In 2020, when Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos burned down, the European Commission promised there would be “no more Morias”.
Chronically overcrowded and under-resourced, the dismal living conditions and treatment asylum seekers and migrants faced in Moria had become a potent symbol of the human costs of EU efforts to curb migration since the 2015 Mediterranean migration crisis.
After the fire, the European Commission pledged to build “up-to-standard” facilities on the Greek Islands, investing 276 million euros on five “new generation” camps – three of which have been completed – to serve as models for other countries as the EU updated its bloc-wide approach to migration.
But following a recent uptick in the number of asylum seekers and migrants arriving in the Greek Islands, conditions in these new facilities are increasingly reminiscent of those in the old Moria.
“It has been very difficult for us in the camp,” an Afghan woman who was rocking her rash-ridden daughter in her arms told The New Humanitarian outside one of the EU-funded facilities, on the island of Samos, declining to give her name.
The woman was one of several waiting to see a doctor at a mobile clinic operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) during a visit The New Humanitarian made in October. MSF is currently the primary healthcare provider for residents, because of the absence of a permanent state-appointed doctor in the camp.
Scabies and other contagious skin conditions have been spreading at alarming rates due to overcrowding, and infrastructure problems that have caused near-daily water cuts since the facility opened have grown notably worse as the population has increased, according to camp residents, MSF, and other NGOs. An MSF nurse tending to the patients outside the camp, who also declined to be named for security reasons, said the medical team was struggling to meet the needs of the swelling population.
Behind the increase in arrivals that has led to the overcrowding is an open secret: Greek security forces have been pushing asylum seekers and migrants back en masse from the country’s land and sea borders for years – a practice that violates international law.
Until recently, years of documentation of pushbacks by a wide range of groups – civil society organisations; journalists; researchers; the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR; and the Greek National Commission for Human Rights – had done little to curb the practice as the Greek government continued to deny they were taking place.
But in May, The New York Times published a visual investigation into the forced removal of a group of 12 asylum seekers from Lesvos by masked men. The investigation included video footage of the group being placed onto a life raft by the Greek Coast Guard and set adrift in the Aegean Sea.
Then in June, after more than 500 people died in one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in years, multiple investigations by international media outlets and human rights groups found that actions by the Greek Coast Guard likely contributed to the tragedy. Greek authorities have strongly denied these claims. But migration advocates and human rights groups say they have observed a change in policy – at least temporarily – since the shipwreck.
Lorraine Leete of the NGO Legal Centre Lesvos described a “notable shift” in the operations of the Greek Coast Guard, which began widely publicising the rescues of a significant number of boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants in the Aegean.
“It's the first time that I, as a practitioner working in this area for the last five years, have actually met someone rescued at sea,” said Ella Dodd, a member of I Have Rights, a legal advocacy organisation.
“We have not been able to document a single case of an arrival on land that has been removed since two to three weeks after the [June shipwreck],” said Tommy Olsen of Aegean Boat Report (ABR), a Norway-based NGO that tracks movements of people in the Aegean and reports on violence and pushbacks.
But with this apparent shift on pushbacks has come an increase in arrivals in the second half of this year that has led to severe overcrowding. And Greek and EU authorities have faced growing criticism from humanitarian and human rights groups saying the situation should have been predictable and that authorities could have done more to mitigate the deterioration of conditions.
“This is inexcusable, both because it's the state authorities that are bringing people to the camp and who have decided to shift their [border] practice, but also because there's always a high increase of arrivals during the summer,” Dodd said.
‘First crash test’
So far this year, more than 36,000 asylum seekers and migrants – mostly from Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Eritrea – have arrived in Greece by sea from Türkiye, making the relatively short but frequently dangerous maritime journey from the Turkish coast to the Greek Islands.
That number is a significant increase from the roughly 12,700 people who arrived in Greece by sea in 2022 but a far cry from 2015 when more than 850,000 people made the journey – most of them Syrian refugees escaping their country’s civil war.
The numbers arriving this year increased significantly beginning in July, when the pushbacks carried out by Greek authorities reportedly subsided.
Human rights organisations have raised concerns about restrictions on movement, excessive surveillance, and “prison-like” conditions in the new EU-funded facilities – called Closed Controlled Access Centres (CCAC) – since the first one opened on the island of Samos in September 2021.
Refugees Support Aegean (RSA), another legal advocacy NGO, described the situation at facilities on the islands of Kos and Leros as “intolerable” in an October post on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.
“The situation presents the first crash test of the CCACs in Greece,” Minos Mouzourakis, a legal officer with RSA, told The New Humanitarian. “We have a situation that is clearly unsustainable and that demonstrates deficiencies and gaps… at a time when other EU states are looking at codifying the same system across the EU.”
Situation on Samos
At the camp on Samos, the number of residents had ballooned from about 500 in early July to around 4,000 people by the end of September – roughly double the stated capacity. More than 3,500 people were living in the camp in early December.
Images taken by refugees inside the camp, which were shared with The New Humanitarian by residents and lawyers working on the island, show adults and children sleeping on cardboard and on thin mattresses on classroom floors, while prefabricated office containers have been converted into makeshift dormitories.
Amid the deteriorating conditions, a group of local lawyers with the non-profit Human Rights Legal Project (HRLP) submitted a petition to the Greek Ombudsman and the European Court of Human Rights about “ongoing violations of Greek and international law” in the camps.
The petition, which The New Humanitarian has seen but is not publicly available, warned of a “humanitarian crisis” underway, citing the lack of medical services, water shortages, insufficient food, poor sanitary conditions, and the absence of dedicated facilities for vulnerable asylum seekers.
Twenty-two local and international non-profit organisations have also raised the alarm that people are being detained for periods lasting from two weeks to one month without the necessary legal procedures being followed, and that, during that time, they do not have access to medical care or legal support.
In September, following HRLP’s petition, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Greece to provide medical care to a six-month old baby with congenital heart disease, and adequate accommodation for her mother, who is suffering from heart and stomach ailments. HRLP lawyers argued the pair were unlawfully detained in the camp for more than 30 days without access to proper care, in violation of the European Convention for Human Rights.
While publicly describing the situation at the camp on Samos as “manageable”, Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis, during a private September meeting with European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, flagged serious issues plaguing the Samos facility in particular, according to a document obtained by The New Humanitarian through a public records request.
The Greek Migration Ministry did not directly respond to The New Humanitarian on the documented gaps and subpar conditions inside some of the camps. Ministry Press Officer Giorgos Skordilis provided links to existing statements, noting a 42% reduction in irregular arrivals to the islands in October compared to September.
The European Commission has expressed “concern about the increase in arrivals on the Mediterranean routes", a spokesperson told The New Humanitarian, adding that "issues" in Greece's reception facilities "have been flagged to the Greek authorities for them to mitigate the risks and gaps".
An end to pushbacks?
In the winter months, migration arrivals by sea typically decrease. But it remains to be seen whether the apparent dropoff in pushbacks will continue.
After the shipwreck in June, officers from EU border agency Frontex stepped up their operations monitoring for violations of fundamental rights and began regularly attending landings of asylum seekers and migrants on the Greek Islands, according to sources with direct knowledge of the operations, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Migration experts The New Humanitarian spoke to described the apparent shift in practices as a public relations campaign to salvage the image of Greek and EU authorities and appease critics following the June shipwreck
“For its part, Frontex is putting on a rather on-the-nose propagandistic PR show to justify its ongoing presence in the Aegean Sea,” said Maurice Stierl, from the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University.
In a statement to The New Humanitarian, Frontex's senior public relations officer, Chris Borowski, said: "Frontex's operations are continually assessed to ensure effectiveness and adherence to fundamental rights. Our commitment is not only to manage the EU's borders but also to do so in a manner that respects and upholds the dignity and rights of all individuals.”
Meanwhile, pushbacks appear to have not entirely stopped.
UNHCR told The New Humanitarian that while it did observe “a reduction in the number of reports of summary forced returns” in recent months, reports of pushbacks do continue to be received.
Similarly, the emergency hotline for asylum seekers and migrants Alarm Phone told The New Humanitarian that pushbacks have persisted in a more “invisibilised” way, and that the organisation is still receiving a high number of calls from people in distress.
“Whether something has really changed will be revealed in the coming months,” Achilleas Tzemos, MSF Greece interim general director, said during a press conference in November, in response to a question by The New Humanitarian.
“There are still indications that things that shouldn’t be happening are happening. We should have our attention there and not be reassured that things are suddenly running how they should be.”
Edited by Hanan Nasser and Eric Reidy.