Interview Samos Volunteers

Catastrophic hygienic conditions, inadequate sanitary facilities, makeshift supplies of soap and water - long before Covid-19, the RIC refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos was in an absolute state of emergency. As one of the main refuges for asylum seekers, the camp suffers from inhumane conditions due to overcrowding and inadequate infrastructure. What the situation looks like on the ground and how each of us can contribute to help - we met Simone Innico and Michiel Zwijnenburg, communication coordinators of the organization "Samos Volunteers", for an interview.

How and where does your organization work? 

Samos Volunteers (SV) provides psychosocial support, informal education and hygiene services to all refugees living in Samos, Greece. From our Alpha Center we offer English, Greek, French and German courses at various levels, as well as leisure activities such as yoga and fitness, guitar, piano and singing lessons or Arabic and Farsi courses for volunteers. 

In the Alpha common room, everyone can have a cup of tea, meet their friends, play board games, get information about services on the island and have their documents copied - all for free. From here we also support LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers. 

In addition to the Alpha Center, the Alpha Hub houses the library, rest area, study area, women's area, mental health workshops, fabric distribution, and sewing classes. From our laundry station, we offer a free and professional laundry service for camp residents. To meet the increasing need for hygiene, SV opened a second laundry station in 2020 and added ten machines and ten dryers to its arsenal. 

With five years of local experience, SV have also become a focal point for journalists coming to the island. Through social media, press releases and open letters, SV raises awareness about the conditions on Samos and the situation of asylum seekers and works to ensure that human rights are respected. So we see ourselves as an inclusive organization and let our more than 30 volunteers who live in the camp decide collectively what they need most. 

How many people are currently living in the camp? What are the forecasts, are more refugees expected? 

There are currently over 4,300 refugees and asylum seekers living on Samos, of whom almost 3,900 live in the camp. Greece's border controls have been tightened, meaning it's harder for refugees and asylum seekers to enter the country. Although we don't know the exact numbers, we assume that many people are still trying to cross the border. So more people are expected - but it will be difficult for them to reach Greece too.   

Why is the island of Samos and in particular the RIC such a "hot spot" for asylum seekers? 

The main reason for choosing Samos as an "entry point" to the EU is its proximity to the Turkish coast (less than 30 km in some coastal areas) - particularly İzmir province, which is one of the main hubs for migrants in Turkey. Since the adoption of the so-called. "Hotspot concept" by the EU in 2015, Samos was selected by the Greek authorities as one of the five island locations for hosting an RIC. 

Can you describe the situation in the camp before Covid-19? 

Before the pandemic, the camp was actually even more crowded. At the beginning of March, almost 8,000 people lived here in very difficult conditions. All existing systems had to be shared with many people. Think for example of showers, toilets, food, shelter and water supply - all of this was badly run down even then due to overcrowding. In the forests, the unofficial area outside the camp, there is no electricity, little access to suitable sanitary facilities and running water. Life was and is particularly difficult here. 

How has Covid-19 changed the situation? 

The mobility restrictions imposed by the health authorities had a greater impact on the population of the RIC and the camp than on the rest of the population, simply because of the already delicate situation of being able to ensure basic services on the slopes of the Samos Mountains. And of course also because many organizations had to reduce some of their activities or even stop them altogether.

Where do most refugees come from? What living conditions are they fleeing from? 

The majority of the population is from Syria (36%), Afghanistan (20%) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (13%). Women make up 20% and children 35% - 8 out of 10 of whom are under the age of 12. 

About 8% of the children are unaccompanied or separated, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. Frankly, we don't know exactly what living conditions people are fleeing. However, we know that most of the camp residents are from Syria and Afghanistan, countries where conflicts have been occurring for many years. Others, because of their political, sexual or religious orientation, can only escape persecution by their state by fleeing. 

There is limited access to water at the camp ¬¬– how is it provided? 

There are at least two "bladders" (artificial tanks with faucets) installed by MSF since last year, partially meeting the clean drinking water needs of the population living near the official RIC facility. Of course, with the increasing need for sanitation due to the pandemic, the need for water supply also increased drastically. 

Do you think that the media attention for the situation in Greece has become too little? 

In the last few months in particular, media coverage of the situation of migrants in Greece has indeed increased - but only in relation to the context of Lesvos and the horrific situation of the people in the (now former) Moria camp. 

The living conditions of asylum seekers and refugees in the rest of the country, both on the mainland and on the other islands, are by no means less serious - but unfortunately still clearly underrepresented. 

We learned that plastic waste is a big problem in the camp alongside the humanitarian crisis? 

Plastic waste is indeed a big problem in the warehouse. Unfortunately, the Greek authorities responsible for collecting rubbish do not comply, so a Dutch non-governmental organization takes care of the waste on site. With a large team of volunteer camp residents, they clean up the garbage. Another NGO that wants to focus on waste recycling is Precious Plastic Samos. They are still under construction.  

How could other brands contribute? What essential things are needed? 

To meet the increasing need for hygiene during the pandemic, many NGOs on Samos have worked together to provide hygiene kits to camp residents. The packages contain two bars of soap, reusable face masks and instructions on how to wash your hands and how to use the mask. We have already distributed more than 10,000 packages - so more than 20,000 masks and bars of soap! And of course we want to distribute even more. Masks and soaps or hand disinfectants are therefore necessary. As our Alpha Center had to be closed due to the lockdown, we decided to support the schools in the camp by providing them with teaching materials such as notebooks, pens, markers and pencils - we could use more of those too! 

 And how can one of us contribute to supporting the refugees? 

Here are some suggestions anyone can do from home: 

  • Share posts and news about the situation of migrants in the Aegean 
  • Islands in your personal profile 
  • Sign petitions 
  • Share the lobbying of human rights organizations and NGOs 
  • Organizations that monitor conditions in the camp 
  • Donate to these organizations or volunteer with them 
  • Contact local and national news agencies and politicians to tell them about Samos 
  • The best way to help is by bringing international media attention to the island and supporting organizations that are providing aid on the ground.   
What is your wish for the future? 

For the people of Samos - both migrants and locals - the camp on the island needs to return to its original purpose: refugees register here as asylum seekers and then move to the mainland so they don't continue to strain the island's limited resources . This would also allow them to take next steps instead of continuing to live in these terrible conditions. In addition, the living conditions in all asylum seeker facilities must improve. Not just tomorrow, but today. It is unnecessary for people to be forced to live here in such conditions. And we need more legal and safer ways to seek asylum. In the current political situation, people first have to cross a border illegally in order to be able to apply for asylum at all. This is a dangerous endeavor that is costing too many lives. People in need of international protection need a safer way to apply for asylum.

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