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Portrait of a Greek refugee camp

Refugee camps are neither all milk and honey nor are they all misery and suffering. To find a way forward, we must first understand where we are.

Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.

The camp is in an abandoned school building on the edge of a small village in northern Greece, around 15 minutes from the Albanian border. The school sits atop a plateau, with pocketed fields of green stretching out and away from it until they reach a jagged row of snow-topped mountains in the distance.

The camp is guarded by a small crew of soldiers. Refugees are free to enter and leave as they please, but, somewhat ironically, everyone else must show ID to get in. Beyond the guardhouse is a courtyard, and beyond the courtyard, the dilapidated school building itself. The building, built around a large, square foyer, is at least 60 years old. NGO offices occupy a short corridor to the left of the entrance, while a doorway to the right opens onto a large sports hall with scratched floors and broken lights. From the far corners of the foyer, two large corridors lead off to a row of classrooms behind.

Smaller families, couples, and single men sleep in converted offices, cloakrooms or cupboards.

Every family occupies a converted classroom. Smaller families, couples, and single men sleep in converted offices, cloakrooms or cupboards – rooms with just enough space for a mat or mattress. Heavy grey blankets are draped over the doors, and welcome mats adorn the floor. The UNHCR logo is everywhere. Shoes must be removed before entering the house; it is possible to tell who has visitors by the collection of shoes and boots outside the door. Large, creaking pipes run along the low ceilings, leaking at regular intervals. Puddles form on the floor. 

Very few of the classrooms have running water. There are two dingy toilet blocks, one in each corridor. They are both mixed, with sinks for washing up, showers and toilets – a ceramic hole in the ground with space to squat. The urinals are unused, as they are opposite the sinks used for washing dishes – a task undertaken almost exclusively by women.

The ‘houses’ vary in size and shape. Most families sleep on mats on the floor. Bunkbeds provided by NGOs are used as cupboards. Some have beds, some have mattresses. In larger family rooms, sheets are hung from the ceiling to divide sleeping compartments. Wires hang down from the walls, chopped, tied together, and haphazardly sealed with insulating tape. Most rooms have some kind of electric heater; those that don’t use insulating bricks with salvaged spiral elements that glow orange when hot.

All families have access to cooking facilities, with one cooker or gas ring for each extended family. Black plastic takeaway boxes, filled with chicken thigh and rice, are distributed twice daily. Most families recycle the pre-prepared food, using their considerable expertise to turn it into stew, soup or curry. Some feed it to the dogs that roam the wasteland outside the camp – the black cartons litter the ground. As well as the takeaway boxes, food (flour, bread, rice) and other essential items such as toothpaste, toilet roll and tampons are distributed on a weekly basis.

Meals are eaten on the floor, around a tarpaulin mat that functions as a kind of picnic blanket. Pans are placed on the mat, typically alongside small plates of diced tomato, cucumber and lemon. Thin, flat bread is used to scoop food from the main pan. After a meal, and at regular intervals throughout the day, sugary tea is served by the glass.

Tasks are divided along conventional gender lines; women are responsible for cooking, cleaning and childcare, while men are responsible for carrying out repairs and interacting with camp authorities (arranging appointments, sourcing replacement items, etc.). It is not an equal division of labour. Children roam free, though girls of 10 and over are quickly socialised to help their mothers with household tasks. Schooling is intermittent, however children of primary school age are expected to attend special classes in the state school in the afternoon. Levels of education vary enormously, with some children having been out of formal education for up to five years. Many of the younger children have never been to school. Fighting is fairly commonplace, exacerbated by language difficulties, boredom, and a lack of authority pervading the communal areas of the camp. 

The camp comes alive at night. Children amuse themselves in the corridors, while teenagers and young adults gather in single-sex groups, chatting and playing on their phones. The camp has free wifi, provided by one of the NGOs. Young men in particular seem to spend a disproportionately large amount of time on their phones, either on social networks or playing ‘Clash of Clans’ – the unofficial sponsor of the European refugee crisis, played in every camp from Calais to Chios. Most rarely sleep before 3 a.m.   

Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.

The camp is small by Greek standards. It houses an ethnically mixed group of around 100 and 150 people – 80% Syrian-Kurdish, 10% Syrian, and 10% Afghan. Greek, English, Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic and Farsi are spoken. Most residents are at least bilingual – virtually all Kurds speak both Kurdish and Arabic, for example, and many of the Afghans speak more than one local dialect. Signs in the camp are written in English, Greek and Arabic – presumably Farsi speakers are expected to understand one of these three.

The camp residents arrived in Greece in March 2016, just before the EU-Turkey deal came into effect. They disembarked either on Chios and Lesbos, and spent between one and two weeks on the islands, before taking the ferry to Athens and then a coach to the northern fringes of Epirus, where they now reside. They are all waiting for a decision from UNHCR regarding their future; some qualify for resettlement (to any of a number of EU member states) and some for family reunification (many have fathers or brothers in Germany). The Afghans are the exception – they are applying for asylum in Greece. If their asylum claim is rejected, they face deportation.

Aside from the fact they are all camp residents, there is very little that unites them. Some of the Syrians are from Aleppo. Some are from Al-Hassakeh. Some fought for the Peshmerga. Some were forced to fight for Assad. Most have never fought, but were chased from their homes regardless. Some came alone as single men, others brought their entire extended families. Some are uneducated, and illiterate in their native tongues. Some have attended university, and are fluent in English. Some are poor, some are wealthy. Some have travelled the world, some have never left their villages. Some are old – a few of the camp elders are in their late seventies – and some are young. Several children have been born in Greece over the past few months. All are Muslim, most are Sunni. Some are devout, some are ‘unbelievers’. Some love Real Madrid, others Barcelona. Some love Messi, others Ronaldo. Some are teachers, electricians, plumbers, chefs, dress-makers, musicians, builders, engineers, mechanics.

All are waiting to hear if Europe wants them. If Europe will let them stay. 

A motion-picture portrait

The purpose of the portrait painted above is to give an impression of a single camp in a single moment in January 2017.  It is not intended to represent all camps in Greece, nor to suggest that the camps themselves are outside time and unaffected by its machinations. In the months since, most of the camp residents have been relocated to nearby towns, to hotels or shelters in Athens, or to one of several EU member states – Germany, Sweden, Ireland, France. Even during the months I was there, the camp underwent a renovation of sorts: a new kitchen facility was built in the back courtyard, the toilet blocks were renovated and gender segregated, windows were replaced, and new lighting fixtures installed. What is the purpose, then, of such a portrait?

It is impossible to define all camps, and all camp experiences, in a single glib sentence.

To give an impression of a European refugee camp that is based on first-hand observations over a period of several months, and is not couched in the language of blame or victimhood. The Greek camps are either entirely absent from mainstream media discourse, or quickly summarised with emotive adjectives – squalid, filthy, miserable. I do not mean to suggest that camps fall completely outside such descriptions – they are particularly apt to convey the despair of the island hotspots – just that there is often a lot more going on than squalor and misery.

In the same way, refugees are far too often defined by their label – as though they have no history, no past life, no individual personality or characteristics. To become a refugee is not to cease to exist. The label is a status, not an all-consuming state of being. Equally, it is important to recognise that refugees are not a homogenous mass of people. They come from different countries, regions, different social classes with different languages and different cultural mores. Imagine for a moment the current situation were reversed, and Europeans were fleeing to the Persian-Arab world. Italians would mix with Swedes and Brits, Bulgarians, Germans and Greeks, and to lump them together under an assumed ‘European’ identity would be to miss the enormous difference both within and between these populations. The same is true of those arriving on European shores; the cultural distance between rural Afghanistan and downtown Damascus is similarly vast.

The story between the stories

The main narrative regarding refugees in Europe can be roughly divided into three strands. The right-wing, anti-migrant strand focusses on refugees as a security concern and an economic burden. They typically feature very little coverage of camps or events on the ground, as the facts would disrupt their xenophobic narrative.

The second strand is staunchly left-wing, vaguely anarchist and fiercely critical of any and all state/UNHCR interventions. Their coverage tends to highlight the squalid conditions of the camps as a means to criticise the state, the EU, the international refugee regime, and the global capitalist order. While often spot on in their distribution of blame, their critique often ignores the finer points of the above systems and the specificities of the various cases. The result is flawed generalisations and sweeping calls for reform that are often beyond implausible.

The third strand is conveyed by the centrist to liberal left, and portrays refugees as poor, defenceless, traumatised women and children with nowhere else to go, huddling beneath scraps of tarpaulin that offer little protection from the elements. This vision, while effective in eliciting funds and sympathy, does not reflect the experience of most refugees living in camps within Europe. While counter examples exist – such as the disgraceful Elliniko camp, where Afghan families slept in tents for over a year, even during the abnormally harsh Greek winter – they do not represent the norm. Furthermore, confounding refugees with victims deprives the former of agency, and attempts to reframe the debate. In the main, refugees do not want sympathy and handouts – they want permission to remain in Europe and to be allowed to start building a life for themselves.

In order to grapple with the admittedly complex topic of migration and asylum, it is necessary to understand what is actually happening on the ground. This task is rendered increasingly difficult by the politicisation and polarisation of the issue in mainstream media discourse. Refugee camps are complicated spaces that resist simplistic description; it is impossible to define all camps, and all camp experiences, in a single glib sentence. Similarly, refugees cannot be defined by their legal status, a term that has come to be associated with a narrow set of manufactured meanings. Instead of dealing in vague abstractions and tired generalisations, it is necessary to root the debate regarding European migration policy in the reality of those actually living it.

About the author

Alex Fusco is a freelance journalist and European Politics postgraduate student. Follow me on twitter @alfusc1

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