Relentless

I met Ahmed and Fatima at the beginning of December. He and his wife are from Aleppo and this summer eventually got their asylum in Greece. In October 2021 new government legislation kicked in which left Ahmed and Fatima with no income and no housing. The government insists that refugees who gain asylum must ‘stand on their own feet’ within 30 days of being successful. Staying with friends, they live mainly on pot noodles and with eight packets for less than 2 euros they can eat for 2-3 days. Fatima talks of her friend who can no longer buy baby food and gets by mixing biscuits into diluted milk instead.

Fatima’s Noodles

Tens of thousands of refugees in Greece have been hit by a succession of measures which have plunged them deeper into acute poverty. The monthly payments paid to asylum seekers by UNHCR were taken over by the Greek state from the beginning of October. Over 30,000 refugees have received no money for food and survival since then. Although a Kenyan friend told me that it seems that some payments will be made soon although how much they will receive is as yet unknown. We wait.

The following statement was signed by 27 NGOs working with refugees in Greece and sets out the main dimensions of the plight of thousands of already vulnerable people:

For nearly two months, up to 60 per cent of current residents of the Greek refugee camps on the mainland have not had access to sufficient food. Following the implementation in October 2021 of a law passed last year, the Greek Government stopped providing services to those whose asylum applications have been accepted. One in four residents in these facilities are women and two in five are children…. In addition, approximately 34,000 asylum seekers have gone for two months without cash assistance that had previously enabled them to buy food, clothing and other essential items. ….In response to calls by NGOs to urgently address the situation, the government made public assurances that distributions would resume by the end of October. One month later, the problem remains unresolved and its devastating impact on asylum seekers grows by the day.

…….Refugees and asylum seekers, who were already economically marginalised, are resorting to begging and other negative coping mechanisms to survive. “Among those affected are rejected asylum seekers who cannot access accommodation or healthcare and have no right to work. This includes many Afghan and Syrian refugees whose applications were rejected on the basis that Turkey is a safe country, despite the fact Turkey is not accepting any returns from Greece” said Ana Liz Chiban of Fenix – Humanitarian Legal Aid. Some asylum seekers who live outside the camps as beneficiaries of the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) program are particularly vulnerable. They have also been affected by the interruption in cash provision but, unlike people in the camps, do not receive prepared food distributions. Without even this alternative, they have been left completely dependent on local social services and organisations to receive food, where those are available. (https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2021/11/29/ngos-raise-alarm-at-growing-hunger-amongst-refugees-and-asylum-seekers-in-greece)

As always the principal burden of survival rests on the shoulders of refugees. Nothing from the state but hurt. In addition, again as always, hundreds of locally based initiatives engage in food support systems illustrating yet again the humanity of the people in contrast to the cruelties of the system. For the refugees themselves their friendships and families are important to their survival with remittances playing a crucial role.

“A system cannot fail those whom it was never designed to protect.” (WEB DuBois)

This week in Samos Town I had a few hours with Yasser. He is from northern Syria and has his asylum now in Greece. For the past three months he has been working as a translator in the Camp on Kos island and was making a brief visit to Samos where he spent many years. As usual, I was raging on about the problems confronting so many refugees especially the food problems now. How I asked do we understand and confront such endless cruelties? For the great majority of asylum seekers both in Greece and in many other European countries their experiences as they seek their papers is physically and psychologically destructive of their well being. [I cannot emphasise enough that the great majority of asylum seekers are tortured by their experiences; endless waiting for months and even years for decisions that will affect your entire life yet never getting any indication when a decision will be made: wait wait.]

Yet Greece is facing imminent pressures as its population declines and ages (Greece now has the highest proportion of older people within the EU), there are continual yearly outflows of young Greeks seeking work and a life; birth rates drop year on year in part fueled by widespread poverty. Yet the Greek state shows no interest in the welfare of refugees and gives no sense that these mainly young people could make an important contribution to Greek society. It seems an extraordinary stance which is more than simple neglect as the asylum process here deliberately weakens and damages the refugees. Just one single example: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) is a chronic condition effecting thousands of refugees in Greece. Yet in 2019 the government decided to remove PSTD as a ground for being considered a vulnerable asylum seeker and entitled to additional support. From whatever perspective we assess this decision the conclusion is the same: cruel.

Yasser’s response to my outpourings was telling. He had learnt much from his time in the camp in Kos. Everything he saw and experienced told him the same story. “The Greek government simply does not care for the refugees; they don’t see us as humans”. He said he wasn’t naive when he went to Kos. He too had bad experiences of the asylum system. What working in Kos taught him was how not caring and respecting refugees informed every task both in terms of what was offered and how it was offered. He was told time and again by his managers how crucial it was for the refugees to feel uncomfortable so that they would tell their friends and families not to follow them. Deterrence was all. This is the reason he was given as to why they were deliberately overcrowding the accommodation units pushing 8 to 10 people into cabins designed for 6 even though there were plenty of empty cabins in the camp. He said such examples abounded. Simple solutions to make life better were always ignored. “Maybe I should have expected this when my employment contract forbade me from talking to any refugee outside of my work” But what “really made me sad was to see how so many of those working with refugees seem to have lost or are loosing their humanity. This is bad.”

Nevertheless, Yasser’s close friend, also from Syria now with his asylum papers and living in Belgium told us when he joined our conversation, that he and many of his ‘refugee’ friends in Antwerp would love to live in Greece if there was any chance of finding a decent job. In Belgium he has found a good and well paid job but his daily routine of work, eat, sleep work left no room for much else. It was he said a much more regulated society without the spaces you find in Greece for a coffee with friends. Then there is the weather…… There is no single or simple answer as to why so many refugees coming into Europe through Greece have such positive feelings for a place where they encounter so much hurt. That many are helped by simple solidarities from the locals is clearly a factor and there is much in daily life here which is similar to their own home countries especially in the Middle East including the climate. And although I hear many refugees express surprise that a country and a region (Europe) which claims some special relationship with human civilisation can act with such disregard to their well being, you will also hear them say that these governments are not so different from what they have left behind. Its not just that nasty states are a reality you can rarely escape but you don’t judge a people or their country simply on the grounds of the behaviour of governments and its state agencies.

Covid has pushed refugees from the headlines of the Greek mainstream media for the moment. The huge reduction in arrivals to the frontier islands in 2021 has also contributed to this shift and has allowed the government to remove thousands of refugees to the mainland. Needless to say the Greek government has claimed that the reductions are the result of their effective border policies including the border wall in Evros and extensive sea patrols. The role of systematic push backs at both Evros and around the sea of the frontier islands is never acknowledged by the authorities. Those refugees now arriving in Samos talk of making between 10 and 15 attempts to cross from Turkey due to push backs at sea either by Frontex, Greek and Turkish coastguards.

Samos now has around 500 refugees in its new camp compared with 5,000 a year ago. Similar reductions have taken place on Lesbos, Chios, Kos and Leros. Some locals are happy about these developments but there are a significant number who now bemoan their absence and the loss of vitality to the social environment as so many young people and children are no longer on the streets. And there are countless small businesses, especially grocery stores which are facing severe pressures as their customers left. In the sixteen years I have lived and met refugees on Samos there are clear positive changes at least in terms of the deeper relationships which have developed between locals and refugees. There are countless interactions which naturally flow from living together in the same place. On an island such as Samos where poverty and poor public services affect so many there has been a growing understanding that refugees and local Greeks have much in common. Of course racism still works to undermine these solidarities but it is not so stark or bitter as a decade earlier. Now at least we see pro refugee graffiti on the island!

Sadly it is not possible to say the same for the Greek state or the EU which like 16 years ago still insists that deterrence must be maintained at all costs with total disregard for the welfare of the refugees. Every opportunity however small is seized upon which makes their lives more stressful such as the changes in housing and income support; or suddenly announcing in June this year that refugees from six countries should be deported back to Turkey on the grounds that Turkey is a safe country for refugees from Muslim majority societies to make their asylum applications to Europe. Sheer nonsense and with Turkey having accepted no returning refuges from Greece since March, the main consequence has been a piling on of pressure on those affected.

Aaden is Somalian, one of the nationalities listed for return to Turkey. Employed by an NGO he works mainly with Somalian refugees in Athens. Aaden came to Samos in 2018 and he still has not got his asylum here. For him the last six months have been the worst. His case is now judged under the new legislation with its assumption of deportation. 6 months have passed since his first interview which is to assess the safety of Turkey for him. As yet he has heard nothing.Every day he is working with Somalian refugees the great majority of whom have now been told that they will be deported. For the past six months his daily work has been dominated by fear both for himself and his fellow Somalians.

Many in this position no longer wait to attend the first interview but take to the road to get out of Greece. Hundreds have left. For those who stay in Greece many are fearful of arrest should they leave the places where they live as they have had their asylum ID removed immediately when they were rejected. If the police catch them with no ID they are arrested in most cases are moved to special deportation facilities often inside the camps. They are closed so as on Samos, they are not allowed out. And given that Turkey is not taking them back there is no knowing how long they will be kept. Simultaneously, we are hearing of constant push backs on the Evros border with Turkey. Aaden is regularly hearing from Somalians he has worked with who have been plucked off the streets and pushed onto buses and taken to the Evros border where they are loaded onto small rubber dinghies and pushed over to Turkey.

The Greek government seeks out any opportunity which can be used to frighten and harass refugees. Its actions during Covid are just more examples of this characteristic. Nothing was done to improve the living conditions of refugees in the various camps. Overcrowding made social distancing impossible; lack of and unsatisfactory water supplies (and often no hot water at all) made nonsense of the hygiene directives. There has been no systematic data gathering of Covid’s impact on refugees or even the extent of the infections and nothing on health outcomes of those infected. But none of this stopped the government from forcing camps into quarantine even where there were no reported cases. Over the past year numerous camps have locked their refugees in places of great risk. (See end note). And when not in quarantine they have faced extraordinary harassment from the police, who during periods of national lockdown were stopping refugees and fining them for little or nothing at a disproportionate rate with total impunity.

I don’t think I was alone in thinking that the physical and psychological damage done to refugees would make them especially vulnerable to the virus. Most of their accommodation especially in the camps make it impossible to maintain social distancing. Basic hygiene was almost impossible to achieve when water and sewage systems failed or were non existent. The same is true for medical resources in the camps. Yet on Samos the virus has not been as deadly for the refugees as many of us feared. Undoubtedly there are many factors involved, not the least being the general youth of the refugee population, but the resilience of the refugees in the face of Covid demands further investigation. On Samos it was the refugees themselves who took action not the authorities. A wide range of initiatives were taken by refugees to protect themselves, including the making of face masks, distributing soap and hand cleansers and much direct work with children and young people helping them to understand what they could do to protect themselves, their families and friends. As ever, it was the refugees who were at the forefront of protecting themselves and did so with much joy, laughter and play something state agencies never do. There is so much we can learn from them.

“The more the people understand, the more watchful they become, and the more they come to realize that finally everything depends on them and their salvation lies in their own cohesion, in the true understanding of their interests, and in knowing who their enemies are.”

(Franz Fanon: Wretched of the Earth)

End Note

The Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on refugees and asylum seekers in Greece by Elias Kondilis et al (Eclinical Medicine July 1, 2021; https://www.thelancet.com/journals/eclinm/article/PIIS2589-5370(21)00238-8/fulltext#seccesectitle0013).

There is very little published on refugees and Covid in Greece. But this research paper is an exception setting out very clearly the challenge of Covid to refugees who have an infection rate three and a half to four times higher than the Greek population. But as the authors highlight the lack of reliable data and little effort to resolve the deficiencies means almost certainly that it under-reports the problems. They make many telling observations: “Although Greece was swift to impose early nationwide public health restrictions, the lockdown measures and mass quarantining were applied more stringently and for longer periods of time to refugees and asylum seekers in [the camps and reception sites]. The government declared these targeted measures to be in the public interest to ‘“limit the spread of COVID-19 in areas of overcrowding…”, despite no positive COVID-19 cases in the [camps]until mid-August. Similarly, one mainland reception site was put into preventative quarantine despite no detected positive cases of COVID-19. These extreme lockdown extensions contravened WHO and ECDC guidelines and restricted people’s movement in such conditions with no likelihood of being able to respect basic COVID-19 preventative measures. Our data suggest that these restrictive policies may have contributed to their increased infection risk for COVID-19.” …… “Despite calls for inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in the COVID-19 response from multi-laterals such as WHO, UNHCR, ECDC and IOM, and academic organizations such as Lancet Migration, Greek authorities have consistently failed to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into national prevention and response plans and disease surveillance systems, and no coherent medical response plans have been put in place in any of the island [camps]. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic the impact of poor living conditions was already driving a health crisis on the Greek islands and healthcare access for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece had been a continual challenge since 2015. After nine months of the pandemic, the Greek authorities have not established an effective and comprehensive testing and contact tracing system for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, despite having a functioning system for the general population. It is our view that the inadequate testing and the absence of contact tracing in refugee and asylum seeker reception facilities has led to an underestimation of the true incidence rate amongst the refugee and asylum seeker populations. Greek authorities face serious challenges in collecting and presenting timely and comprehensive data on the development of the epidemic in the country, and the lack of data on clinical outcomes in refugees and asylum seekers specifically in Greece (specifically hospitalizations and deaths) needs urgently rectifying, though this is a reported issue in several European countries at the current time.” ​ ​

Don’t Hold Your Breath

The following was published by the New York Times on December 1 2021:

ATHENS — For years, Greek officials have denied complaints from human rights groups that the country’s border agents have brutalized migrants and forcibly pushed them back into Turkey. They have dismissed the allegations as fake news or Turkish propaganda.

Now a single case may force a reckoning.

A European Union interpreter says that in September, Greek border guards mistook him for an asylum seeker, assaulted him and then forced him across the border into Turkey alongside dozens of migrants.

His allegation is particularly problematic for Greek officials because he is a legal European Union resident employed by the E.U. border agency, Frontex. And he has turned over evidence to the agency to support his claims of abuse, according to European officials dealing with his case.

The European Union, which has mostly looked the other way on abuses of migrants, is now being forced to confront the problem.

……. Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for migration, said she called the interpreter on Friday to discuss his accusations.

After direct, in-depth discussion with the person on Nov. 25, I was extremely concerned by his account,” Ms. Johansson said. “In addition to his personal story, his assertion that this was not an isolated case is a serious issue,” she added, saying he told her he had witnessed at least 100 migrants who were pushed over the border and sometimes roughed up.

However, a Greek government ministry statement cast doubt on his account, saying initial inquiries suggested “the facts are not as presented.”

The interpreter told The New York Times that he had filed a complaint with Frontex, and European officials confirmed this. They said the complaint was being treated as credible because of the man’s position and the documentation he provided, including audio and video recordings.The man asked not to be identified out of concern for his safety and his livelihood. Two European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case with reporters, confirmed his identity.

He said that he and many of the migrants he was detained with were beaten and stripped, and that the police seized their phones, money and documents. His attempts to tell the police who he was were met with laughter and beatings, he said. He said he was taken to a remote warehouse where he was kept with at least 100 others, including women and children. They were then put on dinghies and pushed across the Evros River into Turkish territory.

His accusations were similar to those from human-rights groups, along with mounting evidence gathered by migrants and reporters, all claiming that Greek authorities routinely round up and expel migrants without permitting them to complete asylum requests — often in an indiscriminate and violent way. Greek authorities have also been accused of pushing back migrants in flimsy dinghies in the Aegean Sea, sometimes disabling the engines and leaving the migrants to drift back into Turkish waters. Greece has denied the accusations…..

Ms. Johansson said she had spoken on Monday with the Greek minister for citizen protection, Takis Theodorikakos, and he promised to investigate the interpreter’s claims.

The independent National Transparency Authority will conduct an investigation and will be open about its findings as always, but preliminary inquiries in this case appear to suggest the facts are not as presented,” the ministry’s media office said in a statement.

Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said the interpreter’s allegations were part of a pattern of growing E.U. brutality toward migrants and asylum seekers.

With tens of thousands of victims who drowned in the Mediterranean, thousands languishing in what has been described as concentration camps in Libya, the misery in the camps on the Greek islands for so many years, people drowning in the Channel or freezing to death on the border between Belarus and the E.U., the European Commission cannot claim any more that these are incidents, accidents, exceptions,” she said.

It is not a policy failure,” she added. “It is policy.”

..

The interpreter, who is originally from Afghanistan, has lived for years as a legal resident in Italy. He was employed by Frontex as a member of an E.U.-funded team of experts deployed to help the border guards communicate with asylum seekers.

He had been working in the border region of Evros alongside Greek and E.U. guards, and was on his way to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, for a break when the police pulled him and a number of migrants off a bus, he said.

After they were beaten, detained and forced into Turkey, the interpreter said, he managed to reach Istanbul, where he received consular assistance from the Italian authorities, and was eventually repatriated to Italy on Sept. 18.”

[Matina Stevis-Gridneff is the Brussels correspondent for The New York Times, covering the European Union. She joined The Times after covering East Africa for The Wall Street Journal for five years. @MatinaStevis ]

(New York Times, December 1 2021) (My emphasis)

The Greek government has endlessly and repeatedly dismissed claims that its officers are involved in violent and abusive pushbacks on the grounds that there is no credible evidence and falls back on that well known mantra of the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) namely their armed forces always act morally. Mobile phone footage taken by the refugees showing Greek coastguards attacking their dinghies is simply dismissed. But now they have an EU national working for Frontex caught directly in its violence. They have no choice but to investigate not the least because Frontex have lodged a complaint.

I expect nothing from any investigation by the Greek state which will do its utmost to ensure that it is buried by time and process until forgotten. It would be nice to be surprised otherwise. However, because of the status of the violated Frontex translator we have an opportunity which needs to exploited and not allow to be disappeared. At the very least we should be shifting the parameters of the debate. Pushbacks are not isolated or the work of a few ‘bad apples’. They are systematic and a crucial part of European border management. We should also be demanding an explanation for the extreme and violent behaviour of men in uniform working for in this instance the Greek state ( this is not a Greek only issue). The targets of the pushbacks are extremely vulnerable people of all ages and genders. Surely we should be deeply disturbed that men in uniforms feel entitled to attack, rob and frighten such people. And to do so repeatedly with a sense of impunity.

We need to understand the processes and causes of such inhumane behaviour. Not all men in uniform are violent. This is true for Greece as elsewhere. But too many are. How has this happened? This case allows us to press these questions. Here we have a man pleading with his captors that he is on ‘their’ side but still being met with laughter and beatings.

Answers we want and an end to these practices which in turn must involve a thorough enquiry into the training, education, support and recruitment of men in uniforms.

But, don’t hold your breath.

PS

It might not seem much but I believe it would help keep the pressure on if people wrote to the appropriate authorities (including Greek ambassadors) pressing for a rapid open and thorough investigation including an inquiry into the violence of so many state workers. Greece is desperate to promote itself as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Any light shining on its illegal and inhumane activities is highly undesirable.

This is the email address of the Greek Prime Minister:

kyriakos@kmitsotakis.gr

Where the Water Ends

(Published by Melbourne University Press 2021)

I have had this book for three weeks. I have read it two times and it remains by my side so I can dig even deeper. I find it compelling. I recommend the book.

For me at least it provided a bleak reminder of the costs of my endless injunction that we need to shine light into dark places. Holman takes us deep into the darkness of European refugee policies and practices and their overwhelming and extraordinary cruelty to vulnerable human beings who seek safety. As many now know, it is quite simply a crime against humanity. This is where we go with Holman. For me it left me furious and sad at the needless violence of what the refugees call ‘the system’ (in which the police have a pivotal role) that dominates their lives as they wait for their asylum.

Greece is the main site of the book covering refugee experiences mostly between 2000 and 2020. As the European strategy changed over this period in response to numbers of refugees looking for safety and a future in Europe, so did the role of the frontier states such as Greece, Italy and Spain. In Greece, we have seen the state taking ever increasing control of European policy implementation. Greece now takes money previously distributed by the EU and UNHCR; vast sums some of which are spent on an ever expanding police force highly equipped and armed with fleets of new para military jeeps and of course new prison camps such as at Zervou on Samos.

The voices of the refugees are strong throughout the book. Some we get to know well. When they are talking of the violence they routinely experience, both physical and psychological, it is nearly always inflicted by Greek men in uniform. Slapping, thumping, batoning seems totally normal to them whether targetted at a child, woman or man. Of course, they highlight the exceptions of police officers and other state agents who have provided decisive help but they are the exceptions.

One of the strengths of the book is that Holman helps us to understand some of the particular issues rooted in place and history which feed into creating men of cruelty and intolerance. For some guarding the border of Europe is appropriate given Greece’s role in creating ‘civilisation’ and they are duty bound to prevent contamination. Islamic influence has a particular importance as alien and to be feared, often explained by the four centuries of Ottoman rule. [This was highlighted by Holman’s reference to the mass movement of Greeks from western Turkey in 1922 where despite their Orthodox religion and Greek ethnicity they were abused and abandoned when they came to Greece. They were “baptised in yoghurt”.]There are more than a few Greeks who believe that whilst their country maybe poor, that they themselves are the most civilised people of Europe. A notion that is actively pushed by the Orthodox Church. This can have toxic consequences when it comes to refugees.

But as Holman reveals there are other histories especially within working class Greece which are rooted in solidarity and struggle. So we learn something about the recent class history of Pireaus and Patras and how huge labour markets in docks and shipbuilding have evapourated leading to the destruction of working class communities and livelihoods. It was in neighbourhoods like these that many of the thousands of refugees trekking through Europe in 2015 came to stay albeit often (but not always) for a short time. That they survived was in large measure to the solidarity of the Greek neighbourhoods who in so many different ways, sheltered, fed, clothed and cared for the refugees. It was a truly magnificent effort. And as Holman is told on many occasions and in many places across Greece many Greeks have direct family experience of being refugees. Katerina for example was 17 years old when she escaped with 16 others in a rowing boat from the Nazis in Samos in 1943. She spent over two years in a refugee camp in Gaza. She knew the importance of kindness from strangers. Many here do.

Refugees commonly experience acts of both solidarity and hatred in Greece. Many tell Holman that they like the Greek people but hate the Greek state and its police. The latter they say are just like what they have run away from. Most expected something better. After all isn’t western Europe supposed to be civilised? But even so most of the refugees talk of and plan to leave Greece at the earliest opportunity because they are hoping to join with friends and family already in other EU countries or because they see little chance for work in Greece. Many would prefer to stay if they believed that they could make a life there.

We can learn much from the refugees as this book highlights. They provide a powerful lens on where we live and how we think and act. They recognise the impact their arrival has on small island and frontier towns and villages who have little or no history of living with ‘strangers’. Many refugees come from similar places and talk of living close to their friends and family who are now often scattered and isolated throughout Europe and Turkey. Such communities throughout the world are commonly characterised by wide and diverse networks of solidarity which in a short time embrace refugees as they come to meet each other and live in the same spaces.

We learn that for most of the refugees their most treasured help is rooted in solidarity based on a recognition of common humanity. The book makes clear that many refugees come to resent the ‘help’ of the NGOs and many of the ‘Volunteers’. They experience it as patronising, and charity, which give them no role, and denies their dignity seeing them only as helpless victims. Simply not helpful. The refugee controlled housing project City Plaza in Athens refused to use the label volunteer for all those who worked with them. “Volunteers are for the Olympic Games or charities. We want people to come here not so they can feel good that they are helping refugees, but to give something and get something back. This is no shelter or camp, with a hierarchy of NGOs -its not a place to misuse our privileges “ (Nasim, p168).

Some of those refugees Holman meets also tell of their anger at the manner in which the NGOs and Volunteers constantly manipulate and frame the refugee challenges as a ‘crisis’ in order to gain funding and power. Why they ask do they talk of crisis when even Greece has more than enough empty houses and abandoned land to offer every refugee a place to make a new start? The scorn for the NGOs and Volunteers runs deep amongst the refugees. It needs to be heeded if this form of parasitism is to be stopped and the vast resources re-directed into ways which work to realise peoples’ potential and needs.

You move around a lot in this book as people flee the wars in Syria and Afghanistan and other places and then you pick up their stories in Evros, the Aegean islands or the cities and towns of mainland Greece. It is a dynamic which provides a rich context for hearing these voices.

This is a book which disturbs and for me some of the darkest pages were where refugees described their experiences of the asylum process. Essentially, they lose control of their lives for anything up to 3 years or more. They are subject to sudden and arbitrary legal changes exemplified by the Greek state’s decision in June 2021 which stated that asylum seekers from five Muslim majority countries who came to Greece through Turkey should be returned there as this is a safe country from which to apply for asylum. Our close friend from Somalia who arrived on Samos in October 2018 now has to go through this new process. He is terrified.

All the asylum seekers live with little or no information as to what is happening to their applications; literally a soul-destroying limbo. And all this is compounded by the dire conditions in which they are expected to live. Immense strength is needed to survive this utterly corrosive experience. They know that the system has no care for them; they know that they are not considered as human. Many are damaged and some don’t survive. It is extraordinary how many get through but at such a cost to their well-being.

Does all this cruelty stem from Europe’s placing deterrence at the core of its approach?

It seems incredible to treat people so badly for three years or more and then give some of them the right to asylum and to resume control over their lives. So abuse them for three years and then say you can stay? What is this madness?

This question is not faced in much detail as for most of the refugees in this book are still stuck in the application limbo. But then the book does not end. It just stops. The story however does not and I hope that one day Holman will pick it up.

I want to end this piece with some words from Saad a young man from Aleppo who spoke with Holman and whose story is in part included in her book. He is a dear friend of mine who I met in the early days of his asylum application on Samos island. I asked him if he would read this review. He replied:

I have read many pages of the book so a lot of sad stories. It is really describing the darkness in the refugees’ lives in Europe especially in Greece.

I had to live that life and I had long experience which are so like many stories I read in the book .

I couldn’t continue reading because, I did not have enough tears and power for it. I saw a lot of pictures from the life I had while I was reading.

It is so sad to escape from your country where you don’t feel safe even to be human and then arrive in a place where you are treated so badly that it feels as though you are in a prison; in Greece it felt like the place I had escaped but with a different language.”

Zoe Alexandra Holman is a human so that is why she can capture our sadness and tears and make them into words.”

Acknowledgements

I too often fail in my articles to acknowledge those who play a central part in my life including my writing. None of my efforts are solo. Indeed Tony Novak’s editorial skills often transform my pieces and this has been true over 50 years of partnership. In addition Tony and I now have great friends who we first met when they arrived as refugees in Samos. Friends such as Saad and Ali who read drafts of this piece and gave it strength. Thank you.

Zoe Holman can be contacted through her website : https://www.zoeaholman.com/

Zervou Camp: Silence is not an option for Samos

One of the biggest and most costly construction projects on Samos in recent years is now open. I cycled around the completed site this past week. It is awesome in its scale (over 6 hectares) and is a dramatic addition to the island’s infrastructure. The new camp for refugees at Zervou comes with a 43 million price tag and can accommodate up to 3,000 refugees. Currently there are around 400 men , women and children inside. It is a closed camp with entrance and exit scrutinised between 8am and 8pm. A mini bus shuttle will take them into Samos Town for 1.6 euro one way. The camp has invested heavily in surveillance and security systems including magnetic identity cards, high security gates, cameras and drones all of which allows for close monitoring of the refugees.

Being familiar from my work in the UK with prison design and function I can assure you with confidence that the Zervou camp has been designed along modern prison lines. But this is no low security prison. Enclosing the site behind double high meshed fences topped with razor wire is but one obvious sign of its intent. Just as the site itself, on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere (10km to the nearest village) with not a shred of shade from the summer heat or the winter cold holds no comfort. It stands in stark contrast with the army barracks that cover the island where there are trees or gardens amongst the barracks which house the soldiers. At Zervou, all is grey, brutal and uniform – the cabins, the concrete roads and open areas and the endless wire. This is a deliberate design common to prisons where the physical lay-out is intended to convey clear messages as to its purpose to all those detained inside and those outside.

But Zervou is not a prison. It is a camp for refugees who have arrived in Samos to be cared for while they make their applications for asylum. They are not criminals but a wide range of vulnerable people from many societies seeking refuge and a future. “Zervou will be the first of the [new] planned hotspot camps on the Aegean islands. They all share a common characteristics: Due to their geographical location, they cut the camp residents off from access to the cities and their supply structures. And thus also from everyday life: from the light-heartedness of the cafés, from the liveliness of the marketplaces. But it is these places that enable people to forget, at least for a short time, that they are – or are supposed to be – refugees. “ (Samos: A place in the middle of nowhere Medico International, 21 Sept 2021).

The evidence is now overwhelming of the negative and inhumane consequences of detention in places such as Zervou. The impact of the camp’s isolated and remote location alone can be expected to have a severe impact on the mental health of already stressed and vulnerable people. We don’t need to waste time debating the evidence except to note that these truths are widely known but have little or no impact in shifting the practices of those in charge of such prisons.

For those of us who live on Samos the presence of Zervou is certain to pose challenges and problems. At the very least our biggest construction project in recent times will do little to enhance Samos’ reputation as a holiday destination. It is hard to see tourist buses stopping by. And there are certain to be those who will now think twice before visiting our beautiful island because of the cruelties experienced by refugees in places such as Zervou.

In that context, our silence is hardly an option. It will be interpreted by many as signalling consent to Zervou.

Places like Zervou illustrate the extent to which the EU policy of deterrence remains as a guiding principle in the treatment of refugees arriving on our shores. On no account make their arrival welcoming so that a clear message is sent of not being wanted. This has been a consistent feature of EU and Greece’s approach to the refugee challenge for many years now and shows no sign of shifting.

But as we are seeing with climate change things can and do begin to shift when the truth can no longer be ignored. As with EU refugee policies there is now mounting evidence that they fail on so many levels. The testimony of refugees, the reports of the NGOs working in the camps and countless academic and scientific accounts without exception all highlight the damage done to refugees who are incarcerated in such places. In a powerful critique of Zervou by MSF Samos they cite the experiences of their psychologists:

“As psychologists working with the people who are at the frontline of Europe’s tightening migration policies, we witness on a daily basis the deterioration of these people’s mental and physical well-being. The opening of the new prison camp is changing the collective identity of the refugees, their self-esteem and image: their dignity. Europe is breaking them.

What do you want us to say to a young boy who, even though has not committed a crime, is forced to remain locked up in a prison-like centre?” (MSF September 2021)

There is now growing evidence of the acute trauma and stress inflicted on refugees as they wait often for years in Greece whilst their asylum claims are processed. Isolated, cut off from Samos Town and incarcerated in a prison on a barren hillside is not going to make it any better. It is amazing that one of those responsible Manos Logothetis, from the General Secretariat for Reception of Asylum Seekers can claim that the new prison marks a decisive step in humanitarian care for refugees in that they now get a cabin with a kitchen and air conditioning (Euro News 23 Sept 2021) ? And he continued, “for the first time in the history of migration, a beneficiary will be able to sit in a restaurant that is air-conditioned and safe.” (Guardian 19 Sept 2021)

This is what Djina from Mali, who is now in the new camp had to say:

We are here in the new camp, the containers are cosy but we didn’t come here to sleep. Some of us left their home two years ago. We haven’t any good food nor good health. We are prisoners, and nothing can replace freedom, so here it’s total traumatism.Also, the place is very isolated. They cut the financial aid, for them we are merchandise. The European Union is aware of everything. We can have 4 or 5 rejections. It’s weird here, don’t ask me any more.

Ahmed from Iraq says:I feel like I’m in prison. I feel lonely, lazy, and like I’m in another world. The new camp is definitely better than the tent, there is a bathroom, kitchen, water, electricity, refrigerator and air conditioners. But I stayed in the tent for three years, then now what, I moved to another camp? I ask myself these questions: how long will I be called a refugee? When will I become a human? A human who works, goes out, travels, does what any other person would do?(Both cited by Europe Must Act, October 11, 2021)

We on Samos cannot pretend that we don’t have a big prison now in our midst. A prison built for refugees and not convicted criminals brings shame to Samos even if there was little we could do to stop it. But at least we can speak up and express our concerns and demand a change. It does not have to be like this. On the Canary Islands empty hotels were turned over to arriving refugees with great success.

These are early days for Zervou. It is not at all clear how this prison is to be developed or deployed. But what we can be clear about is the threat it poses for the future of Samos if it comes to be closely identified by its relationship to a prison. There are many in the world now who know the truth of this and their numbers will grow. Can we remain silent?

“The new camp is not a good thing for Europe. I think it is criminal to criminalise us. It is a shame to keep people in such a situation. When they tell me, ‘Oh, we have a nice bed, we have a nice kitchen for you,’ I’m not concerned with a nice bed or a nice place to sleep. It’s about having the freedom to move around and live with others. I am not just speaking for myself, but for all those who live with me in the camp on Samos. “

(Mohammed, Samos refugee, cited by Julia Manek, Medico International 16 Sept 2021)

Post Script:

Have You Been to Samos?

Shortly after writing this piece the following occurred in the Netherlands:

“The press conference that followed the meeting between Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte in Athens Tuesday night became heated when a Dutch journalist accused the Greek Prime Minister of “illegal deportations” and the Dutch leader for refusing to host asylum seekers.

Called upon to pose a question, the Dutch journalist, Ingeborg Beugel, said to Mitsotakis: “When, at last, will you stop lying, lying about pushbacks, lying about what’s happening with the refugees in Greece? Please don’t insult mine, neither the intelligence of all the journalists in the world. There has been overwhelmikng evidence, and you keep denying, and lying.This is, like, narcissistic abuse. Why are you not honest? Why don’t you just say ‘Brussels left us alone, we waited for six years, nobody did anything, we need to relocate (refugees), they don’t do it, now I have my say and, yes, I do cruel, barbarian pushbacks.’ Why did you stop knocking on Brussels’ door for relocation? And for you, Mr. Rutte, what, according to you, are the sanctions that should be imposed on Greece, and maybe on Holland, for accepting this violation of human rights that Holland is co-responsible of [sic[? Also, many many municipalities in Holland want to take many refugees from Greece, like many minor unaccompanied children, they are ready to accept them, but this Prime Minister [pointing at Rutte] opposes to [sic] that. Maybe you could find an understanding and the Dutch municipalities who are so ready to unburden Greece can actually take in refugees from Greece, which his [Rutte’s] government opposes. Thank you.”

Mitsotakis responded, while trying to fend off several interruptions from Beugel: “I understand that in the Netherlands you have a culture of asking direct questions to politicians, which I very much respect. What I will not accept is that, in this office, you will insult me, or the Greek people, with accusations and expressions that are not supported by material facts when this country has been dealing with a migration crisis of unprecedented intensity, has been saving hundreds, if not thousands of people at sea. We just rescued 250 people in danger of drowning south of Crete, we are doing this every single day rescuing people at sea, while, at the same time, we are intercepting boats that come from Turkey, as we have the right to do in accordance with European regulations and waiting for the Turkish Coast Guard to come and pick them up and return them to Turkey. So, rather than putting the blame on Greece, you should put the blameon those who have been instrumentalizing migration systematically pushing people in(to a) desperate situation from a safe country, because I need to remind you that people who are in Turkey are not in danger, their life is not in danger and you should put the blame on others and not us. We have a tough, but fair, policy on migration, we have processed and given the right to protection in Greece to 50,000 people, including tens of thousands of Afghans, in accordance…Allow me. Have you visited the new camps on our islands? Have you been to Samos? … No, you have not been…Please…Look, you will not come into this building and insult me. Am I very clear on this? I am answering now and you will not interrupt me, in the same way that I listened to you very carefully. If you go to Samos, you will find an impeccable camp, with impeccable conditions, funded by EU money, with clean facilities, with playgrounds for…the children to play, no comparison to what we had in the past. This is our policy, we will stand by it, and I will not accept anyone pointing the finger to [sic] this government and accusing it of inhumane behavior.”

Rutte responded: “I am absolutely convinced that this Prime Minister and this government is applying the highest standards and the fact that they have immediately launched an investigation on the issue of the pushbacks is testimony of that. I willl now go back to the situation in 2015 and 2016, when we had many people dying on the Aegean Sea trying to get from Turkey into Greece and then on to Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands etc. And I am happy that Germany, and we were holding the rotating presidency at that time, of the EU, together us and the Turkish government we were able to negotiate the EU-Turkey Agreement, by which, indeed, Turkey is a safe country for people to stay. And Turkey, at this moment, is hosting over 3 million Syrian refugees in the south of Turkey, in camps [and] also in local communities. And what (the Greek) government is trying to do is trying to defend the outer borders of the European Union. It is one of the tasks the countries have who are lying (on the) outside, like Italy, Spain, Hungary, Slovenia, but also Poland and Greece. And there’s an extremely difficult situation. And what I don’t want again is for people to take boats (that) are not really equipped to (cross) the Mediterranean or to (cross) the Aegean Sea (and) to die in those circumstances. I want them to stay there, to be safe and then we are willing, as European Union, to take a fair share of people from Africa, from Turkey, refugees, in line with the plans which have been devised in 2015 and 2016. So, this is my answer and I think your question has been answered.”

(https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/1171479/pm-bristles-at-dutch-journalist-s-accusations-of-pushbacks/ 9 Nov 2021)

And just 10 days later the journalist, Ingeborg Beugel, after a barrage of abuse on social media and an attack on the street in Athens, announced that after 40 years of living in Greece she was leaving for Holland as she no longer felt safe in Greece. The government in Athens made no comment.

Samos: Surviving Lies, Shame and Cruelties

Where to start? The earthquake of last autumn? The floods in the winter? The impact of Covid? The heatwave this summer? The destructive fires of June? As ever those hit the hardest are the poorest on Samos. In common with the refugees here they live with the word WAIT ringing in their ears. They know it will be years before they get any state help with repairing their damaged houses and lands just as they wait for years to get their pensions. There is a general resignation to this reflected in the comment ‘this is Greece’.

But as is so often the case this is not the full picture. In many senses it is a lie endlessly recycled to induce acceptance of the unacceptable. Those Greeks at the bottom of the heap share a fundamental experience with the refugees. They count for nothing. It is an experience repeated daily. How do you live with this reality? How do you stay sane?

So ‘this is Greece’ reflects both a sense of powerlessness and a way of surviving cruelties, of living in enduring darkness with no glimmer of dawn. Our refugee friends suffer greatly. Most of them do not have networks of friends and family here in Greece who can sustain them. Their endless wait as others decide their future, never knowing when they will be told, is cruel. As one Somalian friend told us as he waits to hear whether he is to be deported to Turkey (now a safe country for Muslim refugees according to the Greek government!!!!) his mind is being ‘fucked up’. Many here are just about getting by, some are being destroyed and the majority are simply demoralised and exhausted. All of which make life easier for the powerful.

For both Greeks and refugees their agonies are made so much worse by the incompetence, corruption and lies of the authorities. The slump in tourism due to Covid has been presented as a major problem for Greeks. This year, despite Covid, tourism has improved with greater numbers coming to Samos. But for our friends who work in the cafes, bars, hotels and restaurants the return of tourists has meant a return to 7 day working weeks, long hours and poverty wages. At least last year they could get to the beach. Many now don’t even have that possibility.

In Samos alone millions of euros have flowed in to ‘deal’ with the refugee ‘problem’. But there is no accounting. But we all know that it has gone into the pockets of the parasites just as it is with much of the tourist industry here; “All for us and nothing for you.” This is a widespread understanding here. And be clear, there is much anger at the impunity of the thieves. The challenge here at least is not so much in revealing these truths – most know – but in doing something about it. How? What? Who?

Great swathes of the Greek population are ashamed of ‘their’ country and of the elites who press for their advantage in total disregard for the majority and this is sharply revealed in the current relationship between Israel and Greece. The Greek people have a long history of solidarity with and support for the Palestinians. But the Greek state has become one of Israel’s staunchest allies over the past decade as Israel has moved away from its earlier close relationship with Turkey and shifted its attention to Greece. Earlier this year Greece made its largest ever arms deal with Israel worth over $1.6 billion. This is in addition to other recent weapons deals including surveillance systems and drones for monitoring and defending the Greek borders from refugees. Now we are told that the Greek army is going to be modelled on the Israeli army. Joint air-force facilities between the 2 countries are now being built in Greece and the joint naval and air force exercises (Noble Dina and Blue Flag) initiated a decade ago continue on an annual basis. On Friday August 20, 2021, Nikos Dendias foreign minister of Greece and his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, affirmed in Jerusalem their countries’ close ties, “based on shared values….promotion of peaceful coexistence, moderation, prosperity, international law”.(Ekathimerini 23/8/2021)

Shameful words. The only reference Dendias made to the Palestinians was to condemn them for firing rockets from Gaza into Israel. At a time when Israel is haemorrhaging international and indeed internal support, precisely because of its brutal oppression of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and within Israel itself, the Greek government makes no comment.

In the past week the government has been pressing for more bilateral economic ties with Israel in addition to the already established consortium which includes Cyprus to extract gas from the east Mediterranean. Areas identified as ripe for Greek investment in Israel include food, wine and spirits and cybersecurity. It would appear that Greece’s obsession with its armed forces (it is one of very few NATO countries to spend over 2% of its GDP on the military) trumps all other considerations. The result is that whilst many across the globe are becoming more wary of investment in Israel as the boycott movement grows and mindful of the fate of apartheid South Africa, the Greek government is once again demonstrating its incompetence. Do they really believe that trumpeting your shared values with such a tainted country and by refusing to acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinians is going to succeed? Do they mind that such values attract the likes of Priti Patel the British Home Secretary (Interior Minister) to visit Samos for 2 days at the beginning of August. Patel’s antipathy to refugees is well known in the UK so it was no surprise that she spent her time on the island visiting the new camp/prison for refugees which is scheduled to be opened in late September and talking with those responsible for patrolling the sea border with Turkey and keeping refugees from landing on Samos. Her junior minister( Chris Philp) was also on Samos in June; activists in the UK are concerned:

“The Independent understands that Ms Patel was interested in seeing the centre to inform the implementation of her own plans to create “reception centres” for asylum seekers in Britain.Campaigners have described the structures as “prisons-like” and “inhumane”, and said the idea of them being replicated in the UK was “deeply concerning””.(Independent , 4 August 2021)

Patel on Samos looking at the plans of the new camp

It was not so long ago that the Greek people had to endure the fascism of the Junta. There are many now predicting a similar drift to right wing oppressive authoritarianism in Israel given its current trajectory of international lawlessness, violent suppression of dissent and not least the widening divisions within the Israeli Jewish population. De-coupling Greece from Israel is a necessity but to do so needs support from without as within. As noted above, many here are feeling vulnerable and powerless. We need help and energy. But where from?

It is time now on Samos for us to think about what the refugees have brought to the island over the past decade. Now that arrivals have virtually halted and thousands of refugees have been moved off the island, it has become clear to many how much vitality they brought to Samos Town the island’s capital. Streets and squares that once buzzed with the presence of young refugees are now largely empty. Shops which flourished from the refugees now face closure. The play areas that were filled with the laughter of refugee children are now silent. The few refugees who remain in the town are soon to be shifted 9 kms away to a closed camp. There is no general delight in these developments although for years successive mayors and other leaders of the town were for ever demanding that the refugees be moved out of the town. Their message was ever consistent – they are alien, they pose multiple dangers, they simply don’t belong. But over time the presence of the refugees changed the perceptions of many locals. In a peaceful co-existence the locals ignored this clamour of their leaders as they saw the refugees as human beings with whom they shared a common place. They brought a vitality and energy to the town. Now they are missed. Although few in numbers, some refugees once granted asylum have decided to stay and make their lives here. It is struggle as they are given no help to rent a home and jobs are hard to find. But they want to try because they love living here. They feel safe. In these dark days such changes are to be celebrated.

Despite the problems facing the people on Samos the changes wrought by the presence of refugees is opening opportunities for new challenges. Myths and lies have been exposed as vacuous and harmful. The new camp built for 7000 refugees is simply seen here as a cesspool of corruption. When you live alongside refugees you directly see the way which the EU has been content to let Greece get away with lawlessness and coercion against refugees in return for holding the refugees at the EU borders. After all it is the EU’s insistence on deterrence that has created the context for the Greek state’s policies and practices. But neither the EU nor Greece are invulnerable.

Take tourism for example. As already noted, tourism is a huge part of the economy. It is been battered by the Covid pandemic and although there has been some revival in 2021 the figures are still well below those of 2019. There is now a growing recognition that climate change could pose an almost existential threat. These include the enduring threats of huge wild fires which this summer saw holiday villages evacuated. Then there is the weather. Record heatwaves this summer have exposed the tourist industry to new costs and problems, especially with respect to staying cool, needing to secure additional electricity for air conditioning and water security as people shower more to manage the heat. Can Greece continue as a major tourist destination especially if the countries who send the most tourists (northern Europe) warm up to make their summers attractive for holidays. This historic pillar of the Greek economy could soon become its Achilles heel.

Imagine then if tourists began to talk of Greece’s shameful alliances with Israel as giving them second thoughts about coming here. The same applies with respect to Greece’s treatment of refugees. One of the reasons there are few refugees now coming to Samos and the other frontier islands is because of the push-backs. This is against international law. But Greece learns from Israel; ignore and lie. So against a backcloth of video films (often shot using mobile phones) showing Greek coastguards attacking, intimidating and pushing refugees away from Greece we have the Greek minister of migration shouting that such accusations are utterly baseless and insulting. He lies. He is a liar. (See https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-57809909).Is this the place where you want to have a holiday? Is this a country which uses income raised from your visit to allay with Israel or to ensure that refugees face death or injury trying to get to the shores of Samos?

Say not a word about any of this, or the conditions of the workers who feed and care for you then you are complicit in on going cruelties. Even as a tourist you can try to do something. Tourism is a vulnerable spot for Greece. Boycott threats are sure to be taken seriously and may just do something positive for all those who live here. Surely it’s worth a go for all our sakes.

post script

Within hours of posting, this was reported in Keep Talking Greece (24/08/2021).

According to daily Efsyn:Refugees arriving in Greece are now facing a fine of 5,000 euros the moment they get off the boat. Police have reinstated the practice they launched in March 2020 by imposing fines on newly arrived refugees, making use of coronavirus legislation that affects tourists and visitors to the country.

Fines whose validity will be judged after an appeal filed by the victims of this deeply reactionary policy, which degrades and uses coronavirus protection measures as a pretext to implement the government’s extreme deterrence policy.

Fines were imposed a few at the time, but this tactic seems to be gaining ground, apparently in the face of stronger political deterrence at the border against Afghan refugees trying to escape the Taliban.

Fines, totaling 125,000 euros, were imposed by the Chios Police Department on twenty-five newly arrived refugees who had landed in Chios twenty days ago.

After escaping the risk of being deported they were taken to the quarantine facility in Lefkonia as the law dictates.

When the 14-day-quarantine period passed and it turned out that they were not infected with Covid-19, the refugees were taken to the Reception and Identification Center to have their data registered and to submit their application for asylum.

However, they were treated not as refugees but as tourists or visitors who are required to bring a vaccination certificate upon entering the country or to have been tested for antibodies proving that they are not carriers of the virus.

The relevant document that was given to them to sign was in Greek without translation in α language they understood. They had come from African countries or Arab-speaking regions.

These fines will be deducted from the allowance available by European Union funds for people seeking asylum to cover basic needs of their daily lives.” newspaper efsyn noted in its exclusive report on Tuesday.

`

“And if you face all of this death and indifference and keep your humanity, and your love and your dignity and YOU refuse to surrender to their terror, then you know something of the courage that is Palestine.” ― Suheir Hammad

For a moment we can breathe and we can try to sleep. How long this moment will last we don’t know.

For 10 days the people of Palestine have been terrorised. Over 200 people including over 60 children have been murdered in Gaza. Over a dozen murdered on the West Bank. Injuries run into thousands across the whole of Palestine.

Yet again mobile phones and Whatsap and other messaging systems have proved their value. But what a double edged knife. Yasser, explains;

“ As the electricity system was damaged and cut back to 4 hours each day it was not always easy to contact my wife and my 3 young daughters from Belgium where I have just got asylum and now organising our family unification here. I cannot describe my feelings of fear. I knew from the calls that our neighbourhood was being bombarded. I saw our neighbour’s homes smashed to pieces; I saw young guys I hung around with crawling wounded along the street. For 10 nights my family were in such danger. My children screamed for hours every night as the Israeli bombs and rockets poured down. Whenever my mobile rang my heart rate soared to new heights. Was this going to be the call to tell me what I dreaded every breathing moment.

During these days I would meet with my friends in one house in Antwerp and we would stay together. We came from different parts of Gaza so we would open our phones to the different news channels so we could hear all the news coming out. When we slept, two or three would stay awake so we would miss nothing. If the bombs were falling in northern Gaza they would wake me so I could check on my family. If the attacks were in southern Gaza my friend from Rafa was awakened to listen to the news, and so ten nights passed. I was often shivering and trembling because of what was happening next to my family and I would imagine that they had died because of what I was watching; hearing the screams here and there; seeing people dying with their children under the rubble of their bombed buildings and streets. I hope this war will never return again. Thanks to God, my family have survived. So far…..”

Without exception, every refugee on Samos from Gaza has faced the same horrors these past 10 days. Yasser speaks for many. He continues:

“ We have been disgusted by the position taken by many countries in the West where governments such as Greece have shouted their support for Israel’s violence and have presented it as conflict between two equal partners. Israel has one of the most powerful, modern armies in the world.

We, the Palestinians have no chance in a conflict with this sort of power.

But we are not without hope. Over recent days we have seen more people in more countries coming out to protest against the violence and cruelties of the Israeli state. More and more are seeing and rightly describing Israel as an apartheid state. Yet again I find it difficult to express how much that this international solidarity of people has meant for us over these past days. We don’t feel so lonely.

Never let us be lonely. Please. We will not be freed by wars and armies. “

The ceasefire means there are no bombs today. But we now must face the huge damage done which has to be confronted now. Without delay if the horror is to be controlled.

Yasser again:

“More than 45,000 refugees fled their homes and the places where they live and went to UNRWA schools to protect them from the shells, rockets and inevitable death or injury. There are huge numbers of children now homeless, without food, without clothes, without blankets. They are still terrified. These children are innocent of what is happening in Gaza. Young children want to play, laugh and have fun. Now we must stand by them as much as we possibly can.”

On Samos this led to the refugees from Gaza working closely with Sofiane from Open Doors to raise money and to get it through to Gaza without delay. In less than a day money was raised and sent and used to provide food parcels for those with nothing. No NGOs or the like, just ordinary people using their networks and local knowledge to get help to where it is most needed. The feedback from Gaza was humbling. It was the solidarity which brought joy as much as the food.

These initiatives must continue. The ceasefire has done nothing to change the incredible challenges to life that the people of Gaza in particular now face. Over the years we have developed wide range of survival skills including the ability to transfer money in and out of Gaza. So there is no need only to think of channeling funds through big NGOs but to use local networks that exist throughout Gaza and Palestine as a whole. If you are not able to connect to such a network then please feel free to contact Yasser who will with his friends do all they can to help you. This is the way of solidarity and not charity.

Please dig deep. Your help is needed. Your solidarity is yearned for.

Thank you.

Yasser Abed and Chris Jones, May 2021

(e mail for Yasser: Yasser92abed@gmail.com)

Samos Raging

My last two visits to Samos Town have led to encounters with the police. In the last encounter I was handed a 300 euro fine for supposedly breaching the Covid restrictions in place on the island. In both cases I was with refugee friends when the police intervened. This is why I was stopped and questioned.

The policing in Samos Town is unique to the island. Here police visibility is high. There are lots of police on the streets patrolling by both foot and cruising around in their cars and SUV s. Since July 2019 Samos received 28 new police vehicles, the vast majority in Samos Town with its population of around 12,000 including refugees. Never ever before have I witnessed such a density of everyday policing certainly much greater then I witnessed in the inner cities of Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow for example. In Samos Town we also see many of the police dressed as if they are going to war; padded jackets, guns, battens, tasers, faces hidden behind black masks and, of course, no sign of identification. They physically embody oppression and separation.

In contrast in Karlovassi, the other main town of the island, you will rarely see the police and rarely dressed as para militaries. Pass the police station in Karlovassi and you are most likely to see one or two police in shirts having a coffee and not the ninja turtle types who guard the entrance to the police station in Samos Town.

The fact that the majority of refugees on the island live in Samos Town and not Karlovassi, or anywhere else, is the primary reason for the very different styles of policing. This has long been the case. Now we have CoVid and all its attendant restrictions which have been seized on by the police not the least as it ‘justifies’ almost anything they do. And in Samos Town, it is the refugees who are the overwhelming target for harassment. Ask any refugee in the town about what is going on and they will tell you that the police ignore locals not masked up whereas they are being constantly hassled by police demanding to see their authorisation (by SMS) for being out on the streets. Since November 2020 of the 9,033 fines imposed for CoVid violations in the north Aegean region which includes Samos, Lesvos and ChiosFor many the paper slips the police give them indicating the 300 euro fine are no more than confetti. What causes the pain is the aggression of the police when they stop you. They bark out their demands. They refuse to identify themselves. They will never say why they stopped you and not others who are more clearly breaking the rules by not wearing masks.

What is happening in Samos Town with the CoVid related acceleration in police authoritarianism can now be seen in many parts of the world. Certainly there is plenty of evidence of this trend on mainland Greece where the targets are not exclusively refugees which is largely the case on Samos. Rarely a week passes without a report of police violence following a CoVid intervention. The police in Athens announced a ban on marches using CoVid regulations and by passed parliament which normally rules on such matters. As police budgets have expanded so their lack of accountability has remained as strong as ever. For a police force which rapidly reverts to violence in its interactions with the public including the deployment of tear gas and water cannons alongside their batons and shields combined with a government which actively attempts to control what the media report about police violence creates a toxic environment. But, thank goodness for mobile phones for its largely from the videos and photos taken by those involved in these attacks which then get circulated on the social media sites which reveal the violence of the police. As one observer noted of the police clashes with students in Thessaloniki in February 2021 “the more they beat the more they enjoy” (Keep Talking Greece, 10 Feb 2021). In some cases where public outrage cannot be ignored as in the case of a policeman breaking a 13 year old boy’s arm during an arrest, or refusing medical attention to a 58 year old Greek man with cancer resulting in a severe heart attack, the police will respond by saying that they will investigate. We never hear any more.

An important factor in the ‘silence’ is that Greece is amongst the worst performers in press freedom issues within the European Union, according to the annual index 2021 published by watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) on April 20th 2021. “Especially in Greece, reporters have been the victims of police violence and arbitrary arrest that have restricted coverage of law enforcement operations during demonstrations,” and the Report goes on to detail how the Greek state struggles in particular to hide police violence and the plight of the refugees. Here are some further extracts from the Report:

“In February 2021, public TV channels were ordered not to broadcast video circulating on social media that showed the prime minister disregarding lockdown rules.

The police resorted to violence and arbitrary bans to hamper coverage of the refugee crisis on the islands. In Lesbos, journalists were prevented from covering the consequences of the fire at the refugee camp in the town of Moria, while a group of German freelancers were briefly arrested while trying to cover the arrival of new migrants. In Samos, a German documentary film crew was detained without charge and mistreated by police.

The Greek public TV channel, which is directly controlled by the prime minister although the supreme court ruled this to be unconstitutional, censored reports on the new migrant camps.”

(Cited by Keep Talking Greece April 20, 2021)

Normalisation of state violence is always frightening and especially when there appears to be no limits on its growth. Here in Greece there has been no significant outrage to its deepening ties with Israel which have been gathering pace, especially since the onset of the ‘crisis’ over a decade ago. Yet for years, the people if not the governments of Greece were amongst the Palestinians staunchest supporters whose solidarity was remembered in tumultuous events such as the evacuation, by 5 Greek ships and crews, of the PLO army from Tripoli in 1983. Now a month rarely passes without some announcement of new initiatives which deepen military and economic relations between the 2 countries. Israel is now seen as a key regional ally in Greece’s endless conflicts and concern with Turkey. There is not one murmur of concern from the Greek state which suggests that they are dealing with a criminal state nor in their military alliances and purchases they are buying into expertise and weapons which have been tested and used against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. This is but just the latest announcement:

“Israel and Greece have signed their biggest ever defence procurement deal, which Israel said on Sunday would strengthen political and economic ties between the countries and the two countries’ air forces launched a joint exercise.

The agreement includes a $1.65 billion contract for the establishment and operation of a training center for the Hellenic Air Force by Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems over a 22-year period, Israel’s defence ministry said.The training centre will be modelled on Israel’s own flight academy and will be equipped with 10 M-346 training aircraft produced by Italy’s Leonardo, the ministry said. Elbit will supply kits to upgrade and operate Greece’s T-6 aircraft and also provide training, simulators and logistical support.

“I am certain that (this program) will upgrade the capabilities and strengthen the economies of Israel and Greece and thus the partnership between our two countries will deepen on the defence, economic and political levels,” said Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. (Ekathamerini, 19 April, 2021)

One thing you can be sure of is that none of those involved in these shameful deals will have spoken to or even acknowledged the thousands of Palestinian refugees, mainly from Gaza, who now live in Greece.

Relentless

True to form the Government has also just announced (April 17) that as of July 1st 2021 refugees who do not live in official accommodation centres (ie a camp, reception centre or a flat provided by the ESTIA II programme) will not be able to receive cash assistance. They will no longer get their pitifully low allowance of around 145 euros a month. It is a cruel decision that will hurt many refugees. Again, taking the example of Samos Town, hundreds of refugees now rent rooms and houses in the town. By combining their tiny incomes they are able to rent places, although invariably overcrowded, but considered much better than living in the camp or the jungle. This is now at risk. Another dark cloud now hangs over those who have managed to rent their homes. Its implementation won’t be easy as it will require a significant expansion in official accommodation but already within days of the announcement the social sites used by refugees here are full of anger and dismay. And as ever the question WHY echoes through their comments. Of course there is no official reason given for this latest decision.

Worthless

Trying to understand the cruelties endlessly piled on the refugees in Greece is not always easy. For example, as a non Greek I had no idea of the extent to which many here believe that despite all its economic and social ills its place as the cradle of democracy and western civilisation makes them special and in essence superior to all other peoples. A survey of 34 European countries undertaken by the Pew Research Centre between 2015 and 2017, revealed that “almost nine in ten Greeks regard their culture as superior to others, even though the people, the Greeks, are not perfect. But “cultural superiority” has little to do with economic performance; it has most probably to do with the glorious past in Ancient Greece and the chauvinistic phrase some Greeks use: “When we were building the Parthenon, the others were on trees eating acorns.”” ( cited, Keep Talking Greece Nov 1st, 2018).Many mechanisms are at work nourishing this illusion not the least the orthodox church and the schooling system.

That ‘there are no other people are like us’ gets played out especially viciously when it comes to refugees, especially so if they are Muslim, black or Arab. They are often seen as something completely out of the frame. “They just don’t fit here. They bring nothing we want, need nor value. They are worthless.” Such attitudes frame most of the refugee policies, practices and debates here in Greece and is exemplified daily on Samos. It is a mindset which allows for the incarceration of minors in police cells; substandard food in many of the camps; appalling living conditions which contravene all the CoVid public health guidelines…. The list goes on and on. All negative and oppressive and totally deaf to the needs of the refugees. “In a startling analysis of the programme he oversees, Mark Lowcock, the coordinator of the UN’s aid relief operation since 2017, [says] he has reached the view that “one of the biggest failings” of the system is that agencies “do not pay enough attention” to the voices of people caught up in crises. ‘The humanitarian system is set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what we have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need.’” (Guardian April 21, 2021)

I have yet to hear any official pronouncement in 15 years on Samos which acknowledges anything positive about the refugees here. I know of no positive comment about the refugees whether from state agencies, NGOs or the volunteers. Yet their achievements in surviving this hostile environment are many and impressive. In the jungle of tents and shelters around the camp you can find the most beautiful and creative homes; refugees organise classes and play activities for the children; those who have medical experience and skills have created clinics; they make face masks; they care for one another. Of course daily life is also punctuated by struggle and challenges. Many young women feel unsafe especially at night and won’t leave their homes during darkness. Gay refugees are also vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. The jungle is full of contradictions, good and bad.

This mindset of worthlessness results in a remarkable self-defeating strategy dominated by the concern to control and not to develop or encourage the wide range of talents, skills and experiences of the refugees. Self-defeating because Greece as a whole and islands like Samos in particular need the refugees. Year on year for the past 10 years the Greek population has declined by around 40,000 people each year. This is compounded by the growing proportion of older people as birth and marriages also plummet year by year. On top, there has been the steady exodus of young Greeks, often university educated, who have given up on Greece as a place where they can work or live. It is estimated that 500,000 have left in the past 7 years. Demographic data has long been taken as a key indicator of a society’s well being. On those grounds alone Greece is very unwell and faces a dark future as the population grows older and more fragile.

On Samos all of these trends are evident. As the farmers age they have less capacity to care for the land. Vineyards and olive orchards lay abandoned all over the island. To manage so many of the farmers now rely on weedkillers and insecticides. Visit the agricultural areas on Samos in Spring and you are certain to see pick up trucks all over the place pumping and spraying toxic chemicals on their land. In the mountain village where I live it is now impossible to find a building worker who is young enough to do outdoor plastering. As our village population ages and declines – younger families have left for Germany and the US – we now have an unprecedented number of empty houses. I can see 16 homes from where I live. In 2005 all but three were lived in. Now in 2021 only 3 of these houses are occupied. We are lucky to still have some young families in the village but not enough to stop the school from closing. There is no longer any bus service.

This pattern is repeated across all the villages of Samos and has been starkly revealed during the pandemic with the cessation of visitors to the island. Currently we do not have the ‘summer’ village where families returned to spend some of the summer months in ‘their’ villages.

In this context of a demographic crisis it is stunning that there has not been one attempt to encourage refugees to consider making their lives on Samos. There is land in desperate need of cultivation; houses in desperate need of occupation; villages in desperate need of young families to bring life and laughter again. At the same time we still have 3,500 refugees on the island desperate to build and take control of their lives once more. We have a gold mine of talent and energy. Although many of the refugees here want to leave Samos and Greece when they get their asylum, I have also met many who like me have fallen in love with the beauty of the island and would love the opportunity to make a life here.

But for this to happen the worthless refugee mindset has to go. In the upper reaches of the Greek state the mindset seems as strong as ever but on the ground things are changing, especially in the big cities of Athens and Thessaloniki which have significant populations now of former refugees some of whom have opened grocery stores, cafes, barbers and coffee shops. These cities are changing and have a greater multi-cultural dimension than ever before. And in small ways we are seeing closer relationships emerging such as in the case of a Greek family in Thessaloniki buying their refugee neighbours a TV for their young children , or the Greek taxi driver who was concerned that our Somalian friend was not walking well. Here we are seeing small but important examples of caring which can, will and do erode notions of worthlessness.

At the moment there is no sign that the Greek state is going to have that ‘German Moment’ when the German state recognised that its need for an additional 1.5 million people was essential for its economic future and accordingly opened its doors to refugees for a short period in 2014/5. Here the Greek state is concerned only about getting tourism going again and its defence capacities. Tourism is crucial to Greece, it accounts for over 20% of economic activity and 25% of jobs. The evaporation of tourism with CoVid is devastating as again we see on Samos. Last summer was a disaster and this summer looks no better at the moment. As for defence, Greece for all its poverty and suffering is one of the major arms spenders in Europe. Its evident that the armed forces have learnt some lessons from its Junta period in the 1970s and are now more subtle in exerting its power. On the basis of daily newspaper reports, the military are succeeding in their ambitions which are rooted in distorting Turkey as an ever present and growing threat to Greece. Here is a typical example from Ekathemerini (20 April 2021):

“Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited an air base in southern Greece to attend multinational military exercises joined by fighter jets from the United States, France, Israel, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.

“We cannot be naive. We are facing a new set of threats,” Mitsotakis said, speaking in a hangar in front of aircraft taking part in the exercises. “Our world is extremely complex and our neighbourhood is, unfortunately, becoming more unstable. Greece will continue to strengthen its defence capabilities and upgrade its armed forces.”

Greece spends more on defence than any other European Union country relative to the size of its economy.”

The priorities of the Greek establishment are stark and clear. What is so destructive is that they are so wrong. Greece is facing a demographic bomb which is ticking ever onward. Yet they continue to spurn the treasure represented by the refugees in the country. They continue to ignore how much the country would gain both in terms of vitality and morality simply by acting and believing that refugees are human beings just like us, who have the same dreams, same ambitions of education and employment and housing and all the things that people care about. We’re all the same people and we cannot sit back and think somehow, “We don’t know who they are”.

“He drowned in a shipwreck,” the inscription reads. “It wasn’t the sea, it wasn’t the wind, it is the policies and fear.”

On a pine-covered hill above the sparkling blue Aegean lies a boy’s grave, a teddy bear leaning against the white marble tombstone. His first boat ride was his last – the sea claimed him before his sixth birthday.

The Afghan child with a tuft of spiky hair stares out of a photo on his gravestone, a hint of a smile on his lips. “He drowned in a shipwreck,” the inscription reads. “It wasn’t the sea, it wasn’t the wind, it is the policies and fear.”

Those migration policies are now being called into question in the case of the boy’s 25-year-old father, who is grieving the loss of his only child. Already devastated, the father has found himself charged with child endangerment for taking his son on the perilous journey from Turkey to the nearby Greek island of Samos. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

The charges are a stark departure from Greece’s previous treatment of migrant shipwreck survivors. This is believed to be the first time in the European Union that a surviving parent faces criminal prosecution for the death of their child in the pursuit of a better life in Europe.

The father’s hopes were dashed on a cold November night against the rocks of Samos, a picturesque island that also houses Greece’s most overcrowded refugee camp.

“Without him I don’t know how to live,” the young man said, his soft voice breaking as a tear rolled down his cheek. “He is the only one I had in my life. All my hopes were him.”

Now, he says, he often thinks of killing himself. He no longer mentions the child’s name. The father agreed speak to The Associated Press on condition he only be identified by his initials, N.A., and that his son wouldn’t be named.

It is not entirely clear why Greek authorities took the extreme step of charging this man when so many others have been in his place. Activists suspect the move indicates a hardening of Greece’s already restrictive migration policies, or suggest it could be an attempt to divert attention from possible negligence by the coast guard.

But Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis rejected the idea that the case heralded a change in policy.

“If there is the loss of human life, it must be investigated whether some people, through negligence or deliberately, acted outside the limits of the law,” Mitarakis said, adding that each incident is treated according to its circumstances.

He noted that the lives of asylum-seekers aren’t in danger in Turkey, a country the EU has deemed safe.

“The people who choose to get into boats which are unseaworthy, and are driven by people who have no experience of the sea, obviously put human lives at risk,” he said.

The father said he had no choice but to make the journey. His asylum application in Turkey had been rejected twice and he feared deportation to Afghanistan, a country he fled at the age of 9. He wanted his son to go to school, where, unlike him, the boy could learn to read and write, and eventually fulfil his dream of becoming a police officer.

“I didn’t come here for fun. I was compelled. I didn’t have another way in my life,” he said. “I decided to go for the future of my son, for my future, so we can go somewhere to live, and my son can study.”

At the southeastern edge of the EU and with thousands of kilometers of coastline bordering Turkey, Greece has found itself on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis. From 2014 to 2020, more than 1.2 million people traveled along the eastern Mediterranean migration route, the vast majority through Greece, according to figures from the UN refugee agency. More than 2,000 died or went missing.

Last March, as Greek-Turkish relations soured, Turkey announced its borders to the EU were open, sending thousands of migrants to the Greek border. Greece accused Turkey of weaponizing the desperation of migrants and temporarily suspended asylum applications.

Aid groups and asylum seekers have also complained of pushbacks, the illegal deportation of migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum. They accuse Greece’s coast guard of picking up new arrivals and towing them in life rafts towards Turkish waters – a claim vehemently denied by Greek authorities.

The AP has pieced together what happened in the case of this mild-mannered father and his dead son from interviews with the father, another passenger, the man who first reported their arrival, the coast guard and legal documents.

Divorced and raising his son alone, N.A. said he obtained a smuggler’s number from a neighbor after his second asylum rejection in Turkey, where he had lived for years.

Their journey to Europe began in the Turkish coastal town of Izmir, where the 24 passengers, all Afghans, gathered in a house. Among them were Ebrahim Haidari, a 29-year-old construction worker, and his wife.

Haidari remembers the little boy as an intelligent, sweet child who easily struck up conversations with the other passengers and joked with the smugglers in fluent Turkish. He was struck by the close relationship between the boy and his young father, who Haidari said was as much a big brother and friend to the child as a father.

On November 7, a cold, cloudy, windy night, the group boarded a truck headed to a wooded part of the Turkish coast, arriving at around 10 p.m.

There were four smugglers in all, Haidari said. The sea wasn’t particularly calm and the passengers were worried, especially since at least some couldn’t swim. But the smugglers assured them the weather would improve.

The boy didn’t share the adults’ anxieties. He had never been to the sea before, his father said, and he was eager to sail in a boat.

The boat was an inflatable dinghy, the type preferred by smugglers on the Turkish coast. Cheap and dispensable, they are usually overloaded with people, and a passenger is made to steer so the smugglers avoid arrest. At least one of the smugglers was armed.

Once they donned lifejackets, everyone was forced into the boat, Haidari and the father said. One smuggler drove a short way before making a passenger take over the steering, telling him to head toward a light in the distance. In a flash, the smuggler dove overboard and swam away.

Sitting just in front of Haidari and his wife, the father held his son tightly in his arms.

As one hour turned into two and then three, the weather deteriorated. The wind whipped the sea into ever-larger waves, and the inexperienced designated captain struggled to control the boat.

“I don’t know what the smugglers thought, leaving us in such a bad situation,” Haidari said. “We didn’t know anything about the sea.”

Tossed by the waves, the dinghy took on water. People screamed they would die. To make matters worse, fuel was running out – the smugglers had provided barely enough to reach Greece.

Suddenly, the shape of a mountain loomed out of the darkness. Terrified of dying at sea, they turned toward it.

But the coastline was jagged with rocks. The waves smacked the dinghy against the rocks once, then twice. The boat broke in two. Before they knew it, the passengers were in the water.

As they tumbled into the inky sea, the child slipped out of his father’s embrace. The waves closed over the man’s head.

He didn’t know how to swim, but eventually his lifejacket brought him to the surface. He scanned the waves for his boy, listening for his voice. He shouted until the salt water made him hoarse. Nothing.

He sank beneath the waves again. Out of seemingly nowhere, a hand grabbed his and dragged him toward a rock. He doesn’t know who it was, but he is sure that person saved his life.

There was chaos all around. People were calling for their brothers, wives, sons. Haidari and his wife struggled in the waves to stay alive, crying and vomiting seawater.

At one point, N.A. and Haidari said, a boat appeared and switched on a searchlight. The survivors raised their hands and shouted for help, but the boat passed on.

About 15 to 20 minutes later, Haidari said, a second boat appeared. Again, they hoped for a rescue, but again the vessel shone its searchlights and moved on.

“Maybe they didn’t see us or didn’t want to help us,” Haidari said.

The father is certain the crew saw him and the people in the water. He said that when he shouted and waved, the patrol boat trained its searchlight on him.

“They didn’t help,” he said. “They were going around and coming back, going around and coming back.”

The account of the coast guard is quite different in the crucial question of whether it acted fast enough, and whether its patrol boats saw the struggling migrants.

Legal documents obtained by the AP show the process of charging the father was initiated by the Samos coast guard, which informed the prosecutor of a man’s arrest for “exposing his minor son to danger during the attempted illegal entry into the country by sea.”

Greece’s Shipping and Island Policy Ministry, under whose jurisdiction the coast guard falls, didn’t grant permission for Samos coast guard officials to speak to the AP. The prosecutor didn’t respond to an interview request.

However, a Samos coast guard official outlined authorities’ account of events that night, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The coast guard was alerted at around midnight by an English-speaking man who provided coordinates for a possible migrant boat, the official said. The coordinates were on land on Cape Prasso, a mountainous, roughly five-kilometer-long (three-mile-long) peninsula of tough terrain, with steep rocky slopes.

That man was Tommy Olsen, founder of Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian nonprofit which monitors and provides information on arrivals on the Greek islands. Olsen said people who are reluctant to contact Greek authorities for fear of pushbacks contact him instead.

On that night, Olsen said, he received a call from someone saying a group had arrived on Samos, but several people were missing. Olsen said he immediately informed the Samos coast guard and shared the coordinates.

The coast guard official said upon receiving the call, they immediately initiated emergency procedures, dispatching two coast guard vessels that left the main port of Vathy at around 12:20 a.m. The vessels arrived in the area at around 1 a.m., the official said, but saw nobody.

At around 6 a.m., one of the vessels spotted a heavily pregnant woman behind a rock in a treacherous part of the coast, the official added. While rescuing her, which took about an hour and a half, they found the boy’s body nearby. Documents show the vessel carrying the woman and child returned to Vathy at around 9.30 a.m.

The woman and child weren’t related. At around the same time as they were found, at roughly 6.40 a.m. on November 8, a two-person coast guard foot patrol came across a group of 10 people on the hill of Cape Prasso, several hours’ walk away. The group included the father.

“If you have a dead child, you try to figure out who he was with,” the official said. “It’s different when you have relatives there helping, and different when you find them alone.”

The suggestion is, the fact the father wasn’t with his son when they were found was a key reason for him being charged.

The indictment accuses him of “leaving your … child helpless.” It says the father allowed his son to board an unseaworthy boat in bad weather without wearing an appropriate lifejacket – although a photo in the case file of the boy’s body clearly shows him in a child’s lifejacket.

“These people have to rely on smugglers, and these smugglers decide when and where people take these journeys,” said Nick van der Steenhoven, the Greece and Europe advocacy and policy officer for refugee rights charity Choose Love. The father and son, he said, “became victim of the failure of the European Union to provide safe and legal routes” for asylum-seekers.

The father, his defense lawyer, Dimitris Choulis, and Olsen paint another picture of that night’s events: one of delays and negligence by the coast guard. Choulis is filing an application with the Samos prosecutor requesting an investigation. The father, he said, is convinced his son would still be alive if the coast guard had acted faster.

The lawyer considers the charges “the product of panic and not the product of some broader policy … But automatically we are creating one more obstacle to these people to claim asylum.”

N.A. said he desperately sought help to find his son all night.

When he managed to drag himself ashore, he said, he searched and shouted for his son to no avail. Nobody had seen his boy. He wanted to dive back into the waves to look for him, but didn’t know how to swim.

After searching for two hours, he decided to try to find help. He persuaded a group of survivors to go with him, and they trekked through the night across the tough terrain.

As dawn broke, they came upon the coast guard foot patrol. Court documents indicate the father managed to convey to the officers that his son was missing, showing them his possible location on a mobile phone.

The father said they soon realized the location was too far for a search on foot themselves, and that reinforcements were needed. The passengers were taken to the island’s refugee camp for identification and coronavirus testing.

His recollection of the exact timeline of events from there on is somewhat vague. A woman came to the father with a photo and asked if it was his son. It was.

He was told the boy had been found but had been taken to the hospital and was in a coma. The missing pregnant woman had also been found alive, he heard.

At some point the pregnant woman also arrived at the camp, and the father’s hopes were buoyed; if she had survived, perhaps his son would too.

Then he was separated from the others and taken for questioning. He asked to see his son, but was told he had to be interviewed first.

When the interview was over, he still wasn’t allowed to see his child. Eventually, he said, the police called the hospital. They told him his son had been dead already when he arrived at the hospital.

“Why did they do this to me?” the father said, distraught at the idea he had held out false hope of his son surviving. “They should not have done that. They should have told me the truth.”

The father was then jailed on charges of endangering his son’s life.

“I was heartbroken,” he said. “A person who loses his loved ones, his son, and then he goes to prison in that condition, alone … Is it humane to do this thing?”

It took three days and pressure from his lawyer, Choulis, for him to be allowed to see his son’s body.

The coast guard escorted him to the hospital morgue, handcuffed. When they came back up 15 minutes later, the man wasn’t wearing handcuffs anymore and the coast guard officers were carrying him, Choulis said. He had collapsed.

The father was eventually released on the bail condition that he not leave the country. Refugee organizations put him up in a hotel.

The little boy’s body lay in the morgue for weeks. His death certificate shows he was buried on November 30, in the small cemetery above the village of Iraion, where other victims of migrant shipwrecks lie.

The father has since been granted temporary asylum in Greece. But without his son, he said, he doesn’t much care where, or if, he lives.

“His son was his friend, he was everything to him,” Haidari said. “He was his hope to be alive.”

This article has been published in a number of places. This was taken from the newspaper Ekathimerini (March 18 2021).

I have not changed a word.

The cruelties which this blog has highlighted over the years continues.

We cannot remain as spectators who say nothing and do nothing. This is the way of darkness and it is in the darkness that these behaviours continue.

Many of us feel powerless. But from my home on Samos let me tell you that we are being daily bombarded with news and information about the necessity for Greece to attract tourists this year. Much of what we hear seems fanciful as the pandemic continues to sweep on. Be assured that the the last thing the Government will want is to discover that potential visitors are now re-considering Greece as a holiday destination because of the cruelties taking place here. And to help you along here is the address of the Greek National Tourism Office, 7 Tsoha Street, Ampelokipoi, Athens, Greece. And here is the address of George Stantzos the Mayor in Vathi who endlessly speaks out against the refugees. He has no shame:

Agiou Spyridonos Square 83100 SAMOS , NORTH AEGEAN , GREECE Tel.: +30 22733 50100

Toxic: Impunity and Deterrence

Crimes Against Humanity in the Aegean is a 43 page report from the Legal Centre Lesvos (LCL) published on February 1st 2021.It is impressive on many levels. The detail provided in their investigation of refugee push backs in the Eastern Aegean over the past year is meticulous and includes powerful and distressing eye witness evidence from some of the refugees who suffered the push backs. The Report provides overwhelming evidence of criminal activity by state agencies which is systematic following a clear pattern often involving the use of ‘commandos’ – i.e. unidentifiable hooded and masked armed men who attack the boats as they attempt to cross to Greece – working in close co-operation with the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex, the EU border guards. As always, the relevant state agencies deny that push backs are happening; total denial accompanied with impunity.

“Despite the numerous reports and investigations showing the widespread and systematic nature of this ongoing practice, the Greek state continues to dismiss such allegations as ‘fake news.’

Europe has been perpetrating violence against migrants at its borders with complete impunity for so many years that it seems EU and Greek authorities believed that under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic they could escalate their attack on migrants in the Aegean region without anyone reacting.” (Lorraine Leete, Co-ordinator, LCL, Feb 2021)

Against this trend however, on February 23rd 2021, the European Parliament began its investigation into the push back activities of Frontex which is not only in the process of forming an army 10,000 strong but is now the biggest single agency of the EU.

As Birgit Sippel, one of the people in the parliament demanding the inquiry said:

“Frontex’s reputation has gone from bad to worse in recent months. Change starts from the top and that’s why we urged the Frontex Director to stand down, following repeated allegations of fundamental rights violations at the EU’s borders. While Mr Leggeri is still in office, he is not in control of the situation. The result is not only that the credibility of the EU’s largest agency is in shreds, but it has meant that the disgraceful and unacceptable push backs of vulnerable people at Europe’s borders keep taking place. Frontex’ decision to pull out of Hungary, where push backs were well documented even after a recent ruling of the European Court of Justice, is a welcome first step in the right direction. But this step comes too late and is too little to restore the confidence in the Executive Director of the EU’s largest agency.” (https://www.socialistsanddemocrats.eu/newsroom/sd-group-parliament-investigation-will-reveal-full-extent-frontexs-failings)

With its notion that change starts from the top with the top being identified as the person deemed to be in charge of the organisation, it is good to see key figures named and being held to account. But given that the EU in its various institutions including the parliament has conspicuously failed until now to act on the criminal push backs despite compelling evidence suggests that we might well be disappointed by their efforts. As LCL remind us, in March 2020 Ursula von der Leyon, the president of the European Commission, thanked Greece for being “Europe’s shield” at the very time Greece unilaterally and illegally suspended the right to asylum and embarked on push backs which involved the use of lethal force, sugared with an additional 700 million euros for border and migration management followed in June 2020 by a further 10.75 million euros for the reinforcement of Greece’s eastern borders.

Ineffective Accountability

“The foregoing laundry list of ongoing violations entailed in the modus operandi of collective expulsions in the Aegean only underscored the ineffectiveness of existing accountability mechanisms. A number of extensively evidenced complaints on collective expulsions in the Aegean have already been submitted to the Greek courts, the Hellenic Parliament, the Greek National Commission of Human Rights, the European Commission and other EU institutions and the European Court of Human Rights by numerous civil society and legal actors including LCL, yet collective expulsions in the Aegean continue with absolute impunity”(LCL Report, p.32).

This is what I have also witnessed over 15 years living on Samos. There has been no shortage of reports detailing the daily horrors confronting the refugees on the island; no shortage of visitors who have been shaken by what they witness and not least countless testimonies of the refugees who have been or who are, still here. But all with little or no consequence. The authorities don’t give a damn about the living conditions of the refugees here. You would need to be living on another planet not to know this. We are now coming to the end of winter. The island has been pounded by storms, winds and rain. It has been very cold. Every winter here is a challenge both for locals with no income who can’t heat their homes and the refugees living in their shacks and tents in the jungle. Every winter NGOs and volunteers file their reports detailing these horrors. NOTHING CHANGES.

That so many refugees survive their ordeals on the frontier islands is almost entirely due to the refugees themselves. It is their efforts in building shelters that can withstand the harsh weather, in providing food and clothes especially for those facing problems that sees them through. And the efforts are wide and varied from caring for the sick and distressed to making Covid masks. It is a community of many layered solidarities between and within the nationalities and the generations. It is sad and reprehensible that many of those who work with (on) refugees fail to acknowledge this, including many of the volunteers who drop by the island to ‘help’. Charity and not solidarity epitomises much of this effort (but I will write more on this in a later article).

I defy anyone to tell me of any positive state action that benefits the refugees on Samos and more widely in Greece. Has the food improved or is it still shit? Has the Covid threat and shadow stopped the endless queues for food or any service? Have the managers of the camp accepted offers of support from the appropriate medical NGOs to develop a Covid strategy? Why are those who test positive quarantined in overcrowded containers? Every opportunity to make something better is shunned as exemplified by the new but as yet unopened camp on a remote and exposed hill top on Samos and the decision to open a new camp on Lesvos (replacing the fire destroyed Moria camp) on a site contaminated with dangerous levels of lead. On every dimension of life, from education to health the actions of the authorities have been cruel. And for years and years they get away with it. Critical and outraged reports are brushed aside, and “as if impunity was not enough, four human rights monitoring and migrants solidarity groups which have all publicly denounced collective expulsions in the Aegean, have been identified by Greek police in an investigation that accuses them of espionage, forming and membership of a criminal organisation, violating state secrets and violating the immigration code.” (LCL, p.34)

Deterrence

The European state agencies involved with refugees have been explicit in placing deterrence as the core principle of its strategy in trying to halt or at least moderate the flow of refugees from the broken and war torn countries of the middle east. On no account were these push factors to be aided by pull factors from within Europe itself. So no safe passage for refugees. Instead the death journeys across the seas or through militarised borders. And should you be lucky enough to make it, the ancient British Poor Law principle is practised namely that your living conditions and application for asylum should be so uncomfortable and degrading that you would do anything to keep away.

But as the LCL Report demonstrates all too clearly the dynamic of deterrence is and has moved on to greater violence and cruelties. As I read the accounts of the push backs at sea I could not stop thinking about what was going on in the heads of those carrying out these practices which included throwing terrified families and children into the sea at night to climb into tiny rubber dinghies which would take them to the Turkish coast and (hopefully) rescue from the Turkish coastguards. What goes through the minds of the Greek crews who drive their boats at speed at the small refugee dinghies knowing full well the dangers posed to the refugees as the bow waves roll over them?

These are important questions for as the LCL report makes clear,

“The complex network and multiplicity of actors involved in collective expulsions in the Aegean would require independent international institutions with significant investigative powers to trace modes of liability. In this context, international criminal law’s foundational logic that atrocities are ‘committed by men, not abstract entities,’ and its promise to de-naturalise the banality of evil appears more appropriate.” (LCL, p.35)

It is clear, that to date the efforts of those who compile, record and publish their damning reports of ongoing atrocities against so many refugees in Greece have had no impact on changing policy or practice. Perhaps it is time to change the focus in the struggle to ‘de-naturalise the banality of evil’; looking more to those who do this work. And its not just on the push backs where we should be thinking of what can be done. After all, how does a person feed another with food they would never touch ? How do you quarantine Covid victims with 20 others in a locked container with no toilet ? How do you tell refugees that they have to leave their accommodation four weeks after getting their asylum because now they have to live like Greeks supporting and housing themselves through work? Even without Covid this is not easy in Greece. With Covid it is almost impossible. Throughout this winter thousands of refugees have lost their homes and been forced onto the streets or into overcrowded squats.

And without exception, all refugees here have to deal with an Asylum Service that does not give a damn for you. It is evident the moment you arrive at virtually any Asylum Office where crowds of refugees are compelled to wait outside in all weathers to even get inside. So much for respect. Take Fahima and Yousef from Algeria. They have had 2 rejections for asylum which they appealed last September with the help of a lawyer. The court in Athens which heard the appeal made its decision at the end of October 2020. As of this day they have no idea what that decision was. They plead but get no answer. Torture for them. Take Mohammed, he was told in January that he had to travel from Samos to Athens to be interviewed over his application for family re-unification. He takes around 100 euros a month. The Asylum Service offered no expenses. The same for Younis who was faced with the same problem when told that he would have to go to Athens to collect his asylum papers. When he got to the office, he found a note pinned on the door informing him that his interview had been postponed (Covid) and to await further notice. These are just a few instances from Samos. Similar examples are legion.

The spectrum of cruelties is wide and the ‘doctrine of do no harm’ enshrined in international refugee law is endlessly breached. And breached by people ‘doing their jobs’. Within Greece the challenge of ensuring people to do indecent jobs quietly and without fuss seems to fall along two related dimensions. One is protection and the other is extreme regulation. Protective measures range widely from body armour, small arms, chemical weapons at one extreme through to ensuring that state agents carry no identifying insignia at the other. (Moreover, with or without legislation, most adults in Greece know that you don’t openly photograph the police in any context if you value your well being.)

Fear plays a significant role in this country in sustaining unacceptable and often criminal activity across vast parts of the society. It is a fear that goes well beyond ‘police phobia’ in a society which has endured massive economic and social decline over the past 15 years and is now worsened further by the Covid pandemic. Poverty is deep and widespread. Birth rates are plummeting. Those who can leave the country. The fear of losing your job is an ever-present worry for many and a remarkable percentage of those who work with refugees as in the Asylum Service are on short-term contracts often renewed but never secure. With high rates of unemployment it follows that many simply keep their heads down and mouths shut. Any step out of line can carry severe consequences.

In addition, over the years a raft of regulations and procedures have been implemented which explicitly constrain in great detail, those working in any formal capacity with refugees. A condition for working with refugees in Greece even as an individual (registered) volunteer or an NGO demands obedience to the Greek authorities. Criticism of the authorities is not allowed. On no account are you to disclose to any outside persons or organisations any aspect of your job or your experience including photographs. These are all set out in the contracts of employment and engagement which now run to pages and pages. Failure to comply brings disciplinary action and dismissal. Translators currently employed in the camp on Samos for example are forbidden from talking or socialising with any refugees outside their work time. I spoke just 2 weeks ago with a translator who when not working in the camp stays in his hotel room so as to avoid any contact with refugees as he was frightened about losing his job. Similar restrictions were introduced for the ‘volunteers’ who were forbidden to develop personal relationships with refugees which included not visiting refugee homes. (It should be noted that a few volunteers have resigned over the years because of these restrictions). Considerable effort has gone into ensuring all those who came to Samos as volunteers should be formally registered. This was entirely motivated by the concern to control and regulate their activities. These regulatory frameworks have not emerged to protect refugees nor the volunteers for that matter.

Regulations which seek to hide and close off any scrutiny have no place in welfare work with any group of people where the possibility of positive support demands that we identify the problems and challenges people confront. But instead we have front line workers gagged, frightened to speak out for fear of losing their job. This is the case in Greece. Many here generally fear complaining about any state crimes and violence because they fear the repercussions especially when their complaints concern the police. This must change and effective protection measures implemented for all those who have cause to complain. Quite simply, as we have learnt, refugee engagements in darkness are all too likely to be cruel and dangerous. But without effective and trustworthy protection for those who complain or just reveal poor practice then it is almost certain that the current darkness will continue. (There is something deeply sad about all this. Working with refugees should be celebratory and joyous as we help those seeking life and security in Europe. It is work that should bring pride and not shame to those involved. In all their diversities refugees enrich our lives and our societies despite all they have endured.)

Even with all these efforts, we should not assume that the authorities have stopped all front line workers from supporting refugees when possible. My evidence comes mainly from refugees who have been employed in the camps and by many of the bigger agencies as translators/facilitators. Taking advantage of their supervisors’ lack of language, translators are able to say things to the refugees which are not understood by their managers. They can and do tell refugees what they need to say or not say when asking for help or information. They tell them when they are being lied to or are being giving useless information. Oppressive welfare systems all face the problem that no matter how many procedures and regulations are imposed on their front line workers, there are always points in practice where workers and recipients inter-act without supervision; where there are opportunities for help and support however small. I have no reason to doubt that there are many front line workers, not only refugee employees, involved in such activities. But without any imaginative support networks these activities understandably remain largely hidden from view.

The impunity which cloaks the illegal activities of so many of the key actors plays a key role in ensuring the continuation of daily state violence. It naturalises the banality of evil. It banishes any notion of a common humanity. In its wake it brings secrecy, corruption and dismay. Refugees are casualties of this impunity but so are the majority of Greeks who live daily with a state that in so many ways fails the people.

A final plea! I believe that the work of organisations such as the Legal Centre Lesvos and Front Lex is of great importance for as Front Lex notes:

“EU migration policy constitutes a flagrant breach of all the international and European law frameworks regulating migration and borders: refugee, human rights, maritime and criminal law. For the first time since WWII, European institutions, governments and officials are committing countless crimes against humanity. These atrocious crimes are targeting the most vulnerable population on earth: civilians in need of international protection. Front-Lex reinstates the Law at Europe’s borders by holding the EU, its Member States and their officials responsible.

Through legal actions and public trials, we will seek to terminate EU migration policy, provide remedy for its victims, and hold the culprits to account. “ (https://www.front-lex.eu/)

They need our support. The stakes could not be higher, both for the refugees and indeed for us all:

We do expect Frontex to comply with its own regulations, the [EU treaties] and European and international human rights and criminal law. In case they won’t we will expect the competent courts to force them to do so. In case they won’t, well, this would be a sad day for the rule of law and mean the EU dropped its liberal ethos altogether.”

(Shatz and Cohen, Front Lex, cited in Statewatch Feb 2021, https://www.statewatch.org/news/2021/february/eu-legal-actions-pile-up-against-frontex-for-involvement-in-rights-violations/)

Crimes Against Humanity in the Aegean can be found at

Click to access Collective-Expulsions-in-the-Aegean-LCL-01.02.2021-1.pdf

Samos Dreaming

There is a tragic lack of attention given to the achievements and activities of people and communities in tackling the problems they confront. It is tragic because people need hope and inspiration in these dark times and the thousands upon thousands of grass root mobilisations across the globe provide this. But unless you are closely involved with such activities you are denied a crucial source of knowledge and understanding and with it the energy to mobilise or at least not to be left hopeless and demoralised.

As with all important human and social phenomenon there are many issues at play; local and global – particular to place and circumstance and also general when it comes to managing societies that enrich the few at the expense and on the backs of the majority. The strategies of such domination shift and change over time and are multi-dimensional as authority perpetually struggles to explain why the many struggle and suffer whilst others flourish as they capture the wealth and riches created by the people. Such struggles are never ending and always evolving as circumstances change. And they are not restricted to one site or mode ranging from hard and violent to softly softly : tear gas to youth clubs.

Very few in the world today escape being caught up in endless efforts of authority to shape our thoughts and manage our behaviour according to their needs. Efforts that come in many forms. Many of you reading this will know all too well how religion and ‘science’ have been deployed over time to legitimate inhumanity. I recall how in my English primary school we boisterously sang the Christian hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful at our daily school assemblies. About the wondrous world God has created with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. And then later as a social work student being showered with sociological and psychological theories that explained why the poor were to blame for their poverty and hardship. At least I did not have to endure in my schooling in the 1950s and 1960s the experiences of my mum and dad who sat in class rooms with maps of the British Empire – where the sun never sets- and be told of the great gifts the British Empire brought to backward and uncivilised peoples. Yet me and my friends had to confront a schooling system that embedded the privilege of the few. We all sat the 11plus exam at the end of our time in primary school. As an 11 year old I was frightened by the 11 plus. I have a twin brother. At 11 we had never been apart going to the same schools. I had nightmares about one of us passing and one failing and being sent off to different schools. Even at that age you just knew that it was much more than going to different schools. It was about different worlds. Even if we didn’t understand it fully, even at 11 we knew that this exam was life defining. It was the entrance exam into British class society as it was then.

Passing the exam meant you were seen as a child with potential to be developed and encouraged. Failure was the reverse. You were not seen in terms of potential development. Instead your expectations were to be refocused shifting from the brain to the hand. If you passed you went to the grammar school for at least five years knowing that you were being prepared for a bright future in the middle and professional classes. If you failed it was 5 years in the secondary modern school and a future of menial labour. And in both regimes the impact of gender and race was enormous.

One of the most common cruelties of state schooling systems in many parts of the world is in its creation of failure. At very young ages children are labelled and treated as failures. They are told they are not intelligent, that they have no talent and to adjust their expectations of life accordingly. In a variety of ways and settings huge swathes of children internalise these negative judgements which come to shadow their lives whether or not they give in or fight back refusing to accept that they are stupid and useless.

This is just a tiny fragment of the processes at work. In different places and times similar socialisation processes are at work which are designed to cement and reaffirm privilege and power. It never stops. And it can never stop given the enduring characteristics of human beings. We all have agency. We all think. We are not pieces of plasticine to be moulded at will. There are billions of us around today and I would hazard a guess that many are at least like the frightened 11 year old boy facing the 11 plus who is troubled that what he faces is not right.

So how does this relate to my reaction to the work of the Lewisham (London) food bank which prompted this article? I was inspired by what the so called ‘ordinary’ people of the area were doing to feed and help those struggling including those with CoVid. Created in 2014 the We Care project is now feeding and supporting 5,000 people (and their pets!). They take no money from the state, local or central, which had in fact abandoned them. Now Covid is a major aspect of their work as it has deepened their poverty and hardship. They have created a charity shop to raise money which has allowed them to open a cafe as well as a community kitchen for those who no longer have the means to cook and prepare food. All this is done by volunteers. They have made a short film about their work:

“We are delighted that our film ‘Feeding Lewisham’, made out of love and with zero funds, has been selected for, and is winning, awards globally. We believe this is, in part because the world is all facing the same Covid challenges. But our film is also different. It does not go down the misery and poverty porn route. Instead, it shows how powerful communities can be when governments and councils fail them. It shows how awesome we as neighbours can be – united in solidarity. And it shows black people as leaders not as victims.

(My emphasis: https://www.thecanary.co/feature/2020/12/13/a-short-film-made-by-a-community-is-getting-international-recognition/)

And listen to what they said about why they made the film:

“We cannot thank enough those people who gave their time and still do to help others during this crisis and those in the film team who gave hours of time for free because what was happening in Lewisham was [too] important not to be told whilst the film also is a model for others to copy and be inspired by globally.” (The Canary 13 Dec 2020)

I shouted out Yes ! when I read this. For here was yet another vivid example of how awesome we can be when we are united in solidarity. What is happening in Lewisham is happening world wide. People failed by their governments and elites uniting in solidarity to make a better life. I saw this myself in Easterhouse, Glasgow where the tenants of one of the biggest and poorest council estates in the UK created the Festival Society which gave us stunning performances transforming streets into massive theatres; that brought the holiday seaside into the centre of the community complete with deck chairs, donkeys, sand, a fun fair and sticks of their own Easterhouse rock ( a traditional seaside sweet). Easterhouse was famous because of its knife, drug and gang crime with its population repeatedly insulted and dismissed. Many commentators said it was the worse place in Britain. BUT never a comment or a glimpse of a community recognising and drawing on its endless talents and achieving great things in the midst of harsh poverty and a depressing environment ( once described by the Scottish comedian, Billy Conolly) as a “desert with windows”. No mention that they looked at their skills and found that collectively they had 57 trades which became the name of their company which took over an empty school and created workshops which in turn won major contracts for estate maintenance and repairs. No mention that they designed and built the largest outdoor mural in Britain and that contrary to mainstream sneering was never vandalised. I saw something similar in Croxteth in north Liverpool where a similar mobilisation of an impoverished community following a fight to save a school has led to the creation of network of shops, a sports centre, community university and much more in terms of groups, networks and activities. And I saw the same energies and capacities being realised in the black and Hispanic communities of Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas which created and ran health clinics in the mid 1980s.

Part of the Easterhouse Mural

There are a multitude of such initiatives globally, some of enormous importance such as the mobilisation of communities in various west African countries in their ultimately successful campaigns between 2014 and 2017 to defeat Ebola. In the Basque region of northern Spain the Mondragon Corporation founded in 1956 has become one of the largest companies in Spain, employing 81,507 workers in 2019 in 257 companies. Its core principles are co-operation and solidarity and the subservience of capital. There are so many examples to learn from! Collectively they help and sustain literally millions of people whether in co-ops, credit unions, food banks, health centres, play and sports, song, dance, theatre, village and town councils and on the streets and in our homes. And it is not just the sheer scale of what they do, but how they do it. With dignity, respect, solidarity, understanding, love and laughter; all qualities which are almost invisible in official agencies of various kinds. (I have learnt over the years that if I don’t hear laughter and don’t see smiles in organisations you need to be on alert as these tend to be bad places.)

That so little of this is ever taught in schools and colleges and given such little media attention is deliberate. So much about these public mobilisations, especially amongst those described by Fanon as the wretched of the earth fundamentally challenge the core precepts which underpin the deep inequalities of today’s world. Love trumps greed and happiness trumps wealth to put it simply. It is for good reason that authority tries to diminish, devalue and at times to destroy these grass roots activities and groups. This is especially clear in the state violence which is so often used against squatters for their violation of the sacredness accorded to private property. But there are many other examples across the spectrum where laws and statutes are dredged up or enacted to control grass root activity.

Occasionally we get some vivid examples of authority’s fears as was the case during the early 1970s when across much of the advanced capitalist world (North America, Japan and Western Europe) women, black and minorities, gays, lesbians and transgender, anti-war movements, students and school kids and other stigmatised and neglected peoples took to the streets demanding and fighting for their fundamental rights including dignity and respect. The convulsion took many forms and was constantly shifting. Authority was frightened. The elites collected in the Trilateral Commission “a mechanism for lubricating the thrust of co-operation and co-ordination between the major capitalist economies” commissioned a report on ‘The Crisis of Democracy’ undertaken by 3 conservative sociologists (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki). It was published in 1975 and is full of their pessimism and fear about the mass mobilisations underway. For them this was the crisis of democracy. There was no way they could accede to what they called a “democratic surge” because Crozier and his colleagues claimed that it would lead to “the disintegration of civil society, the breakdown of social discipline, the debility of leaders and the alienation of citizens”. Their conclusion is simple; “democratic societies cannot work when the citizenry is not passive.”

(As a brief aside it is worth noting at the time of the Report being published many in the Trilateral Commission were doubtful that they could control these movements or moderate their demands of the state. But some of their key proposals were pursued. They argued that too many schools and universities were encouraging students to question and challenge. The Trilaterals in the final analysis want obedience from their minions and not questions. This had to change. They also argued for a renewed and energetic focus on individualism with people being encouraged to see themselves foremost as consumers and not as citizens. Credit cards and consumer debt were seen as having great potential in controlling behaviour.)

The point I am trying to make is that despite the lack of attention and acknowledgement of these thousands of activities this should not be taken to mean they are not scrutinised and watched by authority. There are moments when this is all too apparent when undercover infiltration by the ‘security service’ (whose security?) is occasionally revealed. But in the main the potential challenge is handled in a vast diversity of ways. For authority generally, the activities of these autonomous movements of the people tend to be viewed as social rather than political problems. This categorisation is reinforced as so many autonomous movements have no significant links with organised politics and rarely use an overtly political vocabulary to describe or even organise their efforts. Moreover, throughout the world, those at the bottom of the social pile are all too often ignored and abandoned by mainstream political parties and groups, even those who claim to be concerned with injustice and poverty. Like, Ramsey MacDonald, one of the leaders of the British Labour Party a century ago who declared that they would never seek the support of those who lived in the slums.

So many in power fear their fellow people. Look at their private banks and strong rooms; look at where they live surrounded by fences and electronic security systems managed by private security firms and guards. Look at their expenditure on the police. Last week in Greece the government in Athens announced a record equipment budget for the police next year. Without any embarrassment or shame they were instead proud to be announcing that the increased budget would provide nearly 700 new police vehicles, nearly 2000 bullet proof vests, armoured boots and helmets plus the usual array of drones, cameras and chemical weapons. It is a budget which reveals much about the way in which the Greek state perceives its people.

Named the wall of shame, the 10 km wall separates rich and poor in Lima, Peru. The rich live amongst us, but you won’t run into them (if they can help it)

For the past 15 years I have lived in a small mountain village on the Greek frontier island of Samos. This is the place where I now stand and dig. As regular readers of Samos Chronicles will know it is place of paradoxes and horrors. We have a beautiful nature but a refugee camp that defies humanity. The majority of the people, both refugees and locals alike, experience enduring poverty, few jobs and low pay. The 12 year economic and social crisis has been crippling. Basic services have collapsed. The public buses would be museum pieces in many parts of western Europe, indeed the same could be said for most of the cars, trucks and lorries here. Their age, condition and that they comprise the majority of the vehicles on the island reveals much.

All of these issues have worsened with Covid. The Covid cases here are thankfully small but the lock-downs apply all the same with the closure of businesses and movement restrictions. Such regulations virtually wiped out the 2020 summer tourist season upon which so many depend on. Then came the devastating earthquake at the end of October 2020 which was terrifying as it was destructive. The great majority of the many who now have homes and lands to repair have no money for the work. There is no expectation that the state will come to their aid quickly. After all, it is commonplace here for newly retired workers to wait up to 3 years before they receive their pension. (There are 300,000 pension cases outstanding in Dec 2020!) Not surprisingly many here are demoralised and feeling battered; not knowing when the next blow will come or from where. They feel unprotected and extremely vulnerable.

What seems new here is not so much the disdain and distrust in the state – this has long been a feature of Greek life – but the erosion in personal confidence and capacity. Most on Samos know there will be little or no help from outside, but what is so saddening is to see young people in particular despair of their own capacity to do anything. There are, as everywhere, amazing talents amongst the people but without some sense of hope they are redundant. This is not it should be noted, the general case for the refugees here who are tireless in their efforts to survive during their detention on the island. But there is still a wide gap between many on Samos and the refugees so the possibilities for energising solidarities are still few.

We desperately need to rekindle hope. Not idle hopes that someone or other will come riding to rescue but hope about our capacity to make life better by working together. There is no other choice. Many here know this to be true but are not clear as to how to move forward and have little or no energy to act. Here we vividly see the consequences of the Greek state denying the people the opportunity to learn from their history. Very few, and almost exclusively old people, know something of the extraordinary heroism of the Greek people during the Nazi occupation of the1940s. Under the yoke of a brutal occupation the Greek people came to control most of the countryside. They found ways to feed themselves; they created schools, clinics, theatres; women were for the first time involved in elected local councils and many became celebrated partisans and resistance fighters. It is not an exaggeration to describe what was going on in occupied Greece as nothing less than a social revolution. Their so called military allies were appalled and from 1943 they worked endlessly to weaken and defeat what they considered to be a communist uprising. Arms and finances were re-directed away from the peoples’ partisan units to create a conservative counter force. The British government which at that time was the dominant external power in war time Greece was adamant that the (widely hated) Greek monarchy had to be restored and that Greece’s strategic geography meant it must remain with the West and not fall under the influence of the Soviet Union. Once the Nazis withdrew, civil war followed and with significant military support from the US and the UK the peoples’ uprising was defeated. On Samos some of the older people remember as children, the shelling of left partisan groups in the mountains by British warships. In some parts of Greece napalm was dropped on civilian populations.

Many adults fled to neighbouring countries (often communist run such as a Yugoslavia) leaving their children behind in the care of friends and relatives. These in turn were rounded up by the thousands to be ‘re-educated’ under the tutelage of queen, Frederica who with her husband had returned to Greece. As the saviour of these ‘bandit children’ she created around 54 Queens Camps charged with bringing these children back into the Greek family. For Frederica and her ’queens helpers’ these children had to learn to see their parents not as heroes of resistance and progress but as basically evil people who wanted to destroy all that was great about Greece. Lady Norton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Greece was fulsome in her praise. After visiting a Queen’s School on Leros in March 1950, she expressed admiration for the way in which it was “civilising the bandit children” by “eradicating the memory of the wild untamed years of the Civil War”. Moreover, Greece “is the only country in the world where real creative work is being done to combat the cancer of Bolshevism.” (Cited by Danforth and Boeschoten, Children of the Greek Civil War 2012, p.102).

The Greek state, to this day, works to keep this crucial period in Greek history hidden – “eradicating the memory”. It is not unique to Greece as throughout the world similar processes to remove, ignore, ridicule the efforts of the people to survive, to organise and to achieve are ever present. Time and again we see that one of the first tasks of progressive social movements is their taking control over their history; of rescuing their past, and telling their story.

As far as I am aware no state school in Greece explores this relatively recent period of tumultuous social activity and change when the people across the country in small towns and villages took control of their lives and did amazing things in extraordinary circumstances. Yet we need this kind of inspiration like never before in places like Samos where a sense of defeat and hopelessness now shadows everyday life. We need to remember what so called ordinary people can and do achieve when they come together and simply refuse to give up. We have to rip down the curtains that try to stop us from seeing, understanding and imagining. We need to open eyes as to what popular mobilisations have achieved wherever they are. They give us reason to hope with confidence. They are an under-estimated source of our power. So the more we know the better. The more we learn of these events and activities the stronger we become. The phobia of the powerful has always been the people throughout history. After all they are very few in number whereas we are billions strong. Time to rise me thinks!