Ahmed fled Syria only to end up in the Malakasa refugee camp, where more than 1,000 people are being denied basic human rights.
When Ahmed landed in darkness on the Greek island of Lesbos he was convinced that the road ahead could not be as hard as the one he had just travelled.
But, instead of the volunteers and blankets that have met hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers before him, he was greeted by a jeering crowd of locals and had to be rescued by police. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had,” he said. “I felt that my dream of Greece was a false one.”
Ahmed was among the more than 2,000 refugees who have arrived in Greece since the beginning of March, when the country suspended all access to asylum.
Their experiences, from seeing their children drowned at sea to being attacked by angry islanders, separated from family and dumped in remote detention camps, offer a month-long, nightmarish vision of what Europe would look like with no asylum rights.
Greece shut off access after Turkey opened its borders in February and encouraged refugees to cross in a bid to pressure the European Union for more aid money in support of its military involvement against Russia and the Assad regime over the Syrian enclave of Idlib.
Born in Syria’s capital, Damascus, Ahmed fled his home to escape military service with the regime. The 30-year-old told his story from inside the Malakasa detention camp in central Greece.
He spent the past four years in Turkey, where he met and married his wife, Hanin. Their precarious life and their wedding were documented in a Guardian photo essay last year.
But the couple were unable to make ends meet and Hanin, by now pregnant, made the journey by dinghy to Lesbos six months ago, with Ahmed promising to follow. She arrived safely and gave birth to their daughter, who is now two months old. Ahmed has yet to meet his child.
His first week on Lesbos was spent camping in a fenced-off area of the port city of Mytilene before he was shipped off, along with 450 other new arrivals, on a Greek navy vessel.
Amelia Cooper, a case worker at the Lesbos Legal Centre who spoke to some of those detained at the port, said: “The suspension of the right to seek asylum was followed by deliberate attempts to isolate new arrivals and prevent their access to lawyers, journalists and members of the European parliament.”
In the middle of last month, Greek authorities began work on two sites, one in Malakasa, where 1,340 people have been sent, and another near the border with Bulgaria in Serres, which is housing 600 people. A video of Malakasa shows white tents behind a chainlink fence topped with razor wire. A Greek contractor who posted the video on 28 March, with construction work still going on, acts as narrator: “The money is flowing. These illegal strays are good business.”
“These sites are fundamentally different,” said Belkis Wille from Human Rights Watch. “They are open-air prisons, filled with people who have been denied their basic rights and are being held as de facto detainees without any legal framework.”
Most people in Malakasa and Serres are thought to be holding a deportation order from the Greek police. Refugees say they were forced to sign this Greek-language document despite being unable to read it. Under European law everyone is entitled to an individual assessment of their claim for protection but these documents declare that the accused must be deported for illegally entering Greece.
For the past four years, the larger flow of people across the eastern Aegean has been reduced by an arrangement between the EU and Ankara that saw Turkey get €6bn in aid in return for restricting crossings. Under this deal, Greece has returned 2,000 new arrivals. Since early March, Turkey has stated that even this deal is dead.
Ahmed said the uncertainty of the situation was unbearable: “I lived through four years of war in Syria. This month is worse than those four years: can you imagine?”
Conditions at the Serres site, where tents are packed tightly together behind fences on a dry riverbed, are even worse than at Malakasa. Detainees say they have no electricity to even charge a phone. The Serres police union said in a statement that the site was “totally unsuitable”.
Spyros Leonidas, mayor of the nearest village, Promaxonas, said the camp was “unfit for animals, let alone people”. “There are newborns and pregnant women among the people. And there is no hot water,” he said.
The fate of those in detention remains unclear.
The Greek government has said that the suspension of asylum will be lifted , and the EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said last week she had received assurances that those who arrived in March would be able to apply for asylum.
However, Greece’s migration and asylum minister, Notis Mitarakis, subsequently said that people who had been issued with deportation orders would not be granted an asylum process.
None of the detainees reached by the Observer had been notified of any change in their access to asylum. The Greek asylum service is closed until 10 April 10 because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Vassilis Papadopoulos, a lawyer and former senior official at the migration ministry under the previous government, said that Ahmed and the other detainees were “being made an example of” to show there was a tough new policy.
“What happened in March brought the numbers [of crossings] down so they’re going to keep doing it, even if they say something different,” he added.