A European commissioner pays a visit to an immigrant detention centre lacking in basic infrastructure. She leaves satisfied. A Greek minister escorts her to announce the militarisation of the way immigration is controlled in the Aegean Sea, but no one pays attention to him, not even the commissioner. Local media broadcasts cover the visit in a festive manner bolstering the calls by government officials for an expansion of funding so that Greece can continue doing what the commissioner and the ministers know it does; the dirty work of the Europeans. The devil is again in the details. One look at these details reveals just how flimsy the media motto was – that was set up to cover the visit of European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström to the detention centre of Moria on Lesvos last June.
The port authority and its cooperation with ‘squatters’
About three weeks before the commissioner’s arrival at Moria (the government-run immigrant detention centre) local port authorities contact volunteers of the ‘Horio Oloi Mazi’ (link in Greek) which has, since October 2012, been operating PIKPA-Neapolis in Mytilene, a former municipal youth camp, as an alternative structure for hosting refugees and immigrants.
Authorities request the cooperation of the volunteers in order to, temporarily, transfer to PIKPA newly-arrived immigrant and refugees who cannot be registered and kept at Moria due to a lack of capacity and thus forced to spend days on end at Mytilene port in adverse conditions.
[Read also our story ‘Lesvos mayor’s desperate plea for beds and electricity at new migrant detention centre is met with state indifference ”].
The volunteers agree, under the condition that the people who arrive at the camp are not kept under guard and that they remain there for a very short period of time.
The port authority begins the transfer and within two weeks roughly 600 people arrive at the camp. A week before the commissioner’s visit, ‘Horio Oloi Mazi’ issues a document (in the magazine’s possession) addressed to the port authority, requesting it to uphold their agreement, as the immigrants and refugees have been left on the camp for days and the issues of food and drainage have become unmanageable.
“The tolerant stance of authorities and their rapid response in the days leading up to the visit was a consequence of the need to cover up the problem in the management of the newly-arrived (immigrants and refugees),” says Efi Latsoudi, a member of the team running the PIKPA camp.
“In the beginning they would bring people without prior warning and would leave them there for as long as they needed to, but after the letter, the waiting time was reduced. This was due to the fact that many people who were at Moria were released, so they were able to take on more people,” she says.
In the meantime, the day of the visit was approaching. ‘Horio Oloi Mazi’ decides to ask Malmström to visit the camp and sends a letter to this effect on July 19. Their request is refused due to her workload. The volunteers repeat their request on the day of the commissioner’s visit, in another letter (also in our possession) which informs Malmström’s office about the problems regarding the management of new arrivals and the decision by authorities to hide the problems by offloading them onto the back of PIKPA. The letter was also signed by Marily Stoux, a member of W2 Europe and a volunteer at PIKPA.
The navy joins the immigration battle
The commissioner’s visit takes place on July 21 in the presence of Public Order Minister Vasilis Kikilias and Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis. At the press conference, reporter Anthi Pazianou asks Varvitsiotis about the situation at PIKPA.
The minister not only ignores or pretends to ignore the issue but dismisses the volunteers, by saying that the government “only cooperates with known NGO’s and international organisations, such as Medecins du Monde and the UN refugee agency”.. All others, according to the minister, are “squatters”.
At the same visit, Varvitsiotis confirms – through his statements – reports that military vessels of the navy (five coast guard vessels of the navy) had received orders to join operations patrolling the flow of immigrants in the Aegean. Despite the huge significance of his statement that underlines the militarisation of immigrant flow patrols in the Aegean, it literally goes unnoticed in Greece. The relevant video on YouTube has, so far, had very few hits, while his statements have not been reproduced anywhere.
This development also puts Malmström on the spot who has consistently refused to concede that there has been an intensive militarisation in the patrols of the flow of immigrants and refugees to Europe during her term as European Commissioner for Home Affairs.
Something stinks at Moria
During the same period, the news of Malmström’s arrival activates island residents. According to a report by Ilias Maravas, a journalist at local paper Embros (Link in Greek) , Mr Stratos Kerimis, owner of an olive grove adjacent to the Morias centre informs the media about a report he made to the police and local authorities that the centre’s septic tank had overflowed and spilled into a nearby stream, forming a swamp of waste, creating an unbearable situation in the area.
According to Marava’s report the centre at Morias was sloppily designed and waste management had not been foreseen. The journalist explained to UNFOLLOW magazine that “Greek police had examined and rejected the idea of linking the camp with the local sewage network and the creation of a unit for the biological cleaning of wastewater in the camp, because of financial and technical reasons. For the time being, the waste management problem is being resolved through an agreement with a company to empty the centre’s septic tank thirty times a month.
The section that is functioning now houses up to 150 people but when the First Reception Centre is delivered the number will reach 1,000.
“Works were completed one month ago,” Maravas says, “but it has not been delivered because there are still unresolved issues concerning technical specifications and this is turning into a headache for the Greek police”.
Police and health authorities on Lesvos initially denied there was a problem. However, ten days after the departure of the commissioner, an inspection by the Department of Health in the region of the Aegean revealed that the water at Morias is contaminated with bacteria and unsuitable to drink.
The construction cost of the First Reception Centre and the pre-departure centre
is estimated at over €5 million each and is covered by the European Borders Fund Returns.
The commissioner departs and mismanagement arrives
On July 22, Cecilia Malmström completes her visit to Greece. On her Twitter account she says:
“This is my 12th visit to Greece during My mandate and I see clear progress on the migration and asylum work. Good ex of EU-Greek cooperation”
It was the last time she visited Greece as European Commissioner for Home Affairs . In the meantime, the attitude of the island’s port authority has changed since the commissioner’s visit and appears to have adopted the minister’s view that PIKPA has been hijacked by the volunteers. In a new public letter on August 22, the volunteers mention cases of abuse of refugees and immigrants by port officials in the first twenty days of August.
The commissioner knows but does not talk
The commissioner may not show it but she definitely knows that the place she visited is regularly euphemistically described by the Greek government as First Reception Centre for the sole purpose of proving that Greece is implementing what it has agreed with European authorities. In reality, the centre at Moria operates as a temporary identification centre until the delivery of pre-departure centre, with serious questions remaining about the area’s water supply and drainage system. She is also aware that, before her arrival to EU member states, authorities ‘cleanup’ the centres to present them as humane. She stated as much on Sweden’s DN on April 20. So the following question comes to mind.
If she knew this was a fiasco, why did she take part?