This article originally appeared on VICE Greece
What you're seeing here, is a picture of something that looks remarkably like a cage holding humans – adults and children. The photo is of a space enclosed by fences, topped with barbed wire, and waiting inside is a group of refugees and immigrants who have just arrived in Greece.
VICE Greece exclusively obtained this picture, which is said to have been taken a few months ago on the Greek island of Chios at Vial, a so-called "hotspot" where refugees are taken in and identified. According to VICE Greece's source, there are two of these constructions on the centre's large, police-guarded premises, and both are used to detain men, women and children right after their arrival on the island.
After Macedonia built a fence at its border with Greece in November 2015, the so-called Balkan route was closed off for refugees, and thousands were subsequently left in limbo in Greece. A few months later, on 18 March 2016, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement – Syrian refugees in Greece would be returned to Turkey, while other EU countries would take in the same number of Syrian asylum seekers currently stuck in Turkey. The deal implied that the EU sees Turkey as a "safe third country" for refugees to be sent back to. European human rights groups and other organisations involved with the refugee crisis called the deal "a dark day for Europe". Sending refugees back is a breach of international law, and as Amnesty International stated, instead of sending refugees back to Turkey, the European Union "should be working with the Greek authorities to urgently transfer asylum-seekers to mainland Greece for their cases to be processed."
Greek authorities cannot know the exact number of refugees currently in the country, as the registration process hasn't yet been completed. But it's estimated that about 30,000 refugees are waiting in camps in awful conditions. With many of the surrounding European countries closing their borders, Greece has been largely left to bear the burden of the refugee crisis alone, which also puts further pressure on the country's struggling economy.
"There are no cages."
VICE Greece reached out to the Reception and Identification Service – which manages the Vial hotspot – to ask about the cage. "Thank you for cross-checking this false piece of information," was the response we got in writing. "There are no cages within the RIS's premises in Chios, nor any other type of construction that could be characterised as such, in any kind of way." Further questions on whether there ever had been cages in the centre didn't get a reply. The Greek Ministry of Migration Policy responded to VICE Greece's questions that there are currently no cages in any centres.
"It looks like a cage, but it's not a cage."
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Citizen Protection, however, did confirm that there's a space in the centre in Vial which looks like – but isn't – a cage. According to the spokesperson, the construction is open and the barbed wire has by now been removed. "This is a fenced-off space used to help us deal with newcomers. It has been placed at the centre of the site and looks out over all the different offices. It's only used for the newcomers' initial inspection by the police and other services. The police perform body searches and search people's belongings, newcomers are provided with water and with health checks by health care professionals if they need it."
"The choice of material was very unfortunate."
The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, confirmed the existence of the structure, and has raised the issue themselves. In a response, the UNHCR's spokesperson wrote: "It is not a prison or a cage. This 'thing' was created in August 2016 by local authorities in an effort to facilitate crowd management as well as the registration process. The choice of the material was very unfortunate, as the structure resembles a cage or a cell. The purpose was not to keep people in custody, but to facilitate their registration. The goal was very different, but unfortunately, they used this material that makes it look like a cage. Our agency took notice of it, and even though we agree with the purpose it serves – which is to help register people efficiently and as quickly as possible – we want this to be done in humanly dignified conditions. As soon as we found out, we raised the issue with the Greek authorities, warning that this process should not be reminiscent of a darker time in history. As a result, the barbed wire was removed two weeks ago – which clearly paints a less threatening picture. Please note that people are not locked up in there, this is just a way to control the queues."
Praxis, an NGO active in the area, confirmed the existence of the structure and noted: "All processes should be structured in such a way that they ensure the preservation of dignity and prevent the violation of human rights."
Adriano Silvestri, who heads the EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights' unit on migration and asylum, commented: "The infrastructure in Vial is not best suited for use as a hotspot. Space is limited and it is not easy to organise the flow of new arrivals. Following a number of security incidents and to separate the new arrivals from the rest, a separate area was created for new arrivals from where they are channeled to first registration. It's important that new arrivals are separated from others at the hotspot, so that they can be properly informed of their rights and duties, properly registered and channeled into the appropriate procedures. However, this can't result in first reception areas that do not provide dignified conditions. If new arrivals feel that they are treated without respect, they will be less likely to cooperate with authorities."
"It's not a cage if there is no roof."
VICE Greece contacted several people in charge of the Vial hotspot. Some of them denied the cage's existence, others claimed it couldn't be called a cage "if there was no roof." Whether there's a roof or not, and even if the barbed wire has been taken down at the time of writing – this picture is more proof that refugees who fled terror in their own country and survived a difficult journey to Europe, still face inhumane conditions and have their dignity taken from them.