For a moment we can breathe and we can try to sleep. How long this moment will last we don’t know.
For 10 days the people of Palestine have been terrorised. Over 200 people including over 60 children have been murdered in Gaza. Over a dozen murdered on the West Bank. Injuries run into thousands across the whole of Palestine.
Yet again mobile phones and Whatsap and other messaging systems have proved their value. But what a double edged knife. Yasser, explains;
“ As the electricity system was damaged and cut back to 4 hours each day it was not always easy to contact my wife and my 3 young daughters from Belgium where I have just got asylum and now organising our family unification here. I cannot describe my feelings of fear. I knew from the calls that our neighbourhood was being bombarded. I saw our neighbour’s homes smashed to pieces; I saw young guys I hung around with crawling wounded along the street. For 10 nights my family were in such danger. My children screamed for hours every night as the Israeli bombs and rockets poured down. Whenever my mobile rang my heart rate soared to new heights. Was this going to be the call to tell me what I dreaded every breathing moment.
During these days I would meet with my friends in one house in Antwerp and we would stay together. We came from different parts of Gaza so we would open our phones to the different news channels so we could hear all the news coming out. When we slept, two or three would stay awake so we would miss nothing. If the bombs were falling in northern Gaza they would wake me so I could check on my family. If the attacks were in southern Gaza my friend from Rafa was awakened to listen to the news, and so ten nights passed. I was often shivering and trembling because of what was happening next to my family and I would imagine that they had died because of what I was watching; hearing the screams here and there; seeing people dying with their children under the rubble of their bombed buildings and streets. I hope this war will never return again. Thanks to God, my family have survived. So far…..”
Without exception, every refugee on Samos from Gaza has faced the same horrors these past 10 days. Yasser speaks for many. He continues:
“ We have been disgusted by the position taken by many countries in the West where governments such as Greece have shouted their support for Israel’s violence and have presented it as conflict between two equal partners. Israel has one of the most powerful, modern armies in the world.
We, the Palestinians have no chance in a conflict with this sort of power.
But we are not without hope. Over recent days we have seen more people in more countries coming out to protest against the violence and cruelties of the Israeli state. More and more are seeing and rightly describing Israel as an apartheid state. Yet again I find it difficult to express how much that this international solidarity of people has meant for us over these past days. We don’t feel so lonely.
Never let us be lonely. Please. We will not be freed by wars and armies. “
The ceasefire means there are no bombs today. But we now must face the huge damage done which has to be confronted now. Without delay if the horror is to be controlled.
“More than 45,000 refugees fled their homes and the places where they live and went to UNRWA schools to protect them from the shells, rockets and inevitable death or injury. There are huge numbers of children now homeless, without food, without clothes, without blankets. They are still terrified. These children are innocent of what is happening in Gaza. Young children want to play, laugh and have fun. Now we must stand by them as much as we possibly can.”
On Samos this led to the refugees from Gaza working closely with Sofiane from Open Doors to raise money and to get it through to Gaza without delay. In less than a day money was raised and sent and used to provide food parcels for those with nothing. No NGOs or the like, just ordinary people using their networks and local knowledge to get help to where it is most needed. The feedback from Gaza was humbling. It was the solidarity which brought joy as much as the food.
These initiatives must continue. The ceasefire has done nothing to change the incredible challenges to life that the people of Gaza in particular now face. Over the years we have developed wide range of survival skills including the ability to transfer money in and out of Gaza. So there is no need only to think of channeling funds through big NGOs but to use local networks that exist throughout Gaza and Palestine as a whole. If you are not able to connect to such a network then please feel free to contact Yasser who will with his friends do all they can to help you. This is the way of solidarity and not charity.
Please dig deep. Your help is needed. Your solidarity is yearned for.
My last two visits to Samos Town have led to encounters with the police. In the last encounter I was handed a 300 euro fine for supposedly breaching the Covid restrictions in place on the island. In both cases I was with refugee friends when the police intervened. This is why I was stopped and questioned.
The policing in Samos Town is unique to the island. Here police visibility is high. There are lots of police on the streets patrolling by both foot and cruising around in their cars and SUV s. Since July 2019 Samos received 28 new police vehicles, the vast majority in Samos Town with its population of around 12,000 including refugees. Never ever before have I witnessed such a density of everyday policing certainly much greater then I witnessed in the inner cities of Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow for example. In Samos Town we also see many of the police dressed as if they are going to war; padded jackets, guns, battens, tasers, faces hidden behind black masks and, of course, no sign of identification. They physically embody oppression and separation.
In contrast in Karlovassi, the other main town of the island, you will rarely see the police and rarely dressed as para militaries. Pass the police station in Karlovassi and you are most likely to see one or two police in shirts having a coffee and not the ninja turtle types who guard the entrance to the police station in Samos Town.
The fact that the majority of refugees on the island live in Samos Town and not Karlovassi, or anywhere else, is the primary reason for the very different styles of policing. This has long been the case. Now we have CoVid and all its attendant restrictions which have been seized on by the police not the least as it ‘justifies’ almost anything they do. And in Samos Town, it is the refugees who are the overwhelming target for harassment. Ask any refugee in the town about what is going on and they will tell you that the police ignore locals not masked up whereas they are being constantly hassled by police demanding to see their authorisation (by SMS) for being out on the streets. Since November 2020 of the 9,033 fines imposed for CoVid violations in the north Aegean region which includes Samos, Lesvos and ChiosFor many the paper slips the police give them indicating the 300 euro fine are no more than confetti. What causes the pain is the aggression of the police when they stop you. They bark out their demands. They refuse to identify themselves. They will never say why they stopped you and not others who are more clearly breaking the rules by not wearing masks.
What is happening in Samos Town with the CoVid related acceleration in police authoritarianism can now be seen in many parts of the world. Certainly there is plenty of evidence of this trend on mainland Greece where the targets are not exclusively refugees which is largely the case on Samos. Rarely a week passes without a report of police violence following a CoVid intervention. The police in Athens announced a ban on marches using CoVid regulations and by passed parliament which normally rules on such matters. As police budgets have expanded so their lack of accountability has remained as strong as ever. For a police force which rapidly reverts to violence in its interactions with the public including the deployment of tear gas and water cannons alongside their batons and shields combined with a government which actively attempts to control what the media report about police violence creates a toxic environment. But, thank goodness for mobile phones for its largely from the videos and photos taken by those involved in these attacks which then get circulated on the social media sites which reveal the violence of the police. As one observer noted of the police clashes with students in Thessaloniki in February 2021 “the more they beat the more they enjoy” (Keep Talking Greece, 10 Feb 2021). In some cases where public outrage cannot be ignored as in the case of a policeman breaking a 13 year old boy’s arm during an arrest, or refusing medical attention to a 58 year old Greek man with cancer resulting in a severe heart attack, the police will respond by saying that they will investigate. We never hear any more.
An important factor in the ‘silence’ is that Greece is amongst the worst performers in press freedom issues within the European Union, according to the annual index 2021 published by watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) on April 20th 2021. “Especially in Greece, reporters have been the victims of police violence and arbitrary arrest that have restricted coverage of law enforcement operations during demonstrations,” and the Report goes on to detail how the Greek state struggles in particular to hide police violence and the plight of the refugees. Here are some further extracts from the Report:
“In February 2021, public TV channels were ordered not to broadcast video circulating on social media that showed the prime minister disregarding lockdown rules.
The police resorted to violence and arbitrary bans to hamper coverage of the refugee crisis on the islands. In Lesbos, journalists were prevented from covering the consequences of the fire at the refugee camp in the town of Moria, while a group of German freelancers were briefly arrested while trying to cover the arrival of new migrants. In Samos, a German documentary film crew was detained without charge and mistreated by police.
The Greek public TV channel, which is directly controlled by the prime minister although the supreme court ruled this to be unconstitutional, censored reports on the new migrant camps.”
(Cited by Keep Talking Greece April 20, 2021)
Normalisation of state violence is always frightening and especially when there appears to be no limits on its growth. Here in Greece there has been no significant outrage to its deepening ties with Israel which have been gathering pace, especially since the onset of the ‘crisis’ over a decade ago. Yet for years, the people if not the governments of Greece were amongst the Palestinians staunchest supporters whose solidarity was remembered in tumultuous events such as the evacuation, by 5 Greek ships and crews, of the PLO army from Tripoli in 1983. Now a month rarely passes without some announcement of new initiatives which deepen military and economic relations between the 2 countries. Israel is now seen as a key regional ally in Greece’s endless conflicts and concern with Turkey. There is not one murmur of concern from the Greek state which suggests that they are dealing with a criminal state nor in their military alliances and purchases they are buying into expertise and weapons which have been tested and used against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. This is but just the latest announcement:
“Israel and Greece have signed their biggest ever defence procurement deal, which Israel said on Sunday would strengthen political and economic ties between the countries and the two countries’ air forces launched a joint exercise.
The agreement includes a $1.65 billion contract for the establishment and operation of a training center for the Hellenic Air Force by Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems over a 22-year period, Israel’s defence ministry said.The training centre will be modelled on Israel’s own flight academy and will be equipped with 10 M-346 training aircraft produced by Italy’s Leonardo, the ministry said. Elbit will supply kits to upgrade and operate Greece’s T-6 aircraft and also provide training, simulators and logistical support.
“I am certain that (this program) will upgrade the capabilities and strengthen the economies of Israel and Greece and thus the partnership between our two countries will deepen on the defence, economic and political levels,” said Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. (Ekathamerini, 19 April, 2021)
One thing you can be sure of is that none of those involved in these shameful deals will have spoken to or even acknowledged the thousands of Palestinian refugees, mainly from Gaza, who now live in Greece.
True to form the Government has also just announced (April 17) that as of July 1st 2021 refugees who do not live in official accommodation centres (ie a camp, reception centre or a flat provided by the ESTIA II programme) will not be able to receive cash assistance. They will no longer get their pitifully low allowance of around 145 euros a month. It is a cruel decision that will hurt many refugees. Again, taking the example of Samos Town, hundreds of refugees now rent rooms and houses in the town. By combining their tiny incomes they are able to rent places, although invariably overcrowded, but considered much better than living in the camp or the jungle. This is now at risk. Another dark cloud now hangs over those who have managed to rent their homes. Its implementation won’t be easy as it will require a significant expansion in official accommodation but already within days of the announcement the social sites used by refugees here are full of anger and dismay. And as ever the question WHY echoes through their comments. Of course there is no official reason given for this latest decision.
Trying to understand the cruelties endlessly piled on the refugees in Greece is not always easy. For example, as a non Greek I had no idea of the extent to which many here believe that despite all its economic and social ills its place as the cradle of democracy and western civilisation makes them special and in essence superior to all other peoples. A survey of 34 European countries undertaken by the Pew Research Centre between 2015 and 2017, revealed that “almost nine in ten Greeks regard their culture as superior to others, even though the people, the Greeks, are not perfect. But “cultural superiority” has little to do with economic performance; it has most probably to do with the glorious past in Ancient Greece and the chauvinistic phrase some Greeks use: “When we were building the Parthenon, the others were on trees eating acorns.”” ( cited, Keep Talking Greece Nov 1st, 2018).Many mechanisms are at work nourishing this illusion not the least the orthodox church and the schooling system.
That ‘there are no other people are like us’ gets played out especially viciously when it comes to refugees, especially so if they are Muslim, black or Arab. They are often seen as something completely out of the frame. “They just don’t fit here. They bring nothing we want, need nor value. They are worthless.” Such attitudes frame most of the refugee policies, practices and debates here in Greece and is exemplified daily on Samos. It is a mindset which allows for the incarceration of minors in police cells; substandard food in many of the camps; appalling living conditions which contravene all the CoVid public health guidelines…. The list goes on and on. All negative and oppressive and totally deaf to the needs of the refugees. “In a startling analysis of the programme he oversees, Mark Lowcock, the coordinator of the UN’s aid relief operation since 2017, [says] he has reached the view that “one of the biggest failings” of the system is that agencies “do not pay enough attention” to the voices of people caught up in crises. ‘The humanitarian system is set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what we have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need.’” (Guardian April 21, 2021)
I have yet to hear any official pronouncement in 15 years on Samos which acknowledges anything positive about the refugees here. I know of no positive comment about the refugees whether from state agencies, NGOs or the volunteers. Yet their achievements in surviving this hostile environment are many and impressive. In the jungle of tents and shelters around the camp you can find the most beautiful and creative homes; refugees organise classes and play activities for the children; those who have medical experience and skills have created clinics; they make face masks; they care for one another. Of course daily life is also punctuated by struggle and challenges. Many young women feel unsafe especially at night and won’t leave their homes during darkness. Gay refugees are also vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. The jungle is full of contradictions, good and bad.
This mindset of worthlessness results in a remarkable self-defeating strategy dominated by the concern to control and not to develop or encourage the wide range of talents, skills and experiences of the refugees. Self-defeating because Greece as a whole and islands like Samos in particular need the refugees. Year on year for the past 10 years the Greek population has declined by around 40,000 people each year. This is compounded by the growing proportion of older people as birth and marriages also plummet year by year. On top, there has been the steady exodus of young Greeks, often university educated, who have given up on Greece as a place where they can work or live. It is estimated that 500,000 have left in the past 7 years. Demographic data has long been taken as a key indicator of a society’s well being. On those grounds alone Greece is very unwell and faces a dark future as the population grows older and more fragile.
On Samos all of these trends are evident. As the farmers age they have less capacity to care for the land. Vineyards and olive orchards lay abandoned all over the island. To manage so many of the farmers now rely on weedkillers and insecticides. Visit the agricultural areas on Samos in Spring and you are certain to see pick up trucks all over the place pumping and spraying toxic chemicals on their land. In the mountain village where I live it is now impossible to find a building worker who is young enough to do outdoor plastering. As our village population ages and declines – younger families have left for Germany and the US – we now have an unprecedented number of empty houses. I can see 16 homes from where I live. In 2005 all but three were lived in. Now in 2021 only 3 of these houses are occupied. We are lucky to still have some young families in the village but not enough to stop the school from closing. There is no longer any bus service.
This pattern is repeated across all the villages of Samos and has been starkly revealed during the pandemic with the cessation of visitors to the island. Currently we do not have the ‘summer’ village where families returned to spend some of the summer months in ‘their’ villages.
In this context of a demographic crisis it is stunning that there has not been one attempt to encourage refugees to consider making their lives on Samos. There is land in desperate need of cultivation; houses in desperate need of occupation; villages in desperate need of young families to bring life and laughter again. At the same time we still have 3,500 refugees on the island desperate to build and take control of their lives once more. We have a gold mine of talent and energy. Although many of the refugees here want to leave Samos and Greece when they get their asylum, I have also met many who like me have fallen in love with the beauty of the island and would love the opportunity to make a life here.
But for this to happen the worthless refugee mindset has to go. In the upper reaches of the Greek state the mindset seems as strong as ever but on the ground things are changing, especially in the big cities of Athens and Thessaloniki which have significant populations now of former refugees some of whom have opened grocery stores, cafes, barbers and coffee shops. These cities are changing and have a greater multi-cultural dimension than ever before. And in small ways we are seeing closer relationships emerging such as in the case of a Greek family in Thessaloniki buying their refugee neighbours a TV for their young children , or the Greek taxi driver who was concerned that our Somalian friend was not walking well. Here we are seeing small but important examples of caring which can, will and do erode notions of worthlessness.
At the moment there is no sign that the Greek state is going to have that ‘German Moment’ when the German state recognised that its need for an additional 1.5 million people was essential for its economic future and accordingly opened its doors to refugees for a short period in 2014/5. Here the Greek state is concerned only about getting tourism going again and its defence capacities. Tourism is crucial to Greece, it accounts for over 20% of economic activity and 25% of jobs. The evaporation of tourism with CoVid is devastating as again we see on Samos. Last summer was a disaster and this summer looks no better at the moment. As for defence, Greece for all its poverty and suffering is one of the major arms spenders in Europe. Its evident that the armed forces have learnt some lessons from its Junta period in the 1970s and are now more subtle in exerting its power. On the basis of daily newspaper reports, the military are succeeding in their ambitions which are rooted in distorting Turkey as an ever present and growing threat to Greece. Here is a typical example from Ekathemerini (20 April 2021):
“Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited an air base in southern Greece to attend multinational military exercises joined by fighter jets from the United States, France, Israel, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.
“We cannot be naive. We are facing a new set of threats,” Mitsotakis said, speaking in a hangar in front of aircraft taking part in the exercises. “Our world is extremely complex and our neighbourhood is, unfortunately, becoming more unstable. Greece will continue to strengthen its defence capabilities and upgrade its armed forces.”
Greece spends more on defence than any other European Union country relative to the size of its economy.”
The priorities of the Greek establishment are stark and clear. What is so destructive is that they are so wrong. Greece is facing a demographic bomb which is ticking ever onward. Yet they continue to spurn the treasure represented by the refugees in the country. They continue to ignore how much the country would gain both in terms of vitality and morality simply by acting and believing that refugees are human beings just like us, who have the same dreams, same ambitions of education and employment and housing and all the things that people care about. We’re all the same people and we cannot sit back and think somehow, “We don’t know who they are”.
On a pine-covered hill above the sparkling blue Aegean lies a boy’s grave, a teddy bear leaning against the white marble tombstone. His first boat ride was his last – the sea claimed him before his sixth birthday.
The Afghan child with a tuft of spiky hair stares out of a photo on his gravestone, a hint of a smile on his lips. “He drowned in a shipwreck,” the inscription reads. “It wasn’t the sea, it wasn’t the wind, it is the policies and fear.”
Those migration policies are now being called into question in the case of the boy’s 25-year-old father, who is grieving the loss of his only child. Already devastated, the father has found himself charged with child endangerment for taking his son on the perilous journey from Turkey to the nearby Greek island of Samos. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
The charges are a stark departure from Greece’s previous treatment of migrant shipwreck survivors. This is believed to be the first time in the European Union that a surviving parent faces criminal prosecution for the death of their child in the pursuit of a better life in Europe.
The father’s hopes were dashed on a cold November night against the rocks of Samos, a picturesque island that also houses Greece’s most overcrowded refugee camp.
“Without him I don’t know how to live,” the young man said, his soft voice breaking as a tear rolled down his cheek. “He is the only one I had in my life. All my hopes were him.”
Now, he says, he often thinks of killing himself. He no longer mentions the child’s name. The father agreed speak to The Associated Press on condition he only be identified by his initials, N.A., and that his son wouldn’t be named.
It is not entirely clear why Greek authorities took the extreme step of charging this man when so many others have been in his place. Activists suspect the move indicates a hardening of Greece’s already restrictive migration policies, or suggest it could be an attempt to divert attention from possible negligence by the coast guard.
But Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis rejected the idea that the case heralded a change in policy.
“If there is the loss of human life, it must be investigated whether some people, through negligence or deliberately, acted outside the limits of the law,” Mitarakis said, adding that each incident is treated according to its circumstances.
He noted that the lives of asylum-seekers aren’t in danger in Turkey, a country the EU has deemed safe.
“The people who choose to get into boats which are unseaworthy, and are driven by people who have no experience of the sea, obviously put human lives at risk,” he said.
The father said he had no choice but to make the journey. His asylum application in Turkey had been rejected twice and he feared deportation to Afghanistan, a country he fled at the age of 9. He wanted his son to go to school, where, unlike him, the boy could learn to read and write, and eventually fulfil his dream of becoming a police officer.
“I didn’t come here for fun. I was compelled. I didn’t have another way in my life,” he said. “I decided to go for the future of my son, for my future, so we can go somewhere to live, and my son can study.”
At the southeastern edge of the EU and with thousands of kilometers of coastline bordering Turkey, Greece has found itself on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis. From 2014 to 2020, more than 1.2 million people traveled along the eastern Mediterranean migration route, the vast majority through Greece, according to figures from the UN refugee agency. More than 2,000 died or went missing.
Last March, as Greek-Turkish relations soured, Turkey announced its borders to the EU were open, sending thousands of migrants to the Greek border. Greece accused Turkey of weaponizing the desperation of migrants and temporarily suspended asylum applications.
Aid groups and asylum seekers have also complained of pushbacks, the illegal deportation of migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum. They accuse Greece’s coast guard of picking up new arrivals and towing them in life rafts towards Turkish waters – a claim vehemently denied by Greek authorities.
The AP has pieced together what happened in the case of this mild-mannered father and his dead son from interviews with the father, another passenger, the man who first reported their arrival, the coast guard and legal documents.
Divorced and raising his son alone, N.A. said he obtained a smuggler’s number from a neighbor after his second asylum rejection in Turkey, where he had lived for years.
Their journey to Europe began in the Turkish coastal town of Izmir, where the 24 passengers, all Afghans, gathered in a house. Among them were Ebrahim Haidari, a 29-year-old construction worker, and his wife.
Haidari remembers the little boy as an intelligent, sweet child who easily struck up conversations with the other passengers and joked with the smugglers in fluent Turkish. He was struck by the close relationship between the boy and his young father, who Haidari said was as much a big brother and friend to the child as a father.
On November 7, a cold, cloudy, windy night, the group boarded a truck headed to a wooded part of the Turkish coast, arriving at around 10 p.m.
There were four smugglers in all, Haidari said. The sea wasn’t particularly calm and the passengers were worried, especially since at least some couldn’t swim. But the smugglers assured them the weather would improve.
The boy didn’t share the adults’ anxieties. He had never been to the sea before, his father said, and he was eager to sail in a boat.
The boat was an inflatable dinghy, the type preferred by smugglers on the Turkish coast. Cheap and dispensable, they are usually overloaded with people, and a passenger is made to steer so the smugglers avoid arrest. At least one of the smugglers was armed.
Once they donned lifejackets, everyone was forced into the boat, Haidari and the father said. One smuggler drove a short way before making a passenger take over the steering, telling him to head toward a light in the distance. In a flash, the smuggler dove overboard and swam away.
Sitting just in front of Haidari and his wife, the father held his son tightly in his arms.
As one hour turned into two and then three, the weather deteriorated. The wind whipped the sea into ever-larger waves, and the inexperienced designated captain struggled to control the boat.
“I don’t know what the smugglers thought, leaving us in such a bad situation,” Haidari said. “We didn’t know anything about the sea.”
Tossed by the waves, the dinghy took on water. People screamed they would die. To make matters worse, fuel was running out – the smugglers had provided barely enough to reach Greece.
Suddenly, the shape of a mountain loomed out of the darkness. Terrified of dying at sea, they turned toward it.
But the coastline was jagged with rocks. The waves smacked the dinghy against the rocks once, then twice. The boat broke in two. Before they knew it, the passengers were in the water.
As they tumbled into the inky sea, the child slipped out of his father’s embrace. The waves closed over the man’s head.
He didn’t know how to swim, but eventually his lifejacket brought him to the surface. He scanned the waves for his boy, listening for his voice. He shouted until the salt water made him hoarse. Nothing.
He sank beneath the waves again. Out of seemingly nowhere, a hand grabbed his and dragged him toward a rock. He doesn’t know who it was, but he is sure that person saved his life.
There was chaos all around. People were calling for their brothers, wives, sons. Haidari and his wife struggled in the waves to stay alive, crying and vomiting seawater.
At one point, N.A. and Haidari said, a boat appeared and switched on a searchlight. The survivors raised their hands and shouted for help, but the boat passed on.
About 15 to 20 minutes later, Haidari said, a second boat appeared. Again, they hoped for a rescue, but again the vessel shone its searchlights and moved on.
“Maybe they didn’t see us or didn’t want to help us,” Haidari said.
The father is certain the crew saw him and the people in the water. He said that when he shouted and waved, the patrol boat trained its searchlight on him.
“They didn’t help,” he said. “They were going around and coming back, going around and coming back.”
The account of the coast guard is quite different in the crucial question of whether it acted fast enough, and whether its patrol boats saw the struggling migrants.
Legal documents obtained by the AP show the process of charging the father was initiated by the Samos coast guard, which informed the prosecutor of a man’s arrest for “exposing his minor son to danger during the attempted illegal entry into the country by sea.”
Greece’s Shipping and Island Policy Ministry, under whose jurisdiction the coast guard falls, didn’t grant permission for Samos coast guard officials to speak to the AP. The prosecutor didn’t respond to an interview request.
However, a Samos coast guard official outlined authorities’ account of events that night, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The coast guard was alerted at around midnight by an English-speaking man who provided coordinates for a possible migrant boat, the official said. The coordinates were on land on Cape Prasso, a mountainous, roughly five-kilometer-long (three-mile-long) peninsula of tough terrain, with steep rocky slopes.
That man was Tommy Olsen, founder of Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian nonprofit which monitors and provides information on arrivals on the Greek islands. Olsen said people who are reluctant to contact Greek authorities for fear of pushbacks contact him instead.
On that night, Olsen said, he received a call from someone saying a group had arrived on Samos, but several people were missing. Olsen said he immediately informed the Samos coast guard and shared the coordinates.
The coast guard official said upon receiving the call, they immediately initiated emergency procedures, dispatching two coast guard vessels that left the main port of Vathy at around 12:20 a.m. The vessels arrived in the area at around 1 a.m., the official said, but saw nobody.
At around 6 a.m., one of the vessels spotted a heavily pregnant woman behind a rock in a treacherous part of the coast, the official added. While rescuing her, which took about an hour and a half, they found the boy’s body nearby. Documents show the vessel carrying the woman and child returned to Vathy at around 9.30 a.m.
The woman and child weren’t related. At around the same time as they were found, at roughly 6.40 a.m. on November 8, a two-person coast guard foot patrol came across a group of 10 people on the hill of Cape Prasso, several hours’ walk away. The group included the father.
“If you have a dead child, you try to figure out who he was with,” the official said. “It’s different when you have relatives there helping, and different when you find them alone.”
The suggestion is, the fact the father wasn’t with his son when they were found was a key reason for him being charged.
The indictment accuses him of “leaving your … child helpless.” It says the father allowed his son to board an unseaworthy boat in bad weather without wearing an appropriate lifejacket – although a photo in the case file of the boy’s body clearly shows him in a child’s lifejacket.
“These people have to rely on smugglers, and these smugglers decide when and where people take these journeys,” said Nick van der Steenhoven, the Greece and Europe advocacy and policy officer for refugee rights charity Choose Love. The father and son, he said, “became victim of the failure of the European Union to provide safe and legal routes” for asylum-seekers.
The father, his defense lawyer, Dimitris Choulis, and Olsen paint another picture of that night’s events: one of delays and negligence by the coast guard. Choulis is filing an application with the Samos prosecutor requesting an investigation. The father, he said, is convinced his son would still be alive if the coast guard had acted faster.
The lawyer considers the charges “the product of panic and not the product of some broader policy … But automatically we are creating one more obstacle to these people to claim asylum.”
N.A. said he desperately sought help to find his son all night.
When he managed to drag himself ashore, he said, he searched and shouted for his son to no avail. Nobody had seen his boy. He wanted to dive back into the waves to look for him, but didn’t know how to swim.
After searching for two hours, he decided to try to find help. He persuaded a group of survivors to go with him, and they trekked through the night across the tough terrain.
As dawn broke, they came upon the coast guard foot patrol. Court documents indicate the father managed to convey to the officers that his son was missing, showing them his possible location on a mobile phone.
The father said they soon realized the location was too far for a search on foot themselves, and that reinforcements were needed. The passengers were taken to the island’s refugee camp for identification and coronavirus testing.
His recollection of the exact timeline of events from there on is somewhat vague. A woman came to the father with a photo and asked if it was his son. It was.
He was told the boy had been found but had been taken to the hospital and was in a coma. The missing pregnant woman had also been found alive, he heard.
At some point the pregnant woman also arrived at the camp, and the father’s hopes were buoyed; if she had survived, perhaps his son would too.
Then he was separated from the others and taken for questioning. He asked to see his son, but was told he had to be interviewed first.
When the interview was over, he still wasn’t allowed to see his child. Eventually, he said, the police called the hospital. They told him his son had been dead already when he arrived at the hospital.
“Why did they do this to me?” the father said, distraught at the idea he had held out false hope of his son surviving. “They should not have done that. They should have told me the truth.”
The father was then jailed on charges of endangering his son’s life.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “A person who loses his loved ones, his son, and then he goes to prison in that condition, alone … Is it humane to do this thing?”
It took three days and pressure from his lawyer, Choulis, for him to be allowed to see his son’s body.
The coast guard escorted him to the hospital morgue, handcuffed. When they came back up 15 minutes later, the man wasn’t wearing handcuffs anymore and the coast guard officers were carrying him, Choulis said. He had collapsed.
The father was eventually released on the bail condition that he not leave the country. Refugee organizations put him up in a hotel.
The little boy’s body lay in the morgue for weeks. His death certificate shows he was buried on November 30, in the small cemetery above the village of Iraion, where other victims of migrant shipwrecks lie.
The father has since been granted temporary asylum in Greece. But without his son, he said, he doesn’t much care where, or if, he lives.
“His son was his friend, he was everything to him,” Haidari said. “He was his hope to be alive.”
This article has been published in a number of places. This was taken from the newspaper Ekathimerini (March 18 2021).
I have not changed a word.
The cruelties which this blog has highlighted over the years continues.
We cannot remain as spectators who say nothing and do nothing. This is the way of darkness and it is in the darkness that these behaviours continue.
Many of us feel powerless. But from my home on Samos let me tell you that we are being daily bombarded with news and information about the necessity for Greece to attract tourists this year. Much of what we hear seems fanciful as the pandemic continues to sweep on. Be assured that the the last thing the Government will want is to discover that potential visitors are now re-considering Greece as a holiday destination because of the cruelties taking place here. And to help you along here is the address of the Greek National Tourism Office, 7 Tsoha Street, Ampelokipoi, Athens, Greece. And here is the address of George Stantzos the Mayor in Vathi who endlessly speaks out against the refugees. He has no shame:
Crimes Against Humanity in the Aegean is a 43 page report from the Legal Centre Lesvos (LCL) published on February 1st 2021.It is impressive on many levels. The detail provided in their investigation of refugee push backs in the Eastern Aegean over the past year is meticulous and includes powerful and distressing eye witness evidence from some of the refugees who suffered the push backs. The Report provides overwhelming evidence of criminal activity by state agencies which is systematic following a clear pattern often involving the use of ‘commandos’ – i.e. unidentifiable hooded and masked armed men who attack the boats as they attempt to cross to Greece – working in close co-operation with the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex, the EU border guards. As always, the relevant state agencies deny that push backs are happening; total denial accompanied with impunity.
“Despite the numerous reports and investigations showing the widespread and systematic nature of this ongoing practice, the Greek state continues to dismiss such allegations as ‘fake news.’
Europe has been perpetrating violence against migrants at its borders with complete impunity for so many years that it seems EU and Greek authorities believed that under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic they could escalate their attack on migrants in the Aegean region without anyone reacting.” (Lorraine Leete, Co-ordinator, LCL, Feb 2021)
Against this trend however, on February 23rd 2021, the European Parliament began its investigation into the push back activities of Frontex which is not only in the process of forming an army 10,000 strong but is now the biggest single agency of the EU.
As Birgit Sippel, one of the people in the parliament demanding the inquiry said:
“Frontex’s reputation has gone from bad to worse in recent months. Change starts from the top and that’s why we urged the Frontex Director to stand down, following repeated allegations of fundamental rights violations at the EU’s borders. While Mr Leggeri is still in office, he is not in control of the situation. The result is not only that the credibility of the EU’s largest agency is in shreds, but it has meant that the disgraceful and unacceptable push backs of vulnerable people at Europe’s borders keep taking place. Frontex’ decision to pull out of Hungary, where push backs were well documented even after a recent ruling of the European Court of Justice, is a welcome first step in the right direction. But this step comes too late and is too little to restore the confidence in the Executive Director of the EU’s largest agency.” (https://www.socialistsanddemocrats.eu/newsroom/sd-group-parliament-investigation-will-reveal-full-extent-frontexs-failings)
With its notion that change starts from the top with the top being identified as the person deemed to be in charge of the organisation, it is good to see key figures named and being held to account. But given that the EU in its various institutions including the parliament has conspicuously failed until now to act on the criminal push backs despite compelling evidence suggests that we might well be disappointed by their efforts. As LCL remind us, in March 2020 Ursula von der Leyon, the president of the European Commission, thanked Greece for being “Europe’s shield” at the very time Greece unilaterally and illegally suspended the right to asylum and embarked on push backs which involved the use of lethal force, sugared with an additional 700 million euros for border and migration management followed in June 2020 by a further 10.75 million euros for the reinforcement of Greece’s eastern borders.
“The foregoing laundry list of ongoing violations entailed in the modus operandi of collective expulsions in the Aegean only underscored the ineffectiveness of existing accountability mechanisms. A number of extensively evidenced complaints on collective expulsions in the Aegean have already been submitted to the Greek courts, the Hellenic Parliament, the Greek National Commission of Human Rights, the European Commission and other EU institutions and the European Court of Human Rights by numerous civil society and legal actors including LCL, yet collective expulsions in the Aegean continue with absolute impunity”(LCL Report, p.32).
This is what I have also witnessed over 15 years living on Samos. There has been no shortage of reports detailing the daily horrors confronting the refugees on the island; no shortage of visitors who have been shaken by what they witness and not least countless testimonies of the refugees who have been or who are, still here. But all with little or no consequence. The authorities don’t give a damn about the living conditions of the refugees here. You would need to be living on another planet not to know this. We are now coming to the end of winter. The island has been pounded by storms, winds and rain. It has been very cold. Every winter here is a challenge both for locals with no income who can’t heat their homes and the refugees living in their shacks and tents in the jungle. Every winter NGOs and volunteers file their reports detailing these horrors. NOTHING CHANGES.
That so many refugees survive their ordeals on the frontier islands is almost entirely due to the refugees themselves. It is their efforts in building shelters that can withstand the harsh weather, in providing food and clothes especially for those facing problems that sees them through. And the efforts are wide and varied from caring for the sick and distressed to making Covid masks. It is a community of many layered solidarities between and within the nationalities and the generations. It is sad and reprehensible that many of those who work with (on) refugees fail to acknowledge this, including many of the volunteers who drop by the island to ‘help’. Charity and not solidarity epitomises much of this effort (but I will write more on this in a later article).
I defy anyone to tell me of any positive state action that benefits the refugees on Samos and more widely in Greece. Has the food improved or is it still shit? Has the Covid threat and shadow stopped the endless queues for food or any service? Have the managers of the camp accepted offers of support from the appropriate medical NGOs to develop a Covid strategy? Why are those who test positive quarantined in overcrowded containers? Every opportunity to make something better is shunned as exemplified by the new but as yet unopened camp on a remote and exposed hill top on Samos and the decision to open a new camp on Lesvos (replacing the fire destroyed Moria camp) on a site contaminated with dangerous levels of lead. On every dimension of life, from education to health the actions of the authorities have been cruel. And for years and years they get away with it. Critical and outraged reports are brushed aside, and “as if impunity was not enough, four human rights monitoring and migrants solidarity groups which have all publicly denounced collective expulsions in the Aegean, have been identified by Greek police in an investigation that accuses them of espionage, forming and membership of a criminal organisation, violating state secrets and violating the immigration code.” (LCL, p.34)
The European state agencies involved with refugees have been explicit in placing deterrence as the core principle of its strategy in trying to halt or at least moderate the flow of refugees from the broken and war torn countries of the middle east. On no account were these push factors to be aided by pull factors from within Europe itself. So no safe passage for refugees. Instead the death journeys across the seas or through militarised borders. And should you be lucky enough to make it, the ancient British Poor Law principle is practised namely that your living conditions and application for asylum should be so uncomfortable and degrading that you would do anything to keep away.
But as the LCL Report demonstrates all too clearly the dynamic of deterrence is and has moved on to greater violence and cruelties. As I read the accounts of the push backs at sea I could not stop thinking about what was going on in the heads of those carrying out these practices which included throwing terrified families and children into the sea at night to climb into tiny rubber dinghies which would take them to the Turkish coast and (hopefully) rescue from the Turkish coastguards. What goes through the minds of the Greek crews who drive their boats at speed at the small refugee dinghies knowing full well the dangers posed to the refugees as the bow waves roll over them?
These are important questions for as the LCL report makes clear,
“The complex network and multiplicity of actors involved in collective expulsions in the Aegean would require independent international institutions with significant investigative powers to trace modes of liability. In this context, international criminal law’s foundational logic that atrocities are ‘committed by men, not abstract entities,’ and its promise to de-naturalise the banality of evil appears more appropriate.” (LCL, p.35)
It is clear, that to date the efforts of those who compile, record and publish their damning reports of ongoing atrocities against so many refugees in Greece have had no impact on changing policy or practice. Perhaps it is time to change the focus in the struggle to ‘de-naturalise the banality of evil’; looking more to those who do this work. And its not just on the push backs where we should be thinking of what can be done. After all, how does a person feed another with food they would never touch ? How do you quarantine Covid victims with 20 others in a locked container with no toilet ? How do you tell refugees that they have to leave their accommodation four weeks after getting their asylum because now they have to live like Greeks supporting and housing themselves through work? Even without Covid this is not easy in Greece. With Covid it is almost impossible. Throughout this winter thousands of refugees have lost their homes and been forced onto the streets or into overcrowded squats.
And without exception, all refugees here have to deal with an Asylum Service that does not give a damn for you. It is evident the moment you arrive at virtually any Asylum Office where crowds of refugees are compelled to wait outside in all weathers to even get inside. So much for respect. Take Fahima and Yousef from Algeria. They have had 2 rejections for asylum which they appealed last September with the help of a lawyer. The court in Athens which heard the appeal made its decision at the end of October 2020. As of this day they have no idea what that decision was. They plead but get no answer. Torture for them. Take Mohammed, he was told in January that he had to travel from Samos to Athens to be interviewed over his application for family re-unification. He takes around 100 euros a month. The Asylum Service offered no expenses. The same for Younis who was faced with the same problem when told that he would have to go to Athens to collect his asylum papers. When he got to the office, he found a note pinned on the door informing him that his interview had been postponed (Covid) and to await further notice. These are just a few instances from Samos. Similar examples are legion.
The spectrum of cruelties is wide and the ‘doctrine of do no harm’ enshrined in international refugee law is endlessly breached. And breached by people ‘doing their jobs’. Within Greece the challenge of ensuring people to do indecent jobs quietly and without fuss seems to fall along two related dimensions. One is protection and the other is extreme regulation. Protective measures range widely from body armour, small arms, chemical weapons at one extreme through to ensuring that state agents carry no identifying insignia at the other. (Moreover, with or without legislation, most adults in Greece know that you don’t openly photograph the police in any context if you value your well being.)
Fear plays a significant role in this country in sustaining unacceptable and often criminal activity across vast parts of the society. It is a fear that goes well beyond ‘police phobia’ in a society which has endured massive economic and social decline over the past 15 years and is now worsened further by the Covid pandemic. Poverty is deep and widespread. Birth rates are plummeting. Those who can leave the country. The fear of losing your job is an ever-present worry for many and a remarkable percentage of those who work with refugees as in the Asylum Service are on short-term contracts often renewed but never secure. With high rates of unemployment it follows that many simply keep their heads down and mouths shut. Any step out of line can carry severe consequences.
In addition, over the years a raft of regulations and procedures have been implemented which explicitly constrain in great detail, those working in any formal capacity with refugees. A condition for working with refugees in Greece even as an individual (registered) volunteer or an NGO demands obedience to the Greek authorities. Criticism of the authorities is not allowed. On no account are you to disclose to any outside persons or organisations any aspect of your job or your experience including photographs. These are all set out in the contracts of employment and engagement which now run to pages and pages. Failure to comply brings disciplinary action and dismissal. Translators currently employed in the camp on Samos for example are forbidden from talking or socialising with any refugees outside their work time. I spoke just 2 weeks ago with a translator who when not working in the camp stays in his hotel room so as to avoid any contact with refugees as he was frightened about losing his job. Similar restrictions were introduced for the ‘volunteers’ who were forbidden to develop personal relationships with refugees which included not visiting refugee homes. (It should be noted that a few volunteers have resigned over the years because of these restrictions). Considerable effort has gone into ensuring all those who came to Samos as volunteers should be formally registered. This was entirely motivated by the concern to control and regulate their activities. These regulatory frameworks have not emerged to protect refugees nor the volunteers for that matter.
Regulations which seek to hide and close off any scrutiny have no place in welfare work with any group of people where the possibility of positive support demands that we identify the problems and challenges people confront. But instead we have front line workers gagged, frightened to speak out for fear of losing their job. This is the case in Greece. Many here generally fear complaining about any state crimes and violence because they fear the repercussions especially when their complaints concern the police. This must change and effective protection measures implemented for all those who have cause to complain. Quite simply, as we have learnt, refugee engagements in darkness are all too likely to be cruel and dangerous. But without effective and trustworthy protection for those who complain or just reveal poor practice then it is almost certain that the current darkness will continue. (There is something deeply sad about all this. Working with refugees should be celebratory and joyous as we help those seeking life and security in Europe. It is work that should bring pride and not shame to those involved. In all their diversities refugees enrich our lives and our societies despite all they have endured.)
Even with all these efforts, we should not assume that the authorities have stopped all front line workers from supporting refugees when possible. My evidence comes mainly from refugees who have been employed in the camps and by many of the bigger agencies as translators/facilitators. Taking advantage of their supervisors’ lack of language, translators are able to say things to the refugees which are not understood by their managers. They can and do tell refugees what they need to say or not say when asking for help or information. They tell them when they are being lied to or are being giving useless information. Oppressive welfare systems all face the problem that no matter how many procedures and regulations are imposed on their front line workers, there are always points in practice where workers and recipients inter-act without supervision; where there are opportunities for help and support however small. I have no reason to doubt that there are many front line workers, not only refugee employees, involved in such activities. But without any imaginative support networks these activities understandably remain largely hidden from view.
The impunity which cloaks the illegal activities of so many of the key actors plays a key role in ensuring the continuation of daily state violence. It naturalises the banality of evil. It banishes any notion of a common humanity. In its wake it brings secrecy, corruption and dismay. Refugees are casualties of this impunity but so are the majority of Greeks who live daily with a state that in so many ways fails the people.
A final plea! I believe that the work of organisations such as the Legal Centre Lesvos and Front Lex is of great importance for as Front Lex notes:
“EU migration policy constitutes a flagrant breach of all the international and European law frameworks regulating migration and borders: refugee, human rights, maritime and criminal law. For the first time since WWII, European institutions, governments and officials are committing countless crimes against humanity. These atrocious crimes are targeting the most vulnerable population on earth: civilians in need of international protection. Front-Lex reinstates the Law at Europe’s borders by holding the EU, its Member States and their officials responsible.
Through legal actions and public trials, we will seek to terminate EU migration policy, provide remedy for its victims, and hold the culprits to account. “ (https://www.front-lex.eu/)
They need our support. The stakes could not be higher, both for the refugees and indeed for us all:
We do expect Frontex to comply with its own regulations, the [EU treaties] and European and international human rights and criminal law. In case they won’t we will expect the competent courts to force them to do so. In case they won’t, well, this would be a sad day for the rule of law and mean the EU dropped its liberal ethos altogether.”
There is a tragic lack of attention given to the achievements and activities of people and communities in tackling the problems they confront. It is tragic because people need hope and inspiration in these dark times and the thousands upon thousands of grass root mobilisations across the globe provide this. But unless you are closely involved with such activities you are denied a crucial source of knowledge and understanding and with it the energy to mobilise or at least not to be left hopeless and demoralised.
As with all important human and social phenomenon there are many issues at play; local and global – particular to place and circumstance and also general when it comes to managing societies that enrich the few at the expense and on the backs of the majority. The strategies of such domination shift and change over time and are multi-dimensional as authority perpetually struggles to explain why the many struggle and suffer whilst others flourish as they capture the wealth and riches created by the people. Such struggles are never ending and always evolving as circumstances change. And they are not restricted to one site or mode ranging from hard and violent to softly softly : tear gas to youth clubs.
Very few in the world today escape being caught up in endless efforts of authority to shape our thoughts and manage our behaviour according to their needs. Efforts that come in many forms. Many of you reading this will know all too well how religion and ‘science’ have been deployed over time to legitimate inhumanity. I recall how in my English primary school we boisterously sang the Christian hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful at our daily school assemblies. About the wondrous world God has created with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. And then later as a social work student being showered with sociological and psychological theories that explained why the poor were to blame for their poverty and hardship. At least I did not have to endure in my schooling in the 1950s and 1960s the experiences of my mum and dad who sat in class rooms with maps of the British Empire – where the sun never sets- and be told of the great gifts the British Empire brought to backward and uncivilised peoples. Yet me and my friends had to confront a schooling system that embedded the privilege of the few. We all sat the 11plus exam at the end of our time in primary school. As an 11 year old I was frightened by the 11 plus. I have a twin brother. At 11 we had never been apart going to the same schools. I had nightmares about one of us passing and one failing and being sent off to different schools. Even at that age you just knew that it was much more than going to different schools. It was about different worlds. Even if we didn’t understand it fully, even at 11 we knew that this exam was life defining. It was the entrance exam into British class society as it was then.
Passing the exam meant you were seen as a child with potential to be developed and encouraged. Failure was the reverse. You were not seen in terms of potential development. Instead your expectations were to be refocused shifting from the brain to the hand. If you passed you went to the grammar school for at least five years knowing that you were being prepared for a bright future in the middle and professional classes. If you failed it was 5 years in the secondary modern school and a future of menial labour. And in both regimes the impact of gender and race was enormous.
One of the most common cruelties of state schooling systems in many parts of the world is in its creation of failure. At very young ages children are labelled and treated as failures. They are told they are not intelligent, that they have no talent and to adjust their expectations of life accordingly. In a variety of ways and settings huge swathes of children internalise these negative judgements which come to shadow their lives whether or not they give in or fight back refusing to accept that they are stupid and useless.
This is just a tiny fragment of the processes at work. In different places and times similar socialisation processes are at work which are designed to cement and reaffirm privilege and power. It never stops. And it can never stop given the enduring characteristics of human beings. We all have agency. We all think. We are not pieces of plasticine to be moulded at will. There are billions of us around today and I would hazard a guess that many are at least like the frightened 11 year old boy facing the 11 plus who is troubled that what he faces is not right.
So how does this relate to my reaction to the work of the Lewisham (London) food bank which prompted this article? I was inspired by what the so called ‘ordinary’ people of the area were doing to feed and help those struggling including those with CoVid. Created in 2014 the We Care project is now feeding and supporting 5,000 people (and their pets!). They take no money from the state, local or central, which had in fact abandoned them. Now Covid is a major aspect of their work as it has deepened their poverty and hardship. They have created a charity shop to raise money which has allowed them to open a cafe as well as a community kitchen for those who no longer have the means to cook and prepare food. All this is done by volunteers. They have made a short film about their work:
“We are delighted that our film ‘Feeding Lewisham’, made out of love and with zero funds, has been selected for, and is winning, awards globally. We believe this is, in part because the world is all facing the same Covid challenges. But our film is also different. It does not go down the misery and poverty porn route. Instead, it shows how powerful communities can be when governments and councils fail them. It shows how awesome we as neighbours can be – united in solidarity. And it shows black people as leaders not as victims.”
And listen to what they said about why they made the film:
“We cannot thank enough those people who gave their time and still do to help others during this crisis and those in the film team who gave hours of time for free because what was happening in Lewisham was [too] important not to be told whilst the film also is a model for others to copy and be inspired by globally.” (The Canary 13 Dec 2020)
I shouted out Yes ! when I read this. For here was yet another vivid example of how awesome we can be when we are united in solidarity. What is happening in Lewisham is happening world wide. People failed by their governments and elites uniting in solidarity to make a better life. I saw this myself in Easterhouse, Glasgow where the tenants of one of the biggest and poorest council estates in the UK created the Festival Society which gave us stunning performances transforming streets into massive theatres; that brought the holiday seaside into the centre of the community complete with deck chairs, donkeys, sand, a fun fair and sticks of their own Easterhouse rock ( a traditional seaside sweet). Easterhouse was famous because of its knife, drug and gang crime with its population repeatedly insulted and dismissed. Many commentators said it was the worse place in Britain. BUT never a comment or a glimpse of a community recognising and drawing on its endless talents and achieving great things in the midst of harsh poverty and a depressing environment ( once described by the Scottish comedian, Billy Conolly) as a “desert with windows”. No mention that they looked at their skills and found that collectively they had 57 trades which became the name of their company which took over an empty school and created workshops which in turn won major contracts for estate maintenance and repairs. No mention that they designed and built the largest outdoor mural in Britain and that contrary to mainstream sneering was never vandalised. I saw something similar in Croxteth in north Liverpool where a similar mobilisation of an impoverished community following a fight to save a school has led to the creation of network of shops, a sports centre, community university and much more in terms of groups, networks and activities. And I saw the same energies and capacities being realised in the black and Hispanic communities of Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas which created and ran health clinics in the mid 1980s.
There are a multitude of such initiatives globally, some of enormous importance such as the mobilisation of communities in various west African countries in their ultimately successful campaigns between 2014 and 2017 to defeat Ebola. In the Basque region of northern Spain the Mondragon Corporation founded in 1956 has become one of the largest companies in Spain, employing 81,507 workers in 2019 in 257 companies. Its core principles are co-operation and solidarity and the subservience of capital. There are so many examples to learn from! Collectively they help and sustain literally millions of people whether in co-ops, credit unions, food banks, health centres, play and sports, song, dance, theatre, village and town councils and on the streets and in our homes. And it is not just the sheer scale of what they do, but how they do it. With dignity, respect, solidarity, understanding, love and laughter; all qualities which are almost invisible in official agencies of various kinds. (I have learnt over the years that if I don’t hear laughter and don’t see smiles in organisations you need to be on alert as these tend to be bad places.)
That so little of this is ever taught in schools and colleges and given such little media attention is deliberate. So much about these public mobilisations, especially amongst those described by Fanon as the wretched of the earth fundamentally challenge the core precepts which underpin the deep inequalities of today’s world. Love trumps greed and happiness trumps wealth to put it simply. It is for good reason that authority tries to diminish, devalue and at times to destroy these grass roots activities and groups. This is especially clear in the state violence which is so often used against squatters for their violation of the sacredness accorded to private property. But there are many other examples across the spectrum where laws and statutes are dredged up or enacted to control grass root activity.
Occasionally we get some vivid examples of authority’s fears as was the case during the early 1970s when across much of the advanced capitalist world (North America, Japan and Western Europe) women, black and minorities, gays, lesbians and transgender, anti-war movements, students and school kids and other stigmatised and neglected peoples took to the streets demanding and fighting for their fundamental rights including dignity and respect. The convulsion took many forms and was constantly shifting. Authority was frightened. The elites collected in the Trilateral Commission “a mechanism for lubricating the thrust of co-operation and co-ordination between the major capitalist economies” commissioned a report on ‘The Crisis of Democracy’ undertaken by 3 conservative sociologists (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki). It was published in 1975 and is full of their pessimism and fear about the mass mobilisations underway. For them this was the crisis of democracy. There was no way they could accede to what they called a “democratic surge” because Crozier and his colleagues claimed that it would lead to “the disintegration of civil society, the breakdown of social discipline, the debility of leaders and the alienation of citizens”. Their conclusion is simple; “democratic societies cannot work when the citizenry is not passive.”
(As a brief aside it is worth noting at the time of the Report being published many in the Trilateral Commission were doubtful that they could control these movements or moderate their demands of the state. But some of their key proposals were pursued. They argued that too many schools and universities were encouraging students to question and challenge. The Trilaterals in the final analysis want obedience from their minions and not questions. This had to change. They also argued for a renewed and energetic focus on individualism with people being encouraged to see themselves foremost as consumers and not as citizens. Credit cards and consumer debt were seen as having great potential in controlling behaviour.)
The point I am trying to make is that despite the lack of attention and acknowledgement of these thousands of activities this should not be taken to mean they are not scrutinised and watched by authority. There are moments when this is all too apparent when undercover infiltration by the ‘security service’ (whose security?) is occasionally revealed. But in the main the potential challenge is handled in a vast diversity of ways. For authority generally, the activities of these autonomous movements of the people tend to be viewed as social rather than political problems. This categorisation is reinforced as so many autonomous movements have no significant links with organised politics and rarely use an overtly political vocabulary to describe or even organise their efforts. Moreover, throughout the world, those at the bottom of the social pile are all too often ignored and abandoned by mainstream political parties and groups, even those who claim to be concerned with injustice and poverty. Like, Ramsey MacDonald, one of the leaders of the British Labour Party a century ago who declared that they would never seek the support of those who lived in the slums.
So many in power fear their fellow people. Look at their private banks and strong rooms; look at where they live surrounded by fences and electronic security systems managed by private security firms and guards. Look at their expenditure on the police. Last week in Greece the government in Athens announced a record equipment budget for the police next year. Without any embarrassment or shame they were instead proud to be announcing that the increased budget would provide nearly 700 new police vehicles, nearly 2000 bullet proof vests, armoured boots and helmets plus the usual array of drones, cameras and chemical weapons. It is a budget which reveals much about the way in which the Greek state perceives its people.
For the past 15 years I have lived in a small mountain village on the Greek frontier island of Samos. This is the place where I now stand and dig. As regular readers of Samos Chronicles will know it is place of paradoxes and horrors. We have a beautiful nature but a refugee camp that defies humanity. The majority of the people, both refugees and locals alike, experience enduring poverty, few jobs and low pay. The 12 year economic and social crisis has been crippling. Basic services have collapsed. The public buses would be museum pieces in many parts of western Europe, indeed the same could be said for most of the cars, trucks and lorries here. Their age, condition and that they comprise the majority of the vehicles on the island reveals much.
All of these issues have worsened with Covid. The Covid cases here are thankfully small but the lock-downs apply all the same with the closure of businesses and movement restrictions. Such regulations virtually wiped out the 2020 summer tourist season upon which so many depend on. Then came the devastating earthquake at the end of October 2020 which was terrifying as it was destructive. The great majority of the many who now have homes and lands to repair have no money for the work. There is no expectation that the state will come to their aid quickly. After all, it is commonplace here for newly retired workers to wait up to 3 years before they receive their pension. (There are 300,000 pension cases outstanding in Dec 2020!) Not surprisingly many here are demoralised and feeling battered; not knowing when the next blow will come or from where. They feel unprotected and extremely vulnerable.
What seems new here is not so much the disdain and distrust in the state – this has long been a feature of Greek life – but the erosion in personal confidence and capacity. Most on Samos know there will be little or no help from outside, but what is so saddening is to see young people in particular despair of their own capacity to do anything. There are, as everywhere, amazing talents amongst the people but without some sense of hope they are redundant. This is not it should be noted, the general case for the refugees here who are tireless in their efforts to survive during their detention on the island. But there is still a wide gap between many on Samos and the refugees so the possibilities for energising solidarities are still few.
We desperately need to rekindle hope. Not idle hopes that someone or other will come riding to rescue but hope about our capacity to make life better by working together. There is no other choice. Many here know this to be true but are not clear as to how to move forward and have little or no energy to act. Here we vividly see the consequences of the Greek state denying the people the opportunity to learn from their history. Very few, and almost exclusively old people, know something of the extraordinary heroism of the Greek people during the Nazi occupation of the1940s. Under the yoke of a brutal occupation the Greek people came to control most of the countryside. They found ways to feed themselves; they created schools, clinics, theatres; women were for the first time involved in elected local councils and many became celebrated partisans and resistance fighters. It is not an exaggeration to describe what was going on in occupied Greece as nothing less than a social revolution. Their so called military allies were appalled and from 1943 they worked endlessly to weaken and defeat what they considered to be a communist uprising. Arms and finances were re-directed away from the peoples’ partisan units to create a conservative counter force. The British government which at that time was the dominant external power in war time Greece was adamant that the (widely hated) Greek monarchy had to be restored and that Greece’s strategic geography meant it must remain with the West and not fall under the influence of the Soviet Union. Once the Nazis withdrew, civil war followed and with significant military support from the US and the UK the peoples’ uprising was defeated. On Samos some of the older people remember as children, the shelling of left partisan groups in the mountains by British warships. In some parts of Greece napalm was dropped on civilian populations.
Many adults fled to neighbouring countries (often communist run such as a Yugoslavia) leaving their children behind in the care of friends and relatives. These in turn were rounded up by the thousands to be ‘re-educated’ under the tutelage of queen, Frederica who with her husband had returned to Greece. As the saviour of these ‘bandit children’ she created around 54 Queens Camps charged with bringing these children back into the Greek family. For Frederica and her ’queens helpers’ these children had to learn to see their parents not as heroes of resistance and progress but as basically evil people who wanted to destroy all that was great about Greece. Lady Norton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Greece was fulsome in her praise. After visiting a Queen’s School on Leros in March 1950, she expressed admiration for the way in which it was “civilising the bandit children” by “eradicating the memory of the wild untamed years of the Civil War”. Moreover, Greece “is the only country in the world where real creative work is being done to combat the cancer of Bolshevism.” (Cited by Danforth and Boeschoten, Children of the Greek Civil War 2012, p.102).
The Greek state, to this day, works to keep this crucial period in Greek history hidden – “eradicating the memory”. It is not unique to Greece as throughout the world similar processes to remove, ignore, ridicule the efforts of the people to survive, to organise and to achieve are ever present. Time and again we see that one of the first tasks of progressive social movements is their taking control over their history; of rescuing their past, and telling their story.
As far as I am aware no state school in Greece explores this relatively recent period of tumultuous social activity and change when the people across the country in small towns and villages took control of their lives and did amazing things in extraordinary circumstances. Yet we need this kind of inspiration like never before in places like Samos where a sense of defeat and hopelessness now shadows everyday life. We need to remember what so called ordinary people can and do achieve when they come together and simply refuse to give up. We have to rip down the curtains that try to stop us from seeing, understanding and imagining. We need to open eyes as to what popular mobilisations have achieved wherever they are. They give us reason to hope with confidence. They are an under-estimated source of our power. So the more we know the better. The more we learn of these events and activities the stronger we become. The phobia of the powerful has always been the people throughout history. After all they are very few in number whereas we are billions strong. Time to rise me thinks!
We are appealing to all the readers of Samos Chronicles to help Mohammed and his brother Abdul to replace their restaurant Ancient Jerusalem destroyed by the earthquake which hit Samos island on October 30th. The brothers came to Samos from Gaza. With their asylum granted they are part of an expanding group of new residents on Samos.
Their restaurant had only been open for 3 months.
What seemed to be a beautiful location became a nightmare when the mini tsunami swept through their place destroying all in its path.
The creation of the business was significant. It was the only restaurant in Vathi to be created and run by refugees who on gaining their asylum in Greece decided to stay and make their lives on Samos. The restaurant was one of the few places in Vathi which was open and used by all the islanders, refugees and locals alike.
Their presence felt like the first steps in opening up what was once an almost exclusively Greek population and community. The island’s new residents were and are energetic, determined, talented and more. They bring qualities much in need here where so many have been weakened by what seems to be a never ending struggle for bare survival with no sign of it changing for the better. And now the earthquake……
Even before Ancient Jerusalem opened for business it attracted much interest as Mohammed, Abdul and their friends restored and refurbished what had been for years a run down and dingy bar. All the work was done by refugees, to an exceptional standard, and for much of the time observed by groups of local men who gathered to watch. The place was transformed.
But in a few minutes all this was destroyed and the premises damaged to such a degree that they will be unable to re-open there. A new place has to be found.The making and opening of the restaurant took all their money. They have insurance and it is possible that they will qualify for government support to businesses affected by the quake. But as all know who live in Greece it is likely to take years to access. As Samos Voice observed on 11 November all previous plans to help with disasters have faced problems with implementation. In the meantime Mohammed, Abdul and those who worked in the restaurant have no income.
So this is where we want to focus the fund raising at this moment. We want to secure some income for them so that they can devote their energies to rebuild the restaurant.
If we can raise 6000 euros there is every chance of Ancient Jerusalem rising from the destruction.
These “CoVid Days” are difficult for many people across the world as jobs and incomes evapourate so we are asking you to dig deep in our attempt to see this initiative succeed in the face of this disaster.
Donations to be sent to:
Sofouli Themistokli 37, Samos 83100
Iban: GR 7901727080005708100425492
You can contact Mohammed directly on his whatsap number 0030 694 021 8257 or email: Qarmt23@gmail.com
For a moment we can breathe and we can try to sleep. How long this moment will last we don’t know. For 10 days the people of Palestine have been terrorised. Over 200 people including over 60 children have been murdered in Gaza. Over a dozen murdered on the West Bank. Injuries run into thousands […]
My last two visits to Samos Town have led to encounters with the police. In the last encounter I was handed a 300 euro fine for supposedly breaching the Covid restrictions in place on the island. In both cases I was with refugee friends when the police intervened. This is why I was stopped and […]
On a pine-covered hill above the sparkling blue Aegean lies a boy’s grave, a teddy bear leaning against the white marble tombstone. His first boat ride was his last – the sea claimed him before his sixth birthday. The Afghan child with a tuft of spiky hair stares out of a photo on his gravestone, […]
Bad things are happening on Samos. At the end of October the earthquake hit with all its devastating consequences as hundreds lost their homes. The damage is still being assessed. And now some 12 days later the after shocks continue. One this morning registered as 4.1 R.
2 days after the quake a fire in the jungle left over 250 refugees homeless. And now this morning another major fire in the camp. A Somalian friend who has been burnt out this morning told us of her terror at waking up in the smoke, of grabbing a few things and then running for her life. This is the second time she has been burnt out this year. Then on November 9th ,between the 2 fires, a refugee boat carrying 27 people arrived from Turkey. This is the first such arrival on Samos for many months. But it ended in tragedy as the boat was thrown onto the rocks on a remote and dangerous part of the coast south east of Vathi. One six year old boy died. 6 people are still missing, 2 of whom are thought to be pregnant.
As is the norm here, the police arrested the young Afghani man steering the boat as being a smuggler. It is a ridiculous charge as nearly all those who steer the boats are those who cannot afford to pay the full fare. He can expect to be found guilty and a significant jail sentence.
Bad enough, but the sadness of these events takes on a new dimension of horror. Not only did the police arrest and charge the boat driver as expected, they also arrested the father of the dead boy and charged him with exposing a minor to danger (law 4619/2019). This is a new law and it is the first time we have seen it used on Samos.
To date the case has not attracted any media attention except the ever reliable AreYou Syrious group which immediately recognised both the cruelty of the arrest and the dangers it poses:
“While the survivors were taken to the camp on Samos to quarantine, the father of the boy was arrested along with the driver of the boat. The father was taken in for “suspicion of endangering a life” and if convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison. CEO of Help Refugees/Choose Love, Josie Naughton said:
“These charges are a direct attack on the right to seek asylum. It is outrageous that a grieving father is being punished for seeking safety for him and his child. Criminalising people who are seeking safety and protection shows the failure of the European Union to find a solution to unsafe migration routes that forced thousands to risk their lives to seek protection.”
Arresting traumatized parents who have just lost their children is not the answer and cannot be accepted. This is a very cruel decision for the Greek authorities to make. This cannot be a new norm.”
This shocking development may not be in the media but I would put money on the fact that every refugee on the island knows and they are outraged and appalled. As Ayoub told me over the phone as I was writing this:
“Everything happening here at the moment on Samos from the earthquake to the fires and now this cruelty to the father whose son died says one thing to me. We are not seen as human. I am so tired from this.”
First of all thank you to all those who have been in contact over the past few days concerned about us following the earthquake. We are ok though many on the island have suffered damage to their homes and vehicles. Sadly, Mohammed’s recently opened restaurant was severely damaged by a large wave which immediately followed the quake. This is especially sad as it was the first business in Vathi created by refugees who had gained their asylum and were committed to staying on Samos. Mohammed hopes that they can rise again, although in new premises. The Open Doors shop fortunately survived any significant damage and once the up ended shelves were restored the shop immediately re-opened.
Sadly two young teenagers were killed when a wall collapsed on them near their school. There have been many injuries, some serious, but nothing compared with the casualties over in Izmir. Yet again we have seen how poorly constructed apartment blocks tragically collapse like a pack of cards when strong quakes strike. There are no comparable buildings here on Samos. Although relatively few houses collapsed, the bigger problem is the damage done to so many homes which make them uninhabitable until repaired. A large team of engineers are here to survey the damage and after only 36 hours they have declared over 900 homes as currently unfit. There will be many more in the following days.
Even before any formal inspection there are many households now living and sleeping outside in tents, in garages, with friends, because they are scared that their house is no longer safe. The municipality in Samos has opened up 2 hotels and the stadium for tents for those who have no alternatives. Fortunately at the moment we are having sunny days but cold nights.
It is little wonder that so many here are scared. The earthquake was terrifying. We saw our solid stone homes move ‘like a belly dancer’ as one villager put it. After that your house does not look so solid or safe any more. It was obvious that if the quake had been even longer then …….. It seems everyone here is in some state of shock which is not helped by the continuous after shocks. We are told that these could continue for months to come. So far we have had over 240, some of which have measured 5 on the richter scale. Most are between 3 and 4 but when they punch you can never be sure if that’s it or there is more to come.
As with everyone, the refugees were badly frightened by the power of the quake, but their structures and tents in the Jungle were not as vulnerable as the buildings.
But as we discovered in the early hours of Monday November 2nd their intrinsic vulnerability was savagely exposed as a fire ripped through the lower part of the jungle destroying all in its path. The fire was contained to one area of the jungle and amazingly no casualties were reported although over 200 homes were obliterated. They have been given small tents.
As I write all the media and political attention is focused on the earthquake and repairing key infrastructural damage to roads, public buildings such as schools, and collapsing buildings. Little attention has been focused on the fire and its aftermath. What we and others are picking up in our networks is a growing sense of people here saying ‘enough’ we can take no more. Most of the islanders are still suffering from the enduring economic and social crisis of Greece, which in turn has been deepened by Covid and the collapse of the summer tourist trade and now they face the consequences of the earthquake. And added to all this is the widely accepted belief here that Samos has been unfairly burdened by the refugees and have to live alongside a ‘ticking bomb’ as the recent fire highlighted. Whilst the ashes were still smouldering, George Stanzos the mayor of Eastern Samos (which covers the camp and Vathi) was on Greek TV news stating that the island could take no more and demanding that all the refugees on Samos must go.
Although the earthquake has brought out an immense sense of solidarity as people care for one another in so many ways it does not feel as though this solidarity embraces the refugees here. It is rare to find any expressions of sympathy for those who were not only frightened by the quake but then 36 hours later faced a terrifying fire. There have been no grass roots support initiatives created for the refugees who lost everything in fire comparable to those for the quake victims. The hotel accommodation secured by the municipality is not open to the fire victims. We are (thankfully) witnessing a rapid mobilisation of resources to support those made homeless by the quake, including the relocation to Vathi of empty accommodation cabins from the new, yet to open refugee camp near Mytlini. All of this is in stark contrast to the experiences of the refugees both in terms of the speed and extent of the assistance provided. The jungle has endured 2 major fires this year destroying the homes and possessions of hundreds of people and in neither case did we see such a fast mobilisation of essential resources.
It is far too early to predict what is going to unfold on Samos but it does feel that the impact and consequences of the earthquake will be more than about the damage to roads and homes.
Roger came by the house yesterday evening. In his early 20s Roger is from Gaza. He’s full of energy and ideas and has been like this since he arrived in Samos over a year ago. His days are full of activity mainly with the children in the camp. There he and his friends have what might be called a mass following of young children! They play, sing, draw, party and talk together. In these ways the children learnt about the importance of washing hands and other steps they could take to keep Covid out of their lives. And in all these activities it is the sounds of joy and laughter which dominate.
Roger is Palestinian, and as with most Palestinians humour is a major feature of their survival under (Israeli) occupation. It is no accident that Liverpool, the poorest city in England is also famous for its humour. As with the refugees on Samos humour has long been one of the ways in which the poorest of that city have countered their marginalisation and neglect and asserted their enduring humanity. Humour is a way underdogs have always used to fight back. I would hazard a guess that we could make a very long list of similar places. Authority in whatever form is not good at humour. It cannot control the jokes we make or manage the humour we see in the world around us. It gives us power. Maybe this was what Emma Goldman was getting at when she “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”
In Gaza as in Liverpool and certainly on Samos island humour is in an endless battle with sadness. It is an ongoing daily reality that ebbs and flows. Roger and his friends in the camp know this and see their mission as creating happiness to keep sadness at bay. The struggle between tears and laughter is a central feature of daily refugee life on Samos as it is for many communities denied and deprived of the material and psychological essentials necessary for living.
As Roger told us the rewards of being engaged in the camp can be awesome. He was very excited by the range of talents and interests he keeps discovering – athletes, artists, tattooists, tailors and dressmakers, builders, house painters, teachers, nurses, cooks of all kinds, gardeners, farmers, actors, singers, musicians, dancers and more. So many talents, he said, but never used, mobilised or even recognised by the authorities. So no support. This is where Roger and his friends seek to focus their energies looking to nourish and encourage talent which can then be shared and enjoyed by others.
But that has always been the case on Samos. Without exception, the best aspects of refugee life on Samos have been created by the refugees themselves. The Open Doors shop is probably now the outstanding example. That is not to ignore the contributions of some of the NGOs here or the flow of largely young north European volunteers who still come Samos with their big hearts. But always they are a mixed blessing. We are not alone in wondering why they come here when all of them are from countries which have significant issues with poverty and suffering. “Why don’t they dig where they stand” is a common question. “Why do they take jobs which we can do? Why do they assume that a young white European can work with vulnerable and traumatised children with no preparation or support?” There is a terrible lack of appreciation of the talents and skills of the refugees here, who are too often simply dismissed and ignored as worthless and useless. The only exceptions being those they need to act as translators.
This is the back cloth against which refugees in the camp acquired sewing machines to make decent masks. Now on Samos it is mainly the refugees who are masked up, not the locals. (How things have changed since the only masks seen here before, and long before Covid, were worn by the police and border guards as they dealt with new arrivals!)
The upside of this neglect is that the people in the camp whilst lacking so many necessary resources for daily life are left to their own devices. Yella the creative west African artist is left alone to run his art classes in a small square in the centre of Vathi; the same is true for the young Saudi doctor who manages with friends the clinic they have created in the jungle and so it goes from communal kitchens to football competitions. But it could be so much more with a different mind set. So much of what is needed by the refugees – food, safe living places, work that sustains, – are also needed by many of the locals. More so now in the midst of the Covid pandemic that has virtually wiped out tourism on the island this year. Many here do not know how they will survive the winter months now that they have no income from their summer tourist jobs.
Because so many refugees are now confined on Samos for months even years and are also concentrated in Vathi we have seen a slow but deepening of contacts between locals and refugees. There are growing numbers on both sides of this divided population who are recognising that they have much in common and need to work together. The creation of Just Action which provides food aid to both locals and refugees is probably the clearest example of this shifting dynamic. Roger and his friends, as well as those working in Open Doors and Just Action are amongst those who are now talking and thinking about how they can join together and help create new bonds of solidarity between the refugees and the locals. Albeit for differing reasons in part, both groups know that they have been abandoned; they get nothing but the barest minimum from the state and they expect nothing. Growing numbers are beginning to realise that together they can do better.
We wait to see what follows if the Athens government actually does achieve its objective of moving all the refugees to the new closed camp on a remote hill top 12 km from Vathi by the end of this year. There are still many local people in Vathy who would like to see the refugees moved out of their city. Years of hostility to the refugees, driven by the Orthodox Church and successive governments with the connivance of much of the mainstream media have left a deep scar which drives this hope that the refugees will be removed from their midst. As I am writing these words, it has been announced that 2 African refugees in the camp have been tested positive for Covid. There are no more details as yet. If true this is a devastating development in that the only 2 cases of the virus so far on Samos were amongst local people who had been visiting in Athens. As everyone knows the camp is a ticking bomb when it comes to health. And the inevitable tighter lock down of the camp which will now be implemented will have dire consequences for the refugees. And, not the least it will give added impetus to the demands to get the refugees out of town.
But what many who are leading this demand, such as the mayor of Vathi seem to ignore is the changing and changed character of the city. Not all the refugees live in the camp. Over recent years there are many hundreds of families and groups renting homes and some neighbourhoods in Vathi are dominated by ‘refugee’ households. I use ‘ ‘ because there are a growing number of those gaining asylum in Greece who are deciding that Samos island is preferable to Athens or Thessaloniki as a place to live and be safe (especially with respect to the children). In other words they are no longer refugees in the formal sense. They will not go to the new camp. They will remain in Vathi and try to make their lives there, at least for some years.
And as is often the case with migrations into new places, we can see an energy and determination to make a life which is in contrast to the islanders who seem more locked into an ‘endure’ mode. (And the newcomers are invariably much younger than the locals). A clear example of this has been in the creation of a new coffee bar in Vathi this summer by a group of young men from Gaza who have their asylum.
Yella at work in the new coffee shop
The complete renovation of the shop revealed the range of talents amongst the refugees. Brilliant plastering and decoration, wonderful lighting and all done by themselves. It faces many challenges but it is thriving. Samos town is changing and as more people who came as refugees stay here this will continue.
(Just an aside increasing numbers of the island’s new residents are confronting the police who daily harass the refugees back into the camp as evening falls. The police don’t discriminate so end up bullying those who have both papers and homes in the town and are under no lock down provisions. Those with children are furious that their children are frightened by shouting police demanding that they leave the beach and get to the camp. The police are now facing a completely new experience on Samos of having to apologise to those they have previously abused with impunity.)
So in the darkness here we do see some light and we do hear laughter. But the dark cloud of Covid is ever present revealing more starkly the as yet unexploded health bomb that is the camp in Vathi. Many on Samos have been shaken by the recent fire in Moria. As the MSF director there observed the bomb of Moria. has exploded. These are tense times on Samos and not helped by the latest hard lock down following the Covid cases recently identified in the camp. There are more than a few refugees who do not believe that Covid has come into the camp especially as there have been hardly any new arrivals for over 6 months now. They believe that it is a lie to justify locking them in the camp. Refugees don’t trust the authorities.
As I was writing last night, I had a call not only about the Covid cases in the camp but about a wild fire raging on the hills of Vathi right above the camp. Thankfully strong winds were blowing the fire away from the camp. It is outrageous that neither Moria nor Samos camps have any firefighting capacity or protection. Fire has always been the outstanding threat for years in these camps.
Soon summer will be ending and the rains will come. As every winter the authorities will wring their hands as the bad weather batters at the shelters and tents. Survival will rest as always in the hands of the refugees. And the utterly intolerable situation of thousands of human beings imprisoned on the frontier islands of Greece will continue.
My opinions about MSF are largely based on seeing them in action on Samos. Like many on the island we had a positive attitude given what we knew of their work war zones. Overall after 5 years of their (intermittent) presence opinions are now mixed seeing MSF as both good in part and bad in others. For example, senior MSF managers here during one period – all of them French – had no clue that their lavish life styles enjoyed with each other caused great offence on an island which was suffering from catastrophic poverty. Their separation from the local community was seen as a statement of their superiority. This was true for nearly all the people and agencies which came to Samos after 2015. With MSF it was a bit more of a surprise to see such overt colonial behaviour when it proclaims values which decry all forms of oppression and discrimination.
I have not given MSF much thought recently but this changed last week after reading the following;
“The medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières is institutionally racist and reinforces colonialism and white supremacy in its humanitarian work, according to an internal statement signed by 1,000 current and former members of staff. “
This is the opening sentence to the Guardian’s article on MSF which was published on Friday July 10th 2020.
As one former MSF aid worker said: “This moment of reckoning is massively overdue.” And not just for MSF but for all NGOs active in humanitarian work. This is far more than a matter for MSF.
The open letter signed by 1000 current and former MSF staff members ought to be explosive. These staff members provide a diagnosis that goes far deeper than the obvious surface problems to much deeper ailments in its very structure. Difficult truths are revealed by staff members across the organisation; top to bottom. As Avril Benoit, executive director of MSF USA noted, “when you first encounter this, you say “That’s not me, I’m a humanitarian, we’re all such good people. But if you look at a picture of those at the highest executive levels, there is your answer. The good people we may be and the policies we’ve brought in are not enough” (Guardian 10 July)
Revealing the precise details of the illness demands a wide-ranging rigorous analysis. It is to its credit that the initial responses within MSF to the open letter suggests that it has embraced the problem and is prepared to range deeply to bring about changes to improve. But this is no easy task in an organisation such as MSF which believes itself to be a humanitarian world leader in its area and was recognised as such with a Nobel peace prize in 1999. As we witnessed on Samos island local people who were lucky enough to be employed by MSF were proud to be part of such a well respected NGO. But as the 1000 signatories illustrate, caring for an organisation like MSF also means being prepared to be ruthless in your criticisms; where no area is left untouched and where taken for granted positions are re-examined and changed as needed. These staff members behind the letter believe in MSF. They believe it can be so much better.
Neither should we ignore the many ethical and excellent workers employed in the NGO sector generally. These organisations are not driven by profit and have a commitment to service and often justice. So we must ask how is it such seemingly benign organisations staffed by usually decent people end up like MSF and so many others? Those like Benoit need to explore how seemingly good people end up doing bad things. So no searching for ‘bad apples’. The malaise of MSF is systemic. As it is across the entire social welfare field.
Many changes and investigations are needed. I hope it will include a rigorous challenge to bureaucratic and hierarchical forms of organisation. I believe that many of the problems which blight MSF and the NGO humanitarian sector more generally can be traced back to a specific hierarchical type which feeds on prevailing inequalities and becomes embedded in a myriad of distorting ways. Such an organisational form in various guises is now deeply embedded in the world. It is as seen as the norm and expected. It is rarely questioned today although in its creation and implementation it was influenced by the need to control and manage activity in the interests of prevailing power. Yet as MSF is now finding it has brought about devastating consequences. Hierarchies which manage soon accrue privilege and power; flows of information concerning policy and practice inevitably flow down to front line workers who are increasingly far away from the decision makers and challenges from the base are ruled out. Is this why on Samos at least the MSF contracts for local workers run to pages and pages containing what can only be described as gagging clauses ?
Some of these malign influences are all too obvious such as MSF’s ‘discriminatory and unfair pay structure’ in which local workers are paid massively below those of their managers. But equally negative are the less obvious ways in which these organisational forms have created a belief that the expertise required to deliver and manage their activities is to be found almost exclusively amongst a narrow group of socially and educationally privileged people. Simply requiring formal qualifications for a job immediately excludes the majority of the population and reinforces as it reflects privilege. Unquestioned, these taken for granted processes provide a fertile environment in which enduring discriminations from class to race to gender and beyond, flourish as opportunities and rewards are handed out.
Credentialed and certificated the professionals are also encouraged to believe themselves superior and entitled. As one MSF staff member observed such a mind set sees no problem in placing fresh graduates as supervisors of local staff with 10 or 20 years experience. What follows from regulations which only acknowledge so called formal qualifications is dire because it ignores valuable and needed resources as well as undermining and insulting other forms of knowledge and skill acquisition. Hardly surprising then that within MSF “trying to support a national staff [member] as an international staff [member] is the most tedious, unjust and gut-wrenchingly frustrating process I have ever endured” (Guardian July 10). Add to this mix the specific cultural influences that shape the countries which fill the top positions the results can be very toxic. As one MSF staffer noted there “was an almost suffocating white saviour mentality”. And another, “there was a constant feeling that the international staff need the [locals] to get on with things, otherwise ‘we’ are better than ‘them’. It was exhausting”.
All Knowledge Matters
And here on Samos it has also been exhausting seeing virtually every intervention -apart from the Open Kitchens in 2016 – fail to embrace and involve both refugees and local people so cutting themselves off from important resources of knowledge and effort. The consequences of this failure are significant and led to a separation between islanders and refugees that should never have occurred. Locals were commonly seen as well meaning amateurs who had to stand aside as the credentialed professions took over. And refugees, well they were refugees; objects of their intervention and certainly not respected partners. Either way, both groups were sidelined. This is but one example of failing to recognise and respect the depths of knowledge and skills which abound amongst us. By ignoring ‘public’ knowledge and by seeing education as restricted only to schools and colleges these organisations fail to embrace vital forms of understanding and skills which are created in and by social and collective experiences. Significantly, skills and knowledge from these roots are more likely to be seen as a social good to be shared with all. This stands in stark contrast to the individualised and privatised expertise common to the ‘professions’.
The consequences are profound, especially for all interventions concerned with the welfare of the people for it creates a range of barriers between the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’ all of which distort and lead to poor and ineffective services. This is not to reject expertise but rather to argue for a much broader and inclusive recognition of expertise and above all, to see all expertise as something to be shared and offered with humility. Expertise should never justify superiority. The professional expertise most of us now experience is intrinsically dis-respectful and often undermines those they seek to ‘help’. I recall vividly the outrage of a single mother with 3 adolescent children confronted with a psychologist’s report which blamed her for her eldest boy’s shoplifting. “Not one word” she said about how brilliantly they had survived enduring poverty with its crap housing and schools. “And now, one mistake and it’s all my fault.” And the mum’s account rooted in her family’s circumstances and experiences was given no credence; not even asked for.
This is an all too common experience across a wide range of welfare and social policies and practices. It comes with top down hierarchical organisations. Not only does it ignore vast resources of knowledge and skill it suffocates alternative forms of organisation which are rooted in solidarity and mutual action. Existing outside the paradigm of top down organisations these get little attention yet there are tens of thousands of grass roots initiatives globally which meet some of the needs of humanity more effectively than that provided ‘from above’. The evidence of the benefits of interventions based on solidarity is abundant if we care to look.
I am delighted by the actions of the 1,000 former and current MSF staff. The context of the corona virus pandemic and the equally global Black Lives Matter actions have played their part in bringing about the open letter. I believe their initiative has provided us with an important chance to open up a fundamental interrogation of the organisational forms and attendant cultures which have been taken for granted as the only way to do things. As the MSF staff show, this approach fails miserably.
I hope that we don’t fail to realise the opportunities this open letter provides to struggle for the changes needed.