The closure of Kara Tepe municipal camp marks the end of an era for refugee reception in Greece.
Since 2015 it has been a safe haven for many vulnerable people on Lesbos, providing shelter and support to those with additional needs - children and adults with severe illnesses or disabilities, survivors of torture, and those experiencing psychological distress.
While nobody should ever be forced to live in camps, Kara Tepe was a rare example of how Europe could welcome refugees with some level of dignity - moving towards a better way of securing their rights, health and wellbeing.
The Greek authorities' decision to shut it down has been criticised by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and other organisations who worked with camp residents to make Kara Tepe as safe and supportive an environment as possible, in the absence of desperately-needed political solutions.
The first residents were transferred out of Kara Tepe under darkness at 5 am on April 24 and the facility now lies empty. Most were moved directly to Mavrovouni - the camp also known as Moria 2.0 - where there is little specialised support to meet vulnerable people’s complex needs, forcing wheelchair users to struggle through muddy terrain and victims of GBV (gender-based violence) to sleep in insecure tents.
The transfer of refugees and asylum seekers from alternative accommodation such as Kara Tepe into unsafe and under-resourced camps like Mavrovouni is no accident. At a municipal vote on Lesbos in April 2021, the majority voted for the creation of one central refugee reception centre, on the condition that all other refugee-hosting structures on the island would be shut down immediately. However, in reality, this is a process that has been underway for some time across the islands.
Last October, police shut down the self-organised PIKPA camp on Lesbos - moving many unaccompanied children, single mothers and others with heightened vulnerabilities into Kara Tepe. The urban apartments programme, ESTIA, has already been closed on Samos, Kos and Leros, and its Lesbos and Chios operations are due to shut down this November. After that, the only alternative left on the island will be Mavrovouni, leaving thousands more people with no choice but to sleep in flimsy tents.
These strategies of containment and social exclusion do not apply solely to people trapped on the Greek islands; they are being rolled out across the country. From July, the Greek government will stop providing cash assistance to asylum seekers who live outside state-run hosting facilities, which is likely to result in some 20,000 people being stripped of financial support and independence. Meanwhile, cement walls are being installed around a number of camps on mainland Greece - keeping residents trapped inside for long periods, and isolating them from the outside world.
The IRC has documented the devastating impacts of de-facto detention on the Greek islands. On Lesbos, 39% of our mental health clients have considered suicide and 8% told us they have self-harmed. Yet, rather than seeking sustainable solutions to this very real humanitarian emergency, the Greek authorities are choosing to pursue a strategy of keeping refugees out of sight and out of mind.
The closure of alternative accommodation facilities is not in the best interests of new arrivals or local communities. Hiding refugees and asylum seekers away and stripping them of agency prevents them from contributing to society, wastes their rich skill-sets, and creates ghettos - all of which undermine social cohesion. The EU has acknowledged this in its excellent Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion, launched last November. Yet, these latest developments in Greece are a sign that Europe continues to move in the opposite direction.
It’s time to take a fresh approach that upholds fundamental rights and recognises the potential contribution of refugees to their host communities. Here’s how.
Firstly, the Greek authorities and the EU must guarantee safe, dignified shelter for all - including people with severe vulnerabilities. It’s perfectly possible for people to be housed in appropriate accommodation that supports their complex needs, such as Kara Tepe, PIKPA or ESTIA apartments, and safeguards their rights. This should be at the heart of negotiations on the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Secondly, the EU should have learned by now that migration is - and will continue to be - a fact of life. Forcing people behind concrete walls will not prevent others risking their lives to reach safety in Europe, or resolve the humanitarian crisis in Greece. Instead, the EU must urgently begin moving people off the islands to dignified facilities on the mainland and to safety in other EU countries. The EU’s member states have more than enough wealth and resources to welcome the 600 people who have been evicted from Kara Tepe, plus the 11,000 more trapped in limbo across the Greek islands. In the absence of a coordinated EU approach to relieve this congestion, it’s time for a "coalition of the willing" to press on with immediate, humane solutions.
Finally, rather than locking people away on the fringes of society, Greece should support asylum seekers and refugees to integrate into their new communities. The IRC’s experience shows that when refugees are empowered to take control of their futures, everybody wins - it enhances social cohesion and bolsters the local economy. The EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion provides a promising framework through which to achieve this. If member states, including Greece, implement this effectively it could be transformative for new arrivals and receiving communities alike.
Imogen Sudbery is IRC's director of policy and advocacy in Europe and Georgia Mitsika its area manager for Lesvos.