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Christmas on Lesvos – a man-made disaster

This former detention centre outside the port of Mytilini is possibly the only detention facility in the world that people are trying to get into.

Refugees arrive in boats on European shores. Ben White/ CAFOD. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

After three weeks on the Greek island, I am struggling to make sense of what I witnessed. I saw lives being saved by extraordinary volunteers from all over the world as overcrowded rubber dinghies docked on Lesvos beaches. But, not everyone could be saved. In the three weeks that I was there, 36 people drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea, seven of them children. I witnessed the ghostly remains of their boats washed up on the beaches of Lesvos the next day.

One cold night, a baby died in an unheated tent in one of the camps on Lesvos. I felt the kind of sorrow and anger I had not felt since the siege of Sarajevo, when it seemed that my life had no value to European governments which simply stood by and watched as genocide took place in my country. I also felt something I did not feel in Sarajevo, something I developed living in the privileged world – guilt.

During my time on the island, I personally witnessed around two thousand people come off rubber boats.  All kinds of people – men, women, children, the frail, the young, and the old. They came from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and many other places. I was mostly trying not to get in the way of rescuers who were being much more useful.

I helped the new arrivals get their fake life jackets off, change into dry clothes, or I wrapped them up in emergency blankets. Sometimes I just sat with them until they snapped out of silence or stopped crying. Then they went off to the registration camp on UNHCR buses.

It was not that difficult to get carried away by the feeling of being useful and trying to do something small to help. Despite their shock, once they land and recover refugees are thankful and happy to be free. They start making phone calls, smoke and even take selfies with us.

Then there are sad days, when things go wrong, and people, including children, die.  The absurdity and seriousness of this entire situation comes crashing down on us—nothing that we do is good enough.

The local volunteers, citizens of Lesvos, some of them welcoming boats since 1998 (obviously not on this scale) are there too, with hot tea and dry socks, and not a camera in sight. No branding, no hi-vis jackets either. On January 1, they brought traditional cake and drink and as there were no boats arriving, we shared a moment of blessing at the beach ­— the first piece of cake was for God, the second piece of cake was for refugees, and the third piece of cake was for the volunteers. Ai Weiwei joined our little moment on the beach, and in his very understated way, provided a celebrity selfie moment for some of us. It was rather nice, albeit surreal.

More than 500,000 people landed on Lesvos in 2015. In the summer, desperate new arrivals were sleeping on sidewalks and in parks. The local economy has been devastated by the drop in tourism, and yet I have not heard one person complain about any of this. In fact, the only complaint I heard was from a cab driver about the ‘voluntourists’ who were rude and impatient and taking inappropriate photos of refugees without consent.

One Syrian volunteer who has been on several islands for six months told me that he ‘would kiss the dirt on Greek people’s shoes for the welcome they give to refugees’. The petition to nominate the Aegean Islands for the Nobel Peace Prize is gaining momentum, and despite the debatable politics of this award, the citizens of Lesvos and other islands have, at least in my experience, earned it 500,000 times over.

Then there is the part of the experience that we don’t see on the news: what happens to people after they get off the boat. Most of those landing on Lesvos end up in Moria registration camp. This former detention centre on a hill, in the forest, just outside the port of Mytilini, is possibly the only detention facility in the world that people are trying to get into.

I arrived at Moria camp on my second night, with 700 meals that we cooked that day in Pikpa camp. The meals are distributed to the families who were able to get in to spend a night in the heated rooms of the former immigration prison. On average, each room had eight bunk beds, but around 30 to 40 people were taken to each room for the night. On a bitterly cold night, fathers and young men were asked to stay on the outside, in small tents or just under the stars, to make room for women and children. A few times families left and opted for the cold night on the outside, as the rooms, although cleaned by volunteers during the day, were overcrowded and had a lingering stench of bleached public toilet.

During the time I volunteered in Moria Family Compound, the whole operation was managed by independent volunteers, good people who tried to do their best in a completely chaotic and disorganised setting. I have seen news reports that more than eighty NGOs operate on Lesvos and many provide services in the Moria camp. But that does not make the situation any less chaotic. The registration rules and numbers of people are changing every day, so without central coordination of information, resources and people, it is impossible to keep up with what is going on.

On several occasions in the family compound, I saw the people I had helped off the boat in the morning. By the evening, their earlier excitement and relief had been transformed into desperation. The Moria camp is not a prison, refugees and migrants are free to come and go as they please. But in reality, they do not have a choice, as they need to register in order to continue their journey through Greece legally, so they stick around until that happens.

Inability to answer people’s questions about what is happening with registration or where to get the next meal or dry clothes was tough. Even after a week in the camp, it was still not clear to me how the more vulnerable people, especially women, were identified, and by whom. I heard that some agencies were providing better accommodation for the vulnerable, but how they would access these services was unclear. I also saw several people who were not well, and who could do with additional care, but they did not want to seek assistance, they just wanted to continue their journey, fearful that some border down the road might be closed before they get to it.

I was also there when the registration backlog meant that some people, including families with children, were stuck for three to five days in this hellish, cold and chaotic place. This is when I saw children sleeping under the stars, and people burning fires in front of unheated tents. On three nights it was raining like hell, and the volunteers running up and down the compound were completely wet. By the time they came up from their rooms to the distribution floor, refugees were soaked and the clothes we were giving them were also soaking wet by the time they got back to their rooms. Within an hour we ran out of clothes and shoes and had to send people back to their rooms – wet and empty handed. As there was no coordination system in place, it was impossible to track stock and properly replenish what was needed on the daily basis.

WhatsApp groups helped to match goods in the warehouses and camp sites, and we were able to organise delivery, but again this depended on volunteers’ ability to use technology and be connected, as well as having the information about what is available in storage and what was needed in the compound. Frequently, volunteers would buy shoes or whatever else was needed a day before.

It is easy to be tempted here to think about what needs to be done to organise stock or volunteers, introduce coordination and better systems, get more shoes, more rain ponchos, more clean baby bottles, more tents or more interpreters.

It is also very easy to be angry about the lack of coordination amongst big NGOs and/or the Greek officials, local and national. There are many smart, experienced, committed and professional people amongst NGO staff, government officials and volunteers, and they are all trying hard to do their very best, on the beaches, in camps, in warehouses. Some small improvements are made almost every day. Especially on the beach where there is a greater sense of community and action is more straightforward.

The issue here is not how to better coordinate and organise the rescue, registration and/or emergency relief for one or few nights in various camps. As important as that is, the issue here is that this, above all, should not be happening – no refugee, migrant, volunteer, NGO staff member or resident should be left to cope with this level of emergency and need in this way.

I couldn’t stop imagining how different the response would be if this movement of people was the result of a natural disaster. But this is a man-made disaster. And it is made worse by men building barbed wire fences to keep the disaster victims out.

The fact that ill-prepared volunteers are meeting the need for basic services during this unprecedented refugee crisis should, and does, provoke outrage. I feel outraged, not only about European governments’ lack of action and the institutional and political failure to protect desperate and innocent people, but from the fact that our political leadership in Europe is actually proactively spending billions to build razor fences and prevent refugees’ safe passage.

What we are witnessing is not just incompetence and a lack of leadership, but an active effort to make an already desperate situation worse.

If we could let go of our fears and obsessions with borders, solutions to what is happening in Greece and across Europe would be simple and within the reach of all EU citizens. Ending the war in Syria or in any other place may be complicated and it may take time. But responding to the exodus can easily be done with few organised interventions.

The solution would require our rich countries to agree to a serious resettlement programme that is humane, fair and responds to the scale of the need on the ground, and is not driven by the perception of xenophobic sentiment back at home.  

Once an adequate resettlement scheme is in place, the rest is just a question of logistics. At the moment, for the sake of us few privileged EU citizens who can move freely, those fleeing for their lives are policed and prevented from seeking sanctuary by our respective and joined up border patrols.

What’s more, our governments across the EU have turned our airline and ferry companies into border police too – so if they bring any non-EU nationals into the EU country, they are fined €3,000. This is a fairly new invention (2001) and it is one of the main reasons why people in need have to risk their lives to smuggle themselves into Europe.

The main beneficiaries of this policy at present are organised criminals. Sadly, they seem to be the best organised players in this saga too. On average, they make €50,000 per boat.  There were days when 40 boats landed on Lesvos so do your maths.

It should not be beyond the power, humanity, pragmatism and intelligence of rich European governments and European citizens to re-think the Schengen Agreement.  Surely, when laws are no longer in service of humanity and progress, but instead destroy lives and create suffering, the right thing to do is to change them. 

Human lives must have value beyond the borders of nation-states.  In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we as a species agreed that the right to seek protection from persecution is a fundamental human right. Let’s say never again. And mean it.

These are some big words, but what needs doing is rather small. Yes, we can continue making donations to charities providing emergency relief in the region and in Greece, yes we can continue giving our old shoes and coats to those who need it more. Yes, we can continue to volunteer on Lesvos, in Calais and at home to help refugees.

But we must do one more thingwe must demand change from those in power to deliver. As citizens we can go and see our members of parliament and our members of European Parliament as well as our respective heads of state and our local authority leaders and urge them to take action.

Ask them to increase resettlement numbers for refugees, which also includes refugees in Turkey, Greece and Calais. The British offer to welcome 4,000 people per year is a shamefully inadequate response to the reality of the situation.

Ask them for safe passage, to lift carriers’ liability restrictions in order to facilitate safe passage by air and sea. This is the best way to end organised crime that thrives as a result of these restrictions. Clearly these restrictions are not working and we can no longer be in denial about it.

Ask them to involve civil society in resettlement efforts through community sponsorship visa schemes and organised welcome groups. So many of us are ready and willing to do more to welcome refugees, our government should be working for us to help protect more people. 

Ask them to step up peace negotiations and peacekeeping efforts globally through intensive diplomatic interventions.

Ask them to stop pandering to minority extreme xenophobic elements in our societies and take leadership in meaningful integration and welcome (if in doubt, look up what Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau are doing in Germany and Canada).

This will not be easy, as many of our politicians tend to worry more about very small, but very loud xenophobes and their media outlets. But it is not impossible either.

We have a duty and privilege to be the best citizens that we can be, and by taking this simple civic action, we can deliver massive change. What I learned in Lesvos, is that I may have gone there out of an urge not be a bystander, but the not being a bystander starts now, after I came back — not to share my story, but my call for action.

I am asking for one simple thing — let’s make the safe passage happen— where it needs to happen first — in our parliaments.  And while we are doing our best to be on the right side of history, let us remember that democracy is only as good as we make it. 

About the author

Zrinka Bralo is CEO of Migrants Organise - self-help, organising platform for migrants and refugees acting for justice. Zrinka is a refugee from Sarajevo, where she worked with leading war correspondents as a journalist during the siege in the 90s. She is a founder of Women on the Move Awards that celebrates achievements of migrant and refugee women and Executive Chair of the National Refugee Welcome Board set up in September 2015 to organise and coordinate the civil society response to refugee crisis. Zrinka Bralo, @ZrileB, zrinka@mrcf.org.uk

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