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Shit for the Refugees and Shit for Samos. How Much Longer?

In the first week of December 2018 a delegation drawn from 11 groups including political parties, commercial organisations, hospital workers, and the Mayor of Samos, traveled to Athens to meet with Dimitris Vitsa, the minister responsible for refugees. Sadly, but inevitably refugees had no presence. The very people who could speak with direct experience of the problems confronting the refugees on Samos were excluded. (It should be noted, that this broad based delegation included a few groups and parties that are generally sympathetic to the refugees.)

 

Some of the delegation in Athens. As is common here mainly men!

The coverage on Samos of the visit inevitably highlighted the problems which were threatening to ‘overwhelm’ Samos and made life ‘unbearable’ for the residents of Samos town who had to live with the Hot Spot. With over 4,000 refugees on the island all of whom are either in the Camp (1,895), in tents around the Camp (2000) or in rooms and houses in the town(235), the situation was unanimously seen by the delegation as untenable. Now that the rains have started the squalor of the camp has deepened. There is no escaping the reality of the Samos camp as a place of nightmares. According to Vivi Michou, Director-General of the European Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs, the camp on Samos is now worse than Moria on Lesvos (Ekathimerini, Dec 2, 2018) It was she said fast becoming a bomb on the verge of explosion.

The purpose of the visit was to press the government to act without delay. First to ‘de-congest’ the island by moving refugees off Samos to the ‘hinterland’ or by deportation. Second to close the Hot Spot in Samos town and to relocate it in a place away from a significant local population. But this event was also distinguished from earlier meetings between Samos representatives and government minister by the expressions of open frustration and distrust in central government. ” Let me remind you that the last time we visited the then competent minister Mr Mouzala..we had no result. Let me also recall the promises of the current minister when he visited the island and in the press too. No effect” (Nikos Katsarakos, Deputy Chief of Staff, Samos, Samos Blog 4th December 2018) .Patience is exhausted. The meeting was held in a context that encouraged uncompromising accounts in which some important truths were masked as the entire focus was on the threats to Samos coming from the refugees and the presence of the Hot Spot in Samos town.

Myths

It is generally the case that most of the discussions of refugees on Samos are poorly informed and largely evidence free. The absence of refugee voices is significant and cuts out an important source of information and allows for the unchallenged emergence of a taken for granted common sense about the ‘problems’ we face with refugees on Samos. But it is a common sense which distorts and simplifies and is not accurate. First there is NEVER any acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of refugees are kept in Samos town. Travel out of the town and around the island and you will see no refugees. They have no presence in peoples’ minds or places. It is Samos town which has the ‘problem’ (if there is one) not the island. This factor alone exposes the popular myth that the island’s core tourism business has been badly hit by the presence of refugees. All the main tourist centres of Samos are virtually refugee free. Indeed this past year has seen a significant increase in tourist arrivals and activity and further growth is expected for 2019.

Equally widespread is the myth that in Samos town “everyday life is unbearable for the locals; life is worn out”. And who would know better than Christodoulis Stefanadis, ‘the renowned professor of cardiology at the University of Athens’ who wrote the above after a short visit to the island. This is the quality of the evidence which is commonly trotted out. We never hear from the shop keepers or coffee shop owners where refugees spend their time and money; we never hear from locals sitting in the platia or by the sea who watch the refugee families and children promenade and pass their time; we never hear the voices of people who welcome the vibrancy the refugees bring to the town, especially in the winter months. Nobody talks about the normal every day human inter-actions between refugees and locals and the absence of stress on the streets.

Such silences not only misrepresent what is actually happening but contributes to the one dimensional perspective of the refugees as PROBLEM, and in the case of Samos THE problem. But in truth as more at last are coming to realise, the problems on Samos are not the refugees but the incompetence and criminal behaviours of the responsible authorities. As the Samos mayor pointed out Greece has to date only spent 37% of the 1.6 billion Euros allocated by the EU to the government. No shortage of resources can explain why the camps are such overcrowded hell holes.

Across the globe there are cities and states which are recognising and welcoming the contributions of refugees and migrants. In these places, refugees are seen as a positive social force with the potential to contribute significantly to their new societies. As I write the Global Forum of Mayors has been meeting in Marrakesh. Some 100 people from city authorities – mayors and officials from Quito to Kampala – took part in the gathering, which discussed how to meet the needs of both refugees and migrants. Fillipo Grandi head of UNHCR in addressing the Forum said: “We are full of admiration for all the mayors who have taken up a different kind of narrative to hostility and xenophobia. I really commend you for your courage and staying the course in crafting a more effective and principled approach to the refugee crises.” (emphasis added) UNHCR News, 9 Dec 2018).

This is exactly what is required in Greece and on Samos. A different kind of narrative to the single lens approach of viewing refugees as nothing other than a problem which sustains current inhumane and sterile policies and practices. And as long as Samos remains a frontier island of Fortress Europe, it will continue to receive refugees. Refugees have been coming for decades if not more. With climate change and continual warfare there is every reason to believe that the flows of people seeking life will grow. It will not go away.

More immediately the on going adherence to the 2016 EU/Turkey pact locks Greece into maintaining the frontier islands as the principal centres for processing refugees and migrants coming through Turkey. The EU has not shifted its position that it does not want a repeat of 2015 with thousands of refugees moving through the islands and on to mainland Europe with virtually no delay. The frontier islands have a crucial role in this strategy as detention places to manage the refugee flow into this part of Europe. Although formally acknowledging the human rights of refugees, the EU practice is critically influenced by an ill-informed belief that deterrence plays a role in reducing refugee arrivals. And as the liberal use of fences and razor wire at the camps vividly convey these are not designed to be places of comfort and care. Likewise, the indifference of the managers to the scale of garbage throughout the camp is equally graphic in its message that refugees count for little.

There is a pressing need for a fundamental re-think about the future for both Samos and the refugees if we are to stop the endless stumbling from crisis to crisis; always too late; always insufficient and always mired by incompetence and organisational chaos and not the least lacking in intelligence. And who suffers most? The refugees. It is patently obvious what there is now is a disaster and indefensible.

Random evacuation of large numbers of refugees has long been practiced as refugee numbers overwhelm the Hot Spot. The latest announcement made during the recent visit to the minister that the government will remove 2,000 refugees from Samos by December 15th illustrates that this default strategy stays in place. There is a total absence of any consideration for the refugees who find themselves being up-rooted with virtually no notice to be bundled on to a ferry. Many refugees whilst not happy to be detained on Samos are very wary about being transferred, especially those with young children. The poor conditions of thousands of refugees in Athens are well known amongst the refugees and it is a plight they are desperate to avoid. There is now a significant number of refugees living in Samos town who have the papers to leave Samos but refuse to do so preferring to fight for their asylum on the island rather than in Athens.

That it is highly unlikely that such a large number of refugees can be evacuated in such a short time will further reinforce the lack of trust locally in central government. As the Samos Blog observed on December 13th since the minister’s promise to remove 2000 refugees by December 15th a total of 30 refugees had left Samos with 304 new arrivals in the same period. It is also more than likely that already stressed relations will completely break down when the government also fails to deliver on its promise of last week, that it would shut down the camp in Samos town and move it to a more remote location away from the islanders. This, the minister announced would happen by February 2019. The deadline seems impossible. Just 2 days ago the authorities were advertising for land to rent stating that there was no public or army land available in a suitable place for a new Hot Spot! It will be interesting to see what response there will be as it is going to be a brave Samian who will offer their land for a new camp.

The assessment that the Hot Spot as a bomb ready to explode is almost certainly correct. In the 12 years I have been involved with refugees here I would say that this has been my opinion also. For all my 12 years the camp has been to put it simply, a hell hole. There are no good years. And for all those years despite occasional eruptions there has been no explosion of the sort we all anticipated. Why not? This is such an important question. Nobody now denies that conditions in such camps as in Samos and Lesvos are disgusting, inhuman and cruel. Many are increasingly expressing their shame that Greece is now known for some of the worst refugee camps in the world. But still no explosions on Samos; yet.

There is no single explanation, but in the case of Samos at least, the close location of the camp to the town centre is a significant factor. It acts as a pressure release. Within minutes of leaving the camp you are in the town, amongst the shops and platias, with a long sea walled promenade. It is where you can feel human again, not just from being out of the camp but also from being in a place free from arbitrary death or danger. And with open eyes the evidence is before you as you watch groups of friends or families strolling along the streets, sitting on the sea wall, talking, laughing, listening to music; people relaxed and relaxing.

Refugees fishing in Samos town.
John Doukas Photography

The town also offers resources not available in the camp and above all it houses the island’s main hospital which again is within walking distance. The hospital is a major and much used resource by the refugees.

Despite being the disaster it is, the Hot Spot is the biggest employer in Samos town and on the basis of UNHCR allowances alone, the refugees bring into Samos around 4 million euros a year most of which is spent in Samos town. None of these economic factors come into consideration in part because those shouting the odds have immersed themselves in the myth that the people of Samos town are all overwhelmed, living in fear and basically existentially challenged.

The decision to move the Hot Spot out of Samos town is precisely what one might expect from an approach that lacks intelligence and is driven by myth and prejudice.

Without question Samos town has been changed by the refugee presence. The ethnic mix here has been transformed in a short span of years. In 2006 you would be hard pressed to see a black face anywhere on the island. But this is no longer so for Samos town. On warm evenings the sea front is full of refugees from so many countries. It is an extraordinary and beautiful sight but also completely new for the people here.

How people come to terms with such huge unanticipated changes in the places they live is influenced by many factors but for sure the unrelenting negativity and myth making that refugees attract, especially from those with some kind of power, status or authority does nothing but hinder how people come to see the refugees. If all you hear is that refugees are a problem because they bring crime, illness and disease and possibly terrorism it is hardly a surprise to find that many want to see them gone. There is no nuance in these accusations and certainly no evidence provided in many cases. No one feels the need to note that the overwhelming number of criminal charges against the refugees here concern irregularities with their papers and not against the people and property of Samos town. Similarly with disease and illness refugees are left living in a health catastrophe created and sustained by the authorities. Such basic necessities as an adequate water supply to the camp have not been secured despite it being an issue for over 10 years. Refugees are appalled by the squalor of the camp and scared of the health risks they face 24/7. It is a filthy and dirty place in which people with so little try their best to survive.

Incompetence and Impunity

Here on Samos there is a long history of doing things badly and then doing nothing about it. We have expensive road improvements which within three years crumble and are then abandoned. We have a beautiful swimming pool which has been completed for over a decade and never opened. We have sewage works which have never been used. We have a collapsing hotel on the waterfront which has remained deserted for 12 years or more. We saw the sea front of Samos town paralysed for 3 years as a major new sewage system was installed in an attempt to get rid of the foul odours which dominated the town during the summer months. Millions spent, and lives and business disrupted. But the smell remains. But it is not just incompetence it is the impunity which comes with it that is so significant. There seems to be no consequences for doing a bad job. Whenever and wherever incompetence combines with impunity bad things happen. This is clearly the case with the camp.

It is ridiculous for example that the role of the municipality is so limited when it comes to the management of the camp. It has no automatic right to enter, each entry has to be officially processed and agreed with the camp administration. Despite being responsible for waste on the island, with respect to the camp this is limited to the provision of a few large wheely bins outside the main entrances. Even this is contested. For unspecified safety reasons the camp administrator had two of the bins removed. The municipality has asked the ministry for permission to increase the number but has as yet after 3 months no response. According to Athens Voice (11 December 2018),

“The municipality of Samos has done a project funded by the European Union and the European Commission to provide water to the hot spot, drinking water, that is, in the € 300,000 category, which has been properly implemented. However, according to the mayor, the municipality does not know how it is being utilized within the CTV, as it needs a special permit to enter the reception centre. ‘We are only responsible for waste management and water supply and nothing else, we have called for government intervention to amend the regulation to be beneficiaries in order to do things, but there is no progress. Even for simpler things, like to put two televisions, we needed a month.’” So why is it that there are only 2 sources for drinking water in the camp and virtually no functioning toilets? Outside under the trees with the hundreds of tents there is no water and no toilet provision. Is it surprising to see the bottles of urine littering the place?

The consequences of such gross incompetence and mismanagement are not hard to see:

(These photographs are from Vice and published Dec 11 2018 under the heading Photographs from an Unknown Hell: Samos Refugee Camp).

 

It has taken far too long but there are now clear signs that some at least have shifted their focus from the refugees as potential carriers of disease to a focus on the camp as being responsible for the public health threat facing Samos. One early indication was the action taken last month by the regional Governor who issued a public health notice on the Camp administration demanding immediate action on cleaning, water supplies, food quality and hygiene and toilets. The notice gave 30 days for the camp authorities to solve these problems otherwise an order would be issued to close the camp. Nothing happened. The Governor’s intervention was not allowed. The conditions raised by the Governor were not challenged, only the procedure. Now a large health group of various interests with the Samos Bar Association are taking similar action for the same reasons. Here are some extracts from their (long and detailed) statement, addressed to Vitsa (the minister) and Maria-Dimitra Noutsikou the Hot Spot administrator, which illustrate a welcome refocusing of the problem away from the refugees to those with power and responsibility:

“Your indifference in dealing with the immigrants on Samos and the unfortunate delays in the asylum processes results in the deprivation of the refugees, their mental exhaustions and their incredible suffering as they live in miserable conditions and many of them are mentally and physically ill…

Beyond doubt indirectly by your policy, actions, omissions, and unlawfulness, you are raping the refugees since the majority want to leave the island; and you destroy the city of Samos where the inhabitants live in fear, uncertainty and insecurity….

Until today, despite the appeals and outrages of the local community, the agencies and the Municipality of Samos, despite your promises, statements and letters on de-congestion , your excuses, staffing problems you and your camp administrator have done nothing….failing to observe and enforce immigration laws, failing to ensure safe living for the immigrants, and responsible for environmental pollution, uncontrolled dumping of waste and sewage sludge… with dangers of infectious diseases including tuberculosis. The sanitary bomb might not have exploded yet but with the sloppiness and indifference you show to the refugees the chances are many. ….

It is our intention to request the intervention of the Prosecutor of Samos because we believe that your actions, acts and omissions in the performance of your duties in the management of the refugees constitutes criminal offences.” (from Samos Blog, Dec 9, 2018).

Concluding Note

It is impossible to predict how these events will unfold. We can say with certainty that the commitment to remove 2000 refugees in order to relieve some of the overcrowding in the camp will not happen, as promised by tomorrow. Although there will certainly be a significant evacuation before too long. But as the flow of arrivals albeit smaller than in the summer continue such measures are always short term. As for possible prosecutions there are many reasons to think that they will not materialise if past actions are  a guide. The central government has shown no hesitancy in changing the law if it feels the need, as it did in overturning the ruling of the supreme court a year ago when it declared that Turkey could not be automatically assumed to be a safe place to deport all refugees as intended under the EU Turkey pact. Likewise the attempt of the regional governor to use the law to enforce some basic health and hygiene standards was thwarted by administrative fiat. It is very clear that central government has given considerable powers to the hot spot managers who seem free to act as they wish without any accountability locally. It can be expected that the government will continue to protect the managers. But the naming of names and looking more clearly for reasons why the Camp should be such a humanitarian disaster feels like a step in the right direction.

But these are but small steps. Until there is a fundamental shift in perspective about the refugees and their needs and an end to the negative mythologising of refugees there will be no positive change. Yet Samos could gain so much if it was prepared to follow the example of the mayors and cities represented at the Global Forum in Marrakesh last week.

We live in hope!

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Open Doors Now Open!!!

 

Open Doors: The Shop

On Thursday 22 November 2018 Open Doors opened its doors! It is proving to be all that we hoped for. It is not simply that the grocery store has almost sold out after just a few days but it has been the enthusiasm and happiness of the people coming to the shop which has brought us the greatest pleasure.

Mohamed (left) from Gaza with Sofiane. Our first customer!

The fact that we supply quality foods at the cheapest price is clearly crucial. Refugees, local Greeks and the few tourists still around all remark on our (low) prices. It hardly needs to be said that for those with little money this is very important.

But it is not just a matter of prices. We stock food from across the Middle East and beyond which is not available on Samos. It is simply wonderful to see so many of our customers delighting in the availability of foods which they have not seen since they left their homes. Whole families come into share this experience and take photographs of themselves by the shelves with their favourite foodstuffs.

We spent some time considering what we should stock but we knew that we would need help from the users of the shop. We now have a long list of things we need to order! One small but important consequence has been  the presence of older refugee women who are rarely seen in the town centre but who clearly feel comfortable and safe in the shop and who relish the opportunity of being listened to as they tell us of the items we must try to stock.

As many customers have told us the shop is a small oasis of normality and unlike any other store on the island. They talk of the atmosphere of the shop; its welcome not the least for their children who are never hassled.

And of course the shop is beautiful; light and cheerful; paintings and photographs on the walls, plants and flowers. It speaks to dignity, to respect, to humanity, all issues which are almost absent in the Camp.

These are very early days. None of us have done anything like this before. We are facing some issues which are completely new to us like how do we cope with the winter storms that affect the ferries from Athens which carry our supplies? Will our pricing structure meet our overheads? Can we navigate all the bureaucracy of the Greek system which crushes so many small businesses? The months preparing for the opening have been well spent and we feel strong.

Finally, the shop needs to be seen in the context of Samos where the numbers in the camp have swelled to around 4,000. Where hundreds of refugees have been compelled to buy their flimsy tents and find a place in the olive trees around the camp. In the last 10 days the autumn rains have arrived. Already a shit hole of squalor the camp has considerably worsened as the rains and colder weather take effect. Nothing has been done yet again to prepare the Camp for the winter. Nothing has been done about the ongoing water and sanitation problems. Nothing has been done to control the rats and vermin. Nothing has been done about improving the quality of the food. Against this horror Open Doors is like a flicker of light – a candle in the wind- which we will nourish with all our effort.

Open Doors, Samos Island, Greece: We Need Your Help!

The autumn of 2018 will see the opening of a new grocery store in Samos town. It will be the first of its kind on the island. It will be for the refugees run by refugees. The shop has been rented and is now in the process of being set up. It is in a very good location on one of the most used routes from the refugee camp into the town centre.

Open Doors : Getting Set Up

Endless closed doors face us when we arrive in Samos. From its beginnings this shop will have open doors; it will be run by a refugee cooperative and its development over time will hopefully reflect the ambitions and creativity of the thousands of refugees held for up to 2 years or more on the island.

In those conditions we have no control over our lives. We are not consulted. We are never expected to be active in shaping our lives. We are like shadows which don’t really exist. Yet we are also the foundation of the biggest business on the island responsible for the employment of hundreds of people who do things to us without asking.

Open Doors is just a small step to show what we can do and what we are capable of. It will be a place where refugees and locals can come and shop for foods and spices some of which we cannot find on Samos. The food in the camp is disgusting. To survive refugees are buying food and making their own meals. Otherwise they will be hungry.

Our first purpose is to provide a source of good quality food stuffs as cheaply as possible and which try to meet a wide variety of tastes. And true to our name our doors will be open to all and be a place where all people can feel comfortable. Unlike the squalor of the Camp, Open Doors will be a place of dignity, humanity and solidarity.

But without solidarity from near and far we will struggle. We have already secured some donations from friends in Germany which are helping to get us started. But it is expensive to set up a shop in Greece. It is a big boost for us to know that Open Doors has been selected by the School of Social Sciences at Liverpool Hope University, in England, as one of its nominated charities this year.

To meet our costs we are going to need help at least over the first year. We have many expenses at the start in setting up and fitting the shop with shelves and fridges; buying the initial stock, covering the bureaucratic costs of creating the business; and help towards meeting the costs of at least one full time worker. These are just some!

With your help we want to at least feed those who will regularly help us in the shop. We will certainly need an ’emergency store’ where those with nothing can get some basic stuff. We have no doubt that the store will quickly become widely used and visited by the refugees and will come a place where ideas and thoughts are shared. We hope through its own income as well as through donations that the store will be able to help some of these ideas become realities.

Because of our experience of being endlessly ripped off we are totally committed to openness for without it solidarity becomes impossible.

We promise to keep you updated!

Sofiane Ait Chalalet on behalf of the Open Doors co-op.

Here are our bank details for one off or standing order donations:

Name of Bank : Piraeus Bank

iban GR0201713580006358010170226

BIC :PIRBGRAA

address :Them Sofouli 37

Samos 83100 Greece

reference : Open Doors

Tents and Drones

On Wednesday October 3rd 2018 over 200 refugees arrived on Samos.

On Thursday, a Palestinian friend living in one of the containers inside the camp was told he had to leave to make space for new arrivals who had more need for his place.

Of course he asked where do I go.

To the forest around the camp, he was told.

In what do I sleep?

A tent came the reply.

What tent?

You must go and buy one.

On Friday we heard that the Chinese shops which sell small summer style tents had sold out.

In the meantime….

On October 5th it was reported that the government had sacked the director of the national Hot Spot programme.

“In comments to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency Thursday, Vitsas [ the migration minister] said that last Tuesday he gave the head of the [hot spot] service, Andreas Iliopoulos, until Friday morning to resign or be dismissed.Vitsas’s comments came a day after Iliopoulos alleged in an interview with liberal newspaper Fileleftheros that European Union funds for migration centers were being mismanaged and called for prosecutors to intervene. Vitsas dismissed the claims as “lies.” Iliopoulos meanwhile told Kathimerini he had no real power.” (Ekathimerini, 5th October 2018).

One can assume a touch of the kamikaze in Iliopoulos’s decision to be interviewed by this newspaper. Only a few days earlier the defence minister Panos Kammenos had filed a defamation action against three journalists including the editor in chief of the Fileleftheros daily who had raised concerns about the misuse of funds intended for the hot spots.

““The money existed to transform the camp [Moria Lesvos] into a centre that could have resembled the Hilton; instead it is the Moria that is the source of national shame,” said the paper’s editor-in-chief, Panayiotis Lampsias. “Our reporting is based on fact and totally backed up. We stand by it and will continue with it,” he told the Guardian three days after he was briefly detained.” (Guardian 26 September 2018).

At the same time, it was revealed that the European anti-fraud agency was investigating “alleged irregularities concerning the provision of EU-funded food for refugees in Greece.

Athens has received a total of €1.6bn in financial aid for refugees since 2015.

At the beginning of October, the leader of the conservative New Democracy party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, visited Samos. To his credit he went into the Camp and noted ” It is really outrageous that while our country had at its disposal 1.6 billion euros from Europe – of which it has absorbed 1.1 billion – that these (inhumane) conditions exist today in Greece and in Europe in the 21st century” (My Samos Blog 2nd October 2018).

On 26th September 2018, Christiana Kalogirou, the Regional Governor of the North Aegean which includes Samos island, issued an order demanding action in the Samos Hotspot . If in 30 days the improvements have not been made then the camp would be closed.

In particular, the following problems were highlighted;

Concerns over food management/storage, distribution and quality of packaged food;

Strong noxious odours; uncollected trash, widespread dirt with an abundance of flies and other insects with health consequences;

Filthy toilets, standing water, fly and insect infestation of toilets and washing area. Generally filthy.

Massive overcrowding which favours transmission of infections;

Over 650 in tents around the camp with no easy access to toilets or washing facilities making for an unhealthy living space.

We wait to see what will happen. It is unimaginable that the camp will be closed.

On 27th September local Samos media reported that Frontext was now test flying its drone over Samos. 2 weeks earlier Frontex disclosed contracts of 6.5 million euros of which  4.75 million will go to Israel Aerospace Industries to provide a medium altitude long endurance remotely piloted aircraft. (Statewatch September 19th 2018) 

Drone for Samos Airspace

In the meantime on the ground we have this:

Samos Hotspot October 2018

And the rains are coming.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.)