Refugees escape prison and occupy the Chios port

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.

Broken windows in Vial this morning.
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.

Refugees at the port in Chios.
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.

Vial yesterday, after the protest, when people were locked up again.
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.

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Man in uniform announces idea.

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.

From the protests yesterday.

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.

Civilly disobedient.
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.


Refugees escape prison and occupy the Chios port

Prisoners rush out of Vial hotspot to protest

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.

Refugees outside, protesting.

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.

Chanter meets police chief.

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.

“A life worth more than a paper – Stop deportations”

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.


Prisoners rush out of Vial hotspot to protest

“This is not a camp, it’s a prison!”

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.

A photo taken by a refugee in the camp, shown to us on a smartphone screen. People are sleeping on pallets which have been covered with cardboard.
A photo taken by a refugee in the camp, shown to us on a smartphone screen. People are sleeping on pallets which have been covered with cardboard.

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.

Getting sanitary products and biscuits into the hotspot.

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.

“This is not a camp, it’s a prison!”

Empty and refill (with more fences)

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.

The Hellenic Coast Guard brings rescued boat people to Chios at ten o’clock today.

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.

On the dock, refugees were put on buses and transported to the hotspot.

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.

Refugees that came before midnight await the ferry that will take them to Athens.

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.

Empty and refill (with more fences)

The hotspot in Leros is a badly run prison

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.

Phone cells in the entry of the camp, which is closed to inmates, indicating that phone calls will only be made on allowance of the camp authorities.
Phone cells in the entrance of the camp, which is closed to inmates, indicating that phone calls will only be made on allowance of the camp authorities.

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.

The dividing line between registered and unregistered.
The dividing line between registered and unregistered.

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?

The mental hospital Lepida, "the guilty secret of Europe", where patients were horribly maltreated, now a detention center for undocumented people.
The mental hospital Lepida, “the guilty secret of Europe”, where patients were horribly maltreated, now a detention center for undocumented people.

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.

The hotspot in Leros is a badly run prison

When the Mayor of Kastellorizo Threw Women and Children on the Street

Kastellorizo is a dreamy little Greek island off the shore of Turkey. It’s the most distant inhabited outpost of Greece, and is therefore pretty much a military base with tourism on top. A military ship constantly hums in the port, a brand-spanking new coast guard vessel is there as well, plenty of speedboats patrol the seas and the sailors, coast guards, police and soldiers sit in the restaurants on the boardwalk playing cards, chatting and fiddling with their worry beads.

The town of Kastellorizo
The town of Kastellorizo

Recently refugees started coming here in large numbers, maybe because of stricter warship patrols further north. In two days nearly one thousand refugees came onto this island of about 200 people. For a while they were allowed to stay in a community center, but after the mayor ordered the island “cleared up” of refugees he closed the center and issued an eviction order to volunteers distributing clothes downtown. But not all refugees had left. Five women, one of them pregnant and one elderly, and ten children under five years of age, were waiting for their husbands and fathers to come from Turkey. They were told go to out with no place to stay.

Refugees being cleared off Kastellorizo onto a MOAS boat
Refugees being cleared off Kastellorizo onto a MOAS boat

The UNHCR has tried for a while to get permission to build a camp here, but the mayor refuses. The women and children got put up by the UNHCR representative here, but there’s no plan for the next arrival. Today, 87 people came on a boat, and the mayor is probably counting his blessings that a ferry is coming in the afternoon so they can be taken away. These ferries come twice a week, so maybe he’ll get MOAS to bring away refugees to Rhodes again, as they did in the “clearup” action last Thursday.

Life jackets on Kastellorizo's rocky shore
Life jackets on Kastellorizo’s rocky shore

Yesterday, the Greek government forbade refugees from coming to the mainland from the islands. The camps in Athens, gas stations on the way north and the camps at the border are all stuffed and the border is closing to more and more people – most recently Afghans. New camps are being built and opened. Greece is turning into the refugee detention center of Europe.

When the Mayor of Kastellorizo Threw Women and Children on the Street

The squat at Notara 26

At Notara 26, in the radical neighborhood of Exarchia, Athens, a five-storey house has been occupied to provide living quarters for refugees. There, families and adolescents are provided with accomodation, food, wi-fi and clothes.

Notara 26

Volunteers regularly go out to Viktoria square, in front of the eponymous subway station, to notify refugees of the facilities. Continue reading “The squat at Notara 26”

The squat at Notara 26