Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.
Kos, Greece – On the Greek island of Kos, in holiday season, tourists sip cocktails on the beach, music blares from loudspeakers and British holidaymakers can often be seen speeding around the main town on rented quad bikes.
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But a 20-minute drive from the seafront bars and clubs, the scene is starkly different.
A new multimillion-euro, EU-funded refugee camp is under construction near to an existing refugee camp and detention centre where, as of October 7, 175 people were being held, according to government data.
Across four months, from June to September, Al Jazeera visited the island of Kos, speaking to people living and working in the camp and detention centre.
At its closest point, the island is four kilometres from Turkey. The number of asylum seekers arriving in dinghies has significantly dropped during the past 18 months, amid continuing reports that Greek authorities are pushing refugees back.
In 2019, 5,925 people arrived, compared with 839 in 2020 and 246 this year according to the UNHCR.
During Al Jazeera’s investigation, these reporters found serious breaches of European Union and Greek law, including the detention of asylum seekers on arrival and arbitrary detention practices for refugees, including highly vulnerable people who have survived gender-based violence and torture.
The refugees’ situation is compounded because many being held have no reasonable prospect of deportation to Turkey; Ankara has not accepted returns since March 2020.
Activists and experts on the ground also raised concerns about impaired access to legal advice and shared an underlying anxiety about the new camp, which is expected to open later this year.
Funded by the European Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, Kos will host of one of five so-called “MPRICs” (Multi Purpose Reception and Identification Centres), costing 276m ($322m) of EU funds in total. These centres are are also being built on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios and Leros.
All five sites will replace previous camps infamous for their inhumane living conditions.
The first, in Samos, opened in September to much fanfare in a ceremony attended by Greek and EU officials, but, located in a remote valley several kilometres from a town centre, it was criticised for isolating refugees and pushing them out of sight. At worst, some critics feared “prison-like” conditions at the new sites.
In November 2019, 24-year-old Amal*, a Syrian refugee from Damascus, left Turkey and arrived on Leros, the Greek island where she faced another tragedy – she was sexually harassed by another asylum seeker.
She escaped to Athens but was picked up by police in the Greek capital for having no papers, before being sent to the detention centre on Kos.
There, while still detained, she had an asylum interview in September 2020. Her application was rejected in March.
On arrival, asylum seekers can be detained for up to 25 days during registration but after this point, a specific detention order has to be issued.
Under Greek law, asylum seekers can be detained for a number of reasons, for instance, if they are considered a risk to national security.
Amal, who does not know why she was detained for so long, said she still has nightmares about the 18 months she spent in the Kos detention centre.
Like other detainees Al Jazeera interviewed, Amal said that camp officials allowed her to keep her phone as long as the camera was removed.
“They didn’t explain to us why they were taking the camera, but I know they took it because they don’t want people to take videos of the bad stuff that was happening,” she said.
Amal was held for the maximum time allowed under Greek law before she was released in May this year.
“Everybody in detention is tired mentally; they are thinking they just want to see life outside of the camp,” she said.
Amal slept for most of the day. There was limited space for exercise, few recreational activities and people often went on hunger strike in protest against their confinement.
“The food they brought, sometimes it had mould on it and some insects like worms,” she said.
Amal is re-applying for asylum but fears being detained again.
“I can’t stand one more day there, I will kill myself … I’m still not OK, I see it in my sleep that I’m in prison still.”
In March 2020, the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee raised concerns over Greek refugee detentions, saying the conditions which people were held, in facilities in the Evros region and on the island of Samos, “could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.”
In mid-December 2020, 2,447 people were detained in pre-removal detention centres across Greece, according to data from the Global Detention Project.
The numbers remained roughly similar for the following six months, according to data released by the Hellenic Police in response to parliamentary questions.
There were 2,392 people held in pre-removal detention in the country from January 1 to the end of June this year; 1,109 of those detained had been held for more than six months.
Refugee Support Aegean, a Greek NGO, said that the figures revealed “a severe violation of the duty of the state to use deprivation of liberty only as a last resort, when necessity and proportionality so require.”
Spyros-Vlad Oikonomou, advocacy officer at the Greek Council for Refugees, said because Turkey has refused to accept deported refugees since March last year, “we are therefore discussing refugees who, instead of being granted protection, remain administratively detained for prolonged periods of time, until they can be returned to Turkey at some vague time in the future.”
In July this year, of those detained in Kos, more than 90 had been held for longer than a year, said Oikonomou, citing official data.
He blamed a “general unwillingness of the Greek state to implement alternatives to detention” for the situation.
Syrian refugee Ali*, 25, now a national of Sweden, passed through Greece in 2015 to finally arrive in northern Europe.
Recently, the masters’ student travelled from Stockholm to Kos when his 23-year-old wife Hala* was detained after arriving from Turkey.
The couple spoke every day and evening.
Ali remained on the line throughout the night to reassure her she was not alone. On one occasion, camp staff tried to put a man in her living container but ultimately relented when she argued with them.
The food was mostly inedible and Hala uses one word to describe the state of people inside the centre – “despair.”
She was detained for 15 days. Her first application for asylum in Greece was rejected but she is appealing the decision.
The married couple has now made it to Sweden but there is a risk Hala could be returned to Greece as her asylum application is still in the hands of Greek authorities.
“Now they are making camps from concrete, steel and fences,” said Ali. “This is the clear message to everyone that wants to come to Greece or Europe, that if you dare to do it, this is going to be your permanent home.”
Al Jazeera contacted Greek officials for a response to the claims made in this story, but at the time of publishing, had not received any replies.
The detention centre on Kos came into the spotlight earlier this year when 44-year-old Macky Diabate, a Guinean national, died of peritonitis, a treatable abdominal infection caused by a burst appendix.
He reportedly asked for medical attention for days.
Several people who have been detained told Al Jazeera that their phones were tampered with or broken to stop them from documenting their situation. This also hampered their ability to share photos of legal documents with lawyers and seek advice, a right guaranteed by EU law.
In an email obtained by Berlin-based FOI specialists FragDenStaat and seen by Al Jazeera, between Monique Parait, the head of the Migration and Home Affairs department and Notis Mitarachi, the Greek minister for migration from February this year, Parait emphasised this right saying, “the provision of legal assistance at first instance and legal representation at second instance and for detainees is a legal obligation under EU law.”
The European legal aid organisation Equal Rights Beyond Borders shared a draft of an upcoming report on detention with Al Jazeera which corroborated much of this reporting.
The group said that the practice of detention without reasonable prospect of deportation “has had an enormous impact on detained migrants’ physical and mental health and the authorities should end it immediately, as per the Greek Ombudsman’s repeated recommendations”.
It also raised concerns about the practice on the island of automatically detaining asylum seekers upon arrival.
“Since opening our office on Kos in January 2021, our clients have included survivors of gender-based violence and torture, families with young children, elderly persons, LGBTQIA people, and people suffering from serious physical and mental health conditions,” the group said.
The organisation has heard continuous reports about poor conditions in the detention centre including a lack of secure spaces for single women, ill treatment by police, as well as difficulties in accessing legal services.
“Meetings with lawyers often take place in non-confidential settings, people cannot leave the facility to meet with lawyers, and it is difficult for lawyers and clients to share documents because the police break all detainees’ phone cameras,” it said.
The organisation was particularly concerned because some asylum seekers were detained pending deportation to Turkey, which has not accepted returns for more than 18 months.
“This clearly violates Greek, EU, and international human rights law,” the group said.
In one incident described by multiple sources to Al Jazeera, a group of 26 asylum seekers who arrived on Kos on July 13 were able to meet briefly with lawyers.
But they were unable to sign legal authorisations, which would have enabled the lawyers to act as their representatives. Greek authorities, according to the sources, arbitrarily prevented the lawyers from attending interviews scheduled for some of the arrivals on July 15.
Police also confiscated the refugees’ phones and had not returned them a week later, by which time several had already received first instance rejections on their asylum applications.
‘Prison’ for asylum seekers
Oikonomou at the Greek Council for Refugees said that the situation in Kos gave him little hope about the new EU-funded centres.
“We will be closely monitoring how restrictions on asylum seeker’s liberty will be implemented,” he said.
While they were proposed as a solution to the miserable conditions faced by refugees across the islands, there have been concerns about the barbed wire and securitisation surrounding the centres.
The first to open, on Samos, attracted international attention. Ministers from across Europe, including the French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, have visited the site.
After his trip, Darmanin tweeted: “This is what should guide our policy.”
The new Samos camp has a detention centre due to open shortly as part of the 48m-euro ($56m) site, which also includes NATO-calibre barbed wire and round the clock security by private security company G4S and the Greek police.
Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer in Samos, said that he was concerned about the prospect of another detention centre opening up there after having visited Kos.
“When we visited Kos, we witnessed the detention area there being used as a ‘prison’ for new asylum seekers.
“This will happen in Samos too because it’s almost impossible to witness it as a legal aid worker, due to its [remote] position. Illegal things keep happening because there are no independent monitoring mechanisms in Greece that can actually challenge the authorities.”
Camp residents on Samos are subject to checks on re-entering the site and NGO workers say children as young as 10 returning from school in a nearby town are being searched before being allowed through the gates.
“If you must have security checks, why can’t it be a dignified one like at the airport? Why does it have to be this very detailed search of a 10-year-old?” said Giulia Cicoli, director of advocacy for Still I Rise, which runs an informal education centre in the nearby town, and whose students are among those searched.
“They are taking everything out in their backpack. The rights of the child should be protected. These will be children raised going through security checks to go to their home.”
Greek officials have defended the security measures as necessary camp residents and the local population.
“The operation of modern security and control systems in the access centres, does not affect only the [local] residents, who, anyways, are situated now away from the camps. It concerns the employees but also the residents themselves, who want to feel safe,” said Mitarachi, the Greek migration minister, at the camp’s opening.
As well as the use of drones, there are X-Ray machines and magnetic gates. At the heart of the motion detection surveillance system is a control room located in the Greek Migration Ministry in Athens, which monitors live feeds from cameras remotely.
Hanne Beirens, head of the Brussels-based research house Migration Policy Institute Europe, said that this surveillance-heavy model would likely emerge in other border regions.
“The EU’s commitment to speed up processes at the external borders of the Union, needs to go hand in hand with upholding the standards it has set itself in terms of decent reception of newcomers,” she said.
This article was supported by research from Disinfaux Collective and a reporting grant from journalismfund.eu.