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)