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.