I’m off the refugee trail! This blog will hibernate for now while I write on my other one. However, the newest blog over there might interest you. It’s about the deportation of two Iraqis in Iceland, including one teenager, who sought shelter in a church last night. Read it here.
The refugee trail doesn’t just lead from south to north – sometimes it goes the other way. Yesterday morning, a Nigerian refugee was deported from Iceland, in the far north of Europe. His name is Eze Okafor. He’s a friend of mine, and he’s had his asylum request in various stages of the Icelandic asylum system since 2012. He fled Nigeria after Boko Haram splintered his forehead with a machete and executed his brother. After applying for asylum in Sweden, and being refused, Eze fled Swedish justice and came to Iceland. The authorities there have for four years contended that they’re not obliged to evaluate his case, because Sweden already did. Even the ridiculously long time this non-evaluation has lasted hasn’t been taken into account by the so-called “Foreigners’ office”, the Icelandic asylum and deportation agency, even though an appeals committee said “everything pointed to” the case having breached legal time limits.
I’ve talked to Eze a few times while he was waiting and waiting and waiting. He’s always said he won’t accept deportation, because he can’t. Nigeria is not an option for him. He’d fight deportation, he said. And yesterday, in the airport at Keflavík, he did.
The awkward look of Life Going On As Usual around him didn’t stop once he was dragged onto the plane, where two women stood up to protest his deportation and called on other passengers to do the same.
Nobody joined the protest. Police was called and the women roughly dragged out, arrested and interrogated for hours. The pilot then asked police to make sure that no more protesters were on board, which they apparently did, though how they did it remains a mystery. (Flying an unwilling and violently arrested refugee towards death was apparently cool with the pilot, but not having anyone protesting it mid-flight.)
But that wasn’t it. In a scene straight out of a Hollywood movie, the stewardesses then walked through the plane and, according to a journalist who was inside, “asked passengers if they were happy with the plane departing.” This offered every single passenger the chance to save Eze from deportation. Not a single person did.
Eze was released in Stockholm, free to use his nonexistent funds to sustain himself. He thus ended up on the street, where he slept the first night. He’s hoping to get friends of friends, or simply strangers, to host him until he knows what he can do. But while the Swedish state didn’t want the responsibility of housing him, they still commanded that he leave the country before June 1 – within five days. After that, a deportation order will be hanging over him, and the Swedish authorities will wait until he walks into their net, and then deliver him to the murderers of his family.
Eze’s case is not unique, but it shows better than many how insidious European borders are. His deportation hinged on the harmony of the Swedish state and of police, the airliner, its crew and the passengers in Iceland, which have now put Eze’s life at risk. This deportation could have been stopped by any one of dozens of people merely not doing something, or by a few people just standing up and saying “no.”
Rights always get eroded where the resistance is the least, but the erosion doesn’t stop there. As the good old bishop might have said: “First they came for refugees, but I said nothing because I wasn’t a refugee.” Borders are everywhere, in the behaviour of all of us, and sometimes we’re given a rare and sudden chance to break them down. Let’s keep it in mind, so we don’t waste it.
Today, the Greek authorities at last started what they had long threatened: an eviction of the camp at Idomeni. Greece’s migration spokesman said that everyone knew that “conditions would be much better” in the camps they’re being moved to. He promised “no violence would be used”, but also that he expected the 8000 people, who’ve been there for months, to be gone in “no more than a week.” To ensure that nobody sees just how peacefully Idomeni will be evacuated, all journalists and activists have been removed from the area.
An explanation as to how this paradox of nonviolently moving thousands who don’t want to go might be resolved was given by an MSF representative, who said the police siege of the camp “complicates food handout efforts and sanitation maintenance”.
It is a move similar to the one reported by refugees in Vial, Chios, when they were being told they had to go to the hotspot in Kos: “We don’t have water for using bathrooms or taking showers,” a refugee said. “We just have water for drinking. The police cut the water because, he told us, you must go to another island.”
These tactics would usually be called siege warfare, intimidation, abuse or, at the very least, antihumanitarian. But in the last months a school of thought has established itself that claims this is not fundamentally wrong, but merely a matter of procedure. Humanitarian work consists in finding a “good place”, as identified by volunteers or the authorities, and then moving refugees there. The wishes of refugees are simply ignored. This approach grows naturally in the context of European border politics, and we would do well to resist it.
Stand in line
It is not just the customary European feeling of superiority that nourishes this attitude. When I worked in soup kitchens this winter, it struck me how quickly a paternal, or even authoritarian, mindset could develop among volunteers. We, mostly white twenty-somethings, were the givers and they the receivers. We had things, they mostly didn’t. We could travel, rent places and drive cars, they mostly couldn’t. It was us who made them stand in line, who decided on their portions, who could decide if someone got one, two, or no cups of soup, who told them to line up single file, who ordered people that jumped queue to go all the way back and so forth. This superior position can easily progress into straight out bossiness, and I repeatedly, and in various places, saw volunteers screaming at refugees who were waiting in line to get a pair of underpants or a registration paper. It is a sight I’d like not to see again.
This denigration was sometimes systematized when NGOs and food distributors marked the fingernails or tagged bracelets of refugees to be able to give each person their fair share. The motive is pure, the practice is repellent. But when conditions are as they have been in Greece this winter, the dignity of refugees has to be weighed against the practicalities of humanitarian work. The conditions they’ve been thrown in by war at home and closing borders in Europe leaves us little room to maneuver.
The unfortunate result of this structure is that “humanitarianism” has become a very flexible word. When refugees were moved from Vial to the hotspot in Kos, it could be portrayed as having had a “humanitarian” aim, because they got more space in Kos. The fact that they were locked up, while in Vial they had been free to go out, has been explained to me by a volunteer as a minor and temporary inconvenience – not a fundamental abuse of the inmates’ rights and a denial of their autonomy. The fact that refugees in hotspots say they’re treated as “animals” is to many a matter of giving them more soup, more space, more blankets, rather than more dignity.
Nonpolitics It is this redefinition of the word “humanitarian” as merely “comfort-provider” that allows the Greek authorities to present the evacuation of Idomeni’s residents to “more humanitarian” camps as helping the poor scared ignorant refugees make the wiser choice. (This is called acting as a “white savior”.) But it’s simply irrelevant how great the military camps are. The point is that refugees are not allowed a choice. What is missing here is what should be a fundamental principle of humanitarianism: not to oppose the will and desires of those subjected to it. Dragging adults as if they were beasts from one place to another is never helping them, no matter how great the place where they’re to be put.
When refugees occupied the port in Chios, it engendered a similar discussion. They had found a place where they could not be ignored, where the media talked with them, where their protests were seen. But volunteers and NGOs pleaded with them to go to “better” camps because there they’d have showers and warmer beds. As if that mattered! They chose to sleep on concrete, not because they were stupid or senseless, but because they wanted to make a political statement. But that fell on deaf ears of those volunteers who worked “nonpolitically”; who wanted to create comfort, not change society.
The roots of nonpolitical volunteering merit a discussion of their own, which I won’t go into here, but it roughly seems to mean working within the system, registering when you’re told to and not going where you’re not allowed. Sometimes people honestly just follow this simple idea, to find people in need and provide them with whatever makes them feel better.
Keep calm and eat soup The risk nonpolitical volunteers run is to become handy implements of inhumane state policy, to end up working working under terms and conditions which in the long run destroy the hopes of refugees – and which will eventually remove any vestige of humanitarianism in the treatment they get.
The most obvious case of this is when volunteers tell refugees to keep calm. It is a typically nonpolitical strategy: if you keep calm, we’ll be better able to bring you soup. It completely misses the bigger picture: that refugees are being violently screwed over by the EU, and want to make their case to the European public. They can’t do it without media attention, and the media doesn’t show up without there being “an incident”. Refugees have to be crying, starving, shouting or drowning for there to be a story. As soon as “humanitarianism” has enveloped them in its suffocating embrace, they’re off the front page – and can wait silently for deportation. (It’s also worth mentioning that refugees in Vial greatly improved their conditions by literally breaking out of prison, after volunteers told them they’d be better of by “keeping quiet”.)
And thus, nonpolitical humanitarianism ends up achieving its opposite. By removing refugees from the political and media scene at the Chios port, by evicting them from Idomeni, from the squares and from the parks, by giving them just enough food to stave off starvation, the authorities have managed to shut them up.
A week ago, a mob of local people in Chios harassed refugees that were occupying the town’s port, threatened and employed violence against solidarity groups helping them and demanded the refugees go to camps in town. In the aftermath, multiple statements have appeared about what happened, some at variance with each other (and reality).
The mob didn’t appear out of the blue. Frustrations had mounted for weeks, and due to the absolute lack of democracy and dignity that suffocates Greece these years, they weren’t addressed – and still haven’t been resolved. This story has deep roots, but it seems to me the key event happened on Sunday, April 3, on the eve of the first mass-deportations to Turkey. But let’s set the scene.
No migrant no cry
For months, refugees in Greece had been kept in open camps on the islands. The EU-Turkey deal, signed on March 18, forced the Greek government to clear the islands and to detain all incoming refugees on arrival. Its capacity to do this in one day and then to provide for the prisoners, to process their asylum claims and deport those who didn’t satisfy the asylum criteria was always a fantasy. Following a year-long tradition, the Greek government still tried, because Europe ordered it to. The catastrophe that resulted has been documented in previous blogs. What I haven’t documented is the local reaction.
Two things were bound to antagonize Greek locals, especially on the islands. Firstly, the fact that police and coast guard boats, cars and staff now swarmed the streets and ports as never before. Greece has been symbolically, financially and politically cleansed of democracy. Now the islands’ key enforcement and protective institutions were being declared insufficient and then taken over by a pan-European coalition. I haven’t asked the nationalists here how this makes them feel, but it doesn’t take much imagination to predict their frustration.
The second antagonizing factor to locals was that, now that refugees were being imprisoned and their hopes and dreams ground to dust, they were much more prone to fighting. Overcrowded prisons, lack of food, facilities and hygiene products, very weak guarding and prisoners with nothing to lose could only end badly. People living close to the prison didn’t want this in their backyard. It didn’t help that the prison was “leaky,” there were holes in the fences. Prisoners sometimes got out and walked through farmers’ fields to get SIM cards and other necessities from town. Police tolerated it, because by and large the refugees returned. But for a farmer, having a “prisoner” pop up in your olive grove wasn’t welcome.
It was the talk of town that this was Bad News, all of it, and that it wasn’t being worked on. The local government wasn’t the one calling the shots, the Greek government was only running these camps under pressure from Brussels. The relevant decisions were being made half a continent away. What chance did the locals have? None, it seemed, except direct action.
Inside Vial, refugees were developing the same idea. On March 31, Chios locals, solidarity groups and volunteers protested the detention of refugees. Refugees inside joined in chanting, and then broke out.
After the protest, most of them went inside again. But the police’s hand was tipped. They seemed incapable of keeping the refugees locked up against their will. The next day, hundreds of refugees broke out for good. They went to the port of Chios town and occupied it. They wanted to go to Athens. When I asked them what they’d do when the ferry came, in case they were forbidden to go on it, some said they would try by force. The prison break had heightened their spirits. Most refugees, though, seemed hopeful that they would simply be allowed on. But the ferry was redirected to another port, dashing any such plans, and greatly disturbing the Liliputian economy of Chios.
Yet the refugees remained at the port, for many reasons. Although the local authorities immediately offered them an open camp to stay in (three cheers for direct action!), most didn’t go. They were suspicious of camps. They wanted to go, not stay. They didn’t want to be hidden out of sight, no matter how much more comfortable it might be than sleeping on the concrete floor of the port. It was simply and clearly a political choice. Media was following the action, the refugees could talk openly with anyone they chose. They had freedom and the ear of the public.
Not In My Back Yard
In the afternoon of Sunday, April 3, dozens of refugees were separated from those remaining in Vial. They were to be driven to Tabakika, a migrant processing factory in Chios town. They were to be deported to Turkey the next day, the first installment of the mass-deportations agreed on with Turkey. But neighbors of the huge and ghostly warehouse, apprehensive after the previous weeks’ stories, tried to stop people being transported there.
The tranquil Greek islands have no native riot police. Their officers do have some shin pads and helmets, but no units of the dreaded green-clad MAT. With the mass-imprisonment scheme, however, MAT-buses had been shipped to the islands. And now they were made to clear the way for the refugee transport. The result was ugly.
You can see the shock and dismay of the protesters. One of them (2’10”) shouts at the MAT: “You came here to beat them, the criminals, and you beat us [instead]!” Also: “Are you Greeks?! Dogs! Get out of here!”
Deportations, port reopens
The next morning, Monday, April 4, the refugees from Tabakika were deported without a hitch. On Tuesday evening, the port was split up into two parts: occupation and shipping. Refugees were allowed to stay on a third of the area, business could then go on as usual on the remainder. A fence was drilled into the concrete.
This meant that the port could now be used – maybe not as comfortably as before, but still without incident. An Athens-ferry came and went, the ferry that the refugees wanted more than anything to leave with, and they simply watched it peacefully.
Municipal meeting and protests
The next day, Wednesday, April 6, when the Chios municipal council was to be in session, a protest was called outside the municipal building – on the town square. The call proclaimed in red letters, printed on top of photos of the port occupation and the MAT-incident: “Men and women of Chios – That’s enough!!”
It referred to the refugees with the xenophobic term λαφρομετανάστες, “smuggled migrants”. While the call was anonymous, it seems to have been made with some effort, since a printed banner was used at the protest. In a move bordering on the embarrassing, it read that Chios residents would soon become refugees themselves. Another one said: “WE ARE NOT RACISTS!” (The banner doth protest to much, methinks.)
As for the attitudes and motives behind the call, it’s slightly murky. Possibly a far-right group had finally found a topic to play on. The attitudes it stirred up were certainly along those lines, if Facebook discussions are anything to go by. On the square, the national anthem was sung. Activists showed up with a pro-refugee banner that was ripped to pieces. Media was shoved away. The municipal meeting was stormed and disrupted. Volunteers were harassed.
Here’s them singing the anthem:
After some very agitated hours, the meeting adjourned, having skirted the main topics of the protesters. (The council decided to demand of the Greek government that Vial be opened.) The protesters had themselves vanished and promised to take things into their own hands two days later, Thursday, April 7. Later in the night, however, a bomb was thrown at Soli Cafe, an occupied house where refugees can eat, get clothes and get support. The mood of the town was souring quickly.
The port gets mobbed
On Thursday afternoon, refugees in the port were having one of their lively protests. As they did, one of the refugees climbed up to the Greek and EU flags flying above the port. This had happened many times before, and was almost routine: he kissed them, honored them, waved and posed for photos.
Later it would be claimed that he was about to rip the Greek flag down, but this was contradicted by the accounts of numerous refugees and journalists. It also goes against the whole mood and attitude of the refugees, who had made a banner saying “Thank you Greece” and who had not been at all confrontational, except in the initial move to occupy the port. An attack on the flag, however, was said to have been the provocation. The refugee was attacked, but ran away. “Concerned citizens” heaped around and shouted at solidarity groups to leave the port. The mood was electric. Suddenly a plainly clothed trio marched towards us (I was standing inside the port at the time) and ordered us to go out. I asked for identification, and though they didn’t give it, they said they were from the port police. They seemed very hurried. I walked out and saw the mob approach the gate where we were walking out. I walked away, but when I looked back, I saw one member of solidarity get swarmed, shoved onto the ground and then beaten up.
The latter part of the video shows the more disturbing part of the evening. It took place some hours later. Refugees had been herded into an easily defended (but also pretty much fenced-off) part of the port when solidarity was cloeared out. Media was allowed in, but the MAT arrayed itself between refugees and the mob.
The shields were turned towards the mob, so it was obvious where the physical threat lay. Nonetheless, uniformed officers – locals – stood in the mob, chatting merrily with the “concerned citizens”. When a firecracker was thrown into the refugee throng, nobody got arrested. The mob wasn’t made to move away. On the contrary, as can be seen in the video, the man in the suit – the mayor – used the occasion to threaten the refugees that if they didn’t come with him, they’d fare the worse for it. “You come with me or you go with them!” he shouts. Numerous refugees were arrested that night, charged on five counts and, two days later, convicted.
Much has been made of the fact that the mob didn’t attack most refugees it came into contact with. (The union of Coast Guard officials especially touted this fact in a rather hysterical press release.) That would also have been outrageously brutal, since most of them were families. The fact that this didn’t become a modern day pogrom is not a humanitarian victory. Some refugees were actually attacked, but the lack of physical violence against the rest conceals the tremendous psychological damage the mob inflicted on the port occupants. It is hard to watch the video above and think that this was anything but an attack on them.
As for the solidarity people, who actually were attacked and chased away from the refugees: they were clearly the enemy of the mob. When they tried helping refugee families move away, they were screamed at, told to shut up, threatened with violence. Police confirmed to at least one volunteer in a neutral tone that he would get beaten up if he didn’t go. Police, while not violent against volunteers, condoned the violence inflicted on them. The man whom I saw swarmed and beaten up was arrested immediately and charged with disobeying police orders. He was kept in a police station in handcuffs overnight. In a nearby room, the arrested refugees were being beaten up – for fifteen minutes, one of them says.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Chios authorities used the mob to cow the refugees into submission. Evacuating the port by force was always out of the question, because of the heavy media presence. But the reaction of the authorities to the mob’s arrival, and the line they took as the night went on, shows how they used the opportunity. Even given the stated will of the authorities, that they didn’t want to protect the occupation, allowing one-sided violence against the occupation and then taking part in it is an effective statement of allegiance: with a xenophobe mob, against refugees making a political statement.
European police have gone to ludicrous lenghts to prove that refugees never do anything of their own accord; that it’s always white activists pulling strings behind the scenes. This smells of racism, and it has ridiculous consequences. Distributing info-leaflets to refugees is now seen as subversive. Having sheets of paper in Arabic stamps you as a possible fomenter of insurrection. Volunteers and activists are constantly being accused of taking money for their humanitarian work. (This isn’t specific to the refugee crisis. Environmental activists have heard this many times before, normally from people who don’t understand why you would lift a finger for anyone except if you got money for it.) The suspicion sometimes becomes laughable, for instance when an activist in Chios was charged with espionage for taking a photo of a Frontex-boat.
Yet activists don’t really benefit from any of this. They are just working for a better world. And this puts the authorities of Chios in a strange light. They got rid of a political problem, benefiting politically, by explicitly threatening refugees with a mob. The port was operational, so the practical reasons for evacuating it were slim. It was cynical opportunism, one that gives a loud and clear message to residents of Chios: if you have problems with a minority, forming a mob and threatening physical violence may be your best bet.
Yesterday, refugees broke out of Vial to join protests outside. After more than a week of overcrowded imprisonment, insufficient food, bad facilities, degrading treatment and a humiliating lack of information and access to asylum processing, people felt awful. Fights have repeatedly broken out and the police has been powerless or unwilling to stop them. “These fights never happened in the open camps,” a local commented today. But now they do, and last night they boiled over. Fights started in the evening and went on late into the night. Stones were thrown, people wielded iron bars. It goes to show that if you starve, humiliate and isolate people sufficiently, they can turn on each other.
Refugees had already planned yesterday, after seeing their overwhelming numerical advantage over police, to leave the prison today. These fights hardened their resolve. “Noon tomorrow” they said, and at noon they broke out. Hundreds marched down to Chios town, to the port, where they want to take the ferry.
Police isn’t happy about any of this, but is not sufficiently staffed to do much about it. Riot police may be brought here, but that will take at least a day. The mood at the prison is tense and nobody is allowed near the fences. “Yesterday was yesterday. Today is today. Go away now,” a uniformed man told me as I approached to hotspot today, shortly after the breakout. Very solemn faces were behind the fence, looking out. They seemed not to want or not to dare to speak. Gates between partitions of the camp, that had been open yesterday, are closed now. There are plenty of people inside who missed their chance of escaping, some because they had sickly relatives to take care of.
Most of those who broke out today want to stay on the dock until the ferry comes, it seems to me. The police wants the port cleared so ferries and legal passengers can go about their business unimpeded. But refugees want to go to, too, law and order be damned. (It is not surprising, after the treatment they’ve gotten, that their respect for European law and authorities has diminished somewhat.) A few hours after refugees occupied the port, a representative of the authorities walked in with an announcement: The open camp at Souda, a stone’s throw away, would be opened to them. The port might then be cleared, everything could go on as before. By and large, refugees said no.
Their thinking is simple. They were told before that they were stuck in a prison. Now they’re not. They are now told they can’t go on the ferry. Why not? What’s there to stop them going further? It may not work out, but at least they have choices now. They can occupy the port or they can go to an open camp. These are choices won by their raucous disobedience.
This shows the essential flaw of the advice constantly given to refugees by NGOs, UNHCR staff and detention center volunteers: That they should stay calm. The simple truth is, you don’t beat injustice by accepting it. On the contrary, you gain concessions and protect your rights by defying it, by disobeying, by doing what is right even though you’re told you can’t. The people who yesterday were being told they couldn’t leave prison are now being begged to move to an open camp. This is the power of direct action.
It is hard to believe the police will allow refugees to board the ferry tonight. But the authorities will be in a tight spot. Refugees have been imprisoned here for two weeks without reliable information or food supplies, without access to an asylum process. They have every right to be allowed to move on, rather than suffer this humiliation. They know this. It will be hard to stop them.
Today a protest was organized outside the Vial hotspot in Chios. Refugees took part by clapping and shouting and then broke out to join the protest outside. As they rushed out, they chanted “FREEDOM! FREEDOM! FREEDOM!” and continued chanting against deportations, for their asylum cases to be taken and appealing to Angela Merkel to improve their lot. The dozen or so policemen present, seemingly flabbergasted at this turn of events, put on helmets and positioned themselves between us and the refugees.
This faintly ridiculous setup was only symbolic. A friend of mine, whom I’d only talked with through a fence, just walked around the officers and shook my hand. “How are you doing?” he said with a beaming smile, as if we were meeting in a public park on a weekend stroll. People talked, walked around. Refugees enjoyed looking at their prison from the outside.
However, there wasn’t much for them to do outside. They’ve had some opportunities to leave the prison by climbing over the fence and walking the several kilomteres to town, but they can’t leave the island and are easily identifiable here. This is the genius of keeping them on the islands, which were cleared of refugees before they arrived. This also exposes how ludicrous their imprisonment is. If they can break out and still have no place to go, why lock them up in the first place?
As it turned out, most went inside again. A committee of local people visited the facility to check out conditions there. Police split off the more vociferous protesters, presumably to bring the protest to an early close, and because they had absolutely no capacity for a greater action.
Refugees mostly reacted with bemused indifference. They slowly went inside again at their leisure, underlining what an absurdity the locked door policy is.
At the end of the protest many interviews were given. People inside still haven’t got hot water, so they can’t clean themselves or their clothes. They’ve been there for 11 days, by and large, are still unhappy about the food, tensions inside are still running high and people seem more and more to reply “I’m not doing good” when asked how they feel. Asylum processing has finally started, with numerous problems and delays, but people are desparate. They didn’t come to Greece to remain in this country of economic disaster. They know people in the north of Europe. They want to go there. And the fact is that even if they apply for asylum here, they probably won’t get it.
But they have been through plenty, and this will not break them. There are other ways into Europe, other ways to get by. The walls may seem impregnable, the authorities unbeatable, but most of the time this is all an illusion. Sometimes all it takes is just shaking open the fence and walking around the policeman, and freedom is yours.
Since Sunday, refugees who arrive on the Greek islands are by and large brought into prisons with the aim of deporting them. The places are officially called “hotspots”, but both police, visitors and inmates call them prisons. The prisoners have a legal right to apply for asylum, but have so far had great difficulty in lodging their requests. They have to pay to go to prison and they are fed through a fence.
Today, five days after imprisonment of refugees started, these instructions were finally put up. They aim to lessen the monumental confusion inside the Vial hotspot. Notice that the sign instructs inmates to “ask the authorities”, the institution that is imprisoning them, for information about their rights. We have talked to several refugees inside who want to apply for asylum but can’t. Procedures, staff or facilities seem to be lacking.
This is the inevitable and foreseeable result of the EU-Turkey agreement, which only gave the Greek authorities a few dozen hours to completely revamp their reception process, an impossible task. And the Greek state has acquiesced to the EU’s plans by imprisoning refugees, even though facilities are incapable of providing for them properly.
This official statement blatantly contradicts the claims of a police officer who visited activists at Soli Cafe, Chios town, in the afternoon of March 23. He identified himself as Costas and said that everyone in Vial could apply for asylum but that nobody wanted to.
While refugees stay in Vial, volunteers provide them with food – but are forbidden from entering the camp. (Independent volunteers have been harrassed when visiting the hotspot to bring food, and have been forbidden from talking with inmates.)
As a result of this awkward distribution method and the degrading conditions where they take place, conflicts inside the camp can result. After a food distribution on March 23, fights broke out. “There’s no police here to clear the fight,” a refugee told us as it happened. People fought with stones and five refugees – one woman – got hurt. Police left them to it for half an hour. It seems that everybody ran for it; the NGOs and the camp management. But the refugees, men, women and children, remained locked inside.
And it doesn’t end there. The refugees were brought into the prison by bus, which they had to pay for.
These buses have been in operation for a while, and offer not just a joyride to jail, but also wildly inconsistent prices, depending on currency. We have talked with a refugee brought into the prison after the agreement with Turkey went into effect, who had to pay for his bus ride, so the practice wasn’t stopped after the policy of imprisonment began.
All the foreseeable confusion and harshness of the EU-Turkey deal have come to pass. We are now witnessing the ugly result of prioritizing border control over humanity, xenophobia over compassion. These prison camps brutalize everyone, the inmates and our own society. They are explicitly built to grind to dust the hope and aspirations of foreigners, some of whom are running for their lives, or desparate to be reunited with their families. Europe’s hotspots are a disgusting blot on its conscience, they are a culmination of its vilest fears and hatred. They have to be destroyed.
Last night, two groups of independent activists got apprehended and interrogated for hours by police for standing on a public street outside the Vial hotspot in Chios. They have been visiting the hotspot to keep an independent eye on what is happening there. Inmates told us the food and water there were insufficient, so we have tried bringing them some.
While the activists enjoyed their five-hour police station hangout, the cops pleaded with them to just register, go by protocol, and work under the camp command. They refused.
Refusing to work in a refugee prison under the command of the prison guards is a principled and practical decision. It’s the official line of Doctors without borders, it’s the line the UN refugee agency is taking in the Greek hotspots. “We refuse to facilitate this cruelty,” MSF said. It’s a way to prevent your work being perverted. It’s also a way to put pressure on the authorities to stop mass incarceration.
What follows is a description of what independent and unregistered people must go through these days in Chios in order to talk with refugees. In this case we also tried to bring them some bare necessities, but not on the terms of the hotspot managers, to avoid becoming their volunteer suppliers.
The first group, Tuesday afternoon
We went up with 200kg of apples in our van to hand out, because we were told the refugees didn’t have enough food. When we came we saw there was a demonstration at the front gate, with quite a lot of people outside.
That wouldn’t have been a good time to give out apples.
We were standing in a public street, keeping the apples in our van, thinking about how to hand them out and what was going on. We split up, three went up to the upper part of the camp to see what was going on there. Then police officers came and asked us for identification.
We asked why they wanted them. They didn’t give a reason. Later I showed the ID but they had already said they’d take us to the police station. There was a small shed in front of the gates where they did a full body check on us.
They also searched our car. After that they brought us to the police station in Chios town where they asked us one at a time for name, date of birth, names of parents and so on. We stayed in total about five hours but they leveled no charges against us.
They took me into another room for three hours and started to ask questions about how I came to the island. I came from Izmir via Cesme. They asked me many times about this, about the date, they repeated my answer wrong so I had to correct them. They asked me again and again and again while they were filming me with a mobile phone. At least it seems they did, one policeman pointed his phone at me while I was talking, stopped when we took a break and began again when they started again with the questions. They were smoking inside all the time.
After four hours we met the second group.
The second group, Tuesday night
We bought water for about 100 euro and went to the camp. We saw the first group had been caught, saw Philipp in the car, and saw the protest. One refugee had climbed onto the fence and trying to get the attention of people inside, to cheer them on.
F We decided to go back to town and I went with a different group to Vial. The police was putting on riot gear and we wanted to observe.
We walked to the camp, decided to go to a place with a good view. We couldn’t see much going on inside the camp, except we heard a woman screaming and crying. As things got more calm, and only five to six refugees were left at the gate, we went back to the car.
We recognized when we arrived that someone saw and followed us. When we came back and sat in the car, before we’d managed to start it, the police came and screamed in Greek. We just sat there and they kept screaming. Then we thought maybe they were saying we should leave the car, so we did.
One of them went to the other side of our van, where F. was sitting, and I saw he had a gun in his hand.
It was crazy, one policeman even had a gun in his hand. Then they asked us for IDs, we gave them. We had specifically taken them so we’d not have this kind of problem. The police searched our car without permission, searched all of us, which I’m sure is not allowed either. One of the young dudes pulled out handcuffs but the other cops calmed him down.
They separated us and forbade us from talking together. I did not want to show my ID. Then the policemen started searching my pockets and I didn’t know if it was legal. They found honeyflower seeds and all of them sniffed at it. The most shocking thing is that they just went through my things, found my ID and took it. They also searched everywhere in the car, even inside a juice bottle. They asked what we were doing here and said: “You are not supposed to be here, this is a prison now.”
We met the first group in the station. The last one was still being questioned. The others left after about maybe 40 minutes. Then they asked us how long we’d been in Greece, where we’d come from, what we were doing here, what we were doing at home, where we lived, where we stayed in Greece, who paid for the place and so on. Then I had a few questions. I asked them why I had to be there. I had just been sitting in a car on a public road. I asked them if there were other public roads which I could not stay on, did they maybe have a list for me? They said it was just because there were refugees there, they had to protect them from strangers.
The third group, Wednesday afternoon
We arrived at Vial to talk to the people there again about the conditions inside. We were talking with them for 15-20 minutes while the police passed by several times. Then they stopped and asked us for ID. We asked them why, and they said we weren’t allowed to be there, that it was a restricted area. We showed them our passports. They asked us where our car was and why we were there. We said it was because we were passing by and because we didn’t understand why kids were in prison. They called someone and wrote all our info down, also the licence plate and our IDs, and told us we’d have to leave now, that we were allowed to pass by, but not talk to the people. They said that several times. Then we went into the car and drove to the main gates. There we talked to an NRC worker. He said they were not inside the prison anymore. He also said there is nobody inside Vial, apart from the refugees. Police had also left. The refugees are fighting inside and there are protests and the police is afraid of the violence. He also said that now it’s just a matter of time until people inside start to kill each other.
Since yesterday, refugees arriving on the Greek islands have been detained to have them ready for deportation. They don’t know what’s happening to them, volunteers are mostly banned from assisting and the police doesn’t have instructions on how to register and manage the new arrivals. Now they must wait behind barbed wire fences, because Europe was in a hurry to stop them coming. The police doesn’t know how to take their asylum requests, which breaches the refugee convention, and the UNHCR has told the EU that the authorities have crossed a red line; it won’t deliver refugees to them anymore.
We went to the Vial hotspot in Chios today with biscuits and sanitary products, throwing them surreptitiously over the fence. People grappled for them and jumped after them. “We are hungry, especially the children,” one inmate told me. They get three meals a day, but there’s no shop or open kitchen for them if the food is insufficient.
A social worker in the camp said nobody knew what to do, today had been a haze of stress and confusion. The army, who previously ran the camp, had left. Most NGOs had been thrown out. All procedures and even basic knowledge about where things like keys were kept disappeared with them.
When we asked what their thoughts about the future were, some refugees beamed and pointed in a random direction. “Germany!” they shouted happily. We tried to explain that the new EU-Turkish agreement made that extremely difficult and complicated. It was designed to stop them from doing exactly that. They would first of all have to apply for asylum in Greece. They looked at us in disbelief.
This was just the beginning of a long and heartbreaking discussion. We tried to tell them what we knew about their situation without inciting a riot, which would ruin their already slim chances of staying in Europe. But they were clearly disappointed, sad and angry.
They told us they got neither the opportunity nor permission to buy SIM cards, so they can’t keep in touch with their families, and they don’t have electricity and only a limited internet connection. They were not just imprisoned, but isolated.
That isolation was perfected when two policemen came in a pickup truck and asked us what we were doing. We told them we were talking with the refugees. The policemen told us to go away. We promised we’d come again with SIM cards, food and water. And the prisoners asked us to tell the world what was happening.
Implementation of the EU-Turkey deal has started, haphazardly. The weather was relatively good last night, so plenty of people came to the islands. Most, if not all of them, will have bought their ticket before the deal was signed, so the numbers don’t tell us much about longer term changes in smuggling routes. Some new arrivals may not know about the deal at all. But for most, it seems, staying behind just isn’t an option either way.
Access to new arrivals was curtailed on the port in Chios town this morning, with volunteers being ordered at one point not to touch the refugees. Their access to the reception area was controlled by police. I saw a journalist sitting dolefully outside, apparently waiting for the officers to relent or get distracted. Or just disappear.
After their reception, all the refugees were brought into the hotspot-detention center for registration. Volunteers don’t seem too clear on what will happen to them next, since deportations to Turkey will only begin in two weeks. Maybe they’ll just have to wait in detention. Maybe they’ll move to facilities on the mainland. It’s hard to see either happening without serious overcrowding and related problems.
To keep its bureaucracy straight, Europe wanted to clear the islands of refugees before midnight, when the deal went into effect. There are still a few hundred here in Chios at camp Souda, but it seems likely that most or all will be moved to the mainland tonight.
Apart from the hurried evacuation of the islands, not much seems to have changed. But the real test is what will be done with refugees after registration; where the souls will be stored, and in what conditions.