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.
As the EU-Turkey agreement is to come into effect on Sunday, we’d be well advised to keep our eyes on the islands. All arrivals will get detained, I’m pretty sure, and then have to wait for two weeks (until April fourth) for deportations to start.
1. We need to make sure that everyone knows they have a right to apply for asylum and appeal if they get denied.
2. We need to make sure that detention conditions get documented, because they are sure to become very bad very quickly.
3. We have to find out what the legal process on the islands will be, because at the moment it is completely incapable of dealing with this number of requests.
4. It might be worth setting up contacts with refugees on arrival or in detention to hear what happens to them after deportation.
5. Many things are supposed to happen before Sunday, to make the deal at least look legal. What will happen with the refugees that are there now, or arrive before Sunday? Those who are on the islands might want to check that out, and also how things change and what personnel gets brought in.
If you are on the islands and want to join a communications group, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, the Greek islands were nominated for the Nobel peace prize for their reception of refugees. Hundreds of thousands have gone across them to pastures greener, in the vain hope that Europe would respect their rights. As we now know, Europe would rather sacrifice those rights than share its soil with illegal immigrants, be they toddlers or trauma-victims, wheelchair-inhabitants or the hated Young Single Males. European states have started feeding them into detention centers on arrival to contain The Flood.
In recent months, our society has shown its narcissistic side with ever cruder force, losing patience for humanitarianism and solidarity at every step. We only seem to talk about a “refugee crisis” when the refugees, who have for decades numbered millions, come to our continent. Until then they were in the Third World, were misery belongs. This “crisis”, it is worth recalling, consists of the liberation of refugees from war and poverty. While terrorism has almost exclusively been directed at them by fascist militias and drunk xenophobes, we nonetheless worry incessantly about the security risk that they pose to us.
Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World, refugees travel around without the monumental fuss about the breakdown of civilization that we now constantly hear from the richest, most hardened states on Earth.
I’m staying in the south of Turkey these days, not all too far from the Syrian border, and here Syrians abound. Large numbers of them came here fleeing bombardment, for example when Russians joined the war, and many are considering going home again now that Putin has announced withdrawal.
The reception Syrians get from the Turkish authorities seems to depend on the political climate, and currently winds are blowing against them. Borders are more closely sealed than before, so many stay in tent camps along the border fence on the Syrian side. These camps are only the first on the road from war – precisely the same reservoirs of misery as you can see against the borders of European nations.
Meeting with Syrians here puts the European hysteria into perspective. I’ve met with a refugee that has worked in an orphanage here since 2014 after fleeing Aleppo, another Syrian with years of experience in running camps, and the staff of a community center that has helped children off the streets and into schools since 2007. It was first directed at Turkish kids, but now the homeless here are mostly Syrians. It’s located in the city of Gaziantep, where Syrians live in their hundreds of thousands or millions – figures vary, since not all get registered.
Gaziantep, which not only lets refugees pass through, but also houses them in enormous numbers, has like the Greek islands been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
I’m told attitudes here toward Syrians are much nicer than on the western coast of Turkey, where they depart for Europe. Maybe it’s because of the smaller distance — cultural and geographical — to Syria, or because of the belief of the western cities in the Religion Of Tourism, which brings money-angels from the sky and teaches its subjects to avoid refugees, who are not angels and can’t fly. They are on the contrary goblins of trouble, trauma and war, and disturb the whitewashed idyll of the fantastically neat Mediterranean resorts.
Thus the refugees are dammed into damnation, kept down south in the fires of war when it suits the Turkish government, or at the very least outside Europe, whatever the cost.
Everybody wishes to go home, but for many refugees, that’s not an option. Maybe we’ll soon manage to lock them all into some satisfyingly confined limbo, where we’ll be able to pluck out those very few scanned, registered and vetted souls that have been proven non-terrorist enough for our fragile, timid society. Then they can enter our angelic heaven of security, white beaches and easy travels. Having thus subjugated their freedom of movement to our hysteria, our crisis will finally be over.
On Friday, a hotspot was opened in Leros for incoming migrants. What is a hotspot, you might well ask, and there are many possible answers: An identification factory for migrants. A prison. A refugee camp run by the police and military, enclosed in barbed wire. An Empire of Identification. Everyone gets registered here: migrants, workers, NGOs and volunteers. Everything in it is square; the paper forms, the people-containers, the walkways and the wire mesh.
There are three camps already on Leros, with humane staff, proper facilities, varied activities and open doors. This does not suit the border regime of Europe. For months it has demanded of the Greek government, and twisted its arm relentlessly, so that it finally builds hotspots. And now they’re here, in all their horrifying glory. Shining metal, immaculate concrete, white gravel and rows of square boxes for The Anonymous Unidentified to stay in until they get their papers and can finally have an actual verified existence in the merciless eyes of the European Union. Unless they’re of the wrong nationality, in which case they’ll get no papers, except for a ticket back to Wherever. Getting papers takes three days, but nobody knows how long one has to wait for deportation.
On the day the hotspot opened, no volunteer or NGO was alerted. They just got a random call a good while after the first arrivals, saying that baby milk was needed. Volunteers immediately came over, and there the refugees sat, huddled in blankets on the concrete floor of the camp entrance. That is where newcomers are made to wait while, one after the other, the human beings are digitized and fingerprinted, their bodies are transformed into verifiable, printable, transferable identities.
The refugees asked if anyone had brought water. It turned out the army had given them a little to drink in plastic cups, but when a few people threw them on the ground, instead of in the garbage can, the army gave them no more.
Talking with refugees was forbidden. “Find out what they need and go,” the men in uniform said. That is how an camp under the police and military operates. The rules are made on the fly by a man in uniform, habitually on a soaring power-trip, maybe even wearing blue-mirror sunglasses in addition to the uniform to underline his privileged anonymity in this dictatorship of identification. Volunteers that try to help here without having registered risk being interrogated about their purpose and threatened with imprisonment. (This is no idle fantasy, it actually happened.) Western volunteers often feel ashamed about their privileges over refugees. Here, the migrant-hating machine of Europe has finally and accidentally created some twisted sort of equality.
What it has not created is a functioning processing facility. The shivering new arrivals on Friday were not received with food or clothes, medicine, information, doctors or legal aid. The reception they got was as cold and stark as the concrete they sat on. The military seems to just expect volunteers to do their bidding, to feed and clothe their prisoners.
And so we did.
This is what volunteering has come to. Shipping meals into prisons so that the Greek military doesn’t have to cook them. And it gets worse. The uniformed masters of the camp have told us that we have to collect the garbage as well.
We can’t be codependent like this. Today we clean up the prison and feed the prisoners, because the military can’t be bothered. What will humanitarian work look like tomorrow?
We should have been prepared for this. These hotspots have been planned openly and publicly for months. They’re already being used to horrible effect in Italy, where MSF has withdrawn its cooperation due to “unacceptable conditions”. We should take the same stand here. There is a risk that the state will then starve people for a while, but if we fold and allow these hotspots to just carry on with our assistance, things won’t get any better. These places may look like an excel document come to life, a registration form built of concrete, but they are in reality chaotically and incompetently run arbitrary dictatorships of the least compassionate institutions in society. We can’t do humanitarian work there any more than a kitten can play in a rottweiler cage. Compassionate people will be bullied out or coaxed into complicity. We’re already the crutches of a spiteful, savage institution that has no humanitarian purpose. Let’s draw a line and stop our cooperation.