‘Invisible People’UK Adopts Greek Approach to New Asylum ‘Reception Centres’
Bea Tridimas reports on the imminent opening of a new type of asylum facility in rural Yorkshire
On the bus from Vathy, the capital city of Samos in Greece, to the mountain top village of Zervou, Zainab (not her real name) watches videos on her phone of the vacated refugee camp she used to live in.
The mass of white tarpaulin tents still stands just 15 minutes’ walk from the centre of Vathy, but its residents have moved on. Many, including Zainab, now live in a new migrant centre near Zervou.
As the bus winds further up the mountain, the houses become fewer and the landscape more barren. Zainab says that she was scared in the old camp, which was infested with snakes and rats. But for her the new centre is no better. She crosses her hands to mimic being cuffed and calls it a prison.
The Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) in Samos is one of five new EU-funded migrant centres being built to replace the makeshift refugee camps on the Greek islands.
The centres have been lauded as potential prototypes for other facilities across Europe, including in the UK, where the first such centre is set to receive 60 people on 31 May.
As part of the Government’s ‘New Plan for Immigration”, Boris Johnson announced in April that people who arrive in the country will be “housed in accommodation centres like those in Greece”.
Opening on Tuesday, Linton Asylum Accommodation is the first new asylum reception facility in the UK. It is located in a re-purposed RAF base in Linton-on-Ouse, a rural village 10 miles outside York, and could accommodate up to 1,500 men while their asylum claims are being processed.
Home Office officials are reported to have said at a Linton-on-Ouse Parish Council meeting that the ‘Greek-style’ of the centre refers to the speed of processing. The Home Office confirmed that residents are expected to be at Linton for about six months.
Suspicion that the Government was planning to introduce Greek-style asylum reception centres arose last summer, after Home Secretary Priti Patel visited the Samos CCAC.
Manos Logothetis, general secretary of reception of asylum seekers for the Greek Ministry of Migration, says that the closed centres on the islands help to speed up the asylum procedure.
“It is a regulated environment and I can easily have access to you and your case, which is helpful, and of course it is safer for everyone,” he told Byline Times. “We spent a lot of time when we developed this new approach to the camps to fill in all the gaps and not have cracks in the system… That’s why [the British] asked for our approach on how you build camps.”
He says that the UK is interested in knowing more about security in the centre – from how to separate men, women and unaccompanied minors; to knowing how many schools there should be; or whether there needs to be an ATM on site.
According to the Home Office, the Linton site has been designed to minimise the need to leave the site. It will have recreational, sports, worship and medical facilities and a shop, in addition to providing residents with full-board accommodation and three meals a day.
However, there are grounds for scepticism.
“An asylum process is not speeded up by the type of centre somebody is put in,” according to Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “An asylum procedure becomes more efficient and possibly fairer if resources are invested in the asylum procedure itself.”
She says that the Greek system on the islands has become “a situation where people have been stuck in limbo in appalling conditions, which are inadequate in every sense”.
“It’s not a model to aspire to,” she adds.
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Trapped Through Isolation
Since its inauguration in September, the CCAC on Samos has been criticised by NGOs for its isolation. It has been likened to a prison.
Located on a mountain about four miles from the island’s main town, the Zervou centre is surrounded by military-style fencing. At the entrance, residents are searched and have to provide fingerprint identification.
“It’s like a jail,” says 18-year-old Abdi (not his real name), who arrived at Zervou in November. “I play football inside sometimes, and we have the container, nothing else.”
In response, Greek Ministry of Migration’s Manos Logothetis says: “There is no prison that is open. They are free to come in and go out every day, so this is not a prison.”
In December, rights groups reported that residents of the Zervou centre without valid asylum seekers’ ID cards were unable to leave or re-enter the centre. Logothetis confirms that residents without ID cards are unable to re-enter the centre if they choose to leave, but they are able to leave.
The Home Office says that residents of the Linton centre will be free to come and go, but are expected to stay on site overnight.
Linton-on-Ouse locals have highlighted the remoteness of the village, among other concerns about its suitability for an asylum reception centre.
“They are truly being dumped in the middle of nowhere with no access to social amenities, cultural amenities, fitness facilities, education,” says Kelly Kirby, a member of a local action group campaigning against the centre. “There are no lawyers. There are no translators. This is very much rural North Yorkshire.”
The village has a small shop, a primary school and pub, and a bus that goes to York four times a day. The Home Office says that there will be a shuttle bus to York for residents of the asylum reception centre.
“The Greek centres, which have basically become places of indefinite limbo for people, seem to have as their sole effective purpose the aim of deterring other people and that clearly is the [UK] Government’s intention,” says Steve Symonds, refugee and migrant rights programme director at Amnesty International UK, “including the idea of opening up what it refers to as accommodation centres, but which appear to be designed to be so isolated, so unwelcoming as to look for all intents and purposes, like detention centres.”
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles is similarly concerned that the Government’s wider plans, which are centred on a controversial scheme for offshore processing in Rwanda, focus on removal – which “inevitably leads to detention”, says Woollard.
“I think we should see the creation of these new centres as a continuation of the over-reliance on futile ideas of detention and deportation in the UK asylum system,” she adds.
The Home Office denies that asylum seekers will be detained at Linton, but leader of the Parish Council, Marc Goddard, says he was told by officials that, in the future, there may be a proportion of residents at the Linton site that are detained.
Kevin Hollinrake, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, told Byline Times: “There should be a strict policy if people break the rules of the site or transgress in any way, even minor transgressions, they should be immediately removed from the site and sent to Rwanda to serve as a deterrent.”
The Home Office says the New Plan for Immigration will “fix the UK’s asylum system” while “deterring illegal entry to the UK”.
In February, Cecilia Sanfelici, Aegean advocacy coordinator at NGO Europe Must Act, said that she expected to see a greater reliance on these sort camps, across Europe: “You can see across Europe this tendency of closing people in camps, making sure these camps are really far from towns and cities, like you are invisible.”
Despite leaving the EU, the UK certainly appears to be following this trend.