Can Europe Make It?

Hypocrisies and cruelties on the frontier of Fortress Europe

For many refugees, it is only the smugglers who can get them into and then out of Greece. All other legitimate and safe channels are cut off. For the smugglers, many of whom are poor, income from the refugees means that they can survive.

Sofiane Ait Chalalet Chris Jones
5 May 2015

Refugees who survived the Samos shipwreck arrive in Piraeus, Athens. Demotix/Nikolas Georgiou. All rights reserved.Reading the mainstream press this past month, by any standards the reactions and commentaries on the latest slaughter of the innocents in the Mediterranean and Aegean has been especially sick. Even the self proclaimed liberal newspapers such as the British Guardian publish and promote ignorance. Helena Smith, the Guardian's reporter in Athens noted (Guardian 23 April 2015) that the migrants 'elect' to travel in the clapped out boats of the smugglers.

No they don't Helena. Are you stupid? You think that the refugees coming to Samos packed in rubber boats choose to come this way instead of on the daily ferry which now comes to the island from Turkey? The ferry costs about 35 euros. The refugees pay anything between 1500 and 4000 euros for the same journey. There is a safe way to come to Samos and to all the front line Greek islands that form this part of the wall to Fortress Europe (Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Rhodes ….). But let's not talk about this. Instead the EU is now talking of bombing the smugglers in north Africa and taking military action against the smugglers wherever they are in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Frontex the private agency charged by the EU with guarding these borders has been going down this road for years. As we have said before living on Samos now means that Europeans soaking up the sun on their sunbeds do so to the sight and sounds of the militarised boats that patrol up and down our shores.

Let the refugees on the ferries and the smugglers will disappear soon enough, as will the patrol boats.

Smugglers are not the problem. They are not primarily responsible for the problems facing the refugees. For many refugees, it is only the smugglers who can get them into and then out of Greece. All other legitimate and safe channels are cut off. And for the smugglers, many of whom both in Greece and Turkey are poor and struggling, income from the refugees means that they can survive. They are not all big shots as the mainstream media would have us believe.

As one refugee who came to Samos in 2006 told us, one of the biggest changes that has taken place since he arrived has been the ways in which refugees coming to Greece now find themselves having to pay for nearly every aspect of their journey to, through and out of Greece. Virtually nothing is free. You pay to get across the sea, you pay to obtain telephone contacts of those who have information about who can move you on; who can get you papers, find you a place to stay and so on.

In Greece all these activities are considered to be trafficking and can lead to long prison sentences for those caught. The prices vary according to the journey and the risks involved. In Greece many of these services are being provided by refugees who deprived of all other forms of legitimate income and assistance find that they can survive by the monies they can extract from the more recent arrivals. It is a risky business. If you are taking people clandestinely across the land borders to the north there is always the danger of violence from border patrols. It can be very dangerous. 

The EU and its media give no sense to the complex realities of so called smugglers and smuggling. There are undoubtedly unscrupulous Mafia styled smugglers, often aided and abetted by coastguards and border police who for a cut of the profits allow these businesses to flourish with no fear of being caught. But many are not like this at all. We have talked to many refugees coming to the Greek islands who organised their own small boats and outboards with one of their number steering the boat. Invariably the Greek authorities arrest the person steering and charge them with smuggling. For this they are imprisoned between 15 and 25 years. Refugees have many stories of being beaten and abused to get them to testify against innocent fellow refugees the Greek authorities allege to be smugglers. But as we have seen time and again it matters little if there are no collaborative testimonies as the word of the coastguards is never challenged by the courts. In Lesbos last year activists brought to the court all the passengers in one boat who testified to the innocence of the 16 year old boy who was steering and had been charged with trafficking. It made no difference. The judge without hesitation dismissed their evidence and took the word of the coastguard. The boy was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.

But of course the mainstream media are not interested. They have readily subscribed to and reinforced the idea that refugees die in the seas because of the smugglers. The truth is elsewhere. They die because the rich countries of Europe don't want them. They have militarised the sea borders. They have not only denied safe passage to the refugees, such as the ferries, but they have made their clandestine journeys more dangerous. The refugees who come across to Samos from Turkey do so at night, often when there is no moon and when the weather is bad and the sea is rough. The risks are multiplied. And why? Because they need to evade the patrol boats of Frontex and the Greek coastguards.

Summer is coming

During the past 3 days (1-3 May 2015) 12 boats with 192 refugees were arrested coming to Samos. Over the same period 304 landed in Lesbos, 182 in Chios, 104 in Oinousess, 141 in Kos and 64 in Farmakonisi. Summer is coming and with the better weather more and more refugees will be seeking entry to Europe through these islands.

Last summer was horrendous for the refugees on Samos. The detention centre here designed for 250 people was at times filled with up to 1,000 people. An inadequate water supply made the situation intolerable. Following an incident in April where a 16 year old unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan slashed his arms and set fire to the minors' dormitory in the camp, the police union here issued a press statement to say that they were completely overwhelmed and that incidents like this were likely to become commonplace. At that time there were around 150 people locked in the camp. And today (May 4th) we have just heard that there are 750 in the camp and that it is utter chaos. Of course there are not enough beds but there are also not enough sleeping bags and blankets.

The recently elected Syriza government has made some difference. We have found that the police in the camp as well as the coastguards have been more co-operative when we have visited them. They have been prepared to let us meet and talk with some of the unaccompanied minors in the camp. They have also modified their language. Syriza has insisted that refugees are no longer to be called illegal immigrants. They are now in the process of releasing refugees from police stations and camps where some of have been detained for up to 18 months without reason. They have declared that push backs to Turkey will not be tolerated. The effectiveness of this measure is not clear as refugees are still reporting push backs. For example, a group of five refugees landing in Lesbos in the middle of April reported that they had been pushed back by coastguards from Samos prior to their journey to Lesbos. There are many local variations. On Chios for example, we learnt yesterday that you will see refugees out in the main town, some staying in hotels, and many gathering in the coffee bars. This is not the case in Samos, where the refugees are still locked away in the camp and not allowed on the streets and in the cafés.

The Syriza government is now attempting to prepare for the increased flow this summer and has asked the mayors of the country to make contingency plans identifying empty hotels, vacant military camps and other public buildings which could be used as makeshift refuges. On Samos we have no sense that such contingency plans have been drawn up. Although an emergency meeting has been called with all interested parties for Wednesday of this week to discuss what might be done. It looks too familiar; too little too late. This is so often the Samos way. The mayors as a whole in Greece have said that whilst they are sympathetic to the government's proposals they simply have no money to do anything and that without additional funding nothing can be done.

What many activists working with refugees expect is that the main response to the unfolding crisis in the camps all along the frontier will be more rapid processing of the refugees. On Chios this is already the norm. Many of the refugees are 'processed' within one or two days and then given the papers they need to move onto Athens. There are many on the Left in Greece who are now demanding that Syriza closes all the detention centres and camps. But precipitate action and rapid processing without any services being put in their place is not without problems for the refugees and seems more like a policy of abandonment rather than liberation. Pushing them on to Athens means leaving many of them on the streets to manage as best they can. The fascist Golden Dawn is more than likely to benefit most from such practices should they be implemented. Much better would be the utter transformation of the camps into proper, humane reception centres where those who choose can stay and take some early steps in recovery.

Sadly, irrespective of Syriza's undoubtedly sincere concern for refugee welfare which is in massive contrast to previous administrations, there has been little improvement in the Samos camp. The razor wire and dual fencing around the camp remains in place as do the locks on the gate. The refugees are still under the authority of the police and public prosecutor. They are processed as prisoners. So for example when we went to the camp to meet a 15 year old Afghani boy travelling with his 14 year old sister who had become separated from their mother and 2 younger siblings at the end of last year we had to remove the laces from the shoes we took them and we couldn't give them a pencil sharpener because of its integral blade. Neither were we allowed to take them out into the town. It is almost impossible to imagine what these children have been through yet it is of no account to the authorities. They are prisoners. It's cruel and evil. What other words can be used to describe such practices?

Why are they locked in at all? What crime have they committed to warrant such denial of liberty. Why are we buying pampas for the babies and basic hygiene materials when many of those in the camp have the means to buy these things for themselves if they were allowed to go out and shop. Why are there no activities organised in the camp? We were told that we could not bring balls into the camp as it might lead to injuries. Anyway, as the head of the reception service told us last week, there is no need for any activities as the refugees only spend a little time in the camp before moving on to Athens. But this is simply not true. Many of the unaccompanied minors spend over 4 weeks in the camp.

From what we can see the professional staff-nurse, social worker, psychologist – in the camp seem paralysed and fearful to take any initiative. They talk of being afraid of the police, of losing their job if they step out of line. They seem to have abandoned any sense of professional responsibility. According to an experienced activist who visited from Lesbos last week this is no accident. The NGOs which are commissioned to provide these services are selected because they make no fuss; they in turn appoint professional workers with the same characteristics, who are often young and fresh out of their training. Some of them are clearly frightened of the refugees and see them as intrinsically threatening. They are paid 1750 euros a month which is exceptional now in Greece. The refugees get virtually nothing from these people.

In fact these stories endlessly repeat themselves. The 2 Afghani minors told us of meeting with a lawyer in the camp who said that if their mother (now in Germany) could send him 2000 euros he could get them re-united without delay with an uncle in Athens who would then get them to their mother. There is no uncle in Athens. But this didn't stop the kids from phoning their mum to ask her to send the money. Thankfully she refused. She realised it was a scam, but thousands of refugees are not so lucky. Undoubtedly there are some decent lawyers in Samos, as there are other professionals, but the overwhelming tales we hear are about being ripped off. Refugees are being routinely milked by unscrupulous lawyers who charge for services which require no fee or simply disappear once the money is paid over. And they get away with it. Time and again.

Sadly state negligence and sheer indifference plagues every aspect of the refugees' experience of Greece even when they die. Last week we tried to discover what had happened to the body of a refugee found dead on one of the beaches. We ended up at the hospital where the body had been taken. First we went to the hospital manager who said that it was the responsibility of the social services. They in turn said they knew nothing about it. The hospital manager insisted that it was their responsibility so back to the social worker who then told us that it was in the hands of a doctor responsible for undertaking a post mortem. He was on leave and no one seemed to know when he would be back. In the meantime the body stays in the morgue. We can be sure, because we get messages from distraught relatives, that someone somewhere will be frantic with worry because they have not heard from someone whose last call was from the Turkish coast prior to leaving for Greece. But for the authorities, once it has been established that the body is not that of a tourist and 'only' a refugee no further action is taken. It will be yet one more nameless body destined for an unmarked grave.

(These are the telephone numbers of the coastguards based in Samos. If you have lost contact with someone you think might be in Samos please call them. 0030 22730 27318 or 0030 22730 23068)

Greece is proud of what it calls its 'timeless civilisation'. So is Europe. Its governments prattle endlessly to the rest of the world about its democracies, its human rights, its systems of justice and welfare. Majid, a young Pakistani refugee living on Samos for the past six years told us that he came to Europe because he believed that it was a good place to be and he would have a chance for a better and happier life. He thought he would only be expected to work 8 hours a day, that he would be safe in his work, and live in a sociable and friendly place. His cousin who had come to Greece before him warned him the reality was nothing like this and that he would suffer. Majid didn't believe him and came. In October he is returning to Pakistan a wiser man. But not before he has to go to court because he let his homeless uncle (who didn't have the right papers) stay some days in his small apartment. His offence? Illegal hospitality. He asked the police at the time if they would let their mother's brother sleep on the street. No answer.

Majid is not unique. Many of the refugees we have met come to Europe with similar ideas. They are so happy when we meet them when they land on the beaches. They believe that at last they have reached safety; that they have a chance to breathe and live again. It doesn't take long for them to realise that their dream is in fact a nightmare.

There are as many Greeks living outside Greece as inside. The vast majority leave now as they did in the past in search of a better life. They are Greek, they are European. They are not black, they are rarely Muslim. They have the 'right' papers. Many don't want to leave Greece but see no future here. They are praised for their initiative and there is sorrow at their departure. Europeans are constantly on the move. Millions migrate to live in countries outside of Europe. How do they travel? How are they received and treated? What restrictions are placed on them?

The EU announced in April 2015 that it would accept 5,000 migrants this year and deport 150,000. It is supposed to be a generous concession.

Think about it.

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