Home Secretary Priti Patel has come here to see it for herself,’ says Demitrius Axiotis, the 56-year-old former Greek army officer who runs what is called the closed control access centre on Samos. 

‘In three or four months we will have 3,000 migrants living here and we will be full. We are expecting Afghans fleeing the Taliban to arrive very soon on the traffickers’ boats from Turkey to Samos. They will be brought here and treated just the same as all the others.’

The camp is divided into colour-coded zones: Afghans (blue), Africans (red) and Arabs (green) all separated to stop fights between the factions who accuse each other of racism and use fists or worse to solve differences

The camp is divided into colour-coded zones: Afghans (blue), Africans (red) and Arabs (green) all separated to stop fights between the factions who accuse each other of racism and use fists or worse to solve differences

At least 20,000 migrants are expected to have arrived by boat to our south coast from France by the end of 2021

At least 20,000 migrants are expected to have arrived by boat to our south coast from France by the end of 2021

This week the Daily Mail was the first British newspaper to visit the controversial camp, built out of the desperate need to stem the migrant flow from Turkey where four million wait to illegally enter Greece. The European Union has erected an important-looking sign outside the formidable structure that makes clear this is no holiday camp. Over the next year, more Greek islands in the east Aegean will also open ‘closed’ camps, with the EU footing the £200 million bill.

On Samos, the camp was born of necessity. Until this summer, 9,000 migrants had the run of the island. They lived in a rat-infested shanty village without lights, hot water or sanitation right beside Samos’s capital, until it was bulldozed and most of the inhabitants sent to Athens.

Mr Axiotis says for years there were more migrants in Samos’s main town than its 6,000 residents. ‘That was not right,’ he explains. ‘It was not fair on Samos people and we had to think about their safety. Greece is a devoutly Christian country and the islanders worried the boats coming to the island were carrying strangers.’

Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Patrick Wieland, the Samos field co-ordinator of the humanitarian charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), believes the new camp is little more than a prison. ‘It is a fortress stopping escape,’ he says at his small office in Samos’s port. ‘It is there to contain migrants and actively deter others from coming over from Turkey. It is criminalising people who have done nothing wrong and want only to make fresh lives in Europe.’

So could this Greek island’s authoritarian style of camp really be a possible solution for England’s own migrant crisis? The answer, it seems, could be yes. At least 20,000 migrants are expected to have arrived by boat to our south coast from France by the end of 2021. Most already here are in hotels paid for by the taxpayer. It is a situation that cannot go on forever, which is why the Home Secretary came here in August to meet Mr Axiotis at the Samos camp.

The European Union has erected an important-looking sign outside the formidable structure that makes clear this is no holiday camp. Over the next year, more Greek islands in the east Aegean will also open ‘closed’ camps, with the EU footing the £200 million bill

The European Union has erected an important-looking sign outside the formidable structure that makes clear this is no holiday camp. Over the next year, more Greek islands in the east Aegean will also open ‘closed’ camps, with the EU footing the £200 million bill

A Nationality and Borders Bill is currently going through Parliament, with the same aim of helping real refugees and weeding out the rest. It is understood that if it gets approval next year, the new camps will be high on the agenda soon afterwards

A Nationality and Borders Bill is currently going through Parliament, with the same aim of helping real refugees and weeding out the rest. It is understood that if it gets approval next year, the new camps will be high on the agenda soon afterwards

It was then six weeks away from opening but Ms Patel looked at the floor plans, toured the site under construction and was told of the ultra-secure deportation wing, to be finished by Christmas, for incarcerating inmates rejected for asylum in Europe and with no right to stay.

According to Mr Axiotis, she heard how the Greek coastguard is also pushing back migrants at sea towards Turkey, a contentious policy about to be introduced by the British in the Channel using Border Force jet ski teams to nudge boats back towards northern France. The Home Office believes Samos-style camps on British soil will make the UK less alluring and reduce illegal Channel crossings.

For who would want to end up living in a camp like it? The story peddled by people-smuggling gangs to drum up their trade is that England is a soft touch, a land of milk and honey where migrants are instantly housed in four-star accommodation or a council house with no questions asked.

The prospect of being locked up in a prison-like fortress, with speedy deportations and rigorous vetting to root out those coming here to harm us, would be far less enticing for people falsely claiming asylum.

‘Camps like Samos would make Britain a safer place for everyone, including the genuine asylum seekers who deserve our help,’ Home Office sources have told us.

A Nationality and Borders Bill is currently going through Parliament, with the same aim of helping real refugees and weeding out the rest. It is understood that if it gets approval next year, the new camps will be high on the agenda soon afterwards.

In Samos, we talked to migrants about what they thought of camp life. Most were put there because they have repeatedly been refused asylum in Greece. They are mightily displeased that they have been stopped from journeying onwards to Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands or, favourite of all, England.

In hut 126 in the Arab zone, we found an Iraqi Kurd family of four who, until it was pulled down in September, lived in the squalid Samos jungle camp for five years. Now they are in a two-bedroom hut with a kitchen, bathroom and never-ending hot water from the camp’s solar power system. But they are not happy with their lot.

Most refugees are put in the Greek camp (Above) because they have repeatedly been refused asylum in Greece. They are mightily displeased that they have been stopped from journeying onwards to Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands or, favourite of all, England

Most refugees are put in the Greek camp (Above) because they have repeatedly been refused asylum in Greece. They are mightily displeased that they have been stopped from journeying onwards to Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands or, favourite of all, England

This is a migrant camp with a difference. Its rules are unbending and a loudspeaker blares out messages about meal times in multiple languages to the inmates

This is a migrant camp with a difference. Its rules are unbending and a loudspeaker blares out messages about meal times in multiple languages to the inmates

‘I am angry,’ says the 40-year-old father Mahamad Mahamad. ‘I came to Greece by boat from Turkey and I want my 12-year-old daughter and son to have a good school and us a good house. That is what I and my wife Nyaz expected from Europe. We were told that by the trafficking agents we paid to get here. Now we are stuck and the Greeks have put us in this prison. They have locked us up. No-one tells us where we will go next or when we will be free.’

His bright-as-a-button daughter chirps up in perfect English learned from the internet: ‘It is not fair. I want to have an education and make my life in Greece. This is no home for me or my three-year-old brother.’

If the camp’s deportation wing was open, there’s no doubt this family would be under lock and key inside it. Their asylum claim has been turned down by Greece four times and they should, under EU rules, be sent back to Turkey from where they first entered Europe. Turkey, however, says it is overwhelmed with migrants and can’t take more. It is also at loggerheads with Athens because it claims Greece is pushing back asylum-seekers to Turkey using brutal tactics at sea and on land which endanger the lives of women and children.

Videos given to the Mail by refugee charities show alarming footage of Greek coastguard vessels forcing away boats by firing gunshots into the sea near them and using long metal sticks to hit migrants over the head and prod their boats. If life is dangerous for migrants on the water, when they reach land on Samos or other Greek Aegean islands, things are just as bad. They hide in the woods to avoid Greek police who, say charities, use unorthodox or robust methods to force them on to coastguard boats. These, in turn, sail towards Turkey and leave them on life-rafts in the middle of the sea, it has been reported.

Ringed by a tall razor wire fence in a remote part of the pretty Greek island of Samos are long rows of pale grey huts, each with a number, and stretching as far as the eye can see (Above)

Ringed by a tall razor wire fence in a remote part of the pretty Greek island of Samos are long rows of pale grey huts, each with a number, and stretching as far as the eye can see (Above)

One vivid story has emerged of a sailor on a Greek coastguard vessel shouting at migrants the boat had taken on board in the east Aegean, supposedly to take them to safety on Lesbos, an island 100 miles from Samos. ‘Get the f*** out of here, you don’t belong here,’ the sailor said, before tossing a life raft into the sea and shoving 34-year-old Afghan, Khalid, into it.

Soon to follow was Khalid’s wife, his seven-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son, and 14 others, left bobbing in the sea without life-jackets, before being found by Turks four hours later. ‘We were screaming and crying, wet and shivering from the cold and rough waters. My daughter was bleeding because her teeth broke when the sailor pushed her into the dinghy,’ said Khalid, now living in Istanbul, Turkey, of his family’s terrifying experience in July.

The United Nations has documented 450 cases of ‘pushbacks’ by the Greek coastguard this year and says they are legally dubious. ‘Yet it has now become a routine, almost weekly event,’ says Mireille Girard, the director of the UN refugee agency in Greece. ‘In the past we mainly had mid-sea interceptions with migrant boats being stripped of their engines then nudged or towed back to Turkish waters. Now we find people being plucked off Greek soil by the authorities and then bundled up, and tossed into life rafts towards Turkey in tactics that are turning more violent.’

The Greeks often dismiss reports of these pushbacks as fake news. Yet this week, we were given evidence of 27 migrants who disappeared after arriving on a flimsy boat on a pinprick of an island, Diaporti, off Samos, on Monday. The migrants sent photographs of themselves, with their location data, to charity Aegean Boat Report when they landed.

But soon they were begging for help as a Greek coastguard cutter and police arrived and they feared being pushed back to Turkey.

‘Several new arrivals reported that the coastguard sailors were shooting guns towards them from a Lambro 57 vessel which was also in the migrants’ photographs,’ the charity’s spokesman said.

‘We also received voice messages from the migrants where you can hear shots being fired.’

The charity lost contact with them at 8.25am after the migrants’ phones suddenly went dead. It is thought Greek police had ordered they be turned off. It added: ‘We hope that this group were taken to the Samos camp and not pushed back to sea to be left drifting in life rafts like so many before them.’

The Mail has established that they did not arrive at the camp that day. Instead, they are likely to be back in Turkey if they survived what appears to be another pushback by the Greek authorities.

The truth is no-one knows where they are now. ‘We have not heard from them since the phones stopped,’ the charity spokesman said 48 hours later.

But a separate group of 26 Africans and Arabs, including a girl, 5, three babies and two pregnant women, arrived at the camp late on Monday afternoon. They had been found near Samos’s seaside town of Potami at 9.30am after getting on a boat from Turkey.

As they hid from coastguards, Doctors Without Borders were told they needed help. The charity sent a medical team to find them. ‘We then alerted the police, as we have a duty to do, and waited and watched to see they were collected safely,’ says Mr Wieland. Once in the camp, migrants have to pay one euro, which not everyone has, to take a bus to town each day. They have to return by 8pm or face punishment for breaching rules.

‘The curfew is to make the people of Samos feel safer,’ says Mr Axiotis. ‘Those who disobey it have been told what to expect. The first time they get a verbal warning, the second time they get an official letter, the third time they are grounded for five days in the camp. We may have an obligation to the migrants, but they have to understand they have an obligation to Greece while they are here.’

As Mr Axiotis shows us round, it is clear migrants object to the rules. A Syrian man in his thirties runs up to us waving a piece of paper showing he is grounded after repeatedly breaching curfew.

He put his hands together, as if in prayer, as he begs to escape his punishment. All this dramatic behaviour seems to pass the commander by. He tells the Syrian to talk to someone else.

‘We will never stop migrants altogether,’ he admits. ‘But we think this camp has already deterred some from coming.’ As we face a migration crisis threatening to run out of control, Ms Patel thinks a camp of this kind in Britain can do exactly the same. 


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