Author Archives: christonysofiane

Enough! Please No More Reports Telling us the Bleeding Obvious!

 

This week another damning report from UNHCR on the atrocious conditions and treatment of refugees on the Greek islands. A few days earlier another about Lesvos. My computer is full of reports about refugees in Greece and on Samos. There seems no end to the flow.

We have some simple questions to ask of all those organisations and individuals who write and research these reports.

Firstly, why do you bother?

From where we are on Samos I can tell you that not one report has made any difference to the lives and well being of refugees here. Of course over the past decade there have been changes but these have been influenced mainly by the refugee flows to the island. Every month is bad it is just that some are worse than others.

We now wait for the reports that will tell us again, as they do year in and year out that winter preparations are virtually non existent and refugees are once more going to face even more intolerable conditions due to the winter weather. Be assured nothing much will happen. Just like last year and all preceding years.

Are those involved in these reports ignorant? Do they seriously believe that their work is going to make a difference when all before them have failed utterly to change things for the refugees? Surely they ought to know that their reports make no difference.

And just how much money is spent in these efforts? Money which we would argue could be much better used to improve the lives of those who are the subjects of their reports.

Secondly Why do so many reports fail to ask why nothing changes?

The failure to ask this question suggests a combination of factors all of which point to deeply rooted flaws in many of the sponsoring bodies. Is it the case that some of the organisations involved have as part of their funding agreements an obligation to churn out reports? Is this churning connected to their sense that this is what they do. Turn out reports? They may feel that this looks good and justifies their existence. That so few of the reports seem to have any follow up to assess their impact would suggest that they are not interested in whether they make any difference.

Not often, but occasionally I look into some of these organisations behind the Reports. Delusional is the word that most commonly comes to my mind. They tell us without shame that they seek to influence key policy makers and their organisations to bring about positive change. Do they seriously expect us to accept that such people don’t know what is going on in places such as Samos? As one organisation told me “ we aim to bring the lived experiences of refugees and displaced people in Europe directly to policy makers themselves.” Who no doubt are all ears and all too ready to act on the evidence! They also tell me of the seminars and conferences they attend to speak about their findings. And few fail to mention their intent to shape public opinion and media coverage. There is invariably a void when it comes to reporting on how their work has made life better for refugees. It is a void which speaks volumes about their ineffectiveness.

In many ways the vast majority of this activity seem to be no more than another dimension to the ‘refugee business’ – ”there’s gold in them hills”. Gold which pays for their wages, flies them into Samos or Lesvos …….. pays for their rental car and hotel and gets them back home again at the end. To stay in this business it does not pay to ask the most important questions nor even to consider that the way in which they have conceived their inquiries might be incorrect.

A Crime Against Humanity

This is what is occurring on Greece’s frontier islands and beyond. It is a crime. If the refugees were horses or dogs there would be prosecutions. Key perpetrators would be at least named and identified and some punished. But when it comes to refugees, nobody ever seems to be held to account whether it is the social worker who demands sexual favours in return for a positive asylum report; the police officers who are violent and attack refugees; the doctors who give nothing more than a paracetamol tablet for every condition they confront; the hotspot manager who does nothing about the swarms of rats in the camps; the police chief responsible for the outrageously cruel detention facilities in police stations; the people responsible for arming police with tear gas and authorising its use against refugees. The list is endless. Yes, it is a system but it is not faceless. To treat it as such creates the perfect environment for the cruel and vicious to flourish with impunity. And this is what the refugees face and have faced for years now on places like Samos and elsewhere.

I was told by one organisation that they could understand my frustration that nothing has changed despite the many reports over the past decade. But it is anger not frustration that I and many on Samos feel. It is common knowledge that the situation is shit upon shit. The case has been made. We don’t need or want more reports telling us.

Instead we need and demand reports that ask the right questions about why nothing changes. Where does the money go? Who makes key decisions? What are their names? We need to see people held to account for their unlawful behaviours.

Enough of this madness.

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Bahaa al Saaor : We will never forget you.

“It is Wednesday August 1st 2018.

What words can describe our feelings as we wait on the border between Syria and Turkey. We were all dreaming about freedom and hoping to be safe and to continue our life without fear.

The time is 12:00 in the night. This is the time when we start our travel.

The smuggler shouted ” come on, come on ”
Our group is 9 men and one woman with her child.

We get to the top of the mountain then we waited to get an order to move again.
The smuggler said to us that we must wait some time. Me and my cousin Bahaa, were sitting together and in that time we waited we started to share our dreams of being out of Syria and far from war. It was beautiful to see the lights below us from the first village in Turkey; to see light and not just the darkness.

After two hours we got an order to move, walking without any voices or noises to the separation wall between Syria and Turkey.

We arrived at the separation wall after a hard walk between the big rocks, through trees and thorns. We then climbed the wall one by one. We thought it was the last dangerous thing we would have to do that night but the suffering started after the wall.

We were met on the other side of the wall by a new smuggler and in a sharp tone he said to us “run and run quickly, run don’t stop running”. We couldn’t stop running even for one minute.

After two hours running we heard shouting in a strange language. We couldn’t understand it and there were also dogs barking at us. We stopped.

The Turkish army had captured us.
They asked: who are you?
We said: we are people, escaping from war and from death.

They didn’t understand what we said and ordered us to lie down on the ground with our hands behind our heads then the dogs started biting us in bad way.

A little while later a monster came in the shape of a man and approached us. He took my cousin and moved away from the group but we could still see and hear them both. This monster tormented Bahaa with the ugliest methods.

After half an hour of torture he did not stop his cruelty.
He ordered Bahaa to turn his face to the other side and then moved away from him, no more than a metre away. Then he shot him with two bullets.

Those two bullets settled in that body, which had suffered years of siege, hunger and fatigue.

From his great hatred he did not kill him but left him tormented in pain to die in front of us.

Then he told the other soldiers to take us and Bahaa back to Syrian territory and throw us there.

I think it was the best thing this monster did in his life to bring Bahaa back to Syria to cleanse it with his pure, oppressed blood.”

Written by Saad Abdullah)

Fundamentally Flawed: The realities of the Mental Health Crisis for Refugees on Samos

Four days ago Ahmad was dumped on again. This time it was a social worker with an assistant who arrived at his house with a young man from Afghanistan. This 23 year old refugee had taken an overdose. He was completely out of it. Barely able to walk or talk he had been taken to the hospital, on foot, but according to the social worker there was no psychiatrist in the hospital. So they walked to Ahmad’s house and asked him to look after the young guy until the morning, when they would return and take him to the hospital. The social worker said if he should cause any difficulty he should call the police who would take him to the cell.

Ahmad is a refugee from Syria who has been on the island for over two years. He is well known amongst the refugees and the refugee agencies. He helps out doing many things. The social worker knew that she had a good chance that Ahmad would help. As he said, what choice did he have even though he was very unhappy. “If something bad happened to this guy it would be on my shoulders. But if I refused he would be locked in the cell. This would be terrible for him.”

So along with some friends they took him in and tried to settle him down. They made him drink salt water which made him vomit but “cleaned his stomach” and they sat with him and made sure he didn’t hurt himself. “He talked as if very drunk and we knew that he was suicidal and desperate. Fortunately by the next morning he felt well enough to go back to his place in the camp. The social worker never returned.”

This was no isolated incident. According to Ahmad these events are regular. This is not surprising. It was not so long ago that MSF published a damning report of the mental health crisis in the camps on Lesbos and Samos (Reporting on a Catastrophe: Mental Health Crisis of Refugees on Samos and Lesvos, MSF, October 2017). There can be no disputing that the situation facing the refugees on the frontier islands is profoundly threatening to their physical and mental health. Some can survive the onslaught. Others not and in a wide variety of ways they turn the inhumanity they experience in on themselves whether its alcohol, drugs, self harming, crazy behaviours or paralysing depression. And as Ahmad notes it is largely the other refugees who do what they can to support and help those who are suffering.

Not Trusted, Not Competent

I wanted to know more. Much of what Ahmad told me came as no surprise. Despite the epidemic of psychological despair in the Camp there are virtually no services. The psychiatrist in the hospital is overwhelmed and with few exceptions, many of the social workers and psychologists are next to useless. But more importantly, Ahmad said that generally the refugees did not trust these people. They don’t like the fact that the primary medical intervention is tablets – sedatives – even for traumatised young children. Many get thrown away. They see that most of the social workers and psychologists have no understanding either of their culture and backgrounds or the refugee trauma. Above all, Ahmad complained, many of these people show no respect for the religions and beliefs of the refugees. Women refugees with mental health problems were especially vulnerable. He told me that many would never go to seek external help and suffered out of sight in their tents and containers. Yet again refugees, both women and men, talk of not being able to trust the interpreters, especially in cases of sexual violence and abuse.

These factors alone make the possibility of any effective therapeutic intervention virtually impossible. As far as Ahmad is aware the welfare workers have had no training or education about how to work with refugees from diverse cultures. Above all so many are simply not up to the job. They simply lack experience. Even the most veteran social workers and psychologists would be challenged by the extreme problems presented by the refugees. But on Samos these welfare workers have neither professional supervision nor are they offered access to welfare workers who are familiar and experienced in dealing with the mental health problems confronting refugees. Such resources are widely available in the world today. But as Ahmad points out the camp authorities are not interested. And, he added, they would never think that they might learn something from the refugees themselves who are doing so much to help. In such a context, MSF’s demand to increase psychological resources in the Camps is not sufficient without considering the kinds of resources needed. Simply more of the same is not what is needed.

I asked Ahmad how he understood the behaviours of the psychologists and social workers. Why for example do they not press for the right kind of support that could help them be more effective? How can a social worker just dump a person clearly in crisis? He thought there were many factors which varied from individual to individual. There were some he said who tried to do their best and were humane and kind. Many more he said seemed to be confused about their job. As Ahmad rightly notes psychological reports are used in the asylum process. So many refugees go to a psychologist in the hope they will write a compelling report outlining their traumas and problems which in turn they hope will positively influence their applications. Just how significant they are is unknown but this is what the refugees believe. However, Ahmad noted that when refugees go to the psychologist searching for help with their mental health difficulties some have been told by the psychologist that they cannot help as this is not their job. Their task is to compile reports not offer treatment.

Most of them he continued, seemed obsessed with ‘the rules’. They could only do what the rules (whatever they are, as they are never explained) allowed. Rules seem to dominate them. They seemed scared to challenge in any way, he said. But there again if the psychologists and social workers are out of their depth, and maybe aware of their own short-comings, it is perhaps not so surprising that they fall back on the rules to justify their role.

Abuse

But as Saad pointed out there is one area where some of these workers are prepared to break the rules: sex. He told me many stories of how refugees, both men and women by agreeing to have sex with a social worker or psychologist were able to pass through the Camp quickly, get their papers, and even be given a good place to stay when they got to Athens. And he said there were also examples where refugees who refused to have sex found themselves facing problems such as being rejected for asylum. Whilst preparing this article I discovered that a good friend from Syria who managed to get to Germany clandestinely earlier this year had such an experience. He refused to have sex with the psychologist and he ended up with 2 rejections and was facing possible deportation to Turkey. For this reason he was forced to go underground to get out of Samos. (He now has asylum in Germany.) On reading a draft of this article, Saad replied as follows: “I say thanks again for writing about this. I think many know about this problem but they say nothing. People around the world need to know what is happening to us and how important it is for refugees to have a strong dick or a good body if they want to get asylum and be out of the Camp quickly.”

The time has long past for this abusive behaviour to be thoroughly investigated and stopped. But as ever, we expect nothing.

There is still a big story to be told about the ‘rules’ framework that dominates refugee policy and practice in Samos and Greece. We know that the Greek state has demanded obedience to its authority from all who are involved with refugees whether individual volunteers or global NGOs. MSF when it was on Samos made all their paid workers sign an incredibly lengthy contract in which they promised at all times to obey the Greek authorities and never to disclose any information arising from their work. Such contracts are the norm here. Obedience is the main pre-condition for their involvement. But given the incompetence of the state agencies why do so many grant them their compliance? It cannot be said that there is no evidence to support the terrible consequences (for the refugees) of their enduring failures. The acceptance of the rules regime almost defies explanation.

It is profoundly disturbing. For example Ahmad explained that none of the agencies and their workers feel any need to justify their decisions or practices. “All we get told is that is the rule. No more.” The decisions of the Camp Manager can never be challenged. She is the boss. “What she says is the law”. The rules regime provides the framework within which power goes unchallenged: no questions are allowed or encouraged. From what Ahmad has observed too many of the workers are prepared to tolerate this work environment and are all too ready to hide behind the regime of rules. But we should not assume that all the workers accept this state of affairs. Sadly we have seen few signs internal opposition. Interestingly, the police federation has been one of the exceptions and has periodically complained about the stresses facing their members such as detaining refugees in the police cell which is a total horror story.

The kinds of criticism raised by refugees such as Ahmad and Saad are intended to make life better for the refugees and indeed for those working with them. To reach better policies and practices we must in part learn from the mistakes of the current system; from top to bottom. This is why it is so important that those employed in the ‘refugee business’ should find ways to speak out and share their experiences. That they have no whistle-blower protections here means that we have to explore and create channels of communication that will offer safety.

Ahmad’s and Saad’s words are important.

They remind us that services and interventions which are not appropriate are worse than useless. They remind us that a total reliance on wholly western psychological /social work practices and theories are also worse than useless and can deepen problems. They remind us that amongst the refugees there are many talents and human resources which are brought to bear both to understand what they face and to find ways of coping with daily life in and around the Camp. They remind us that for all the money spent by the EU to supposedly provide appropriate services for the refugees, that it is the refugees themselves who are carrying the burden of the mental health disasters in the Camps. And finally, they remind us where unchallenged authority is exercised in a context of massive inequalities of power as is the case with refugees and the agencies, then abuse of many kinds flourishes.

July 2018

(With thanks to Tony, Ahmad, Saad, Sofiane, Misk, and Mohammad for their help.)

A New Nightmare: Picked up in the Aegean and Returned to Syria

Saad Abdllah

For the past ten days I have been waiting for news from Mohammad. Like me he comes from Aleppo but for the past 6 years he has been with his mother and brother living in Istanbul. Mohammad is 18 years old.

We became friends through Facebook where he saw that I was involved with many refugees in Athens and in Samos. He had read my story in the Samos Chronicles. As a young gay man he turned to me for advice and help which I was happy to give. Over the past six months we have talked a lot and a good friendship has developed. I know that he trusts me.

For Mohammad his determination to leave Turkey and to seek a life in Europe was decided when his bosses refused to pay him. After three months of working in factory manufacturing textiles he went to his boss and asked to be paid. They refused. Even after much pleading they still refused and told him to go. They would never pay him and if he didn’t like it he should go to the police. This is what he did. But the police told him that without papers they could and would do nothing. Mohammad again pressed them, asking them to go to the factory where they could meet the people he worked alongside who could tell the police how he had worked there for three months. But they took no notice. They did nothing.

For Mohammad this was the final straw. He would leave Turkey and come to Greece. As he told me he wanted to be a human being with rights. He would no longer be a slave or be treated as garbage. We started to discuss options. I told him that he should come as quickly as possible to Athens and together we could sort out the next steps. I thought the fastest way would be to come through Evros in the north of Greece and then travel down to Athens where I was ready to care for him. But he was shy about this idea. He only had 400 euros. He did not want to be a burden on me. So he decided that the best way for him was to go down to Izmir and find a smuggler to get him to one of the Greek islands. He told me that by going to the islands first he would at least get some help with accommodation and food.

These were tense days for me waiting to know what was happening to Mohammad. For over a week I heard nothing from him. Then came his call. He was not in Greece but in Idlib province in Syria. I was completely shocked. As for Mohammad he was crying and crying. Very very upset.

In Izmir he had found a smuggler to take him for 400 euros. But they had not long left the shore when they were caught by the Turkish coastguard who returned them to Izmir. Then he was in the prison for 6 days. The police then came and handcuffed all the people he had been travelling with and loaded them onto a bus. Of course, he said, people were asking their guards what is happening, where are you taking us. But their only reply was a beating. “So we were silenced and scared. After many hours we were eventually put into cars, still handcuffed. The next thing we knew they were releasing us not far from a small town. Then they told us we were free to go and that we were now inside Idlib province in Syria”.

At no point did they meet anyone who could help . No lawyers came to the prison. The police took their Turkish papers and destroyed them. “One of the young guys with us kept pleading with the police to let him go back to his elderly mother. But all he got was a beating. I was very frightened”.

Mohammad is devastated to find himself in this position. He is back in Syria but in an area where war still rages; where the Free Army and Daesh roam the streets and which is simply not safe.

As he had no family nor friends in this province it was the solidarity from those he travelled with that found him a place in a family home. There is not much space but at least he feels safe for the moment. He hopes to find a smuggler who can take him back to Turkey. But I am afraid for him as the border is now harder to cross and the Turkish border guards are shooting and killing those trying to cross. I have heard many stories about this bad situation around the Turkish border near Idlib but this is the first time I have heard about refugees who are trying to cross to the Greek islands being returned to Syria in this way.

Now all I can do is to wait for news from Mohammad. I write his story because I want his situation known. What has happened to him is wrong and I am sure it is not legal under international law. I know that Turkey is unlikely to be punished. But as a refugee I know that many of us only survive because we help one another and get the best help from those so called ordinary people in the streets who we meet as try to get to a safe place. These are the people I want to reach out to. Not governments.

Still Here: Samos Refugees June 2018

The recent silence of this blog does not imply nothing is happening with 2,335 refugees currently on Samos. We should have written earlier. In our silence we unwittingly supported the forgetting of the refugees detained on the Greek frontier islands such as Samos. This forgetting is an insidious process. For the refugees it compounds their sense of isolation and abandonment.

Lunacy and Profits

It is difficult to describe adequately the cruelties and inhumanities embedded in the reception and detention systems based on the frontier islands. The fact that refugees have to risk their lives and spend vast amounts to make the short journey from Turkey is simply outrageous when there are regular daily ferry crossings at around 30 -50 Euros per head. For the authorities safe passage is a total non starter. As far as they are concerned safe passage would open the gates to waves of refugees. Their stated objective as exemplified by the ever expanding European border force, Frontex, is about hardening and patrolling borders making it ever more difficult and expensive for refugees to get out of Turkey and into Europe. In 2015 Frontex had 300 guards which has risen to 1500 guards in 2015. In May this year the EU Commission announced its plan to create a standing corps of 10,000 guards which is to be up and running by 2027. In 2006 the Frontex annual budget was 19 million Euros. By 2011 it was 118 millions and in 2016, 232 million Euros. And on it goes with seemingly no limit. The EU Commission announced in May that it will increase the budget on ‘external borders, migrant and refugee flows from 13 to 34 billion Euros by 2027 which is the biggest proposed spending increase within the entire EU.

Frontex Guards

And for the refugees? What can they expect? Not much when out of the total of EU resources for refugee policy, 46% goes on securing borders, 16% to send them back and just 17% on the refugees themselves (2014 figures).

All of this makes for joyous times to those who profit from surveillance and the hard ware from ships to drones and who can confidently predict a rosy future. They will never succeed in stopping the flow any more than the EU/Turkey pact of 2016 has stopped the refugees from getting to the frontier islands. They might be effective in reducing the numbers and in closing some routes, but hell will freeze over before they can prevent entry into Europe. But what the hell. The ever shifting relationship between the refugees and the European authorities simply justifies ever more costly inappropriate and ultimately ineffective strategies.

The big players in Europe’s border security complex include arms companies Airbus, Finmeccanica,
Thales and Safran, as well as technology giant Indra. Finmeccanica and Airbus have been particularly prominent winners of EU contracts aimed at strengthening borders. Airbus is also the number one winner of EU security research funding contracts

Finmecannica, Thales and Airbus, prominent players in the EU security business are also three of the top four European arms traders, all active selling to countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Their total revenues in 2015 amounted to 95 billion euros

(https://reliefweb.int/report/world/border-wars-arms-dealers-profiting-europe-s-refugee-tragedy)

Deliberate Cruelties

Virtually all of the top five asylum producing countries for the EU are on the visa black list (the exception is Albania). These are: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Albania and Pakistan (according to FRONTEX 20 January 2015). There are EU and/or national sanctions on carriers such as airlines and ferry companies of €5,000 at least for each passenger they bring to the EU without proper documentation (including a valid passport and visa). There are no EU delegations open in Syria which issue visas. So instead of paying the €30 which EU citizens hand over for a day trip from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands or the other way around, Syrians have to pay smugglers according to latest calculations more than US$ 1,000 per person for a dangerous and sometimes fatal trip. This is simply because no authorised carrier will accept refugees without passports or visas or both.

(https://www.opendemocracy.net/digitaliberties/elspeth-guild/surveillance-and-2015-16-refugee-crisis-in-europe)

From the very beginning of their contact with Europe the refugees arriving on the frontier islands are not welcome arrivals. They have not come ‘legally’. The tone is set. The island hotspots look like and are open prison camps.

The problem for the refugees on Samos and on all the frontier islands is that such barbarity is deliberate. It is a key element of the European deterrence objective. The Hotspots/Camps they argue should minimally sustain but no more, or they would attract more unwanted arrivals. The consequences are well known as countless reports from countless bodies have made clear. But nothing changes fundamentally. No one bears any consequence or is held to account for the shortcomings and abuses such reports reveal. There are no refugee champions amongst those who have any say in determining policy or practice. Although there are some individual police and other officials well down the pecking order of power who try to make a difference. But this is becoming less common as police are drafted in from both Greece and other EU countries on short rotations which inhibit any meaningful relationships with the refugees.

Until the 2016 EU/Turkey pact, camps on the frontier islands were primarily transit points. The refugees were moved on to the mainland, many within weeks of their arrival and the majority after 3 months. During 2014/15 when arrivals were at their hight refugees were being moved on within 24-72 hours. Now many are detained for 2 years or more on the island. They are not allowed to move on. Tourists can now forget their dreamy ideas of Greek islands as being laid-back, with music and welcoming locals at the ports greeting them. On Samos at least, ferry departures are distasteful events involving armed and tooled up ninja turtle like police checking lorries and vans and plain clothes police mingling with the departing passengers pulling out those who remotely look like a refugee. Samos is a prison island for refugees.

And this is set to continue. On April 17th 2018 the Council of State (the supreme court of Greece) declared that the detention of refugees on the islands of Lesvos, Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos is void. In its majority ruling it said that “the practice of indiscriminate imposition of the geographical restriction, initially by the Police and then by the Asylum Service, against every newly arrived person on the islands since the launch of the EU-Turkey Statement has led to a significant overcrowding, whereby people have been obliged to reside for prolonged periods in overcrowded facilities, where food and water supply is insufficient, sanitation is poor and security highly problematic”. (http://www.asylumineurope.org/news/17-04-2018/greece-council-state-annuls-geographical-restriction-asylum-seekers-islands?)

The EU response was immediate. This was not acceptable. Refugees had to be kept on the islands and processed there. Onward passage to the mainland was to be dependent on a successful asylum application. Otherwise deportation. On no account do the EU authorities want them on the mainland where some of the refugees have more opportunities to move clandestinely, on into Europe. In contrast to almost any other area of policy the Syriza Government took almost immediate action to restore the restrictions by issuing on April 20th an administrative order which annulled the Council of State decision. Even by Greek standards such a decision to ignore the supreme court’s ruling is of massive significance in terms of the relationship between the legislature and the judiciary. Moreover, it was not achieved by new legislation debated in parliament but but through an administrative order. But then of course the subject is refugees which might explain the muted response to such an important and dangerous development.

A New and Bigger Camp

In a further consolidation of this policy the Greek government announced at the end of May 2018 that the camps on the islands are to be expanded, and in the case of Samos, moved from its present location near the main town. In addition a new prison would be built for those who have been unsuccessful in their asylum bid and are to be deported.

Nothing is ever certain in Greece so whether these decisions will result in any action remains to be seen. But what is certain is that there are no plans to change the policy of island detention.

Not surprisingly the recent announcements about expanding and re-developing the camps on the frontier islands has met with immediate opposition from the local authorities. Singularly and collectively the respective mayors of the islands affected have condemned the decision which flies directly in the face of their demands that the islands must be de-congested (of refugees). The response by the mayor of Samos on June 4th 2018 is shared by all the frontier islands and unlike in the past he draws on the suffering of the refugees in the existing facilities as a significant reason for de-congestion and, for good reason thinks that there is every possibility that any new expanded camps would continue to be places of hardship and inhumanity for the refugees. Given the long standing antagonism towards refugees by Michalis Angelopoulis, the mayor of Samos, this is just the latest example of his unprincipled exploitation of any issue which he believes will strengthen his case.

These factors now sit alongside their longer standing arguments that the presence of refugees has damaged tourism – their biggest source of income – and adversely affected the local population whose tolerance has been pushed to its limit. Ironically, the Samos mayor acknowledged the government’s decision to move the existing camp away from its close proximity to the centre of the island’s capital as at least giving legitimacy to his long-standing and untrue claim that the camp has placed an intolerable strain on the residents of Samos town. The irony lies in the fact that the ‘refugee business’ is the biggest single year round economic activity in Samos town. It accounts for the employment of hundreds or people. Who in turn spend money in the town including hotel accommodation and the like. Then there is the far more limited spending power of the refugees, but when numbered in thousands bring considerable returns to local shops and supermarkets. The majority of refugees are buying basic food stuffs to supplement and transform the meals provided in the camp. Spices and fresh vegetables can and do make the unpalatable edible. The possibility that the camp will be removed to some remote spot on the island is going to have a profound negative impact on the economic well being of Samos town. And as for the refugees where will they shop, where will they be able to wander around a town like any normal human being, how will they access the money transfer businesses vital to so many and so on?

As is common here the idea to move and enlarge the camp in a more remote area has simply not been thought through and such thoughtlessness will bear down hard on the refugees. For example, the refugees get their medical care from the only hospital on the island. It is one and half kilometres from the camp. It will be disastrous for the refugees to be moved further away from such a vital resource especially on an island which at the moment has just 2 working ambulances.

Islanders and Refugees

Whatever the mayor claims about the stresses on the local population as a result of the refugee presence, it is the case on Samos at least, there is no evidence to support the notion that there is such a problem. Unlike Chios and Lesbos there has been no noticeable growth in racist or fascist responses against the refugees. There is Samos SOS, of which we wrote about earlier, which does it best to foretell doom and despair as the islanders are islamicised but such claims are more likely to invoke laughter rather than anger. Instead what is daily evident is that refugees are just another aspect of life in the town who like others do their shopping, walk by the sea, play with their children on the swings and roundabouts, sit in the platias and town garden with their friends, swim and fish. There is no evident tension. Neither refugees nor locals display any unease by the others presence. And as for the tourists from northern Europe there is nothing unusual about seeing the kind of ethnic diversity which is both common and more extensive in their cities than on Samos.

Refugees have been easy targets for blaming the problems confronting tourism on Samos. There has been no focus on the multi-national tour operators who determine the flights and destinations. Without any local consultation or any accountability, they decided that refugees would make islands such as Samos unattractive to their customers and so reduced their charter flights and hotel bookings. There have never been refugees on the south side of the island where many of the biggest tourist facilities are located. Even in 2014/15 many tourists would never have encountered a single refugee. The refugees are concentrated overwhelmingly in Samos town and are rarely seen in Kokari or Pythagorio the 2 principal tourist centres on the island.

That relationships between the locals and refugees in Samos town are neither fraught nor tense owes much to the refugees. Now that the refugees are here for such long periods increasingly locals recognise that they bring to the town a vitality that was not there before, especially outside the summer season. Laughing children in the playgrounds draw smiles and bring joy. Eating falafel and hummus in the town square is celebrated rather than condemned as some underhand cultural challenge. Of course it is not all sunshine and light and the refugees can tell you of the bars, shops, hairdressers and gyms which will not serve them.

Without question many islanders are suffering badly. But this has nothing to do with the presence of refugees. It is the never ending economic and social crises which have and continue to devastate the lives of so many islanders. This is as much a humanitarian disaster as that of the refugees. Needless to say the multi national tour operators who turn the tap on and off with respect to tourism have exploited this by paying wages which can not sustain a worker and demand working hours in excess of 50 hours per week. At the end of May 2018, Keep Talking Greece, reported that 30% of workers in the private sector were paid below 365 Euros a month (which is the level of unemployment benefit for the minority who are eligible).

Children

As we have written before, the big story that never gets attention is why the Samos camp has not exploded. The presence of so many police and guards of all kinds in the town; the parked up buses with riot police regularly seen near the camp all indicate the authorities’ awareness that they are managing and sustaining a powder keg. Of course there is no short or simple answer to why apart from some relatively minor disturbances that the camp has not descended into chaos and protest.

The following observations provide some clues. Go to the camp and one is immediately aware of the very large numbers of children running around and playing with their friends.

Children in the Camp

They are everywhere and those under 12 years old now account for around 30% of the camp’s inhabitants. Despite the grim conditions in and around the camp the sight and sounds of so many children playing have an uplifting effect. For many refugees their concern over their children’s safety and future drove them from their homes. They thirst to see their children safe and happy and turn away from actions which might threaten them. And the fact that women account for 21% of the refugees here is also a factor in the avoidance of violent and destructive actions. There must be times when some of the young men might want to burn the camp down but the presence of so many children and babies makes such a prospect appalling. Of course, that is not to say that such desperate actions will never happen.

As noted earlier, easy access into the town functions as an important safety valve. The camp is open and there is no reason to stay inside the camp 24/7. In the town and on the beaches they can pass their time. Many make use of the Alpha Centre which is run by the Samos Volunteers for the refugees.

Alpha Centre

In a large building near to the bottom gate to the camp refugees can meet together to drink tea, use the wi fi and attend a wide range of classes and activities. It is amazing to see the fluency in English that some have achieved through these classes. And importantly, a number of these activities and lessons draw on the talents and experiences of the refugees themselves who now lead or assist with their delivery.

Many of the refugees are busy. Some are incredibly busy! They play a huge role in sustaining life and morale in the camp. Those who are fluent (enough) in English are in great demand to accompany refugees to the hospital which has no translator. Most of the doctors speak English so they can manage. Very few refugees learn Greek as they have no intention of staying in this country once they get their papers. Virtually every interaction with the camp authorities needs an interpreter and refugees have learnt it is better for them to have someone doing this who they trust and who knows them.

But as much as we laud the resilience and creativity of the refugees we cannot ignore the pain and depression which damages so many refugees. Deep depression is ever present with all its painful consequences. To survive as a human being in these conditions is a huge challenge.

Disdain

One of the biggest flaws which has characterised refugee policy and action in Greece over decades has been the absence of any constructive engagement with the refugees. This is all the more clueless now refuges are stuck for years in camps all over Greece and have the time to be more involved. As Saad pointed out in nearly one year in the Samos camp he was never asked for his opinion on anything. No psychologist or social worker ever asked him if knew of anyone who needed their help. Yet the refugees often know well who amongst them is struggling. In its various forms this lack of engagement, and here we would include most of the NGOs, portrays a fundamental disdain of the refugees.

But in its absence the refugees in a myriad of ways make their lives better. Those who can cut hair set up their workplaces. Cooking groups abound where evening meals are cooked and shared. Artists paint and draw. Nails are manicured. And so on with the spaces filled by Facebook and Whatsap. With a little bit of imagination and most importantly trust in and respect for the refugees life even in these appalling open prisons could be so much better. It is unlikely to happen but we can still dream.

Finally in trying to understand why there are so few explosions within the camp we should not forget that the police and the army are in their midst. They carry guns. They have tear gas and batons. And in Greece as we all know, they will use violence without much provocation.

WAIT

“I hate this word. I have come to really hate this word. Because it is killing me.” Assad 23 years old from Syria speaks for the overwhelming majority of refugees in Greece. Sometimes we are not careful in our choice of words. But if we to listen to the words of thousands of refugees stuck in Greece then we need to recognise that the endless waiting endured by the refugees demands to be described accurately; it is a cruel form of torture.

There are many casualties. Our friend from Morocco for example who lived with us for four months has been driven crazy. He stripped off all his clothes and ran round the central square in Samos town waving his arms like a bird. He is now in a psychiatric hospital. Then there are our friends from Syria who went back to Turkey in utter frustration at the delays and waiting – over 14 months – on Samos only to find themselves in a worse position. Their close and loving relationship has fractured under the pressure. Their current plight is dire. We have a Somalian friend who fled from a violent relationship in Turkey leaving behind her 4 year old son. This is now 2 years ago. She told the authorities her story and how important it was to get her son from the father who does not now want him. Her son is now 6 and still in Turkey. Our friend does not even have a date for an asylum interview. Whenever she asks she is told ‘ no news’ you must wait. Ahmad’s long standing partner could not cope with waiting in Athens and after 16 months set off on his own to find a way into northern Europe. He is now stuck in the central Balkans, alone and depressed. Ahmad on the other hand similarly depressed by not being with his love waits but only to find out last week that his asylum interview will be in June 2019 and this is being fast-tracked so he should count himself lucky!

Your life in many respects stops. You lose control over key areas of your life. You can’t plan. One friend from Syria managed to secure a scholarship worth $30,000 a year for 3 years to study in the USA. He has lost it to the wait and no decision. A few like Ahmad have a date fixed but for the majority they don’t even have an appointment. So they wait. There is no warning when a decision on asylum or detention on the island will be reached. There is a continual uncertainty. You hope, you despair, you go from moment to moment, as maybe tomorrow ………? Many turn in on themselves. You quickly get to know those who get decisions and how long they have been here. You wonder how some get quick decisions and you not. Is there a problem? Have I done something wrong? It is an environment that generates gossip and innuendo. Waiting in the dark like this corrodes well being. It is cruel.

And there is no light on the horizon. Hoped for destination countries such as Germany are deliberately slowing down their refugee polices including family re-unification and relocation. There is no mystery as to motive. The waiting has become an embedded aspect of Europe’s deterrence approach. There may be little evidence to show it deters arrivals but there is growing evidence that it encourages refugees to give up their European dream and return to their countries especially when a small financial inducement is included.

The Greek frontier islands such as Samos have become prison islands for the refugees. Most are here for months and many for over a year. And it goes on. All of the Mayors on these islands are unhappy and kick out at being places of indefinite detention and consistently refuse central government’s demands that they develop their facilities. Maybe these Mayors will succeed but the outline of the intended policy becomes ever clearer. Refugees are increasingly going to be kept in Greece even if not on the islands. The EU and its constituent members, albeit unevenly are all moving in this direction. Hold the refugees in Greece: here and no further except for a tiny number.

But in these fields of grief there are many miracles that often go unnoticed. Despite the wait the overwhelming majority of the refugees continue to endure and do not collapse in the face of such cruelty. They surely suffer but they also resist. Friendship networks play a huge role in keeping people sane. We have spent hours in friends’ rooms drinking tea and talking and talking. Shisha helps too and if you have a good pipe you will never be short of friends. Laughing, playing and talking together, with children, family and friends is critical. And not least these friends can be a source of walking companions. When you have no money you tend to walk a lot. When your accommodation is uncomfortable you walk even more! Many of our friends talk about walking as a way of relaxation. Certainly it can help you sleep and nothing is better at eating away the hours than sleep. And for those fleeing war there is the relief to walk without fear.

The most cursory glance at the many survival strategies operating could not ignore the role of the ubiquitous smart phones. Again of massive value not only for keeping in contact with distant friends and families and your home country but also for passing the time, watching movies, playing games, flirting and choosing images for your profile picture. (These seem to change regularly and often reflect the person’s current mood.)

All the refugees we know have no money other than the small monthly allowance they receive from UNHCR. For single people in the camp this is around 90 euros a month; slightly higher for families. If housed outside the camp, which is the case for many in Athens then the sum is 150 euros a month and from this your are expected to feed yourself. In Greece you always know when you are in an area with a lot of refugees because of the presence of money exchange offices, especially Western Union and MoneyGram. These companies make money out of refugees. But without the remittances sent by (usually hard pressed relatives and friends) many would be utterly destitute and hungry.

Their poverty means that their survival strategies are without significant costs, hence the walking, visiting friends and sleeping. On Samos, there is also the fishing and in the summer, swimming. The weather plays a big part and the winter months are much harder to endure if the weather is bad. The desperate poverty of some push them towards much more ambiguous and often hazardous behaviours including petty crime and also what has come to be called survival sex involving both boys/men and girls/women. That there are so many Greeks all too willing to take advantage of these vulnerabilities says much about Greek society but that is another story.

The survival strategies are many and varied and stretch across a wide range of activities. Many pass up and down this range depending on their circumstances and mood. Forged out of necessity and a long way from what might be considered normal everyday activities, the majority of refugees escape the psychiatric ward, and the hell of drug and alcohol addictions. They are never unscathed but neither are they defeated.

But these miracles can never be taken for granted. As the wait gets ever longer; as they never get any information about their own applications nor about the context generally the stress levels will inevitably build. They see the hundreds of people who work in the Samos camp and the long line of their vehicles stretching along the lane which leads to the gate. Quite understandably they ask what are all they doing? Why with so many people are we watching months turn into years? No answers. Never any answer other than wait.

It takes no sharp intelligence to predict that we are going to see increases in suicides, self-harm, anger, frustration…… and many feel that the big question now is not if the camps will blow up but more when. But we have also learnt never to under-estimate the capacities and intelligence of the refugees. And we know that the violence of the state should also not be under-estimated. As the camps simmer the authorities and front line agencies continue to dig in. We have a lot more police in Samos Town now with more gear, buses and para military style vehicles. The agencies in the camp have now put fences and guarded gates around their offices. Employees of the notorious GS4 ‘security’ company now stand guard at these gates. Without an appointment you won’t get in. And all these smaller compounds are already within the fenced and guarded camp! It is a prison, with prison design and prison regulations. But it is refugees who live here; not criminals. And what is frightening some of us now is that the endless feeding of negative stereotypes of the refugees is creating the kind of hostile atmosphere which would tolerate a violent repression if the camps did ever truly explode. The many children in the camp will not offer any protection should this happen.

It is of critical importance that the human beings currently detained on the islands and on the Greek mainland are not forgotten. For if they are forgotten and pushed into the background as a regrettable footnote so the darkness will deepen which in turn will open the doors for greater violence and cruelty. The refugees here confront power far greater themselves. Until and unless there is a massive public outcry at these cruelties the nightmare will continue.

Fatima and Ahmad

On Tuesday morning I said goodbye to Fatima. At least for the time being. Some time tonight or in the early morning tomorrow she will be taken from Samos to Lesvos and from there to a closed camp in Turkey. As always accurate information is hard to come by if you are a refugee. When I asked the police officer this morning when she would be leaving he replied that he didn’t know yet.

Fatima expected to go Turkey a week ago. Last Monday the police told her that she had to leave her room and come down to the police station with her bags. We went together first having dropped off the keys to her place at the Arsis office. (Arsis is a Greek NGO which acts for UNCHR on housing issues on Samos.) It was all very emotional as she said goodbye to the other refugees who lived nearby as well to the workers in the Arsis centre who had been significant in supporting her over the past 7 months. All her hopes and dreams of finding a new, safe life in Europe had been shattered.

Fatima was kindly met at the police headquarters and unlike the other refugees (men) she was not put in the police cell to await deportation. After 30 minutes however she was told that she would not be leaving for Lesvos the next day and that it could be another week before she was deported. The police did not want the hassle of caring for Fatima for this week and quite rightly told her she would be better off staying in her room and to come back in a week. As one of the duty officers said to me the police cell was a terrible place to be, not least for a single woman. Moreover Fatima posed no risk of escape from Samos.

But for Fatima, the delay was distressing. Fortunately Arsis immediately said that she could return to her house and they took her and her bags back.

So it was that we returned to the police on Monday. This time it was planned that she would leave for Lesvos some time during Tuesday afternoon/night. I went to see her on the Tuesday morning to take her coffee and some breakfast and to say goodbye. As usual I had to be checked in, showing my passport. And for the past month you now have to pass an armed police man on the door who holds some kind of machine gun. Drip drip the screws keep turning. But of course I say nothing. There are no guidelines/rights concerning visiting people held in the police station. You rely on the mood of the police who determine whether you can get in or not.

When I arrived I found her in the reception area, not in the cell and quickly learnt that this was where she spent her entire time. She had been given 4 grey blankets to make her bed on the floor by the chairs in the open reception area. No privacy, no tranquillity. There was a toilet but no shower or washing facilities. The breakfast she had been given was untouched. In a small plastic bag there were 4 pieces of stale bread and 2 small portions of strawberry jam. Inedible.

It was impossible for her to sleep. Not only were there police moving around her ‘bed’ all night, the shouting from the ‘prisoners’ in the cell which is at the other end of the reception area kept her awake. Then she witnessed a refugee being brought in who had cut his arms and there was blood and screaming before he was taken off to the hospital, but only to be returned a few hours later with his arms bandaged and locked up in the cell. It beggars belief that a young man who had self harmed should be detained and abandoned in such a hell hole.

Fatima was desperate for some company not only to get by during her stay in the police station but also to share her deep anxieties about returning to Turkey. So we were both upset and dismayed when after 30 minuted the officer in charge called me over and said I had to leave. My time was up.

Now it is 7.45 am on Wednesday 13th December and for the last hour Fatima and I have been exchanging whatsap messages. They took her and 2 others at 3.30am and she is now en route to Lesvos. She has no idea of how long she will be held there before going on to Turkey. I don’t think she has eaten or slept since Monday morning. She is exhausted and frightened.

Fatima does not want to go to Turkey. “For six years we lived with the war in Idlib. Of course we thought about leaving for Turkey but we knew enough to know that there was no future there for us”. It was only after their house was destroyed by bombs in early 2016 that forced them on to the refugee road.

There is only one reason for Fatima’s decision to return to Turkey. A decision which meant she had to abandon her application for asylum in Greece even though she had successfully got through the most important first phase of the process and had been given permission to leave Samos. She is giving all this up in order to rejoin her husband, Ahmad, who was deported last week to Turkey from Samos. They had been together on Samos for over one year. In this time she had two miscarriages. After the first miscarriage UNCHR moved them from the Camp and into a house in Samos town.

Fatima and Ahmad with their cake to mark one year detained on Samos. October 2017

Fatima is not prepared to live without Ahmad.

Unlike Fatima, Ahmad’s application for asylum had been rejected two times. As far as the authorities and many of the NGOs are concerned that is the end of the line. In Ahmad’s case that involved Arsis telling him that he would have to leave the house he shared with his wife, and the lawyer from Metradassi (Greek NGO) saying that his case was now closed and there was no more legal support on offer. He refused to leave Fatima and the house and though no attempt was made to evict him Ahmad was in constant fear of being arrested and deported. For the next two months Ahmad rarely left the house. He felt completely abandoned and with no idea of what to do. This all worsened after the high court’s decision in Athens in late September which confirmed that Turkey should be considered a safe place for returning Syrian refugees. Ahmad felt sure now he would be taken even though he knew of no Syrian refugee who had been deported. Then misfortune struck when on one of the few occasions he went into the town centre with Fatima he was stopped, arrested and taken into administrative detention in the police station. This was 2 weeks ago.

It was the last straw for Ahmad. As soon as he was detained he told the police he wanted to be deported to Turkey. As Fatima told me, after one year on Samos “he has no patience left. He cannot continue in Samos. He is being destroyed”. For nine days Ahmad had to endure the prison cell in the police station. There was no risk that he would escape from Samos. He was volunteering for deportation. But he was held and Fatima suffered the forced separation only able to see Ahmad through the gates of the cell for a few minutes each evening.

Throughout all their time on Samos Ahmad and Fatima were never formally acknowledged as a married couple. This had many implications such as dealing with the their asylum applications as if they were totally separate and hence the incomprehensible decision to admit Fatima’s application but refuse Ahmad. As far as Ahmad and Fatima were concerned the fact that their household consisted of 2 wives and 4 children which according to Fatima is not uncommon in Syria was simply of no concern to the asylum authorities. For them, Ahmad could have only one wife – the one still in Syria with their four children, and not Fatima. That Ahmad and Fatima’s marriage had been formally acknowledged and documented by the mosque had no bearing.

Ahmad is convinced that his marital status was a main factor in his asylum rejection. He told me that he was made to feel uncomfortable and anxious whenever this was raised and he never felt relaxed to discuss his household. Quite simply all these experiences were hitting Ahmad especially hard. He was going crazy.

Now it is Thursday morning. I lost contact with Fatima last night. I am not sure where she is at the moment except that she has no access to the internet. Ahmad is now in Istanbul. He was held in the

Adiyaman Camp in Adana Turkey for just 3 days before being released and so able to travel to Istanbul to stay with his brother. Fatima hopes to be with him shortly.

********

It is now 9 pm on Thursday, 14 December and a few minutes ago I received this message from Fatima:

“Hi, I am now in a prison in Lesvos. The situation is very bad. The prison is very bad. The bed is made of stone and there is no mattress. The blankets smell foul. There is no light at night. And many insects. It is very scary.”