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Europe’s Greek tragedy deepens out of sight

While European leaders continue to hail the EU-Turkey deal – under which refugees arriving in Greece since March are threatened with deportation – its human toll ruins the lives of thousands.

March 30, 2016.766 people reached the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios and Kos in the last 24 hours.Darko Vojinovic/Press Association. All rights reserved.The boats are still coming.

The numbers may seem modest compared to the thousands of daily arrivals on Greek shores just a few months ago, before the rest of Europe decided to turn Greece into a holding pen for close to 60,000 refugees. But the more than 3,000 individuals seeking international protection who have made the perilous journey from Turkey since the start of August, are enough to overwhelm the already over-crowded, under-resourced camps on islands scattered across the Aegean Sea.

One of these islands is Chios. With an official capacity providing for 1,100 refugees, some 3,300 people, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis, are now languishing in sordid conditions in the island’s three camps - Vial, Souda and Dipethe.  

Depressingly little has changed here since my first visit in April. There are few signs of the EU’s emergency humanitarian assistance trickling through. Instead, refugees have traded the horrors of war and terrorism for a chronic state of squalor and desperation, marked by inadequate food and medical care, as well as the trauma and fear that grind down their dignity day in, day out.

The lucky ones occupy small plastic UNHCR containers – sometimes sharing with ten others or more. Those less fortunate live in tents or makeshift shelters made of tarps, including dozens of families with young children, pregnant women, and the elderly and frail. They fled their home after death threats from Daesh and forced conscription by Assad’s army, and arrived on Chios just hours after the fateful agreement came in to effect.

With temperatures outside soaring above 30C at mid-day, the heat inside is punishing. Sitting inside her tent in Dipethe, across the street from Chios’ central square, Nour, an 11-year old girl from Syria, shrugs apologetically in the sweltering heat as she explains that this is where her family of seven has been sleeping for several months.

The countless gestures of hospitality – sharing meals prepared by volunteer kitchens, trading stories and jokes over tea – that we encountered as volunteers could easily be mistaken for a kind of benign normality. Yet, in the dehumanising context of a camp, these gestures are more than matters of custom. Rather, they embody attempts to restore a sense of dignity and equality currently being denied to these people. And the children’s smiles that greet visitors mask a darker reality altogether of life in a refugee camp, where psychological support is virtually absent. ‘Nothing’ is how a teenage boy with self-inflicted scars on his legs introduced himself in Arabic, a fellow refugee in Dipethe tells me.

Almost everyone I had met the first time was still there, detained on Chios for more than five months, unable to continue their journey thanks to the EU-Turkey deal. Frustration is palpable. Few have any faith left in the snail-pace asylum process, their only chance of avoiding deportation to Turkey and, perhaps, one day being relocated to another EU member state or being reunified with family members.

Three months and nine days. That’s how long Wassim, a Damascus University graduate in English Literature, and his wife Selwa, a Maths teacher, have been awaiting the outcome of their asylum interview in a container in Souda, their resilience sustained solely by hope of a better future for their two small children. They fled their home after death threats from Daesh and forced conscription by Assad’s army, and arrived on Chios just hours after the fateful agreement came in to effect. Back in May, they both joined a hunger strike in protest at the absence of effective legal representation and international protection. ‘We don’t need food. We need a future’, a hand-written sign read in the camp.    

Unwilling to tolerate the everyday misery and monotony any further, some are contemplating a return to their war-torn homelands. ‘In Syria, we may die one day. Here we die everyday’, says a young Kurdish woman.

Act II: Into the void

‘In Syria, we may die one day. Here we die everyday’, says a young Kurdish woman.

Chios is only the first act of this contemporary Greek tragedy. Families who have passed the first step of the asylum procedure are now slowly being moved to the mainland to await their second interview, scheduled to begin in early 2017.

However, cash-strapped authorities and local charities are struggling to take more people in. There are daily reports of vulnerable people sleeping rough on the streets of Athens. Conditions in camps on the mainland are often far worse than those on the islands. ‘One woman’s son has severe brain and eye issues and she fears he may die here. Another mother cries at the state of her malnourished children. [They are] so thin they look half their age,’ Jess Ford, a Canadian volunteer, writes from Athens.

Save the Children warns that children ‘are being left at risk of exploitation and disease because of an almost total lack of official reception facilities.’ Some reported ‘they hadn’t eaten for days’ while ‘afraid to sleep outside or to go to the bathroom at night because of the risk of abuse’. After visiting 16 camps, the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has called for their closure due to public health concerns.

In light of the void left by official humanitarian agencies, one shudders to think what would happen in the absence of the various solidarity squats that have sprung up in Athens and Thessaloniki, run collaboratively by refugees, locals, and international volunteers.

Indeed, were it not for the tireless efforts and ingenuity of the latter, many refugees would not be regularly fed, clothed, given a roof over their heads, let alone briefed on their rights under Greek and EU asylum law. Children would go without any education, vulnerable cases of unaccompanied minors would go unreported, pregnant women left without due medical care and their new-borns malnourished.

‘Why is it that unqualified individuals are meant to care and support these situations? Is this not what the UNHCR, EU and governments are meant to be in place for?’,Jess asks. ‘This is bullshit,’ she adds.   

Abdication of responsibility

In March, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke of the ‘Herculean task’ facing Europe in implementing the EU-Turkey deal. Hailed recently by Juncker as a ‘success’, albeit ‘fragile’, it is becoming clearer by the day to those who witness its human toll that it has set in place a slow-motion catastrophe. While the UK government spends £1.9million on building walls to keep out refugees from Calais, in Greece alone, over 1,400 children are on the waiting list for shelter.

Even on its own terms the deal is not working, however. Although no longer an epic exodus projected daily onto our TV screens, the Balkan Route is still operational; what Tusk called the smugglers’ ‘business model’ is thriving, while refugees face ever more dangerous journeys to reach northern Europe.

Sustained by political myopia, the deal rests entirely on the fictional notion of Turkey being a ‘safe third-country’ – a blatant denial of Turkey’s widely-documented violations of the right to international protection, including forced returns to Syria, illegal under international law, and shootings by border guards.

One wonders what Tusk had in mind when he described Turkey as ‘the best example in the world of how to treat refugees’. In light of Erdogan’s apparent authoritarianism, the cynical willingness of those who scripted this tragedy to barter human lives seemingly knows no bounds.

The only instrument the EU currently has to resolve this self-imposed crisis is the September 2015 Relocation scheme, under which 66,000 refugees ought to be moved from Greece to other member states within two years. In a wholesale abdication of shared responsibility, only 3,016 refugees had been relocated by mid-August.

Britain, for its part, has opted out of the scheme altogether and is struggling to meet its modest target of resettling 20,000 refugees directly from Syria and neighbouring countries. With the Dubs amendment, the government committed itself in May to relocate several thousand unaccompanied minors from camps on the continent. So far, it has taken in little more than 30. And while the UK government spends £1.9million on building walls to keep out refugees from Calais, in Greece alone, over 1,400 children are on the waiting list for shelter.

Against Tusk’s claim at this week’s G20 summit that Europe has done its fair share and is ‘close to its limit’ on accepting more refugees, it is worth recalling a recent report by Oxfam which shows that collectively the world’s six wealthiest states, including the UK, host less than 9% of the global refugee population. The UK’s political elites [are] ‘more out of touch than any other leaders globally’.

Public attitudes, too, are far more complex than often assumed. A recent survey by Amnesty International ‘shows how anti-refugee political rhetoric is out of kilter with public opinion’, singling out the UK’s political elites for being ‘more out of touch than any other leaders globally’: 70% of British respondents want their government to do more to help people fleeing war and persecution, while a remarkable 29% said they were ‘willing to open up their own homes to refugees’.

Those who conflate xenophobic headlines with public opinion thus risk fuelling a grim, self-fulfilling prophecy, especially politicians who believe pandering to nationalist and Islamophobic sentiments is the only way of extracting political capital from the plight of refugees.

To be sure, not all governments have succumbed to the lure of anti-refugee populism. Portugal, for example, has committed to accepting 10,000 refugees – more than double the figure allocated by the relocation programme. But here too progress is agonizingly slow, hampered by bureaucratic and political hurdles.

Meanwhile, on Chios, volunteers cannot afford the luxury of inertia. Scrambling dwindling donations, stocking warehouses, they are busy planning ahead for what is likely to be a long, cold winter on the front-lines of this crisis. For, while political elites continue to bury their heads in the sand in the face of Europe’s colossal political and ethical failure, they have tomorrows’ boats to welcome onto its shores.


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