We are not guilty criminals. We are human.

In 2019, Mehdi left his family behind and was forced to flee to Greece to seek asylum. At 20-years-old, he left the closest thing to home he knew in Iran, unable to return to his homeland Afghanistan. Mehdi had no choice but to make the journey through Turkey and get on a dinghy to reach Europe, where he could finally seek safety. 

Mehdi arrived on the island of Samos via the Aegean Sea route. He described his first days on Samos with immense sadness:

"...they did not give us food or water for two/three days even though month old babies were with us. They held us in a jail cell with no blankets or carpets – we would just sleep on the floor.”

Once the police registered and released him, feeling lost and confused, 20-year-old Mehdi was assisted by a group of refugees to arrive at Vathy camp - a shanty town of makeshift huts and tents lining the hills behind Vathy town. In the ‘jungles’ of the camp, surrounded by sewer water, uncollected garbage, rats and snakes, Mehdi set up his tent, unaware that this would be his ‘home’ for the next two years.

After eight months, living in deplorable conditions, Mehdi received his asylum seeker card. Then he waited another eight months to receive an interview date which was scheduled for the following year. “I gave the [asylum] interview, after 8 months I received a rejection.” 

Shortly after his case was rejected, Mehdi re-applied for asylum and received a new interview date, but this time he was not asked about his country of origin, Afghanistan, he was questioned on whether he would be safe in Turkey. 

“For two years I lived in Samos, then they gave me an interview on Turkey. They already took my case from Afghanistan and rejected me, then forced me to be interviewed on Turkey, and I was rejected again...”

Simultaneously, at this time the Vathy camp was being shut down, and Mehdi along with all other camp residents were transferred into a new camp structure called ‘Closed Controlled Access Centre’ (CCAC). These new structures reinforce Greek and EU policies of containment and exclusion and, for many asylum seekers in Greece, feel like a prison.

In 2022, located in the crooks of the barren hills of Samos Island, isolated 8 kilometres from the main town of Vathy, Mehdi, along with almost 800 asylum seekers are contained by barbed wire and monitored by 24/7 security.  

Feeling trapped, Mehdi explained,

“You can only enter or exit between 8AM and 8PM. Then when you arrive at the camp doors, one-by-one they let the refugees inside. There is the checkpoint and they check even your phone, wallet, pockets, even the small pockets of your clothes they search. Then when you want to go inside you have to pass three or four doors with fingerprints.” 

“We are not prisoners,” he says. “We came here because of the situation in our country...” 

His experiences as an asylum seeker on Samos have led Medhi to believe that there is a dire need to reform the asylum system - including the Greek law that labels Turkey a safe country for asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria. “I gave the interview on my country and then they ask me about my way in Turkey, that’s really ’ironic’ in my opinion,” he explains.

Secondly, Mehdi believes the limitations on freedom of movement must be addressed and people should be able to freely leave the camp.

Thirdly, he said there needs to be more care and space provided for children. “For children, at their age, the situation is very difficult.”

After two years enduring degrading living conditions, Mehdi described the psychological toll taken by exclusion and isolation on Samos, explaining how containment in the new camp is deteriorating his and other refugees' mental health.

“Everyone is inside their container, nobody comes outside, everyone is depressed and sick in some way - from loneliness, from their legal situation or status, and other problems they have in their lives. Somali, African, Afghan, Arab - it doesn’t make a difference, we are all in the same situation.” 

The focus on walls rather than welcome has contributed to immense feelings of hopelessness and despair among asylum seekers trapped on the Greek islands. Between April 2021 and March 2022, the IRC’s mental health team on Samos recorded that 92% of those supported had anxiety-related symptoms, while 89% expressed depression-related symptoms. An alarming 50% of refugees and asylum seekers supported during this time frame on Samos had considered suicide.

Mehdi wished to seek consistent mental health support, but he noted that the shrinking number of humanitarian organisations on the island due to the decreasing refugee population meant access to psychological support was now even more limited on Samos. 

Feeling abandoned by the asylum system, Mehdi did not re-apply for asylum again. Nevertheless, due to the shift in power in Afghanistan and deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country, he was offered a new interview to assess his eligibility for protection based on his experiences and risks he faces in Afghanistan. This claim for protection was accepted within two months.

After almost three years of constant insecurity and fear, trapped in the jungles of Vathy camp and the prison-like CCAC, Mehdi received refugee status - his dire need for international protection was finally recognised.

Yet, receiving international protection did not give Mehdi a sense of newfound hope. 

“In the last two or three years, the problems I had before I came here, they really influenced my mental health. Up to 80 or 90% of the time, I have no hope for the future.” 

Mehdi noted that for almost three years in Samos, he had no access to language courses - neither English nor Greek. He had no opportunity to continue his higher education, and he was unable to work or refine his skills, which leaves him lost as to how to integrate into Greek society now that he has his refugee status.

“My future is unknown. It’s uncertain.”

Despite the difficult experiences Mehdi has had to endure, he continues to believe in a future of equality and respect for refugee rights in Europe and across the world.

“...My underlining message is to the government...we refugees are not guilty criminals - we are human, we came here with hope. We fled our own countries, we became hopeless, we were beaten up because of war, poverty, because of the conditions we had. Otherwise, nobody would leave their home. We were forced to come here, nowhere will ever become our home. So please, be human too and treat us a little better, that’s it.”

IRC Hellas is the International Rescue Committee's presence in Greece, working to help people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster, to survive, recover and gain control of their future. Read more about our work in Greece.