Just Action: Green Shoots on Samos

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Vasilis and Lene who have created Just Action, a new NGO on Samos. In the few months of its existence Just Action has more than lived up to its name distributing thousands of food parcels to both refugees and locals across the island and cleaning the jungle which is the home to thousands of refugees.

 

Food parcels ready to go!

 

Below is what they say about themselves:

JUST ACTION for refugees and locals on Samos

For us action is everything

We formed Just Action during the COVID19 lock down and days of camp fires. We couldn’t sit back and watch. It’s time for action.

In Just Action, we’re dedicated to changing the approach. We’re here to create a more sustainable impact for both refugees and locals. We want more collaboration, engagement and understanding. We’re deeply rooted in local knowledge, with one of us even being born and raised on Samos. We believe that you get further if you understand things from the perspective of the local communities.

That is also why we decided from the very beginning that we stand with everyone. Whether they live across the street, in the refugee camp or on the other side of the island. It’s important for us to help wherever it’s needed and to act from an understanding of how connected the struggles of the different communities are. While most of our project focus are on the refugee camp, we acknowledge that many locals are struggling as well.

The situation is getting more and more challenging

As a result of the refugee crisis, the island of Samos faces several challenges. The camp itself is way over capacity and the conditions are inhumane. Around 6400 people now live in the camp and the surrounding jungle. The majority of them are without real shelter, running water, electricity and sanitation facilities. The food provided in the camp is of questionable quality and requires hours of waiting in the packed food line every day. Garbage is everywhere and especially the two huge rivers of trash that are going through the camp are full, attracting a large number of rats and creating a huge health risk.

As we see it, some of the biggest problems are the lack of dignity in terms of quality food, clean living areas and suitable options for keeping good hygiene. On top of this, the consequences of the refugee crisis and COVID19 are also affecting the local community a lot. The absent tourism this year puts many families to the test in a society where many are already struggling to make ends meet.

Here’s what we’re doing about it

The last few months, we have been supporting the most vulnerable with food. We packed and distributed more than 4000 bags of food to the camp residents, while we supported local families through the social market, social workers and local initiatives. We want to continue this vital support to both communities. Our main goal is to open a free market where people can come and shop according to their needs of food and hygiene items. Those visiting us will be able to choose themselves directly from the shelves. We believe this creates room for a more dignified way of receiving support. By working closely with local producers and helping them developing their business, we also aim to boost the local economy in order to create a bigger impact.

Currently, we’re also running a waste management project in the jungle part of the camp. Three times a week our team of volunteers are collecting trash and educating the camp residents on the issue. Each week we remove around 500 big trash bags out of the camp. In collaboration with partner organisations on the ground, we’re planning a huge deep cleaning to substantially reduce the levels of trash inside the camp while continuing our weekly effort to ensure that the problem is kept under control.

We realised that most of the trash that lies around is plastic bottles. Therefore, we are about to start a plastic recycling project where we provide frozen water in exchange for collected plastic bottles. We’re in contact with different companies who will be in the recycling end of things so the plastic can be recycled into new useful things.

At the moment these projects are our core focus. However, we know that there is much more do here and we continue to be open for ways to help the different communities on the island. As more emergencies are likely to occur, we also need to be ready to act and support immediately.

You can help us to continue to act fast

With the COVID19 crisis, the communities on the island are struggling more and more. Support to the refugees has been decreasing vastly as a result of restrictions, while support to vulnerable local families strongly affected by the lack of tourism is very limited too. We want to make sure that none of them feels alone. But we cannot do this without your help.

[You can donate to Just Action through this link: https://chuffed.org/project/justaction ]

 

Yala painting the door!

 

The Importance of Local

Vasilis has lived all his life on Samos, apart from some years gaining his degrees in the UK. He has lived and personally experienced the devastating impact of the ongoing recession on the people of Samos. It has brought over the past 12 years, unemployment (and lower wages for those ‘lucky’ enough to get a job) with deep and widespread poverty and all the anxieties and unhappiness that it brings. Survival for many on Samos relies on the food and animals kept and grown on their gardens (which often brings joy because it is delicious food !).

All of this is compounded by the continuous erosion of public services and benefits. It is little wonder that so many young people who could, have left Samos and Greece. This is Samos today. This is the context in which we live. Just Action believes that this context must inform and influence the interventions in managing/helping the refugee population here. Failure to do so will, they believe, further deepen divisions between the locals and the refugees and there will be no possibility in breaking the endless cycle of cruelties that impact on both locals and refugees alike. They share a massive common ground through their poverty, but to have any influence on bringing about a better world for themselves it must get rid of the forces which divide them.

Regrettably what we have witnessed here is that the exclusive focus on refugees with no acknowledgement of the similar plight of so many islanders has fueled deep resentments both towards the refugees and the NGOs themselves. Crazy stories abound about high allowances being given to the refugees ( nothing like the actual figures of 100 – 150 euros a month) and endless other benefits from food to clothes and health care. All sadly not true. But what they can see in Samos town are many places run by NGOs exclusively for refugees. These include schools, cafes, social centres and medical clinics. There are few equivalent services for locals. Everyone here knows well that vast sums of money are spent ‘on refugees’ on Samos just as they know that they get absolutely nothing despite their hardships.

Unfortunately the resentments and divisions which tend to follow from the exclusive focus on refugees by so many NGOs were further deepened when the NGOs took over the efforts of the locals who until then were caring for the huge waves of refugees who came here in 2015. Local groups (mainly women) emerged across the island cooking meals and collecting clothes and shoes so desperately needed. A wide range of relationships between the locals and the refugees developed; an almost instinctive response of solidarity between two groups who shared deep poverty and daily struggles to survive.

But much of this disappeared when the NGOs arrived. There was no sustained attempt to nourish these emerging connections. They simply took over. They thought they were doing the locals a favour by taking over. It was further compounded by modes of organisation which privileged their professionals as the experts who knew best. Bound in this framework it was inevitable that the vast majority of NGO interventions were top down. Sadly this model is all too common in state welfare regimes which have squashed and squeezed out the vast network of mutual help systems that had developed amongst the poor. These organisations and networks because they were based on solidarity and compassion – qualities which have no central place in driving state welfare were both popular and effective and so much better than what the state came to provide. On Samos we sadly witnessed countless points of contact between the islanders and the refugees disappear at great speed following the arrival of the NGOs. And with it a network of grass roots initiatives which were connecting refugees with locals on a shared experience of poverty and neglect. Such forms of solidarity do not allow, unless for specific reasons, for the kinds of exclusive and segregating interventions which leave out so many struggling with the same problems. As we have seen it results in damage to them all.

In hindsight the refugee activists on Samos might have pushed harder for involvement in the local management of the NGOs. Instead what we have now is that the majority of locals who are involved with the NGOs are in junior and relatively low paid jobs in these organisations with little or no influence on policies and priorities.

The creation of Just Action is an attempt to set out a new direction that seeks to bring the locals and refugees together and to provide opportunities for new relationships of solidarity to form and flourish. It is no accident that it should emerge at the time of the coronavirus pandemic. Humanity now confronts a virus which does not carve up the world’s people into categories which reflect their supposed value in a world which has grotesquely enriched a few at the expense of the majority; a world which epitomises the stark warning of Adam Smith that without regulation the rich and the powerful would take all for themselves leaving only crumbs for the rest. The virus however behaves differently and sweeps through human populations caring not a jot for your status, wealth, poverty, gender, race, disability, age, sexuality, place of birth. It confronts humanity as a whole, whether or not you have papers and passports: borders, barbed wire fences, walled enclosed housing and sophisticated security systems are as of nothing to a virulent virus. As with all toxic viruses, the weakest and the vulnerable suffer most but even so it is now self evident that no one is safe unless everyone is safe.

On Samos, the threat of the pandemic confronts us all. The virus has yet to reach the island. But we all know should it come we will face danger. The most obvious is that the virus could devastate the refugees. But they are not alone in their vulnerability. The island not only has an ageing population- elderly people are the majority in many of the villages here – but a population which has been weakened physically and psychologically by years of poverty. Tourism which is a major element of the island’s economy is non existent at the moment. Bars and restaurants are empty. There is a profound anxiety about how many can survive the winter when they have no income in the summer. And for all the people on the island there is an acute awareness that the medical resources here would be rapidly overwhelmed should the virus take hold. The pandemic is forcing us to recognise fundamental challenges which affect us all and to look for new ways which bring us together. Many are beginning to realise the truth of the old adage ‘United, we stand a chance: Divided we will suffer’.

Such an awareness is also clear in the global mobilisations against racism and state violence. The dying words of George Floyd “I can’t breathe” are echoing across the world, even in Samos because they capture the experience of so many irrespective of race. Where all this will lead to who knows, but it is clear that the anger and frustrations of many is exploding in various ways. And whether it connects to the pandemic or to state violence it is encouraging people to recognise their inter-connectedness and need for solidarity.

Established power has always feared the capacities of the many to make a better and fairer world which is why so much effort is made to divide us and humiliate us. But through the pandemic and now with the Black Lives Matter movement we are seeing countless and inspiring mobilisations of people helping and supporting one another. And so much of what they do is so better than anything coming from the state, because it is driven by love and compassion.

 

Just Action comes from that tradition of mutual support:

we decided from the very beginning that we stand with everyone. Whether they live across the street, in the refugee camp or on the other side of the island. It’s important for us to help wherever it’s needed and to act from an understanding of how connected the struggles of the different communities are. While most of our project focus are on the refugee camp, we acknowledge that many locals are struggling as well.”

Without standing together the future looks bleak here. To give just one example. There is still every intent by the state to close the camp in Samos town and to move it to a closed camp on a remote hillside away from any village or town. Should this be attempted one fears for the consequences. Only sufficient solidarity between the locals and refugees will avert a disaster.

Vasilis and Lene told me that they chose the name Just Action partly due to their frustrations of being involved in NGO meetings which often led nowhere. The priorities for action are self-evident and basic especially concerning hygiene and food. But at the point of action there is a major divergence between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches. The former are mired in endless bureaucracy as they seek to manage the action whereas bottom up organisations draw on a huge reservoir of energy and talent where people are ready to work shoulder to shoulder to achieve their objectives. This was brilliantly illustrated by Just Action’s amazing clean up job following the fire which destroyed over 500 homes earlier this year. They were able to bring together both refugees and locals who together cleaned the area in hours.

 

Just Action Cleaning

 

 

Just Action in the Jungle

Of course Just Action needs money to survive and flourish. But they also value the talents and skills of the people around them, both locals on the island and the refugees in the camp. They have access and contact with a priceless resource which is all to often ignored. But its transformational potential is still injured by years of division where the poor have been pushed and persuaded to fight one another for the crumbs on the floor and where relations are soured by jealousies and resentments. This is what makes Just Action and thousands of similar initiatives across the world so important for they embody a faith in the people who given a chance to realise their potential would love nothing more than to work for us all rather than a few. For us on Samos, Just Action is a small green shoot. But one that must be nourished as must all those which follow.

E mail Just Action : justactionsamos@gmail.com

Time to Change: Coronavirus and Refugees on Samos Island

 

The global coronavirus pandemic is affecting every aspect of human life on earth. The challenge is awesome in its scale and scope.

To date we have no cases of the virus on Samos. But still its impact on life here is huge with businesses and schools closed, the tourist industry completely stalled, and deeply engrained social activities such as drinking coffee and church going prohibited. All this is further compounded for as common with much of Greece, Samos has not come through the social and economic crisis that has crippled so many here for the past 12 years. It is only access to gardens and land on the island with islanders growing and producing food for themselves and their families and neighbours that has kept hunger at bay for many here. (Not all are so fortunate). The loss of any income, however small, is a disaster.

But even worse is in store should the virus come to Samos. People here know that their health care system is weak and that respecting the lock down and the other protocols is essential for their well-being. Many here are very proud by their response, and Greece to date has one of the lowest rates of infection and deaths from the virus in Europe.

This makes it all the more shocking to see how the authorities both here on Samos and in Athens are treating the refugees who continue to be detained in conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to respiratory infections, including COVID-19. These include situations such aovercrowded living and working conditions; physical and mental stress; and deprivation due to lack of housing, food and clean water” (WHO). Every single recommendation made by WHO (Europe) on March 25th concerning the treatment of refugees during the pandemic is ignored on Samos and is highlighted by the relocation of the 400 or so people who lost their homes to the recent fires in the jungle. Look at the photo!

Whilst much of the world is being told to keep a 2 metre distance, here we find some of the most vulnerable people on the island being expected to live like this! All of us on Samos now face a greater risk by this action.

What makes this action even more reprehensible is that it need not be like this. Why for example was the stadium not pressed into service with its space and toilets and showers. What about the empty hotels and army barracks?

One truth we all know is that coronavirus attacks people without any discrimination. We also know that it is more deadly for those who are vulnerable either through ill health or poverty. In the fight against the virus we are only as strong as our most vulnerable. We are so used to the official neglect of the poor and the vulnerable that it has come as a welcome surprise to see deeply unequal societies reach out to its most excluded which in the UK included offering accommodation to all homeless people and the distribution of a million food parcels. Portugal has gone further in extending its health care system to embrace every refugee even those without papers. A spokesman for Portugal’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Claudia Veloso, summed up the logic behind her government’s decision : “People should not be deprived of their rights to health and public service just because their application has not yet been processed. In these exceptional times, the rights of migrants must be guaranteed.” (Counterpunch 4 May 2020)

But this is not happening on Samos. The rights of the refugees are not guaranteed and this is a threat to us all. It is surely time that here at least we start to do things differently and better. Whether you like it or not we are all in this together. But by neglecting and even worsening the vulnerabilities of refugees here, the authorities are acting irresponsibly.

As we see across the world, the pandemic is compelling states to act in completely new ways. We must take similar brave actions. Throw out the old and cruel approaches and start afresh in a spirit of human togetherness. We know that we cannot expect much support from Athens. Last week the government broke its promise to remove from the frontier islands 2,500 refugees deemed to be at the greatest risk from the virus. If the situation here is to be improved it will depend on us in Samos. I believe that here on the island we have many of the human and physical resources to make massive improvements which will protect all of us. And this time we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the refugees who for weeks now have been doing what they can to protect themselves including holding classes for the children on hygiene, making masks and distributing food. Working together to fight the virus and to protect all the people of Samos could and would be inspirational! Imagine no longer being seen as the place where refugees suffer but as a beacon of humanity. We can do it. Divided we are in danger. Together we stand a chance.

Samos Refugees: We see a Darkness

In Greece, as elsewhere, the coronavirus epidemic now dominates daily life. Rarely a day passes without some new announcement. Most have a major impact as schools and universities, coffee bars, restaurants, shopping malls and non-essential shops are closed. Moreover with borders closing and flights from Italy and Spain banned, along with cruise ships, the immediate outlook for Greece’s major economic activity, tourism is grim. For a society where the majority of people are still struggling with a decade old economic and social crisis that has deepened their poverty these are devastating developments especially given its collapsing infrastructure and social protections. Currently there are thousands of workers who can no longer work and who don’t know whether they will have any income as a result.

For the refugees, coronavirus is a fused bomb. When, rather than if it blows it will be devastating. The appalling conditions in which refugees are held which blatantly contradict all the government’s instructions on hygiene and overcrowding make the camps and detention facilities exceptionally vulnerable to the virus. The police describe the island camps as “health bombs”. The police associations from Samos, Lesvos, Chios and the North and South Dodecanese are now demanding urgent action. The timing of their intervention is driven by the extremely cruel and unhealthy conditions for the 1,414 refugees who arrived on the islands after March 1st 2020. Following the Act passed on March 2 2020 all new arrivals are denied the right to apply for asylum. This is a major breach of international law, but more of that later. There is no registration or identification procedures for these new arrivals who are kept away from the pre March deadline refugees and detained, as the police noted in their letter to the government (14/3/2020);

Stacked like animals in temporary and inadequate infrastructure acting as ticking health bombs. On Samos there are 93 foreigners in a room of the Port Authority without a toilet or water supply.”

Last week 450 refugees who had arrived after March 1st were held on an army tank landing ship for 4 days on Lesbos before sailing to an undisclosed facility (prison) on the mainland to await deportation. Imagine, an army transporter with 450 passengers! “The children are not receiving sufficient food and clothing,” a Syrian refugee on board told Human Rights Watch:“We had only three toilets for 451 people until today, when they brought five portable toilets. There is no shower, no soap.” As HRW concluded, “Greece’s decision to detain more than 450 people on a naval vessel and refuse to allow them to lodge asylum claims flagrantly violates international and European law.” (https://news.yahoo.com/hrw-denounces-greece-over-migrants-held-warship-130647070.html)

The associations which represent the front line police who directly manage and control the refugees on the frontier islands speak of being abandoned and unprotected by Ministries and bureaucracies that seem to have no grasp of the situation on the islands. They are using their own money to buy masks and antiseptic liquids. They get nothing. But it is the anger which stands out in their letter. It suggests that the treatment of the 1,500 refugees who have arrived on the islands since the beginning of March reaches new depths of inhumanity and deepens their vulnerability to coronavirus. Hidden away, segregated from other refugees, prisoners with rights removed or suspended and no access to lawyers, means we can’t hear their voices. It is more than ironic that we now find some of the police speaking out and breaking the silence both on their own behalf but also for the refugees.“Your disinterest is criminal” they wrote to all the relevant ministers in Athens, “as are your actions which have allowed for such terrible living conditions for foreign nationals and where you expect us to work….There is no care for the police nor for the foreigners.” (Full report published in Samos Voice, 14/3/2020)

Meanwhile coronavirus might have momentarily pushed refugees off the front pages but there has been no halt in the government’s declared strategy of making their lives a misery. So we have Notis Mitarachi, the minister for migration and asylum, announcing on March 3rd that refugees who get asylum will receive no benefits after one month. Previously these benefits lasted for 6 months and sometimes longer. Now “accommodation and benefits for those granted asylum will be interrupted within a month. From then on, they will have to work for a living. This makes our country a less attractive destination for migration flows.” (Mitarachi, BBC News website, 7/3/2020). In a country with a broken labour market now compounded by virus policies which close down major areas of employment, the notion that refugees with asylum can find work to live is fanciful. On Samos for example young Greek adults continue to leave their homes and families, unwillingly, precisely because they cannot find work in Greece.

Other recent measures reflecting this new nastiness include the withdrawal of health provision (AMKA) to all refugees arriving after July 2019. Those with any kind of condition demanding medical care can only access health care through the emergency rooms of hospitals and have to buy their medicines. At the end of last year the Government relented and pledged to introduce a more time limited access to health care for refugees but as yet this has not been implemented. Although some help comes from some NGOs the burden of health care is largely managed by the refugees themselves. Abshir who is now in Thessaloniki regularly gives to collections for medicines that some refugees need; helping refugees negotiate the emergency rooms as well as helping the doctors with translations. This is a regular feature of refugee life here for many.

Ironically coronavirus has temporarily put an end to making refugees sign in with the Asylum Office every 2 weeks as against 4 weeks. Now that the Asylum Service can’t allow for crowds fighting to get in the office to sign as it contravenes coronavirus protocols, they have announced a temporary suspension of all signing in and that it will be done automatically, which clearly reveals that the 2 week signing in was no more than messing with refugee lives. The closure of the Asylum Offices until April 10th also entails suspending all interviews, appeals and applications.

There is plenty of impressionistic evidence from the refugees which points to the asylum procedure automatically rejecting more asylum applications now especially from those coming from one of the 10 named safe countries; again breaking international law which requires every asylum application to be assessed on its merits alone.

The combined threat of rejection, followed by detention and then deportation is driving increasing numbers of refugees underground. If they fear a reject decision, they avoid immediate detention by not going to sign in at the asylum office. In so doing they forfeit their monthly allowance and any other services they may have been given. In cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki there are now many refugees living on the streets, in abandoned buildings and those squats not yet closed by the police. On islands like Samos they are living in the jungle surviving through the support of their friends. But they are exceptionally vulnerable.

Now these numbers are expanding as those who get asylum lose their support are faced with either the streets or the jungle. I have no clear idea of the numbers, but Sofiane in the Open Doors shop estimates more than a thousand refugees with asylum living in the jungle. Many he said have given up on the idea of moving to the mainland unless they are certain of a place to live and see Samos as a better option than the streets of Athens. Neither those without papers nor those with asylum now living in the jungle seem visible to the authorities who will soon be faced with what to do with all those people once the new closed camps are created on the islands. It feels increasingly likely that destitute refugees who have asylum in Greece are going to end up in permanent refugee camps on the mainland much like those for the Palestinians in the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon if the government is to deliver its pledges to decongest the islands.

Between December and March and prior to the coronavirus tsunami the news on Samos and all the frontier islands was dominated by the breakdown in the relationship between the island authorities and the Greek government which culminated in the sending of squads of riot police from Athens to Lesvos and Chios in early March. Despatched at speed, they set about attacking with batons and extensive use of tear gas the islanders’ protests against the building of new, large closed camps. Shouting traditional insults such as calling the islanders “Turkish seeds” (many islanders came from Turkey as a consequence of the 1922 population transfer between Turkey and Greece and were commonly treated with hostility when they came to Greece) they set about beating up the islanders.

It was an intervention which back-fired on Athens provoking outrage across Greece to such indiscriminate police violence which forced the government to withdraw the riot police within 36 hours. But the intervention itself still marked the determination of the government to create new closed camps on the islands, especially Lesvos, Samos and Chios. There has been no stopping the central government from the compulsory take over of large tracts land for this purpose. The government is adamant that new, larger closed camps will be built despite the significant opposition of the islands to remove the camps to the mainland, leaving a much smaller facility for processing and initial assessment as to the asylum application, In the power play the islands lost. All that they now get from government are assurances that sooner or later they will come to realise that the new camps will be a good thing for improving the situation on the island ! But these words are not believed. When it comes to the refugees on the island, years of lies and broken promises means that there is a fundamental lack of trust in the government.

Then, in these very same early March days, Erdogan announced the opening of Turkey’s borders with Europe (Greece and Bulgaria) to ostensibly allow for the estimated one million refugees escaping the violence of Idlib to flow into Europe. With an estimated 3.5 million refugees already in Turkey, Erdogan argued that they could not cope with more. They had to move on. Borders had to open.

Played out in a context of historical and current tensions between Greece and Turkey, Erdogan’s unilateral open borders declaration alongside practical measures such as providing transport to move refugees to the Evros border region between the 2 countries, was presented by government ministers and much of the media as almost a declaration of war.

As I write the extreme tensions between Greece, the EU and Turkey have calmed to some degree and dialogue has re-opened between the major parties. However, important consequences remain including the rapid increase in the militarisation of both land and sea borders and the explicit sanctioning of violence to stop refugees crossing into Greece. On the land borders to the north this has led to thousands of refugees trapped between Turkish soldiers who would not let them back and Greek soldiers who would not let them pass. All attempts to move were repulsed by violence, beatings and tear gas.

At sea it was little better as videos were published on social media sites showing Greek coastguards trying to capsize rubber refugee boats packed with families, beating them with long poles and firing their rifles into the sea around their dinghies. These are not isolated incidents perpetuated by a few ‘rogue’ officers but sanctioned orders as revealed by the Danish Frontex officers who refused to follow orders issued by the central command of Operation Poseidon to put 33 refugees they had rescued back into their boat and drag them outside Greek territorial waters – classic push back. The Danish officers refused to follow illegal orders and were supported in so doing by Denmark’s minister of defence (Reported by Are You Syrios 6/3/2020).

Greece is not unique in breaking international law and conventions with virtual impunity. The decision to suspend , for one month, the asylum rights of refugees coming into Greece if they arrived after March 1 is a fundamental breach but apart from the outcry from human rights groups and activists, the EU, and the USA tacitly sanctioned the law breaking regarding it as an appropriate response to Turkey’s ‘asymmetrical’ attack on Greece/Europe. This, alongside the militarisation of the borders and use of violence against refugees now trying to into Greece was indeed praised by the President of the EU acclaiming Greece as the “shield of Europe”. So the very body charged with monitoring member states’ adherence to international law was in a myriad of ways giving Greece a green light to continue. Which it does.

Israel is probably one of Greece’s closest allies now both economically and militarily. Israel is a serial lawbreaker. No other country comes near when it comes to ignoring international law with impunity. There is now more than a whiff of Israeli influence on Greek refugee policy. And who better to show Greece how to develop a militarised control strategy for refugees?

Always to the disadvantage of the refugees, Greece now has a government which in so many key areas is simply unintelligent. Sending squadrons of riot police to Lesvos and Chios was not a bright move. Government ministers are now attacking NGOs and volunteers working with refugees with extreme vitriol blaming them for causing unrest amongst the refugees and on the islands. Again not a bright move with worrying unintended consequences. At the beginning of March migration minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos called the NGOs bloodsuckers and agitators and facilitators of refugee traffic and hence border weakening. One immediate effect of such statements was the arrival of neo Fascists especially from Austria and Germany on Lesvos. Proclaiming that they had come to help and show solidarity with those police and soldiers guarding Greece’s /Europe’s borders they have been attacking refugees and NGO workers and volunteers. When confronted on Lesvos by outraged locals, the neo fascists were reported as threatening “ to do to you what we did in Kalavryta” when the Nazis killed 483 men and boys there in December 1943 (Keep Talking Greece 5/3/2020). This particular group has now been driven off Lesvos.

Simultaneously in the Evros area we now see armed vigilantes, with official support, driving their tractors and trucks in the remote border lands on the look out for refugees. The government praises the patriotism of these hunters and all those who drove out with food and drink to nourish the soldiers. But as Yannis Laskarakis, a newspaper publisher in the northern city of Alexandroupouli wrote “ We see them [vigilantes] with our own eyes, arresting migrants, treating them badly and if someone tries to help the migrants, he has the same fate” (BBC News, 7/3/2020). When governments sanction violence and hatred, not against equivalent opponents, but defenceless men, women and children who are weak and desperate for life and safety, they are dangerous to us all. And in Greece where there has long been a vibrant fascist stream within the society and the police in particular, the government is playing with fire unleashing elements over which they have no control.

Samos has not as yet witnessed much in the way of vigilante and fascist activity. I don’t know why. There is plenty of rumbling discontent about the NGOs as unaccountable plunderers but then this has been the case for years here. Neither have we seen the physical attacks on refugee workers and agencies which on Lesvos and Chios resulted in projects being withdrawn or suspended and volunteers leaving the islands for their own safety. On Samos it is the coronavirus strategy which has now led to the closure of every refugee project in Samos town and within the hotspot itself.

With all the shop, bar and cafe closures, and other virus protocols stressing self-isolation, there are now few locals on the streets of Samos town. On Monday of this week I would estimate that 90% of the people out and about in town were refugees. This bothers the police and probably many others, but it is the police you see on the streets trying to prevent groups of refugees from gathering and insisting that they keep 2 metres apart. But as one group of refugees pointed out to the police, “you want us to have space when we are out in the town but in the camp you pack us like beans in a tin”.

I want to conclude with a discussion we had in the shop a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about humanity. Where had it gone ? Was it really dead in the world today. Then Mohammed a young guy from Gaza bluntly observed “the system does not do humanity. Never has as far as I can tell”. There was total agreement amongst us. With Sofiane summing up what we thought when he said “the rich and the powerful in this world don’t give a fuck about us. And when I say us I don’t just mean refugees but all the poor of the world. They rob us every day.” Then Alice, from Somalia made a point which we felt was so important when she said that in her eyes humanity was not dead. She sees it everyday in the camp and in how we survive. And I saw the same in Somalia. Amongst the people. Humanity is alive. It is how we live. But it is not ‘up there’. Only with the people.”

 

Post Script

Within a few hours of posting, I received the following e mail from Salma, a single woman from Uganda who was in the Samos camp before moving to Athens.

“On my side out here, I am trying just like any ordinary human being to keep my head above the water by working to ensure that at least I have a decent roof over my head and some small bread at my table to eat. I arrived in Athens four months ago and unlike most of my counterparts, by the special grace of the good God above, i was lucky to get a small blue collar job as a cleaning lady for a cleaning company here in Athens. It doesn’t pay much just 3 Euros per hour and I happen to work 6 hours a day on average. For this I am grateful every though it is really tiring and back breaking. But what choice do I have but just to keep on going as I wait for my decision from the Greek Asylum to come through. At least I have something to keep myself busy and put bread on my table. Another aspect that really helped me out to get this job was the mere fact that whilst I was in Samos during last Summer season, I moved up and down to obtain the necessary documents that can permit me to work anywhere in Greece because by then I also managed to get another small part time job as a kitchen assistant. These documents are of so much help to me especially as I carry on my work here in Athens. Many of my counterparts can’t get jobs because they don’t have these papers owing to the fact that the new Government no longer grants AMKA to refugees anymore. Because of this aspect, many are left stranded often resorting to several dubious ways of earning some money such as prostitution and drug trafficking. But what really baffles me is the fact that even those who have acquired their residence permits and passports also find it hard to get employment although some use the advantage of their newly acquired permits and passports to ferry drugs to and fro Europe and also engage in life threatening activities like prostitution and money laundering. So I sometimes ask myself, could this be as a result of the dependence syndrome which has been caused by the laxity of the slow Greek asylum system or the Greek economic crisis that is still on going?  Anyway I’d seem so unfair to judge anyone at this point because I myself I’m not a saint.”

An Open Letter to Humanity Crew

I do have better things to do with my time but after reading Humanity Crew’s report of its 5 day visit to Samos in January 2020, I am angry enough to write this open letter.

From the beginning to the end, your report is full of errors.

Take your opening sentence:

Today, the island of Samos has more refugees than it has locals;
7200 refugees and 6500 locals live in Samos
.”

Wrong. Samos has a population of 32,977 according to the last census. 9,000 of whom live in Samos town where the refugees live.

What sort of ‘experts’ did you send who couldn’t get this simple fact correct?

The relationship between the residents of Samos town and the refugees is complex and dynamic. As I have written in the Samos Chronicles there are both positives and negatives. But unlike on Lesvos and Chios the proximity of the town is one of the most supportive factors in the life of refugees here. In simple terms it is where they can be and feel human. So every day you will see hundreds of refugees walking the short distance into the town. Some go the various centres (Alpha, Banana House……..) others to simply walk by the shops or by the sea and others to shop. But, according to your experts,

Moreover, notwithstanding the centers in the city, it is difficult for one to actually access the city from the ‘jungle’. The road is very rough for both people and cars to cross, which means that it is also very difficult for ambulances to reach the jungle should an emergency happen. All this means that the jungle is basically cut off from the world.

Wrong. So very wrong. These kinds of statements strongly suggest to me that your experts did not talk to the refugees here.

No sane human being could ever dispute that the camp and jungle is an affront to humanity. In Europe today you would face criminal prosecution if you treated your pets or livestock in this way. The cruelties are almost without limit. They do not need to be exaggerated which is precisely what your experts do:

In their visit, both Dr. Daod and Mansur observed that prostitution, drug dealing and other illicit activities occurring inside the tents were pervasive throughout the entire jungle. Many children were left alone outside the tents, neglected, and eventually becoming subjects of harassment and assault. Most children were barefoot and reported not feeling the cold in their damaged, frozen feet .”This is a coping mechanism-an emotional freeze that leads to physical freeze,’ says Mansur.” ( my emphasis)

No one would deny these problems but never on the scale you suggest. Refugees survive here largely through their own efforts and solidarities. Where do you talk about this? There are thousands of children in the camp and they have thousands more looking out for them.

Why didn’t your experts spend time in the Open Doors shop? Was it because it is run by refugees for refugees? Was it because it is one of the most inspiring initiatives in the town and the best place to find out what is going on. If your experts had come to the shop and told them that most of the children had no shoes they would immediately mobilise to fix the problem. But the fact is that most children have shoes because the refugees would not tolerate them being without.

As for their recommendations it was no more than ‘stating the bleeding obvious’.

And lastly, at the end of the report I find your request “Give a Gift to the refugees in Samos” but in fact this is no more than a link to your organisation’s donations and fund-raising page with no mention of Samos at all. And of course no information as to the actual recipients and for what purpose these funds are to be used.

I would like to know how much you spent sending your expert team to Samos. The refugees here would like to know also. Maybe those who are considering sending you money would also like to know.

When I visited your office in Haifa about 3 years ago I came away thinking you had something important to offer.

What happened?

Yours etc,

Chris Jones

Samos Island 17 Feb 2020iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiG

In fact

Deepening Cruelties and Delusions on the Greek Frontier Islands

“Seventy-five years after the liberation of this place by the Red Army, we should all make this sacred commitment to never forget what happened here. And let us never forget that hatred, discrimination, intolerance have no place in our democracy”.

(Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 27 Jan 2020, at Auschwitz 75th Liberation event, Ekathimerini 27/1/20)

Just what does your sacred commitment to never forget “that hatred, discrimination, intolerance have no place in our democracy” mean? Your government has recently removed access to public health care to all new refugee arrivals; you are in the process of building new closed camps on Samos, Lesbos and Chios; you are planning to deport 10,000 people this year; you have done nothing to improve the physical conditions in the Hot Spots; you continue to hold refugees including children in police cells that have been continually and extensively denounced as inhumane; and you are sanctioning a significant militarisation of the seas around the border islands in conjunction with the EU. Did none of this come to mind as you wandered around Auschwitz? Surely your plans for the closed camps with their deliberate bleak design behind the razor wire fences in remote and barren locations which will also contain an even more secure detention area for holding those for deportation shadowed your mind, albeit briefly.

 

Site of new closed camp being built on Samos

 

Plans for the hot spot

 

 

 

Hatred, discrimination and intolerance all feature centrally in the management of refugees struggling to find a future for themselves in Europe. This indeed is the central message of all the major refugee support groups in Greece which have universally condemned this government’s International Protection Act which came into force in January 2020. This legislation marks a significant hardening of the procedures and practices governing asylum seekers making it to Greece. As far as the refugees are concerned there is nothing positive in the legislation. “This new law expands grounds to detain asylum seekers, increases bureaucratic hurdles to make appeals, and removes previous protections for vulnerable individuals who arrive to the Greek islands. Specifically, all individuals that arrive from Turkey are now prohibited from leaving the islands until their applications are processed, unless geographic restrictions are lifted at the discretion of the authorities. These changes ultimately will lead to an increased population of asylum seekers trapped in Lesvos,[and all the frontier islands including Samos] and an increasing number of people trapped here who have had their asylum claims rejected and face deportation to Turkey” (Legal Centre Lesvos, 22 Jan 2020, http://legalcentrelesvos.org/2020/01/22/january-2020-report-on-rights-violations-and-resistance-in-lesvos/.)

Many of the new procedures increase the need for asylum seekers to have adequate legal support but in the almost total absence of state funded lawyers on the frontier islands there is no chance of this happening. “Under the new law, asylum seekers in the islands’ hot spots have only five days to appeal a first negative decision, within which time they also have to find a lawyer and submit the precise grounds and reasons for this appeal in a memorandum in Greek. Given that there is only one state-appointed lawyer working in Lesvos [and Samos is no different) and that there are not sufficient NGO lawyers available to represent people for appeals, having a memorandum in Greek within five days, will be practically impossible for the vast majority of people seeking asylum” No Rights Zone, p7). Making it even worse are the actual realities of the hot spots where hundreds of desperate people try to access the Asylum Office every day and fail. The Lesvos legal centre gave one example this month of a family with 2 young children who tried for five days to get through the door of the Asylum Office in Moira Camp and only succeeded through a chance meeting with a lawyer. Under the new law failure to turn up for an appointment promises dire consequences including the presumption that their non attendance indicates that they are no longer seeking to continue with their asylum application. An application, which for many refugees has now been significantly further undermined by the Act’s identification of 12 ‘safe’ countries. As all the critics have pointed out the safe country designation will inevitably lead to many asylum rejections as the system now assumes that people from these countries are not deemed to be in need of international protection. In a September 2019 Press Release the Ministry of Citizen Protection argued that ‘the refugee issue –of Syrians and Iraqis –has shifted to a migration issue of Afghans and sub-Saharans’, implying that nationals from these countries cannot have valid asylum claims in an attempt to justify laws that violate international standards and safeguards. “ This assumption is inappropriate since irrespective of the country of origin, international law requires an independent assessment of each individual claim. It is also not supported by the facts: Afghanistan is still a top ‘refugee producing country’ according to UNHCR, with a recognition rate in Greece of over 70 percent during the first ten months of 2019” (No Rights Zone Dec 2019,p.7).

Neither is it re-assuring that the new Act now allows police and army personnel to conduct these first interviews. And to cap that further, the Government has made it a priority to achieve 10,000 deportations to Turkey in 2020. As the Greek Council for Refugees noted in its condemnation of the legislation:

the Greek State, instead of planning a policy to solve the real problems of the Greek asylum and reception system ……. chooses to handle the existing crisis with regulations that reduce fundamental guarantees of the asylum and reception system and are unilaterally directed towards the increase of returns.”(https://www.gcr.gr/media/k2/attachments/GCR_on_bill_about_International_Protection_en.pdf)

In 2019, 74% of the refugees on the frontier islands were assessed as vulnerable. The majority of refugees now are young families. In addition, there are thousands of unaccompanied minors. So many of the refugees here are young; children, infants and teens, the lucky ones being with their parents. Even though the new legislation has been in force only for a few weeks it is clear from what our friends in the camp and elsewhere are telling us that it is frightening them and making an intolerable situation worse. Some of the most recent changes seem to be little more than messing the refugees about. What other justification can there be to now making refugees sign for their payment card every two weeks rather than every four weeks as it was before?

The adult refugees see and experience all too clearly the shift towards increased harshness and abandonment. They tell us that in the past few weeks there has been a marked increase in stop and searches, especially by plains clothes police. If your papers are not in order you are arrested and detained. They also tell us that more and more people now are getting rejections. Many of the African refugees are now more frightened that they are going to be deported. Last night I was on the phone with a Somalian friend  now in Thessaloniki who told me that he had just heard from Samos where a fellow Somalian who was initially rejected in December 2017 and then appealed, has just been told that his appeal was unsuccessful and that he will be deported within the next 2 weeks. Cruel. There are no other words.

And it will get worse as more and more refugees rather than waiting for what they feel is the inevitable rejection and detention (especially single people from sub Saharan Africa) will go underground. Some will certainly find ways of getting out of Greece, although this is getting harder and more dangerous as they seek out wilderness routes to avoid detection. Many more will join the thousands without papers living /surviving on the streets of the big cities. But these too are now being targeted with increased raids on places where they live and meet.

Back on Samos

In the meantime the Greek frontier islands have seen a spate of mobilisations over the past two weeks protesting especially the government’s decision to build new, large, closed hot spots on Chios, Samos and Lesbos and turning the open camps currently on Leros and Kos into closed camps. The protests have been driven largely by the Mayors of Lesbos, Chios and Samos town, all of whom are New Democracy, as is the government. This has been reflected in the attention and time currently accorded the mayors by the Athens government with relevant ministers now regularly coming to the islands in an attempt to appease the mayors. But all the mayors are getting is soothing words and expressions of concern at the ‘undoubted strains’ facing the islanders. In so many ways it is little more than theatre for the mayors must know that EU/Turkey pact of 2016 is sacrosanct and cannot be threatened. It is this agreement which determines the necessity for the camps on the frontier islands. Turkey will only accept deportations from the islands and not the mainland. Consequently there is no chance to deliver on the mayors’ demands that no new closed camps be built and that all refugees be removed leaving only a much smaller operation focused on rapidly transiting new refugee arrivals to the mainland.

Instead, what the government is promising for Samos and the other frontier islands is tighter control over the refugees through the closed camps alongside deepening the militarisation of the borders in an attempt to stop refugee arrivals. In the case of Samos this means the closure of the camp in Samos town and the building and opening of a bigger but closed camp in the middle of nowhere. In a surprise move the government announced on February 10 2020 that it had taken powers to requisition the land it needed for its future plans. No discussion. So much for the mayors,who responded by threatening to withdraw all co-operation with the government. In the case of Samos the land grab is huge. 216 acres alongside the new hot spot. It can only mean that they are taking steps to make an even bigger camp than previously announced. The mayors had been told that the camps would be for 2,000, then 5,000, and most recently 7,000. Now?????

Land Grab! The hot spot now being built is focused around the white building on left of new boundary.

As for militarisation big money is being spent and committed. In the past three weeks the Samos media has reported on the order of 15 high speed patrol boats and the tender for a floating plastic barrier of around 2.5 kms length to be trialled in the sea around Lesvos with a view to similar installations to follow in Chios and Samos. According to Nikos Panagiatopoulis, minister of defence, “We will see what deterrent effect this [fence] will have when it is put into practice. But it will be a natural obstacle. If it works, as it did in Evros, I expect it will have some effect….We are trying to find solutions to somehow reduce the flow (Samos Voice 30 Jan 2020). This latest announcement has been widely derided as delusional as “even a child knows you can’t build a fence out in the sea!”. For many on the island it is all too reminiscent of the Zeppelin which was launched with such a fanfare barely a year ago. This too was to be a significant weapon in reducing arrivals. It didn’t. It has gone. But unlike its arrival it departed in silence.

Much of what is now being implemented with the new legislation and being proposed with respect to the use of extensive detention, deportations without due process and the stopping of refugee arrivals is of dubious legality with respect to international law and conventions concerning refugees and asylum seekers. There will be resistance especially in the law courts as so many fundamental principles concerning rights to international protection are under threat. Implementation will almost certainly have to be modified and held back. Combined with the proven incompetence of the Greek state authorities and agencies and sheer lack of capacity to implement the proposals promises chaos with refugees bearing the consequences. For example, “the latest report of the European Court of Auditors highlighted that ‘accelerated procedures’ implemented in Greece have become lengthier and the time between the registration of the asylum seeker and the first asylum decision increased from 236 days in 2016 (7-8 months) to 363 days (nearly a full year) in 2018 “(No Rights Zone, 2019, p.7) In Lesvos earlier this month the introduction of the policy to make refugees renew their papers every 2 weeks as against 4 weeks had to be abandoned simply because they were overwhelmed.

Not surprisingly then there is much scepticism on Samos as to what might happen. Even though the new camp is being built now many refugees and activists here don’t think it will open. Despite notices in the camp posted this past Monday informing that all refugees would be moved, including families and minors in rental accommodation by April 2020, the scepticism remains. The day to day evidence of the relentless neglect of the authorities is overwhelming. And, like the islanders, they no longer believe the promises of government action because they too experience the sheer lack of both numbers and ability across the spectrum from lawyers to social workers; from asylum officers to doctors and translators to make any of the proposals work. It is a long list. But then as one young woman from Kuwait told me the other day, “What can I expect from a government which can’t even provide us with a toilet?”

(It is 7am on Saturday 1st Feb 2020 and I can see from my room a cargo vessel heading towards Samos harbour full of accommodation containers for the new closed camp. As much as the scepticism over the opening of a new camp is understandable, it would be mistaken not to see that at this point in time there is a much greater sense of urgency and determination in the actions of the Greek government to shift towards even more repressive refugee policies and practices. But will it last?)

Sadly intelligence has not been a notable characteristic of the main public refugee debates on Samos. At this moment we have ranting mayors most notably exemplified by the mayor of Vathi who takes every opportunity to be televised telling the Greek people how awful life is on Samos for the people because of the refugees. It seems that their culture, language and identity are in dire danger. Sadly too many nod their heads even though there is not the slightest danger of this happening but on an island that has and continues to suffer from a collapsed economy and its associated emaciated and inadequate public services, the refugees offer a convenient scapegoat.

 

Samos mayor George Stantzos ranting at refugees in the central square of Samos town, December 2019 Video on My Samos Blog

A simple walk through Samos town made vibrant with the presence of young people and children is all that is needed to cut through the mayor’s distortions. It is a walk that makes you think about how a small town like Vathi has come to live alongside up to 7,000 refugees when until recently it was rare ever to see a black or Arab person in the town. It is a walk where you see many smiles. It is a walk where you don’t feel afraid or fearful. Just yesterday I was with a small crowd of local people who were watching 2 young boys, one from the Congo and the other from Syria playing marbles outside the refugee shop, Open Doors. Marbles was once a popular children’s game here it seems as much of the chatter was about how good it was to see the game being played again. Lots of laughter and just one more example from our daily lives here which expose the endless distortions of the mayor and his vociferous supporters.

Samos Town, December 2019

It is not fear but a deep shame that shadows this town. It is an island which saw many flee the Nazi invasion and who ended up living for years in refugee camps in Palestine and Egypt. It is an experience not yet forgotten in many families here. Many islanders understand that what is going on here is both wrong and cruel. And for us, the camp is the tumour of Samos and what makes this beautiful island a dark place. This is what needs to change.

 

PS

This blog makes great use of Statewatch. It is a magnificent resource. All the documents cited in this piece can be found on their site: http://www.statewatch.org/eu-med-crisis.htm.

PPS

No copyright. Please use and circulate as you can!

Samos Refugees: A reluctant update on enduring cruelties

Over the past few months I have been asked by various groups and individuals to provide an update on the refugee situation on Samos.

Until now I have not responded to these requests for the simple reason I have nothing new to add to earlier blog articles. For as far as the refugees here are concerned it is still the same old shit.

Of course there have been changes over time the most notable being the EU/Turkey pact of 2016. Before the pact, refugees on the whole were held for months, sometimes just a few days, before being allowed to move off the islands. Now it can be years. But whether it has been just for a few days or 3 years the refugees have never been welcomed or embraced by the authorities. This is perpetually demonstrated by the penal like design and construction of the camp, its appalling accommodation, its unspeakable food, lack of basic medical facilities, wholly inadequate toilets and showers, the refusal to open empty schools and hotels to offer decent spaces for people to live,…..the list goes on1. Its been like this for so long now that it’s almost normalised. And there is no end in sight. All of the latest proposals from the recently elected conservative (New Democracy) government promise more repression and more detention. It is always hard to predict in Greece what will actually be implemented but on Samos at least the Government is now building a new camp located on the site of an old slaughter house in the middle of nowhere which will not only be closed, but will also contain a prison for holding those identified for deportation.

So there is simply nothing to update on this basic reality except to say that the main responsible agencies have become masters of consistency in the reproduction of shit. The seemingly endless publication of critical reports which highlight many of these issues on Samos and elsewhere have not made one iota of difference. Water off a duck’s back.

In the meantime the refugees continue to arrive. 600 last week which makes a mockery of the government’s periodic ‘decongestion’ efforts of periodically shipping ferry loads of refugees to the mainland. Turkey has long recognised that the massive numbers of refugees living in Turkey (3 million plus) and its awareness that the EU is desperate that they should stay there and not move onto Europe gives them a powerful weapon. Currently there is little doubt that the recent increase in refugees arriving on the frontier islands is an attempt by the Turkish government to force the EU to stop harassing Turkey over its oil and gas explorations around Cyprus. To that end, Turkey is now making life very difficult for refugees especially those living in Istanbul with forced deportations especially back to Syria and Afghanistan. This is the context of the current increase in numbers seeking to escape from Turkey. Refugees are little more than a pawn in this conflict used mercilessly to extract concessions from one side or the other.

On Samos, as with the other frontier islands, it has now become widely seen as a ‘bad thing’ for refugees to be detained for so long on the islands. But on Samos at least the reality is more paradoxical. Today increasing numbers of refugees on Samos would prefer to stay here rather than be moved to the mainland. Many know that camps such as Nea Kavala in northern Greece – an isolated former airfield- are far worse than Samos. It is hard to forget David’s reaction when he arrived from Samos to the Nea Kavala camp. Total shock! He told me that he along with the 300 refugees who were moved there from Samos just walked around in a daze at what they found. Many wanted to come back to Samos where at least they had easy access to the town and its facilities and some much needed services provided by volunteer groups and NGOs. But most importantly, because of their extended stay on Samos this is where they have established networks of friends and in the ‘jungle’ surrounding the Hotspot, they have built shelters and homes some of which are breathtaking in their comfort. No one in their right mind would dispute that the camp and the surrounding jungle is a hell hole. But it is also much more. It is also a place of homes and of people (including thousands of children) making a life. To ignore this as many do leads to a fundamental mistake in failing to acknowledge the extent of refugee well-being falls on their shoulders and their humanity. This week Younis a young Palestinian from Gaza was telling me how much he enjoyed visiting his friends in the jungle and spending the evening laughing and eating sitting around an open fire. In parts of the jungle the refugees are developing clusters of around 10 shelters with each cluster having its own shower and toilet!

Making a Home

Shelters

 

 

Inside the Shelter

Part of the Jungle

Last week over 600 new refugees arrived on Samos. Included in that number was Juno from the Congo, traveling alone. Once finished with the initial processing he and the others in his boat were taken to the camp. They were told to find somewhere to sleep in the jungle. He was given no tent, no blanket and no money for at least 2 weeks. All he was told was where the Africans have their tents. This is now the common experience for new arrivals, especially single men and women. Families with children usually fare better. If it wasn’t for the solidarity and self-organisation of the refugees Juno would have found himself in danger. Within days of his arrival he like hundreds before him were hauling wood and polythene into the jungle where at a small cost he had his shelter made. There is a thriving shelter building business now in the camp!

So there we have it. Despite the shit and their abandonment the great majority of refugees irrespective of origin are engaged in that elemental human activity of making a home drawing on whatever materials they can afford or scrounge.

But the skills, the talents, the ingenuity and the extraordinary resilience of the refugees as a whole is not applauded and not even noticed in most cases. Although in an Open TV broadcast in late November 2019, the reporter Zizi Mousios observed “ what is happening in Samos is something unprecedented,we started in Leros, we went to Kos , here [on Samos] we have a favela” (My Samos Blog, 29th November 2019).

Since the autumn we have had a new mayor (Giorgos Stantzos) in Samos town. He is making a lot of noise about the camp and refugees. He wants the lot out. “There is no way that Samos, which doesn’t have a mosque, will accept a Muslim village” (The Samos Uprising, Ekathimareni Nov 28th 2019). Amongst his latest announcements he has expressed concern about the high number of ‘unauthorised’ structures that the refugees have built in the jungle, and the creation of ‘neighbourhoods’ there. The fact these shelters allow the refugees to survive is utterly ignored. That we are not burying bodies every week is almost entirely due to the refugees. Amidst the anger, the tensions and conflicts which are ever present realities of refugee life on Samos there is also a deep resource of solidarity and care which in the end is far more significant.

In stark contrast to the authorities, the refugees have been and are busy still preparing for the heavy winter rains which started a few days ago. I can’t speak of the other frontier islands but Samos has monsoon like weather, especially in January and February, but also earlier like now when it can rain torrential for days at a time. To my knowledge, never in the past 13 years have the authorities done anything significant to help the refugees get through this season. Adherence to the deterrent doctrine which so self-evidently fails to halt the movement of refugees, is as strong as ever. So nothing, nothing at all is or should be done to improve conditions and services for refugees as to do so would attract even more. And flowing from the same deterrence doctrine resources which should and could be directed towards refugee welfare are flowing with ever greater rapidity into border hardening, surveillance, and militarisation:

The European military and security industry through their successful lobbying has succeeded in framing migration as a security threat rather than a humanitarian challenge. This has turned on a seemingly limitless tap of public funding for militarising our borders yet prevented the policies and investments we need to respond humanely to refugees and to tackle the root causes of forced migration.”

Available data shows at least €900 million has been spent on land walls and fences, €676.4 million on maritime operations (2006 to 2017) and €999.4m on its virtual walls (2000-2019). In addition, companies have benefited from the €1.7 billion budget of the European Commission’s External Borders Fund (2007-2013) and the €2.76 billion Internal Security Fund – Borders (2014-2020). In the next EU budget cycle (2021–2027), the European Commission has earmarked €8.02 billion to its Integrated Border Management Fund (2021-2027) and €11.27 billion to its coastguard agency Frontex.

(TNI, November 2019, https://www.tni.org/en/article/berlin-walls-30th-anniversary-the-businesses-booming-from-europes-new-walls)

Here on Samos, the much heralded Zeppelin airship has come and gone (no explanation given for its departure) but now we are more likely to see patrol boats and warships from our beaches than fishing boats; we now have to negotiate our departures through intensively policed ports with their accompanying plain clothes officers sidling up to you in the queue to board the ferry asking for your papers, as well as the armoured ninja turtle police crawling around and on top of the lorries seeking out those refugees trying to escape from Samos. This impacts on all of our lives. We can see the growth in police numbers in Samos town as well as their modern paramilitary vehicles on our streets and the coach loads of riot police sitting day in and day out on the roads around the camp.

Welcome to Samos!

For the refugees these changes have made their journeys from Turkey to Samos more difficult and hazardous. It is common place now to hear that refugees have made 5, 6, 7 or more attempts to cross. According to the Aegean Boat Report between November 11th and November 17th 2019 a “total of 164 boats started their trip towards the Greek Islands, carrying a total of 6097 people. However, 91 boats were stopped by TCG/police, and 2444 people arrived on the Greek Islands. So far this year 2849 boats have been stopped by The Turkish Coast Guard and Police.” (http://www.statewatch.org/news/2019/nov/a-b-rWeekly-46-19.pdf). But for the moment at least the patrol boats operating out of Samos are still rescuing refugees who have made it into Greek waters and bringing them to the island. Ten years ago this was not the case and the Samos coastguards were notorious for their push-backs.

This is what I witness on Samos this little Greek island that finds itself on the frontier of Europe. This tiny spot on the map has and continues to be a gateway into Europe for tens of thousands of refugees. It is for the great majority their first taste of Europe. And what a taste they get! Over the years it takes to become a ‘legal’ human being again, they are treated like SHIT. If they were horses, or dogs, those responsible for their cruel treatment would be hauled in front of the courts.

But tiny as it is, Samos along with all the frontier islands must not be ignored for these are some of the places where a terrifying politics of cruelty has taken root and is flourishing, virtually unopposed. Sometimes the press will fleetingly remind a wider world of Samos if there is something sensational to report, usually deaths at sea. But as with mushrooms the policies, practices and doctrines that are being played out on Samos and elsewhere along the frontier flourish better in darkness. This is what it feels like.

And it is dismaying and disheartening that such elemental cruelties are allowed to continue year on year. The consequences, many yet waiting to be revealed for both the refugees as well as the people of Europe are certain to be dire. It would seem that others are now recognising this. Dr Christos Christou, International President, Médecins Sans Frontières has just published an open letter to ‘European Leaders’. Returning from the Greek frontier islands, he wrote:

The situation is comparable with what we see after natural disasters or in war zones in other parts of the world. It is outrageous to see these conditions in Europe – a supposedly safe continent – and to know that they are the result of deliberate political choices. (my emphasis)

Rather than acknowledging the human cost of your approach, you continue to call for a more forceful implementation of the EU Turkey deal. You even consider more brutal measures, like the Greek government’s recently announced plans to convert the hotspots into mass detention centres, and to accelerate deportations.

Stop this madness.….

As MSF, we can’t accept this blatant dehumanisation. No matter what assistance we provide to our patients, afterwards we have to send them back to the conditions which are making them ill, conditions that you have deliberately created. ….

As a medical doctor representing a humanitarian organisation, I am outraged to see how you have justified and normalised this suffering, as if it were an acceptable price to pay to keep as many people as possible out of Europe.

No political reasoning can justify measures that deliberately and consciously inflict harm – and we have repeatedly warned you these policies do. Stop ignoring it, stop pretending that they don’t.“(November 27 2019, https://www.msf.org/european-leaders-must-stop-punishing-asylum-seekers-greek-islands)

The entire approach of the authorities responsible both in Greece and the EU has led to the creation of a mega business with powerful vested interests which has much to gain and is unlikely to be shifted. It is naive to think otherwise. The growing grass root mobilisations around the world against global annihilation are fueled by the understanding that the greed and avarice of the powerful will drive us to extinction. And it is the very same values that frame the cruelties unleashed on the refugees. Any chance of a future for humanity rests not in the citadels of existing power. This is where MSF and other NGOs get it wrong, time and again, for none of their critical reports or statements over the years have had any impact on power and their policies Change will only come from the ‘bottom’ and only when we realise more widely that virtually all the major challenges facing humanity – environmental destruction, wars, massive inequalities and poverty and the flows of people forced to move as a consequence are deeply inter-connected. They draw their power from the same well.

 

 

Footnote 1 Missing from the list is any mention of the Greek Orthodox Church which has a massive presence and influence on Samos and Greece as a whole. Sadly, at least with respect to refugees it has demonstrated no compassion and no humanity. For the global Christian world it must be deeply shameful to be associated with such a cruel institution

Painful Times

One day in September, in Athens, the capital of Greece, I do not remember the exact day or time, but I remember that the sun was gathering it’s beautiful red dress and preparing to leave. I remember being at the house of one of my friends drinking hot green tea when my phone did rang. The caller was my close friend Hamid with whom I have shared my life for four consecutive years.

Me : Hi Hamid .

Hamid : Hi Saad try to come quickly to the house i want tell you something very important.

Me : what’s happened? Please tell me .

Hamid : we have to leave Greece today walking to Holland . That is my decision.

Me: what are you saying? Are you crazy?

Hamid: No, I am not crazy, but I am so tired of this disgusting situation, a year and a half in Greece and we have not even got our confidence to prove ourselves and still we wait for the right of asylum. We must leave this tired country.

Me: But the journey is long and very difficult and we will need a lot of money that we do not have.

Hamid: My cousin will go with us and he will help with the cost of the journey .

Me: What about me ? How i will do it with you ? I have no money.

Hamid: you know that we have a small amount of money that should be enough to get to Bosnia, and after Bosnia I will ask my cousin to help and if he will not accept i will find way don’t worry .

Me: No no no this talk does not convince me. I’m afraid

Hamid: Please agree . We do not have enough time for discussion, the group is ready to go and they have decided to start today in the evening.

Me: Let me call Sam and Bob.

Hamid: I agree, call them and ask them, maybe they will give us useful advice.

I called Sam.

Me : Hi Sam, how are you?

Sam: Hi Saad, I’m fine and how are you?

Me: I’m not okay, Hamid says that we should leave Athens for Holland by walking, what do you advise us to do.

Sam: Whaaaaaat? What are you saying, how’s that? when ? And how?

Me: I don’t know the details but he said that his cousin will be with us and he will help us with some money, and that they want to go this evening; in just a few hours.

Sam: What? this fast ? What do you think of this decision? Do you agree ? are you satisfied ? Can you walk all that way?

Me : I am not convinced and I am afraid that I can not walk so far because of my asthma. And I do not have enough money and I have no idea how much this travel will cost and no idea of the seriousness of the journey and what can happen to us.

Sam: What about Hamid? What is his vision?

Me: Hamid is completely determined to go and does not want to change his mind.

Sam: I understand so try to talk with him again maybe he will change his mind and if he doesn’t accept just let him go but don’t give him any money because I’m sure he will need it later in his journey.And don’t change your mind but stay in Athens because Hamid will need your help later .

 

I put some clothes in a bag and gave it to Hamid and walked with him to the door of the apartment as the tears poured out of our eyes like rain of the last of November.

I said ‘take care of yourself, trust me and my love for you and know that my soul will accompany you on your way. I have no one in this world except you, please be strong. Trust that failure is the beginning of success and you will never fail. If you will feel for one minute that you will not be able to go on then come back and you will find me here waiting for you’.

Hamid, do not be afraid because you are a strong man, keep yourself well, remember the beautiful things and consider this trip as a journey of scientific exploration in order to get know other countries which you can share with me.

I love you so much as you are and as you were and as you will be and I will never abandon you.

He just said that I love you and trust you , he said it simply but his eyes were full of tears and his mouth drew a beautiful smile which hid so many of his feelings.

Hamid went and i closed the door quietly and in my heart I hoped that he would return after an hour or two. I did not know what to do. Should I cry until i lose all the water and the blood from my body and then fall down unconscious ? or follow him quickly ? or change my clothes and wait for Zoe and her boyfriend Nikos and my friend Ghiath who i have appointment with in my home  after one and half hours ? There was not enough time left to think . I should change my clothes and put the table and chairs on the balcony to welcome my guests.

I washed my face and attended to everything to receive my friends, but my heart was very sad because the water that washed my tears could not free my heart from its sadness and confusion.

 

Ghiath brought with him a Syrian sweet ( Halawa Tahinia ), which is one of the most delicious types of sweet whichI love so much. Nikos and Zoe brought with them flowers .

Perhaps those flowers will fill the empty space in my room or even accompany me during the night, but the dessert was the most beautiful gift from Ghiath as for a short time its taste made me forget the bitter taste of Hamid’s leaving.

We sat on the balcony and the conversation was fun, I tried to share their laughs and smile but my heart was crying.

That evening passed quickly and I was able to hide my tears and secret fears. After some hours my friends left and I stayed alone in my room and there my tears flowed safely without hindrance.

It was the longest night of my life, sitting on my bed, covered with a white cover and painted with colourful flowers.

Oh that bed now seems very very big, even bigger than the whole world and I do not know how to sleep on it; is it bigger than the distance between me and Hamid at that moment? I do not know the answer, but I am very sure that I miss him and I want him beside me now, but I do not know how.

I tried to contact Hamid more than once, but he did not answer. I do not know why, but he must answer and return back because I need him and I can not live alone without him.

The question I asked myself was ‘am I weak? Or is parting just so very difficult? ‘

I could not sleep that night, not even a minute. Tears did not allow my eyes to sleep.

With the sun shining and the sound of sparrows outside my window ,my phone rang.It is Hamid.

Me: ‘Hamid Are you back? Do you want me to open the door? I knew that you would not continue that damned journey which will grow the distance between us’.

Hamid: ‘No no darling I have not come back I just want to apologize because I could not answer your call yesterday as I was on the Greek-Albanian border. I am now in Albania and I will go after few minutes to its capital. The weather is very good here, I miss you a lot, are you okay ? Please don’t cry, you promised me to be strong, I am sorry i have to go now .

Me: ‘Hamid tell me that you love me, please’.

Hamid: ‘I love you.’

Then he broke down crying and ended the call.

I remember that I slept a lot that day and when I woke up, darkness coloured the sky .

I can’t describe that day because everything was tasteless and odorless. No, maybe everything had a taste and smell, but my senses don’t want to know anything.

Three days passed,. During those days i had many calls from Hamid as he told me about the route from Greece to Albania and tabout the soldiers guarding the Albanian border for fear of refugees. He told me about the water flowing in the rivers and crossing the land and borders without a travel document or visa and those birds that do not build factories and do not study medicine or engineering, informatics, philosophy and physics and yet roam the skies in freedom without the need for papers. Why is that fundamental right on earth only denied to (some) humans ? Especailly those who for so many reasons cannot stay in their homes?

After a week living on the streets in Albania keeping away from the police, Hamid reached the border with Montenegro. It was very hard. He had to walk two days. The weather in the border mountains was cold with snow and lots of rain. They slept outside with snow for a bed and rain as a blanket for their bodies.

Everything around him was harsh . He told me ‘I heard my heart beats calling me and shouting “enough enough”. I am so tired. I want to give up . The cold is too harsh , I can’t bear it anymore. I felt that my bones had frozen, I could not answer my heart because my mouth was frozen too and my tongue did not want to move. It was fear of the cold, and I screamed inside me “my God if you exist take me to you quickly maybe i can be warm and safe again “ That was everything he remembered before he lost consciousness.

The next morning Hamid and his friends woke up when the sun shine painted their bodies ,carrying with it warmth which entered their bones and veins and awakened their blood cells and ordered them to work.

Hamid arrived in Montenegro and the joy of victory accompanied him. He had escaped death and the police. This was the most beautiful victory of an oppressed bird.

One night I was sitting in my big room with my tears hugging me. I felt that Hamid was in danger. I tried to call him several times but he did not answer and the fear grew in my heart. I wrote him a travel poem with my pen that holds ink from my tears and blood and I told him .. .…

You, absent one, whose heart beats through my veins

Tell me – where are you, where did my tears fall?

Relieve me from this, my chest tightening, my ribs cracking.

Only my heart has escaped the tormentor.

Fleeing without wings or the will to return,

It has left me alone in my room,

to be wrestled into submission in my bed

Where are you?

Tell me frankly, without fear of my pains, my tears.

Or take me to you, lost here in the dark wilderness of deceit.

Send me your voice as thunder dragging over the foothills

And please, silence the voice of that brazen bird

who flirts daily with his false song through my window

telling me of spring, of the blossoms flowering like

a noose around my neck.

It squawks as it approaches to caress my face

alarming my innocent cat.

I do not want to hear its voice, unaccompanied by the melody

of your own.

And I do not want my bed without you, my cod and numb bed.

Can you see that picture on the wall?

It weeps daily, without knowing its tears erase

the words of reproach and guilt and longing.

I am afraid.

I am very afraid – do you hear my heartbeat accelerating?

and the tremor of my hands that pound my chest,

my feet which strike the ground like a barren tree?

Oh, despair, mine and yours

Despair that has only heightened my longing

Despair that has banished the day while the night too flees.

Speak to me, my love – tell me about the stars above your path

and about that liar, the moon.

Don’t be silent.

Tell me about the mountains long your route – are there really

wolves in their shadows?

And about the people of the prairie – do they really sleep in fog’s embrace?

Tell me about the road, about the flowers – are there really

tusks concealed in their leaves?

and about the grass that turned red

was it from the blood of the exiles that fed the soil?

And my god, tell me what has happened to your long, midnight beard?

Was it really turned white by the spite of the world?

Tell me about your body, about your youth, the beauty of your face and robes

did they really became the prey of bandits?

Tell me about your desire, about your lust – or has it too

become a currency with which you feed yourself?

Curse those people and their alien rituals

Curse the clouds that rain only filth

Curse the land sprouting tainted seeds

I am here, can’t you hear my voice?

Tell me, I am begging you – which way does the road to you lie?

And which faith will allow me to bow down at your feet?

Tell me – who am I in your absence? And who are those at your side?

Is my name still inked on your chest? Is it still the spell in your eyes?

I want nothing more.

I have no more power, to drag love from the touch of your palms

Come to me in a blink of an eye or take me to you at a glance

Or be certain – I am flesh, the worn residue of a heart,

of sallow skin and spent organs

a faded pulse

I am he whose shadow sleeps behind the sun

And the title of all the sad poems will take his name.

Saad Abdullah

Nea Kavala Camp: Hell in Northern Greece

Leaving Lesbos for Nea Kavala ” Sept 2nd 2019 Ekathimerini photo

I  cried when I heard that the Greek government said  that it is going to send 1000 refugees from Moiria camp on Lesbos to Nea Kavala on the mainland. They want to relieve the pressure on the camp with all its new arrivals. I heard that the refugees to be moved were all seen as ‘vulnerable’.

I want to shout out “Don’t Go”, “please don’t go”.

I was a ‘vulnerable’refugee on Samos and In March this year I was moved to the mainland with over 300 refugees from Samos. I was sent to the Nea Kavala Camp.  I lived there for 4 months.

It is HELL.

It is CRUEL

It is SHIT

If I had known what was waiting in this desolate camp in northern Greece I would not have moved. They would have had to carry me there by force. But I knew nothing of this camp. They told me nothing. They never asked me if I wanted to move.

When you are held on the islands like Samos you get the idea that the mainland is a better place to be. They say this a lot on Samos. The mainland has better resources and facilities than the island. This is what we hear.

As I quickly learned THIS IS NOT TRUE AT ALL. And yes, I want to shout this out. Please listen.

Nea Kavala Camp is one of hell’s chosen spots in Greece. And to think that this government sees it as a suitable place for vulnerable refugees shows to me how much it must hate us. Nobody should be expected to stay there.

Shock! All of us from Samos were shocked by what we found there. It was so unbelievable. In just a few days many I traveled with left the camp, disappearing in the night to try and find a better place to stay in Thessaloniki or Athens. They had nowhere to go to. Most had little money. But they wouldn’t stay.

An old photo but shows lack of shelter

First, Nea Kavala Camp is an old military airfield. It is in flat and boring countryside. There are no trees. It is isolated. It is at least a 20 minute walk to the nearest shop. The nearest village is a 40 minute walk . What you see are lines of tents and cabins with no shade and no protection.

I was in my own room in Samos town. I shared a bathroom and a kitchen. It had a washing machine. It had electricity. It had wi fi.

In Nea Kavala I was given a tent. On my own which was something ok. But no bed, no electricity, no reliable wi fi, no personal security ( my tent was robbed 4 times of food and clothes). Now I faced long queues for the toilet, for the shower and days waiting to wash my clothes. Because I was given the tent and food my monthly allowance was cut

my tent

from 150 to 90 euros. The food from the army was disgusting. I couldn’t eat it or face the queues and stress in getting the food so lived for most of the time on croissants, bananas and milk from the supermarket.

Of course I had to stop my Greek classes on Samos. But in Nea Kavala there was NOTHING like that. None of the people responsible for the camp stayed at Nea Kavala. Even the Camp Manager who I got to know only came for a few hours a day. She told me she was frightened by the place. The only people there all the time were some soldiers involved with the meals and some police. The police could not be bothered with  us. I reported my thefts each time to be told to go away. They were always rude and aggressive.

Nea Kavala is in the north of Greece near the border with Macedonia. It has long and cold winters. In the first few weeks it was  very cold at night and we had a lot of rain. On the second night an old woman in the next tent died and I am sure the cold finished her life. We had just one blanket each. Over Easter the sewage system broke and I found a river of sewage flowing past my tent. It took days to repair because of the holidays.

Then came the summer. We cooked in our tents. No shade. No where to get cool. Torture.

This is where they are sending over a thousand vulnerable refugees. There will be many children and older people. Their tents are waiting!

I am sure that there are other mainland camps just as bad. I just know Nea Kavala. It is not a place for human beings. The refugees being moved there must be told. The world must be told. When you now hear that refugees are being moved from the islands to the mainland don’t assume that they are going to a better place. Listen to us! Don’t stand by in silence. Please.

 

Abshir, (Somalian, 26 years old)

 

They have arrived now. See

Migrants deplore conditions in new Greek camp

(https://www.france24.com/en/20190904-migrants-deplore-conditions-in-new-greek-camp)

“We left Moria hoping for something better,” said Sazan, a 20-year-old Afghan, referring to the main camp on Lesbos.

“And in the end, it’s worse.”

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Stories

Abshir’s

Just over a week ago Abshir, from Somalia, was transferred from Samos to a mainland refugee camp at Nea Kavala in northern Greece. He was part of around 350 refugees taken that day from Samos as part of the Government’s attempt to ease pressure on the massively overcrowded camp in Vathi. All of them left on the ferry to Athens and in Abshir’s case with some others, he was bussed north. In all a journey of nearly 24 hours. No food or drink provided.

Abshir was very nervous about this move. He did not want to leave Samos. After 5 months this shy gay young man from Somalia was at last feeling more comfortable. UNHCR had recognised that it was not safe for Abshir, on account of his sexuality, to stay in the camp which led to the Greek NGO, Arsis, funded by the UNHCR, to provide him with a single room in a modern shared apartment. It was not five star but it was a million times better than the tent he had in the jungle around the camp. He had access to a shower, washing machine, kitchen, wi fi; he had his room and he was warm and dry. As he grew in confidence he made some close friends and started Greek language classes, again funded by UNHCR. He was also making plans to create a small business.

If Abshir refused to move he would lose his monthly UNCHR allowance and his accommodation. Without any family support or other sources of regular income he felt he had no choice. So his focus shifted to finding out what he could expect when he got to Nea Kavala and to ensure that his case papers were transferred. Basically he was told that he need have no worry and that he would continue to receive the appropriate care although he would be need to be patient as they had many people arriving in Nea Kavala, especially from the frontier islands of Kos, Lesvos and Samos.

Since arriving in Nea Kavala Abshir has been living in a tent. He has one blanket. Most nights he is cold. He sleeps on the floor. The tent sits on stones so the floor is uncomfortable. It has no electricity, no furniture, no wi fi access, no cooking facilities. The meals are basic and he can’t eat them as they give him a bad stomach pain. Hours are spent in lines – for food, for the showers, for the toilet. The water is heated by solar panels so in the early mornings the water is cold. This is when Abshir showers as there is no line. The laundry is overwhelmed and gives priority to established residents. He tells me that even if could find a way to wash his clothes he would have to sit and watch them. There is so much hardship in the camp that nothing is secure. Already he has had milk and bread and some money taken from his tent. Many people are very hungry he said. The only consolation is that he is alone in the tent, but he has been told that this could change at any time as new refugees arrive.

 

The camp which is home to over 700 refugees is isolated. The few facilities on offer are provided by a Danish NGO which is UNHCR funded. UNHCR and the Asylum Service have no permanent presence in the camp. Neither do any lawyers. So when they make their twice weekly visits they are overwhelmed. Absher has met with the lawyers who told him that he would have to wait. They did tell him however, that his papers had not yet arrived.

There is a supermarket around 20 minutes walk from the camp and the nearest town 45 minutes on foot.

Abshir is not alone in finding the camp a bad place to be. On April 10th an ayslum lawyer came to meet all those who were recently transferred with Abshir from Samos and to give them some sense of what they could expect with respect to the asylum process. They were told that they would need to be patient as their papers had not yet arrived from Samos. This came as no surprise to Abshir but what was more noticeable was that of the 350 who came together from Samos less than a 100 were at the meeting. According to Abshir, there was so much anger and disgust at the conditions in the camp – sleeping in tents, cold, terrible food, no electricity, its isolation and more – that those who could were leaving. Heading for the border, or to Athens, or to Thessalonika, leaving behind those such as families who could not move so easily. And this is what they told the asylum lawyer when he asked why there were so few of them at the meeting. There was much anger in particular over the cutting of their UNHCR allowances from 140 to 90 euros a month on account that they were now being fed in the camp and no longer were responsible for their own food. The lawyer’s response was that he had nothing to say about the conditions they were complaining of as he was only responsible for the asylum process. But he urged them to be patient and not to demonstrate because if they did the police would certainly come in and jail them.

One can only wonder how many of these 350 would have boarded the ferry in Vathi at the beginning of April if they knew what was waiting for them?

A little over a week ago Abshir had his own room in the town centre of Vathi……..

Saad’s

At the same time as Abshir was being moved from Samos, Saad was moved from his apartment in Athens. In both instances they were given no choice. In Saad’s case he was moved by Praksis, a Greek NGO funded by UNHCR to provide housing for vulnerable refugees.

Alongside Saad there were two other refugees each with their own room. Most importantly, the apartment had a decent sized sitting room where Saad’s friends would meet to talk, to smoke shisha and to pass the time. There was also a balcony and all the bedrooms were furnished with wardrobes and cupboards. And over 18 months they had made the place into a comfortable home adding rugs, chairs, couches (most of them from the street) and pictures and photos on the walls.

Now Saad and his co tenants are in an apartment with just 2 rooms, no sitting area, no balcony, and no furniture. One of them has created a tent in the lobby and now sleeps there so Saad has his own room. Currently he has a bed and 12 boxes and bags with his belongings. Nothing else. Praksis told him that they can give them nothing more and that they should be happy not to be living out on the streets.

Saad and his co-tenants are furious with Praksis both with respect to what they have done and how they have done it. They say they can do nothing but Saad refuses to accept this and plans to appeal directly to UNHCR. As he said, at the end of the day he may get nowhere but he is determined that they should at least realise what they have done is inhumane, cruel and unacceptable.

Saad has been with Praksis long enough to know how to contact them. This is not a common experience for refugees as most of the agencies involved in the lives of refugees have developed a range of practices and mechanisms which make direct contact with someone who might know something about your case almost impossible. This was why Abshir was so concerned to ensure that information about his case should be transferred to Nea Kavala as he knew that once away from Samos, all the contacts he had made there would no longer be available to him and he would have to start afresh in the new camp. He has no named contact person and there is no continuity in his case management. This is the most common experience for all the refugees here.

Neither Saad or Abshir were given any clear reason for why they had to move. Neither were asked about how they felt and above all no choice. In Saad’s case the Praksis workers knew that the 3 refugees hated what they were given and that all are very angry. But no alternative is offered nor is there any attempt to work together to find a better place. It’s Praksis or nothing. As it stands at the time of writing, Praksis has now agreed to look for a more suitable apartment for the three of them but none of them is expecting much.

Living Space and Survival

Many issues are highlighted in these two stories.

Firstly, the powerlessness of the refugees over where and how they live. Their needs and voices are simply ignored. Refugees are given little or no notice whether it is moving house or moving off an island. Abshir and Saad had 5 days notice. As I write, the minster for migration is on Samos for a few days and he has just announced that when he leaves at the end of the week he will be taking hundreds of refugees with him on a Greek navy boat. I wonder if the refugees affected have been told yet? The casual way in which the agencies act in moving refugees without any negotiation or discussion; a complete disregard of their needs and circumstances reveals (once more) the fundamental lack of solidarity and respect for refugees.

Secondly, there is no sign that the authorities grasp or understand the critical importance of place (home, locality,) for refugees as they wait for the asylum system to process their applications. In Saad’s case, he has been in Greece since October 2016 and in Athens for over 2 years waiting for his final interview in June this year. As with thousands of other refugees his ability to survive these months where his life is virtually stopped has been down to his friends. In Saad’s case his apartment became part of a network of places where friends could meet and in many cases find a bed in an emergency. His home has been crucial to his well-being. This has now been taken away from him.

Abshir has his asylum interview scheduled for January 2021. As far as he knows he could be in Nea Kavala camp for 2 years.

Thirdly, these stories challenge the widely held view that refugees are better off being moved to the mainland from the camps on the frontier islands. It would seem that many assume that the conditions there would [must] be better than Samos.

There are simply no reservations to the mantra of de-congest the frontier islands of refugees. It is a mantra shared across the political spectrum and voiced by virtually every refugee agency/NGO in Greece. Here on Samos no questions are asked about where and what happens to the refugees who are moved. Of course no one asks the refugees what they think.

But there is no innocence to de-congestion. The authorities and the NGOs know very well that what awaits many of the refugees on the mainland will mark no improvement in their lives and may very well be worse than what they have left behind on the islands. But they say nothing to those leaving and do what they can to stop people from refusing to leave.

There is also a madness to de-congestion. In the week Abshir left with 350 refugees for Athens – heralded on Samos for relieving the pressure on the camp – a similar number of new refugees arrived. It is like watching a child trying to empty a bath whilst the water continues to pour in.

The camp in Vathi is an outrage. No argument. But then you are drinking tea with a 34 year old refugee from Gaza who has beautifully painted and fitted out the recently opened Banana House, a new refugee space, in Vathi. In the process of drinking tea he shows the photos of his tent in the jungle around the camp. It is amazing. From the outside it looks as desperate as all the other tents and shelters clustered amongst the olive trees. But! Inside his home made cabin under the trees he has created a place of wonder and comfort. It has a floor, carpets, store cupboards on the wall, a fire place, and a small kitchen area. He lives there with his wife and daughter. The man is a genius. There are many others maybe not as talented but who have created some comfort in such extreme conditions. They and not the authorities have done this. It is theirs. For many, their resilience as refugees rests on these kinds of activities and the spaces they create for living, meeting and talking; passing time as best they can as they wait. All these factors make arbitrary removals highly disruptive and damaging.

Without doubt after being detained on Samos being moved to the mainland carries more than the scent of a new freedom. For some their detention on Samos has been for up to 2 years and all have been on Samos for months. So it is with some hope they leave the island for the mainland.

But the way in which these movements of refugees – big and small- are managed makes them problematic and flawed. When it suits, major NGOs amongst others will draw attention to the trauma of refugees and in particular the psychological damage to refugees from being corralled in disgusting camps as on Samos. But what of their compliance in the cruelties such as moving people from their homes without notice or discussion. Silence. Where in this one part of the refugee experience in Greece does one get a clear sense that refugees are human beings with all our individual and paradoxical dimensions? Nowhere. Watching the refugees who are being moved off on the ferries is like watching sheep being herded. It is dehumanising.

Sometimes small individual stories take us to much bigger issues and in so doing reveal much especially illustrating the impact of macro policy and ideology on lived daily experiences. Abshir and Saad’s stories are such examples. For as they share their experiences we see just how pernicious and damaging is the European insistence of placing deterrence at the very centre of its refugee practices at least with respect to the kinds of refugees that come to islands like Samos. (It does not apply to those with wealth and who are offered ‘golden’ visas and the like.) As we see every day on Samos, deterrence allows no space for humanity; for dignity and respect. Deterrence does not allow for compassion and care. It is the very opposite of solidarity. And for the refugees the consequences are lethal at worst and distress at best.

(With thanks to Abshir and Saad. Your photos are great too!)

For Whom Do You Fly ? Zeppelin over Samos

The Zeppelin was launched six weeks ago with much fanfare about protecting and hardening European borders. The Samos authorities were so proud to be the first EU country to deploy an airship for this purpose. BUT since taking to the skies on the end of its 1000 metre tether, the flow of refugees here has increased significantly! It is wonderful to see as their arrivals torpedoes the stupidity of deterrence. We were laughing with friends from Gaza and Syria who told us that they now think that the Zeppelin provides a great target for the refugee boats to aim for as they travel over the sea.

At least the tourists on some of the Samos beaches can now be reassured that they are being monitored and they can also share their holiday moments with Frontex and the European security apparatus. Maybe they even see this as millions well spent by Frontex given the benefits it brings to the war industries which build these things.

Given that it is useless there are some who believe that the Zeppelin is not so much as about ‘managing the flow of refugees to this small Greek island but is more about advertising to the world a new product. If that is the case then we would recommend that Frontex use the airship to provide contact information and a price.

 

Who would have thought an ‘unmanned’ airship would need so many people!