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Europe’s Greek tragedy deepens out of sight

March 30, 2016.766 people reached the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios and Kos in the last 24 hours.Darko Vojinovic/Press Association. All rights reserved.The boats
are still coming.

The
numbers may seem modest compared to the thousands of daily arrivals on Greek
shores just a few months ago, before the rest of Europe decided to turn Greece
into a holding pen for close to 60,000 refugees. But the more than 3,000
individuals seeking international protection who have made the perilous journey
from Turkey since the start of August, are enough to overwhelm the already
over-crowded, under-resourced camps on islands scattered across the Aegean Sea.

One of
these islands is Chios. With an official capacity providing for 1,100 refugees, some
3,300 people, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis, are now languishing in
sordid conditions in the island’s three camps – Vial, Souda and Dipethe.  

Depressingly
little has changed here since my first visit in April. There are few signs of
the EU’s emergency humanitarian assistance trickling through. Instead,
refugees have traded the horrors of war and terrorism for a chronic state of
squalor and desperation, marked by inadequate food and medical care, as well as
the trauma and fear that grind down their dignity day in, day out.

The lucky
ones occupy small plastic UNHCR containers – sometimes sharing with ten others
or more. Those less fortunate live in tents or makeshift shelters made of
tarps, including dozens of families with young children, pregnant women, and
the elderly and frail. They fled their home after death threats from Daesh and forced conscription by
Assad’s army, and arrived on Chios just hours after the fateful agreement came
in to effect.

With
temperatures outside soaring above 30C at mid-day, the heat inside is
punishing. Sitting inside her tent in Dipethe, across the street from Chios’
central square, Nour, an 11-year old girl from Syria, shrugs apologetically in
the sweltering heat as she explains that this is where her family of seven has
been sleeping for several months.

The countless
gestures of hospitality – sharing meals prepared by volunteer kitchens, trading
stories and jokes over tea – that we encountered as volunteers could easily be
mistaken for a kind of benign normality. Yet, in the dehumanising context of a
camp, these gestures are more than matters of custom. Rather, they embody attempts
to restore a sense of dignity and equality currently being denied to these
people. And the children’s smiles that greet visitors mask a darker reality
altogether of life in a refugee camp, where psychological support is virtually
absent. ‘Nothing’ is how a teenage boy with self-inflicted scars on his legs
introduced himself in Arabic, a fellow refugee in Dipethe tells me.

Almost
everyone I had met the first time was still there, detained on Chios for more
than five months, unable to continue their journey thanks to the EU-Turkey
deal. Frustration is palpable. Few have any faith left in the snail-pace asylum
process, their only chance of avoiding deportation to Turkey and, perhaps, one
day being relocated to another EU member state or being reunified with family
members.

Three
months and nine days. That’s how long Wassim, a Damascus University graduate in
English Literature, and his wife Selwa, a Maths teacher, have been awaiting the
outcome of their asylum interview in a container in Souda, their resilience
sustained solely by hope of a better future for their two small children. They
fled their home after death threats from Daesh and forced conscription by
Assad’s army, and arrived on Chios just hours after the fateful agreement came
in to effect. Back in May, they both joined a hunger
strike in
protest at the absence of effective legal representation and international
protection. ‘We don’t need food. We need a future’, a hand-written sign read in
the camp.    

Unwilling
to tolerate the everyday misery and monotony any further, some are
contemplating a return to their war-torn homelands. ‘In Syria, we may die one
day. Here we die everyday’, says a young Kurdish woman.

Act
II: Into the void

‘In
Syria, we may die one day. Here we die everyday’, says a young Kurdish woman.

Chios is
only the first act of this contemporary Greek tragedy. Families who have passed
the first step of the asylum procedure are now slowly being moved to the
mainland to await their second interview, scheduled to begin in early 2017.

However,
cash-strapped authorities and local charities are struggling to take more
people in. There are daily reports of vulnerable people sleeping rough on the
streets of Athens. Conditions in camps on the mainland are often far worse than
those on the islands. ‘One woman’s son has severe brain and eye issues and she
fears he may die here. Another mother cries at the state of her malnourished
children. [They are] so thin they look half their age,’ Jess Ford, a Canadian
volunteer, writes from Athens.

Save the Children warns that children ‘are being left at
risk of exploitation and disease because of an almost total lack of official
reception facilities.’ Some reported ‘they hadn’t eaten for days’ while ‘afraid
to sleep outside or to go to the bathroom at night because of the risk of
abuse’. After visiting 16 camps, the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has called for their closure
due to public health concerns.

In light
of the void left by official humanitarian agencies, one shudders to think what
would happen in the absence of the various solidarity squats that have sprung up in Athens and
Thessaloniki, run collaboratively by refugees, locals, and international
volunteers.

Indeed,
were it not for the tireless efforts and ingenuity of the latter, many refugees
would not be regularly fed, clothed, given a roof over their heads, let alone
briefed on their rights under Greek and EU asylum law. Children would go
without any education, vulnerable cases of unaccompanied minors would go
unreported, pregnant women left without due medical care and their new-borns
malnourished.

‘Why is
it that unqualified individuals are meant to care and support these situations?
Is this not what the UNHCR, EU and governments are meant to be in place for?’,Jess
asks. ‘This is bullshit,’ she adds.   

Abdication
of responsibility

In March,
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke of the ‘Herculean task’
facing Europe in implementing the EU-Turkey deal. Hailed recently by Juncker as a ‘success’, albeit ‘fragile’, it is becoming
clearer by the day to those who witness its human toll that it has set in place
a slow-motion catastrophe. While the UK government spends £1.9million on building walls to keep out
refugees from Calais,
in Greece alone, over 1,400 children are on the waiting list
for shelter.

Even on
its own terms the deal is not working, however. Although no longer an epic exodus projected daily onto our TV screens, the Balkan Route
is still operational; what Tusk called the smugglers’ ‘business model’ is
thriving, while refugees face ever more dangerous journeys to reach northern
Europe.

Sustained
by political myopia, the deal rests entirely on the fictional notion of Turkey
being a ‘safe third-country’ – a blatant denial of Turkey’s widely-documented
violations of the right to international protection, including forced returns to Syria, illegal under international
law, and shootings by border guards.

One
wonders what Tusk had in mind when he described Turkey as ‘the best example
in the world of how to treat refugees’. In light of Erdogan’s apparent
authoritarianism, the cynical willingness of those who scripted this tragedy to
barter human lives seemingly knows no bounds.

The only
instrument the EU currently has to resolve this self-imposed crisis is the
September 2015 Relocation scheme, under which 66,000 refugees ought to be moved
from Greece to other member states within two years. In a wholesale abdication
of shared responsibility, only 3,016 refugees had been relocated by mid-August.

Britain,
for its part, has opted out of the scheme altogether and is struggling to meet
its modest target of resettling 20,000 refugees directly from Syria and neighbouring
countries. With the Dubs amendment, the government committed itself in May
to relocate several thousand unaccompanied minors from camps on the continent. So far, it
has taken in little more than 30. And while the UK government spends £1.9million on
building walls to keep out refugees from Calais, in Greece alone, over 1,400 children are on the waiting list for shelter.

Against
Tusk’s claim at this week’s G20 summit that Europe has done its fair share and is ‘close to its
limit’ on accepting more refugees, it is worth recalling a recent report by Oxfam which shows that collectively the world’s six wealthiest states,
including the UK, host less than 9% of the global refugee population. The UK’s political elites
[are] ‘more out of touch than any other leaders globally’.

Public
attitudes, too, are far more complex than often assumed. A recent survey by Amnesty International ‘shows how anti-refugee political rhetoric is
out of kilter with public opinion’, singling out the UK’s political elites for
being ‘more out of touch than any other leaders globally’: 70% of British
respondents want their government to do more to help people fleeing war and
persecution, while a remarkable 29% said they were ‘willing to open
up their own homes to refugees’.

Those who
conflate xenophobic headlines with public opinion thus risk fuelling a grim,
self-fulfilling prophecy, especially politicians who believe pandering to
nationalist and Islamophobic sentiments is the only way of extracting political
capital from the plight of refugees.

To be
sure, not all governments have succumbed to the lure of anti-refugee populism.
Portugal, for example, has committed to accepting 10,000 refugees – more than double the figure
allocated by the relocation programme. But here too progress is agonizingly
slow, hampered by bureaucratic and political hurdles.

Meanwhile,
on Chios, volunteers cannot afford the luxury of inertia. Scrambling dwindling
donations, stocking warehouses, they are busy planning ahead for what is likely
to be a long, cold winter on the front-lines of this crisis. For, while
political elites continue to bury their heads in the sand in the face of
Europe’s colossal political and ethical failure, they have tomorrows’ boats to
welcome onto its shores.

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