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This week Saad Nabhan enjoyed his first hot shower in two years.
The Syrian asylum seeker was among the first to arrive at a new EU-funded facility that opened on the Greek island of Samos this week in a bid to improve the desperate living conditions facing many migrants .
Since arriving from Turkey last year, Nabhan had been stuck in a filthy camp near the port that locals call “the jungle,” sleeping in a tent without a bed and washing himself with buckets of cold water.
“Now we have air conditioning, a kitchen and a bathroom. I feel like a human again, ”said the 55-year-old skilled accountant who worked in the Syrian finance ministry before his house was destroyed during the civil war. “It was the first time in two years that I felt like I was sleeping at home.”
Samos camp is the first of five centers in Greece with a total cost of 276 million euros built to accommodate asylum seekers entering Europe via the Aegean Sea – one of the most popular migration routes to the continent from Asia and the Middle East via Turkey.
It offers vastly improved facilities from the sprawling, informal old camp where Nabhan and hundreds of others lived until this week. Unsanitary and in recent years often overcrowded, it did not even provide basic amenities such as a toilet and was overrun with rats, said Manos Logothetis of the Greek Migration and Asylum Ministry.
Escorting reporters around the new facility this week, he was visibly proud of its comfy beds, bathrooms and showers with hot running water, lockers for storage, and free Wi-Fi. A new basketball court is short of players and a football field is under construction.
Non-governmental organizations have raised concerns about the barbed wire fences and surveillance cameras that give the camp the look and feel of a low-security prison. Residents have their fingerprints taken and must present identification cards to enter the facility through locked doors from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Logothetis defended improving security. “We need to know who is who, where each person resides in the camp, what their profile is, when their next interview will take place and at what stage they are with their papers,” he explained.
Logothetis is no stranger to the needs of asylum seekers from Samos: before his government post, he was for four years the only doctor in the former camp.
His concern is that the strength of the new camp will not exceed its capacity of 3,000. The fear is that a sharp increase in the number of migrants could lead to a repeat of 2015, when an increase in arrivals from Syria and Elsewhere Greece has exceeded its capacity to manage them.
“We hope that we don’t have as many residents and that we will again be forced to do what we did in 2015, when the flow of migrants was so great that we didn’t care about the law. [Then] we would just give people a tent and say ‘stay where you want’, ”Logothetis said.
His fears are not unreasonable given that the former camp, designed to house 680 people, was home to around 9,000 at one time, more than the population of nearby Vathy, the island’s capital.
Not everyone is in love with the new Samos facility. Giulia Cicoli of the Still I Rise advocacy group, who came to the island five years ago to help migrants, said the new facilities were the bare minimum and should not be seen as an achievement.
“What they had before was criminal. The dignity of a human being has been taken away. The living conditions were a violation of all human rights, ”she said.
For now, the new center is sparsely populated. Most of the island’s asylum seekers have been taken to the mainland and new arrivals have declined sharply since the start of the pandemic. A total of 10,545 asylum seekers entered Samos in the first eight months of 2019; the figure for the same period this year is 111.
In Vathy, residents were overwhelmingly supportive of the new facility.
“The move to the new camp will be good not only for the asylum seekers, but also for us, the residents,” said store owner Alexandros Giokarinis. “They will be protected from cold winters and live in better conditions and we will not be afraid to walk the streets at night. The city will be cleaner and quieter.
The six-member Ghadiri family from Afghanistan this week moved from the old camp to a two-bedroom container house with its own kitchen and bathroom.
Yet while they agree that this is a huge improvement, what they really want are the papers that will allow them to start a new life; the family’s asylum application was rejected three times.
“I want my identity card, I want my husband to start working, I want a house here in Greece and I want my children to go to school,” said Nadia Ghadiri, 39, the youngest of whom son was born in Samos.
For 23-year-old Iraq-born Hamad, who spent three years sleeping in a tent, this week’s move was a bittersweet moment.
“When you see something like that, it makes you sadder,” he said, looking out the window as the bus that carried him to the facility climbed up a large road, offering stunning views of the waters. light blue around Samos.
“I know we are going to a better camp. . . but you want to live, you want to work and you want to help your family back home. Here I have lost my power and I am afraid I will forget who I am.