The hotspot in Leros is a badly run prison

On Friday, a hotspot was opened in Leros for incoming migrants. What is a hotspot, you might well ask, and there are many possible answers: An identification factory for migrants. A prison. A refugee camp run by the police and military, enclosed in barbed wire. An Empire of Identification. Everyone gets registered here: migrants, workers, NGOs and volunteers. Everything in it is square; the paper forms, the people-containers, the walkways and the wire mesh.

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There are three camps already on Leros, with humane staff, proper facilities, varied activities and open doors. This does not suit the border regime of Europe. For months it has demanded of the Greek government, and twisted its arm relentlessly, so that it finally builds hotspots. And now they’re here, in all their horrifying glory. Shining metal, immaculate concrete, white gravel and rows of square boxes for The Anonymous Unidentified to stay in until they get their papers and can finally have an actual verified existence in the merciless eyes of the European Union. Unless they’re of the wrong nationality, in which case they’ll get no papers, except for a ticket back to Wherever. Getting papers takes three days, but nobody knows how long one has to wait for deportation.

On the day the hotspot opened, no volunteer or NGO was alerted. They just got a random call a good while after the first arrivals, saying that baby milk was needed. Volunteers immediately came over, and there the refugees sat, huddled in blankets on the concrete floor of the camp entrance. That is where newcomers are made to wait while, one after the other, the human beings are digitized and fingerprinted, their bodies are transformed into verifiable, printable, transferable identities.

Phone cells in the entry of the camp, which is closed to inmates, indicating that phone calls will only be made on allowance of the camp authorities.
Phone cells in the entrance of the camp, which is closed to inmates, indicating that phone calls will only be made on allowance of the camp authorities.

The refugees asked if anyone had brought water. It turned out the army had given them a little to drink in plastic cups, but when a few people threw them on the ground, instead of in the garbage can, the army gave them no more.

Talking with refugees was forbidden. “Find out what they need and go,” the men in uniform said. That is how an camp under the police and military operates. The rules are made on the fly by a man in uniform, habitually on a soaring power-trip, maybe even wearing blue-mirror sunglasses in addition to the uniform to underline his privileged anonymity in this dictatorship of identification. Volunteers that try to help here without having registered risk being interrogated about their purpose and threatened with imprisonment. (This is no idle fantasy, it actually happened.) Western volunteers often feel ashamed about their privileges over refugees. Here, the migrant-hating machine of Europe has finally and accidentally created some twisted sort of equality.

The dividing line between registered and unregistered.
The dividing line between registered and unregistered.

What it has not created is a functioning processing facility. The shivering new arrivals on Friday were not received with food or clothes, medicine, information, doctors or legal aid. The reception they got was as cold and stark as the concrete they sat on. The military seems to just expect volunteers to do their bidding, to feed and clothe their prisoners.

And so we did.

This is what volunteering has come to. Shipping meals into prisons so that the Greek military doesn’t have to cook them. And it gets worse. The uniformed masters of the camp have told us that we have to collect the garbage as well.

We can’t be codependent like this. Today we clean up the prison and feed the prisoners, because the military can’t be bothered. What will humanitarian work look like tomorrow?

The mental hospital Lepida, "the guilty secret of Europe", where patients were horribly maltreated, now a detention center for undocumented people.
The mental hospital Lepida, “the guilty secret of Europe”, where patients were horribly maltreated, now a detention center for undocumented people.

We should have been prepared for this. These hotspots have been planned openly and publicly for months. They’re already being used to horrible effect in Italy, where MSF has withdrawn its cooperation due to “unacceptable conditions”. We should take the same stand here. There is a risk that the state will then starve people for a while, but if we fold and allow these hotspots to just carry on with our assistance, things won’t get any better. These places may look like an excel document come to life, a registration form built of concrete, but they are in reality chaotically and incompetently run arbitrary dictatorships of the least compassionate institutions in society. We can’t do humanitarian work there any more than a kitten can play in a rottweiler cage. Compassionate people will be bullied out or coaxed into complicity. We’re already the crutches of a spiteful, savage institution that has no humanitarian purpose. Let’s draw a line and stop our cooperation.

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The hotspot in Leros is a badly run prison

15 thoughts on “The hotspot in Leros is a badly run prison

  1. georgia papadopoulou says:

    you are exaggerating alittle there, but yes it was opened alittle too soon, otherwise the facilites are quite comfortable with hot water in the shower and private rooms for families, hall for food distribution and play room are still to be built…food is provided through a small house.

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  2. Lucio says:

    Great write up Benjamin, so what are you doing about this? did you give the spare room in your home to a migrant family? do you participate in food distribution or donate? You just sitting behind your screen eloquently describing something that the country wasn’t ready for when it happened and so in certain cases spiralled in to chaos? If I was a refugee I wish I was received in such civilised way, provided a place to stay, food, water and yes an identity, instead of being slaughtered in my own country. I don’t understand your point, at all. Go and help those people yourself instead of writing irrelevant articles that do not help the situation, use some of that coffee, lentils and fury you mention in your profile to do something constructive. Or just shut up.

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    1. Thanks for the measured reply. The substance of my argument, which you seem to have misunderstood, is not affected by how much soup I’ve cooked. And yes, I have cooked, sorted and distributed plenty.

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      1. Alexander says:

        I agree with you Lucio.
        But then, we dont know WHO Benhamin really is and whose interests he really serves.He seems to do a lot of travelling both in Turkey and Greecr,even the Syrian border?Does he not have a job? He seems to be aware in detail, and even have photos of the refugee trails, border clearing houses and smuggler houses, when the governments dont?
        I truly wonder if Benhamin is not part of the smuggling ring.He is not giving the whole picture,but a biased one and his only interest seems to be “open the borders”,without any security checks, not help feed these suffering people.

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  3. Gianluca Barbin says:

    Dear Benjamin, I have been volunteering me too in Leros right before the opening of the new hot spot. I did not have the chance to see it running but even if it remembered to me too of a prison I deeply believe that the situation is far more complex than how you describe it. I think an article should be more objective and yours is not at all.

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      1. Alexander says:

        I was recently in Greece. I agree there are far too many people coming in too quickly.But your portrayal of their treatment by Greeks,both the government and volunteers is oth unfair and wrong.I saw the kindness and generosity of the local people first hand,at a time they themselves have financial suffering.
        I also saw that there are some foreign agitators of questionable background and purpose that inflame the already stressful situation,using the suffering refugees for their own political motives or personal financial gain.Provocateurs to be sure….and you can spin it any way you want Benhamin,but that is what I saw with my own eyes.

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  4. Maria Kortianou says:

    From the beginning there was information,medicine, doctor and legal aid and “men in uniforms” are not strict at all!!!Come on!!!

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    1. A volunteer had to ask many of the hotspot staff for help with a sick child, and when they couldn’t find it, got allowance with some conditions to leave the hotspot to see a doctor. Your experience of the staff may have been nice, others was not.

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      1. Alexander says:

        Of course they had to get permission to leave the hot spot.These are not political but economic refugees in the hot spots,held to be sent back,In one case, the Doctors without Borders, fearing for their own safety, pulled out of the hot spot, because the refugees living there destroyed the clinic and the health equipment and medicine.Maybe the child was sick in that hotspot and if so, it was their fault for destroying what was there to help them.
        I know for a fact, despite the huge numbers, Greece has provided them with doctors, food and medicine, a priviledge denied to many impoverished Greeks these days.

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  5. I think this is a really good and much needed perspective on the hotspot. We need this big picture. Yes the facilities are comfortable, and good job too as people can’t leave. And who knows yet how long they will be there for? If we’re putting so much energy on the ground into delivering aid, to protect these people’s humanity then we absolutely have to question the wider project in Europe of curbing and managing the refugee flow. Which hotpots are part of. This isn’t a secret, this was in the EU’s 3 month targets for Greece to secure it’s borders. We can all read it online. The hotspots are about security, not humanity, we have to keep saying this. Nice one Benjamin.

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  6. Alexander says:

    I was recenyly in Greece and saw first hand the refugee situation in bith Chios, a gorgeous little island, and Athens. I can tell you the situation is bad, not because the Greeks are not trying to help, but because of the overehelmingly large numbers coming in too fast,especially at at a time the country is trying to deal with its financial situation which is nearing bankruptsy.They simply dont have the money to cope at thi time and EU has closed its borders, contrary to the treaty of Shengen and they are also not providing adequate funding to look after them, do security checks on them, etc.
    But there are thousands of local Greeks, suffering themseves financially, who bring food,clothes, medicine,even toys for the children,and volunteers to occupy children with art, games etc.Indeed, there are people waiting at the island entry spots who run into the water towards the boats, help refugees to safety and immediatelygive them food snd warm clothes.Doctors without borders are there to help but pulled out whensome refugees at a hot dpot destroyed sll medicsl equipment,broke down the fences and roamed into the town MAKING DEMANDS, when they are guests in the country.Why dont you mention that part?
    I saw refugees in Piraeus, in crowded conditions,but who held up signs thanking Greeks for their kindness.Yet, amid this chaos, there are some refugees who prey on fellow refugees,steal from them,misinform them, try to profit from promissing passage to Germany through Albania, for a lot of money if course.There are also other bad apples among refugees, like in Idomeni where a refugee was caught trying to rape a child behind a tent.We dont know who these people are,we cant just assume they are just fleeing the war,they must be processed, but they refuse to do so ir seek asylum because if they do they will have to remain in Greece as per UN rules. ISIL,OR other extremist groups nay have planted their own people among them.
    I saw a lot of good, local people, the police,the doctors, the army, do a great job with minimal government assistance and with their limited means.I also saw paid foreign NGO’s do the same. BUT I ALSO SAW MANY FOREIGNERS, OF QUESTIONABLE BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE, who basically did nothing but agitate the refugee situation by misinforming them and others. Many were partying at the local clubs or the beach and did not share their food or shelter with the refugees but were first to speak on “their behalf”. In your case,sir, who pays you?Are you so independently wealthy to be able to travel to Greece, Turkey, Syrian border, find and follow the refugees before they enter Greece?Do you even have a job or is this your job? Why dont you notify Turkish or FOREX authorities before they enter Greek waters, advise the refugees not to enter, telling them what to expect, provide them with food, water,clothes etc .If you are close enough to photograph them you can feed them also.I was able to buy and give some food,nobody stopped me,I dont understand why you were stopped as you claim.
    The situation I saw was different than you present here,other than the numbers which we both agree are beyond managing ang it us a keg about to erupt.Who sent you there sir, and for what purpose?If you cared for them as you claim to do, you would report the true human misery and not pass judgement when the only real answer is the end if the wars in Syria and elsewhere and your efforts should be to that end and not insist that borders open to anyone who wants to walk across them just because they can. The EU should open their borders to legitimate political refugees, in an orderly manner, in a way to ensure the security of its own citizens.The non-political ones have to apply and wait in line until and if, they are invited to enter.That is what immigration laws are for.They cant jump the line,unlike asylum seekers.

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  7. Alexander says:

    Maybe an equal effort should be put into mobilizing the citizens of the world,to ask their governments why are they not pushing enough for peace in the middle east, instead if putting the emphasis only on opening borders?What interests are holding them back?The wars the west encouraged is what created this refugee mess.
    Hotspots are indeed about security because thise oeople held thrre are migrants not political refugees,wsiting to be deported. Every country has a right to decide its immigration policy and there are rules about how to immigrate legitimately.North America was built on immigration thst way.
    Refugees fall under a protective category under UN rules so if people apply for asylum they are processed differently.
    But in all cases, political or economic refugees have a right to humane treatment.Greece is doing its best to treat them that way, nobody can deny that.But it also has the right to send them back if they are not real refugees or if tge securuty if its own citizens is found threatened.Greece is s country of 9 million souls and last year over 1million refugees crossed its borders.What more can they do without outside financial help?Even the refugees realuze what dire straits Greece is in or they would ask for asylum there instead of trying to go to Germany etc.

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