Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Closed. Confining. Torturing? The Construction of Torturing Environments in Samos’ Hotspot Camps


Time to read

8 Minutes


Julia Manek
Gemma Bird
Andrea Galán

Guest post by Julia Manek, Gemma Bird and Andrea Galán. Julia is a researcher in psychology and human geography at Goethe-University Frankfurt. Her research on carceral geographies is linked to human rights work, e.g. with the Grupo Acción Comunitaria (GAC) and the Grupo Impulsor Contra la Detención Migratoria y la Tortura (GIDMT). Gemma is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Liverpool and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen. Her research focuses on migration and humanitarianism. Andrea is a psychologist at the Sira Center - Attention Center for Victims of Ill-treatment and Torture in Madrid. She is responsible for the research area of the Grupo Acción Comunitaria (GAC) with a focus on the impacts of trauma and torturing environments. This is the eighth post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'The Changing Landscapes of Immigration Detention' organised by Ana Ballesteros-Pena and Cristina Fernández-Bessa.

a fenced detention camp
Samos’ “new” Closed and Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) [photo: Julia Manek]

Entanglements of care and control

This contribution focuses on one of the five ‘hotspots’ in the Aegean islands, suggesting that approaches to encampment on the island of Samos are exemplary of the EU’s border regime. We analyse how (I) discourses of “care” have been crucial for the rhetorical legitimation of the construction of new and remote confinement sites, while (II) when implemented into practice, “care” was turned into a systematization of harmful uncare. We further argue that these practices do not meet the needs of those people crossing EU borders to seek safety and asylum, but in fact, in many cases, make them more vulnerable.

The reception conditions faced by people arriving on Samos, a small island only a mile from the Turkish coast, have been criticised for many years. The Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) had been criticised for its impoverished conditions unsuitable both for the extreme heat of the summer and the freezing temperatures of the winter. In September 2021 the old camp was closed and the new Multi- Purpose Reception and Identification Centre (MPRIC), a closed and controlled structure in the remote Zervou area of the island, was inaugurated. The MPRIC promised a safe environment with improved humanitarian conditions, together with medical care, psychological care, access to education spaces and autonomy to cook and dine with access to a vastly improved standard of food provision.

The “old camp”: Vathy’s RIC as a Torturing Environment

Before September 2021, thousands of displaced people resided in the RIC on the hillside just above the city of Vathy, waiting for their asylum cases to be resolved. At its most overcrowded, over 8000 people were housed in a space built to house around 650. Following the signing of the EU-Turkey deal in 2016 the island became part of a system of containment where people remained stuck for many years. Although people could move around in the city of Vathy, and some found employment elsewhere on the island, or volunteered with NGOs, they were for the most part stuck in the openly dehumanizing camp conditions, either in the main camp’s containers or in the informal structures outside of the formal area of the camp”, which had emerged due to massive and continual overpopulation.

a series of containers in a mountain area
Samos’ old RIC [photo: Julia Manek]

Living in the old camp lacked care systems and lead to severe physical and mental health crises in the camp’s population. The RIC in fact made people more vulnerable and put them at greater risk than they would otherwise have been. This space could be defined as a  torturing environment, that meets the legal definition of torture according to the UN’s Convention Against Torture (CAT).

A torturing environment emerges when the cumulative effect of a combination of techniques comes together, that, if used alone would not produce the same effects on the integrity of the person. This includes attacks on basic human functions (poor nutrition, poor access to water or chronic sleep deprivation), attacks on the perception of control (absence of rules, misinformation, impediment of access to rights), attacks on security (overcrowding, thefts or aggressions) as well as attacks on the dignity of individuals (not being listened to, considering that conditions are not acceptable for a human being, not feeling that their cultural values are respected, etc.). Another factor consists of attacks to the need to belong, which includes e.g., preventing communication with loved ones, situations of discrimination or violence based on the group to which they belong, etc. These experiences generate feelings of helplessness, fear or anguish associated with severe physical and psychological suffering. The concept of the torturing environment challenges the assumption that the concept of torture is anchored to the production of extreme physical pain. Instead, torturing environments might cause (exclusively) severe psychological suffering, that is either intentionally produced, or due to direct State responsibility for the existence of those conditions.

Assemblage of countermapping by residents of the RIC
Assemblage of countermapping by residents of the RIC (Manek,2022; initial map conception by Jaffrézic, 2021)

The research on Torturing Environments in the context of migration, points out the production of severely harmful spaces that displaced people are exposed to all over the world. They emerge in prison and confinement camps, in the “estaciones migratorias” of Mexico and in “Moria” on Lesvos. Similar conditions prevailed in Samos RIC. Residents reported severe psychological constraints, physical suffering due to camp conditions, as portrayed by the countermapping of a former camp resident. It indicates the feelings of unsafety, due to the production of fear and pain, with police violence and fights occurring in the ‘jungle’ (the area outside the camps fences relying on informal shelters and tents that formed as the camp became overcrowded), with the impossibility of sleep, the hindering of defecation due to unhygienic conditions and general inhuman conditions, including the lack of water and lacking or expired food.

In response to these terrible conditions, in 2021 EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson talked about the importance of ensuring safety and security in the new structures that were being built across the Aegean. She argued that (a) “[the camps] will not be closed, they will be humane, and allow for areas for families and vulnerable people” and (b) “this is about people and their basic right to feel safe.”

In advance of the opening of the first of these new centres on Samos many people either received permission to move on to the mainland, or at the very least were not prevented from doing so, so as to reduce the number of people being moved to the new camp. When the move took place, around 400 people remained on the island who were afraid to be locked up in the camp without anyone seeing it, given the remoteness of the camp and the confusing information (Author research notes 2021). A number of protests occurred as the misinformation and rumour sparked fear in people waiting for the move to take place.

The location of the camp is very isolated and the purpose is we don’t see anyone and no one sees us. At any moment they can just close the doors and then you’re detached from the world.

MPRIC? CCAC? Torturing Environment? From ‘open access’ to confinement camps

On the day the MPRIC opened many were surprised that the structure was titled “CCAC”: Closed and Controlled Access Centre. In the following months, testimonies of residents living there that were published in human rights reports in 2021 and 2022 illustrate the harmful environment of the new CACC. A resident stressed that the camp was ‘prison-like’.

It scares you. It’s like a prison, with all the fences. I fled from suffering to come here to a prison.

People who had lived in both camps highlighted the differences. Many describe it as a well-planned and well-finished environment, but in the collection of testimonies for reports of the Samos Advocacy Collective, interviewees unanimously emphasized a carceral turn: the camp being like a prison, with all implications and a causal relationship with the emergence of psychological distrain.

It’s not a space where human beings can live, it traumatizes them. I’m not comfortable. All I want is to be free and leave.

“I don't feel safe in the camp at any time. When I'm already in the camp it's stress, it's depression, it's stress that starts.”

While the living conditions of the new camp may have improved- although there have been structural issues - the space itself continues to do harm. Placing people under restrictions such as curfews, checking their bags on entry and requiring them to pass through security measures, criminalises and others. It treats people not as in need of welcome and support as they flee war and persecution, but rather with suspicion.

The promise of freedom and functionality is hindered, either by direct interventions by staff, with some reporting being asked:

"Why are you cooking? We give you food here. You are not supposed to cook.”

Other forms of dysfunctionality of infrastructure consists of air conditioning and water shortages, or the absence of keys to lock a container, to have privacy and store personal belongings safely. People also feel they have limited information about their case:

“It’s difficult to have people in the camp who inform you about your rights, and who teach you about the [asylum] procedure. We are always trying to look for information about how to do things, it’s to have a minimum knowledge, but the majority of people ignore completely. I didn’t know anything.”

The security complex does not reassure: the presence of barbed wire, police, security and cameras in fact, some people state, makes them feel less safe. There are also reports of aggression from security forces, with one person saying, “the camp is very unsafe, [and] the police people, they are so aggressive.”

Police violence perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect produces fear or pain and targets people’s sense of control, or passively creates harm via omission: people report excessive body checks at the entrance gates, threats of violence and detention, as well as physical aggression and arbitrary detention.

Residents report a veritable system of [un]care, consisting mainly of omission and the hindering of access to health care in cases of chronic diseases such as asthma or coronary heart disease.

“If someone is really sick, he’s going to die. Nothing will prevent him from dying... We said everything that was not going well, the baby is coughing, I have medical problems and I asked to be referred to the hospital. They said not.”

In the case of a psychological crisis, psychological support is severely limited and NGOs are often relied upon to fill the gaps in state provision. “Sickness does not wait”, said an interviewee. The lack of physical and mental health care harms. In the CACC, residents feel confined. This subjectivation is at the heart of their suffering.

The need for alternative approaches to (un)care policies

The overall strategical contradictions of care and uncare in theory vs. practice in the highly securitized environment echo feminist concerns that the conceptualization of security politics fundamentally concerns states’ security and not humans’ safety or well-being. The camp is a securitised power structure premised on underpinning logics of marginalisation, othering and racial capitalism where the security actors contain and confine populations that are deemed surplus, constructed as unwanted. In the context of immigration detention and confinement, necropolitical uncare kills by creating postcolonial deathworlds that exclude people on the move from the biopolitical realm of life. Necropolitical scenarios appear not only in camp spaces but along migration routes, where  violence and torture continues to exist in transit. Recent examples close to the European borders such as the acts of deadly uncare occurred in the police massacre against migrants in Melilla – where ambulances rather removed dead bodies instead of transporting hurt people to hospitals.

Instead of torturing environments and systems of uncare, feminist and decolonial theory and practice long for cultures of care that go across fences and borders as they aim at human dignity and freedom of movement. Yet these securitised spaces are not accidents. They are purposeful policy decisions intended to curtail and confine. In doing so they perpetrate harm and fail in building communities and support networks. What is required instead are the conditions in which care can in fact be developed and delivered, encampment, will never, and can never, provide this environment.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

J. Manek, G. Bird and A. Galán. (2023) Closed. Confining. Torturing? The Construction of Torturing Environments in Samos’ Hotspot Camps. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/03/closed-confining-torturing-construction-torturing. Accessed on: 13/06/2024

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