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A refugee child is rescued. Last year 3,000 people drowned in just six kilometres of sea. Photos: Oscar Webb
A quarter of a million refugees passed through Greece last year, most fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Of those, almost half had to find their way across the small Greek island of Lesbos, which is off the coast of Turkey, chasing their singular dream: peace. It is the most dangerous of journeys.
The Turkish coastguards, subsidised by the EU, hunt refugees like animals. Eric Kempson, a British sculptor who’s lived on Lesbos for over a decade and now coordinates an extensive volunteer operation, confirmed the worst accounts coming from refugees. ‘I see it every morning through my binoculars. They ram and slash the dinghies to sink them. They fire their guns in the air. One thing they’re doing now is throwing the refugees a line, telling them to hold on and then sending electric current down it. I had a three month old baby with those injuries the other day.’
Often, smugglers make their getaway some distance from the shore, leaving the refugees alone on the open sea with no pilot. They over-pack the boats, forcing people to throw all their possessions overboard to keep from sinking. A few times, smugglers have thrown bags hiding babies inside, drowning them helplessly.
Storms are frequent, but the boats keep coming – bad weather never stops them, smugglers just sell discounted passages to poorer people. Between January and October 2015 well over 3,000 people drowned in just six kilometres of sea. Since then, worsening weather has made the crossing even more perilous. Some boats go down with hundreds of men, women and children on board. The bodies surface for days.
But the smugglers will thrive as long as the EU refuses to provide safe, legal passage, because even this deadly odyssey is safer than what they leave behind.
Often there are only a handful of volunteers to see the boats safely ashore. Refugees arrive soaking wet and there is no shelter. Emergency blankets and dry clothes repeatedly run out, putting children particularly in danger of hypothermia.
On my first day on the beaches, a boat ran out of fuel off the coast and started taking on water. I watched, aghast, as young men threw themselves overboard to keep it afloat for the women and children. Malnourished and exhausted, they were clearly in distress but there was no boat to rescue them.
It took a few minutes for me to realise that neither the police nor the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) staff would move. I put down my camera and ran into the sea. With a few volunteers, we brought everyone safely ashore, weeping and praying. It was an extraordinary moment, dampened by the knowledge that their ordeal was far from over.
This incident tells you everything you need to know about the refugee crisis, which has utterly overwhelmed this beautiful island. It is always the independent volunteers, local and international, leading the way. The human rights, and often very survival, of the refugees depends on them. The big aid agencies are held back by the challenges of providing humanitarian aid in Europe, most of which are political.
‘Whenever this is over,’ said Phoevos, a 21-year-old Greek coordinating solidarity work on the beaches, ‘I want to go into the mountains and shout until I have no voice. I will cry like a baby for the things I’ve seen. Then I’ll just have a stupid smile on my face remembering everything we’ve done here.’ They are doing incredible work – but it is not enough. Without sufficient transport to the camps, too many families walk the dark mountain roads trembling with cold and shock. Finally, they reach the overcrowded camps to sleep outside on the ground or queue for a single blanket. Given the scale of the crisis, you might expect mass shelter construction by UNHCR. But for whatever reasons – lack of resources, state resistance, EU immigration policy – it’s not happening.
Food shortages in the camps force many refugees to go hungry or, if they have it, spend all their money on food. All non‑Syrian and many Syrian refugees end up at the largest camp, a military facility in Moria. The registration process is an ordeal that usually lasts days. Here too, basic supplies, medics and native-language information are scarce. One single mother reported having to wait in line outside with her seven children for four days and three nights without food.
Refugees queue to register. The registration process is an ordeal in itself that can see people queuing for days on end.
Overcrowding and lack of communication has been creating regular panic at the gates, with parents holding their children above the crowd to prevent them being crushed. One volunteer reports being threatened by riot police, who described the refugees as ‘dogs’. When she argued that sleeping bags being kept in storage should be distributed at night to help calm rising tensions, she was told: ‘Shut your face. I could kill you here, and no one would care.’
Moria also houses two detention centres, one for children. Reports have leaked out that the centre holds around 70 unaccompanied minors, two of whom are young girls. One child said that police punish bad behaviour – like runaway attempts – by shutting off the power and leaving them in darkness.
For weeks, police brutality and teargassings were almost daily. The police are overworked and underpaid, working without training or translators. One Syrian man, accompanied by his bruised son – reportedly beaten by police – claimed his wife had been taken into detention along with their youngest child, separating the family with a fence of razor wire.
When storms start, the officials retreat inside the walls of the detention centre, leaving the refugees to police themselves. The ethnic segregation initiated by the authorities has taken on a life of its own. Non-Syrians throw away their passports because they know you don’t get fed as often if you’re from ‘the wrong war’.
Safety can be measured by skin colour and gender, and if you’re a black African or a woman alone you’re in trouble. When the violent discrimination against African refugees was raised by a volunteer, who observed a racial hierarchy developing in the camp, one police officer replied: ‘Hierarchy? Why? Don’t they know they’re all Mongols?’‘There’s a calculated budget for preserving human life here’
Following my exposé of the deprivation and police brutality at Camp Moria for Al Jazeera in October, the Hellenic Police told me an ‘urgent investigation’ had been called – but into a single documented incident. The rest are forgotten.
Storms transform Moria into something unspeakable. Sickness and trench foot are rampant as people have been left exposed to the elements. Waiting for UNHCR shelters that never came, volunteers distributed bin liners that were fought for like diamonds. We had already run out when I spotted another circle of Afghan mothers with infants and toddlers huddled under a tree. They had nothing. There was nothing they could do.
That night, I was rushing back to Moria after receiving reports of more violence and teargas, children trampled into wire fences. Heading for a taxi I ran into an UNHCR officer on the island. I asked if he knew what was happening at the camp. He didn’t. When I told him, he smiled and shrugged. ‘Same as most nights,’ he said, and continued on his way.
All this is part of the desperate struggle to get to Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos, from where the refugees take the ferry to Athens – on the way, they hope, to northern Europe. Those without money are often trapped at the port. An Afghan family of seven recently found themselves in this position and only the generosity of a few volunteers, who paid for the tickets themselves, saw them safely on their way.
Even on the ferry, little changes but the view. No money, no food. Cheap ticket, no sofa. Sometimes they don’t even bother asking for a ticket – if you look Middle Eastern, they just assume you cannot pass. Great throngs of people go hungry alongside overpriced restaurants. Staff patrol the hallways and stand like bouncers at the doors, protecting ‘VIP power sockets’ from refugees desperate to charge phones and tell their families they’re alive. Women and children sleep on deck in the wind, while warm lounges sit empty. It’s like a floating apartheid state.
Human rights organisations have been raising the alarm for refugees in Greece for years, highlighting racial violence, corruption, police impunity and legal failures. After years of sustained criticism the UNHCR changed its tune when its high commissioner visited Lesbos with Greece’s prime minister Alexis Tsipras. Refugees were cleared from the island and media-friendly areas set up to substitute for the ugly reality.
As I was watching Moria descend into chaos, UNHCR was praising the Greek authorities for their ‘gigantic’ humanitarian effort. They presented Moria as a place where children get their faces painted and have Playstations. When I questioned UNHCR about this disparity, my concerns were dismissed as ‘utter rubbish’. But not everyone agrees. One UNHCR staff member, on condition of anonymity, told me: ‘Moria is worse than some of the camps I’ve worked in Africa. We are not being allowed to fulfill our mandate.’
UNHCR is supposed to provide ‘protection and seek permanent solutions for the problem of refugees’. The chronic failure in Lesbos also amounts to a violation of international law by the Greek state, which is obliged to cooperate with UNHCR but lacks the resources to do so. Brutal austerity has compromised vital services for citizens, let alone the refugees.Some boats go down with hundreds of men, women and children on board. The bodies surface for days
The truth is that there is weak political will among the European powers to facilitate, let alone pressure Greece to care for these people. Even Germany’s offers of aid ring hollow, since it continues to resist Greek debt relief and demands harsher border control in exchange. ‘There’s a calculated budget for preserving human life here,’ complains Rayyan, a volunteer cook from Malaysia. ‘Welcome to the frontline.’
Visiting Lesbos at the beginning of November with Martin Schulz, head of the European Parliament, Alexis Tsipras said Greece was ‘battling something which is beyond our abilities’ to cope with alone. ‘We were unfortunate enough to see an improvised dinghy as we were heading in, full of refugees,’ he said. ‘It’s criminal.’
Previously, in an address to the UN, Tsipras was an impassioned advocate for refugee rights. ‘We do not believe that the future of Europe or the future of our world can be built on ever-higher walls or children dying at our doorsteps,’ he said, condemning the EU for its xenophobic migration policies and calling again for an end to austerity.
Fine words. But before condemning European racism, Tsipras needs to check the composition of his own government and police force. He boldly declares that physical walls are not the answer, but the combined efforts of the EU and the Greek right are building a formidable political one. Any glossing over the deplorable conditions in ‘hotspots‘ like Lesbos quietly lets them off the hook.
With the storms and violence drawing international media attention and renewed criticism from UNHCR, there has been some improvement in camp conditions. But many fear what will happen when the world turns away. Massive EU investment, not in border control but in humanitarian aid, is vital to prevent mass casualties. And it’s time those with power started telling the truth about this island.