Concrete walls and drones: Greek plans for refugee camps decried

Athens is investing in new measures to monitor camps, but experts fear the moves will deepen divides.

High walls are bring built around refugee camps, a move Greece claims is for security purposes [Alexandros Avramidis/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece – Parwana Amiri first noticed the concrete walls being built around her refugee camp on the Greek mainland one morning a few weeks ago.

“It was a feeling that when we were sleeping, they closed our wings,” the 16-year-old Afghan refugee told Al Jazeera.

“I feel that we will not even be able to see the cars passing the road and will not be able to see the grass outside in nature. We will see the walls around us, it is a very suffocating feeling.”

The grey walls, three metres (10 feet) high, are being built around the Ritsona refugee camp near Athens and there are plans to construct walls around another 24 camps on the Greek mainland.

Authorities have told camp residents that the walls are for their own protection, Amiri claimed.

“They are telling us it’s because of your safety,” she said. “They say that it will not change anything about your life.”

In spite of assurances that daily life will not change for camp residents, a call for tenders, published by the government, reveals extensive measures to amplify security measures in refugee camps across Greece.

Drones patrolling from the sky, magnetic gates with integrated thermographic cameras, X-ray machines and security cameras at the entry and exit points are just some tools that are planned to be implemented.

There are also proposals to close camp gates at about 9pm to prevent people from leaving, according to the Ministry for Migration.

According to the call, these surveillance systems will be installed in 39 camps across the mainland and the Greek islands; 75 percent of the costs will be covered by the European Internal Security Fund.

The walls alone cost about 28.4 million euros ($34.8m) and largely funded by the European Commission.

Tineke Strik, a European Member of Parliament (MEP) from the Greens/EFA Group, told Al Jazeera: “We cannot accept that EU money is being used to build concrete walls around refugee camps.

“Instead we need to invest in a better future for these people. Putting walls around camps only leads to less integration into the local community, less scrutiny by NGOs and journalists and worse conditions in the camps. It’s actually very simple: being a refugee shouldn’t lead to incarceration.”

Camps’ gates at some sites will close in the evening, preventing people from leaving [Alexandros Avramidis/Al Jazeera]

Some residents of the camps being walled off described a heightened sense of imprisonment.

“I am a human being, I don’t need a wall. They make me feel like a prisoner,” said Diyar, 36 and originally from Iraq.

He has been living in the Diavata camp in Thessaloniki for three years.

“Some are scared [but] some say it’s great, because we’ll be protected.”

The wall around Diavata, like Ritsona, is nearly finished.

Amiri worries that the walls will deepen divisions between refugees and locals.

“What I’m worried about is that I’m a student, I go to school [outside the camp] and what will the perspective be of the students? What will they say about us? They will hear from their parents that Ritsona is a place surrounded by walls, that it’s a closed place, and that we come from such a place.”

Petra Molnar, associate director of the Canada-based Refugee Law Lab think-tank, told Al Jazeera the new security systems were in line with “a dangerous global trend of bolstering the border industrial complex through invasive surveillance technologies and physical walls”.

She was particularly concerned by the planned use of drones.

“Autonomous technologies like drones also create a panopticon of surveillance, with migration management increasingly turning to technological solutions instead of humane responses that recognise the complexity of people’s migration journeys,” she said.

The Ministry of Asylum and Migration told Al Jazeera that the decision to “fence” off the camp with walls was agreed with the European Commission, while an initial part of the project had been implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“The main purpose of both the fencing project and the Integrated Digital Electronic and Physical Security Management System is the protection of local communities and the protection of residents,” a ministry spokesperson said.

“It is the necessary supervision of structures, security, prevention of delinquent behaviours, fires and other unforeseen factors. It is the maximum possible control of who enters and who leaves the structures. Greece initially installed barbed wire fences but the residents of the structures have repeatedly and continuously destroyed and continue to destroy the barbed wire fences. That is why it was decided to upgrade the fences.”

The ministry added that everyone, including residents and NGO workers, will have to go through the security at camp entrances. Drones, they said, would be used only in case of “unforeseen events”.

Greece is home to thousands of refugees and migrants [File: Giannis Papanikos/AP Photo]

The IOM told Al Jazeera the decision to build walls around the camps was taken by the Greek ministry, and it was supportive of the project.

“The rationale for the walled perimeter is also to increase the security of the residents by discouraging unauthorised individuals from entering or occupying spaces reserved for asylum seekers, while still retaining open and free movement for its residents. The vast majority of the open camps in Greece have always been fenced with walls/metal net or a combination of the two.”

The IOM said it was involved only in the “fencing” project and not in any use of drone equipment.

As the prospect of drone sky patrols and increased surveillance looms on the horizon, people play volleyball outside the Diavata camp, which is now almost completely fenced off by walls.

Diyar echoes the feelings of many living in camps across Greece.

“I just want a home,” he says.

Source: Al Jazeera