On Monday, 14 December 2020, several residents of the refugee camp of Katsikas were subjected to forceful evictions from the camp by the police. Authorities used violent measures including teargas; the escalation of tensions culminated in the arrest of at least two persons. Eye-witnesses reported the sound of shots – caused either by rubber bullets being fired or sound bombs being set off within the camp – both by the police. This article is based on the reports of camp residents who witnessed the events.
The Katsikas Eviction on 14 December
In the morning of 14 December, riot police surrounded the refugee camp of Katsikas. Eye-witnesses confirmed that the riot police had been present from as early as 6 AM without clear reason, as there had been no incident which would have required their presence.
The reason for the police presence, however, became clear around 10 AM. The police began evicting people from their containers on the grounds that they no longer had the right to reside in the camp, or moving people into different containers. They simultaneously informed others that new arrivals to the camp* would be moved into their caravan; it remains unclear whether new arrivals had been tested for Covid-19 prior to being moved into caravans where others were already living. In cases where residents were not in their containers, the police forced entry, dragged personal items outside and changed the locks.
There were instances in which people refused to leave their container or objected to sharing the already limited space of a container with even more people; in these cases, the police entered by force and physically removed people and belongings from the containers. One man – a husband and father of 4 children – refused to have an additional 3 strangers moving into the container in which the family of 6 lives. Eye-witnesses confirmed that the police used physical violence to force him down to the ground. According to the reports of the eye-witnesses, he was beaten with batons, pinned to the ground with a knee at his neck and later arrested. His wife, his children and several neighbours witnessed the entire scene. Other camp residents who were trying to intervene in the general eviction processes, and one doctor working in the camp who expressed his disagreement with the methods, were pushed back by the police, who proceeded to use tear gas and sound bombs inside the camp. Those evicted from the camp have not been given clear guidance on where to find shelter.
What led to this incident?
To understand the context and why this happened, one needs to know that a substantial proportion of asylum seekers and refugees in Greece is forced to live in isolated refugee camps in often dire conditions. In Katsikas camp, as in many other camps, the residents stay in containers which they share with up to 8 other persons – these being family members or complete strangers. This solution for accommodation is, as such, highly questionable in a country in which empty buildings are available in abundance, let alone on a continent that can be considered one of the most powerful and wealthy regions in the world today.
Within the current asylum system, people usually have to wait for one or two years in these conditions before a decision about their asylum claim is made. Once they receive a positive decision, they are given a grace period of only four weeks to leave their spaces in the containers and find their own accommodation. In practice, this confronts people with the impossible task of having to act like integrated members of the host society, while in reality no integration pathways have been made available to them. The language barrier and the financial situation are obstacles that most cannot overcome; these barriers are exacerbated in the current situation of being in a nationwide lockdown brought on in response to a global pandemic. At the same time, the continuous arrival of men, women and children on the Greek islands drives the authorities to apply more pressure on a faulty system. People who are being brought* to the camp of Katsikas have been put up in a large tent, which is exposed to steadily dropping temperatures and heavy rains, until space is made for them in a camp that is already at capacity. Instead of forcing people into tents or onto the streets, the authorities – and all of us – need to question the approach of hosting tens of thousands of people in these isolated ghettos and unacceptable conditions in the first place.
In the refugee camp of Katsikas, refugees who got a positive decision in their asylum case had been informed about the end of their grace period in the containers several weeks ago. However, given the impossibility of finding alternatives during a nationwide lockdown and the corona pandemic, they saw no other option than to stay in their caravans, even though this meant they would lose the financial support by the Greek government immediately.
Desperation among camp residents – More evictions before the end of 2020
The complete lack of viable alternatives to survive outside the camp is creating increasing desperation among the residents of the camp. At least one individual who is among those evicted on Monday, 14 December, is known to struggle with mental health issues, and now finds himself in a situation of having to find alternate accommodation in the midst of a national lockdown, without access to the support he needs. Since Monday, there have been two cases of severe self harm among the camp residents. These reactions are illustrative of the emotional and mental toll this situation has – it can be regarded as a consequence of the fatigue brought on by this indefinite situation, of the unexpected and aggressive police intervention as well as of the anxiety created by the question of where to go in the middle of winter, in the middle of a nationwide lockdown and a global pandemic without understanding the local language and without sufficient financial resources. How do we expect people to respond to this disastrous situation they are forced into? The people who are controlled with tear gas and forced out of the camp have in many cases suffered war, conflict and/or poverty. How do we expect a generation to grow up to healthy, independent human beings if this is the way they are met in a place in which they search for protection?
A total of eight families and/or individuals were evicted in the intervention which took place on Monday 14 December. Until the end of 2020, 49 more families and 30 single people are expected to leave the camp. Now, where are they supposed to go? The only point of reference that is given to support them is the Helios program, which is supposedly assisting people in finding accommodation. But there is by far no sufficient orientation provided on how to access this support. It is believed that an additional 150 people will be brought to the camp of Katsikas* in the near future. Already today, a first group of new arrivals has been brought to Katsikas – while all employees of social organisations or the state have been requested to leave the camp. The decision to remove the objective, third parties from the scene is concerning and highly questionable.
We urge the Greek authorities to stop evicting people in the middle of winter and in times of a national lockdown. Moreover we urge the Greek authorities to stop transferring people into camps that are already on capacity and to instead provide more dignified accommodation that ensures people’s safety in times of corona. We urge the European governments to support Greece in providing dignified, sustainable solutions for people who come to Europe in search of freedom and safety, instead of using Greece as a barrier that shields them from the need to assume responsibility.
*There has been differing information as to where the people are being transferred from. The first version of this article mentioned that people are being brought from Lesbos, but several voices have mentioned other locations since then. We have therefore adapted the article on 17 December 2020.