In Greece, as elsewhere, the coronavirus epidemic now dominates daily life. Rarely a day passes without some new announcement. Most have a major impact as schools and universities, coffee bars, restaurants, shopping malls and non-essential shops are closed. Moreover with borders closing and flights from Italy and Spain banned, along with cruise ships, the immediate outlook for Greece’s major economic activity, tourism is grim. For a society where the majority of people are still struggling with a decade old economic and social crisis that has deepened their poverty these are devastating developments especially given its collapsing infrastructure and social protections. Currently there are thousands of workers who can no longer work and who don’t know whether they will have any income as a result.
For the refugees, coronavirus is a fused bomb. When, rather than if it blows it will be devastating. The appalling conditions in which refugees are held which blatantly contradict all the government’s instructions on hygiene and overcrowding make the camps and detention facilities exceptionally vulnerable to the virus. The police describe the island camps as “health bombs”. The police associations from Samos, Lesvos, Chios and the North and South Dodecanese are now demanding urgent action. The timing of their intervention is driven by the extremely cruel and unhealthy conditions for the 1,414 refugees who arrived on the islands after March 1st 2020. Following the Act passed on March 2 2020 all new arrivals are denied the right to apply for asylum. This is a major breach of international law, but more of that later. There is no registration or identification procedures for these new arrivals who are kept away from the pre March deadline refugees and detained, as the police noted in their letter to the government (14/3/2020);
“Stacked like animals in temporary and inadequate infrastructure acting as ticking health bombs. On Samos there are 93 foreigners in a room of the Port Authority without a toilet or water supply.”
Last week 450 refugees who had arrived after March 1st were held on an army tank landing ship for 4 days on Lesbos before sailing to an undisclosed facility (prison) on the mainland to await deportation. Imagine, an army transporter with 450 passengers! “The children are not receiving sufficient food and clothing,” a Syrian refugee on board told Human Rights Watch:“We had only three toilets for 451 people until today, when they brought five portable toilets. There is no shower, no soap.” As HRW concluded, “Greece’s decision to detain more than 450 people on a naval vessel and refuse to allow them to lodge asylum claims flagrantly violates international and European law.” (https://news.yahoo.com/hrw-denounces-greece-over-migrants-held-warship-130647070.html)
The associations which represent the front line police who directly manage and control the refugees on the frontier islands speak of being abandoned and unprotected by Ministries and bureaucracies that seem to have no grasp of the situation on the islands. They are using their own money to buy masks and antiseptic liquids. They get nothing. But it is the anger which stands out in their letter. It suggests that the treatment of the 1,500 refugees who have arrived on the islands since the beginning of March reaches new depths of inhumanity and deepens their vulnerability to coronavirus. Hidden away, segregated from other refugees, prisoners with rights removed or suspended and no access to lawyers, means we can’t hear their voices. It is more than ironic that we now find some of the police speaking out and breaking the silence both on their own behalf but also for the refugees.“Your disinterest is criminal” they wrote to all the relevant ministers in Athens, “as are your actions which have allowed for such terrible living conditions for foreign nationals and where you expect us to work….There is no care for the police nor for the foreigners.” (Full report published in Samos Voice, 14/3/2020)
Meanwhile coronavirus might have momentarily pushed refugees off the front pages but there has been no halt in the government’s declared strategy of making their lives a misery. So we have Notis Mitarachi, the minister for migration and asylum, announcing on March 3rd that refugees who get asylum will receive no benefits after one month. Previously these benefits lasted for 6 months and sometimes longer. Now “accommodation and benefits for those granted asylum will be interrupted within a month. From then on, they will have to work for a living. This makes our country a less attractive destination for migration flows.” (Mitarachi, BBC News website, 7/3/2020). In a country with a broken labour market now compounded by virus policies which close down major areas of employment, the notion that refugees with asylum can find work to live is fanciful. On Samos for example young Greek adults continue to leave their homes and families, unwillingly, precisely because they cannot find work in Greece.
Other recent measures reflecting this new nastiness include the withdrawal of health provision (AMKA) to all refugees arriving after July 2019. Those with any kind of condition demanding medical care can only access health care through the emergency rooms of hospitals and have to buy their medicines. At the end of last year the Government relented and pledged to introduce a more time limited access to health care for refugees but as yet this has not been implemented. Although some help comes from some NGOs the burden of health care is largely managed by the refugees themselves. Abshir who is now in Thessaloniki regularly gives to collections for medicines that some refugees need; helping refugees negotiate the emergency rooms as well as helping the doctors with translations. This is a regular feature of refugee life here for many.
Ironically coronavirus has temporarily put an end to making refugees sign in with the Asylum Office every 2 weeks as against 4 weeks. Now that the Asylum Service can’t allow for crowds fighting to get in the office to sign as it contravenes coronavirus protocols, they have announced a temporary suspension of all signing in and that it will be done automatically, which clearly reveals that the 2 week signing in was no more than messing with refugee lives. The closure of the Asylum Offices until April 10th also entails suspending all interviews, appeals and applications.
There is plenty of impressionistic evidence from the refugees which points to the asylum procedure automatically rejecting more asylum applications now especially from those coming from one of the 10 named safe countries; again breaking international law which requires every asylum application to be assessed on its merits alone.
The combined threat of rejection, followed by detention and then deportation is driving increasing numbers of refugees underground. If they fear a reject decision, they avoid immediate detention by not going to sign in at the asylum office. In so doing they forfeit their monthly allowance and any other services they may have been given. In cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki there are now many refugees living on the streets, in abandoned buildings and those squats not yet closed by the police. On islands like Samos they are living in the jungle surviving through the support of their friends. But they are exceptionally vulnerable.
Now these numbers are expanding as those who get asylum lose their support are faced with either the streets or the jungle. I have no clear idea of the numbers, but Sofiane in the Open Doors shop estimates more than a thousand refugees with asylum living in the jungle. Many he said have given up on the idea of moving to the mainland unless they are certain of a place to live and see Samos as a better option than the streets of Athens. Neither those without papers nor those with asylum now living in the jungle seem visible to the authorities who will soon be faced with what to do with all those people once the new closed camps are created on the islands. It feels increasingly likely that destitute refugees who have asylum in Greece are going to end up in permanent refugee camps on the mainland much like those for the Palestinians in the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon if the government is to deliver its pledges to decongest the islands.
Between December and March and prior to the coronavirus tsunami the news on Samos and all the frontier islands was dominated by the breakdown in the relationship between the island authorities and the Greek government which culminated in the sending of squads of riot police from Athens to Lesvos and Chios in early March. Despatched at speed, they set about attacking with batons and extensive use of tear gas the islanders’ protests against the building of new, large closed camps. Shouting traditional insults such as calling the islanders “Turkish seeds” (many islanders came from Turkey as a consequence of the 1922 population transfer between Turkey and Greece and were commonly treated with hostility when they came to Greece) they set about beating up the islanders.
It was an intervention which back-fired on Athens provoking outrage across Greece to such indiscriminate police violence which forced the government to withdraw the riot police within 36 hours. But the intervention itself still marked the determination of the government to create new closed camps on the islands, especially Lesvos, Samos and Chios. There has been no stopping the central government from the compulsory take over of large tracts land for this purpose. The government is adamant that new, larger closed camps will be built despite the significant opposition of the islands to remove the camps to the mainland, leaving a much smaller facility for processing and initial assessment as to the asylum application, In the power play the islands lost. All that they now get from government are assurances that sooner or later they will come to realise that the new camps will be a good thing for improving the situation on the island ! But these words are not believed. When it comes to the refugees on the island, years of lies and broken promises means that there is a fundamental lack of trust in the government.
Then, in these very same early March days, Erdogan announced the opening of Turkey’s borders with Europe (Greece and Bulgaria) to ostensibly allow for the estimated one million refugees escaping the violence of Idlib to flow into Europe. With an estimated 3.5 million refugees already in Turkey, Erdogan argued that they could not cope with more. They had to move on. Borders had to open.
Played out in a context of historical and current tensions between Greece and Turkey, Erdogan’s unilateral open borders declaration alongside practical measures such as providing transport to move refugees to the Evros border region between the 2 countries, was presented by government ministers and much of the media as almost a declaration of war.
As I write the extreme tensions between Greece, the EU and Turkey have calmed to some degree and dialogue has re-opened between the major parties. However, important consequences remain including the rapid increase in the militarisation of both land and sea borders and the explicit sanctioning of violence to stop refugees crossing into Greece. On the land borders to the north this has led to thousands of refugees trapped between Turkish soldiers who would not let them back and Greek soldiers who would not let them pass. All attempts to move were repulsed by violence, beatings and tear gas.
At sea it was little better as videos were published on social media sites showing Greek coastguards trying to capsize rubber refugee boats packed with families, beating them with long poles and firing their rifles into the sea around their dinghies. These are not isolated incidents perpetuated by a few ‘rogue’ officers but sanctioned orders as revealed by the Danish Frontex officers who refused to follow orders issued by the central command of Operation Poseidon to put 33 refugees they had rescued back into their boat and drag them outside Greek territorial waters – classic push back. The Danish officers refused to follow illegal orders and were supported in so doing by Denmark’s minister of defence (Reported by Are You Syrios 6/3/2020).
Greece is not unique in breaking international law and conventions with virtual impunity. The decision to suspend , for one month, the asylum rights of refugees coming into Greece if they arrived after March 1 is a fundamental breach but apart from the outcry from human rights groups and activists, the EU, and the USA tacitly sanctioned the law breaking regarding it as an appropriate response to Turkey’s ‘asymmetrical’ attack on Greece/Europe. This, alongside the militarisation of the borders and use of violence against refugees now trying to into Greece was indeed praised by the President of the EU acclaiming Greece as the “shield of Europe”. So the very body charged with monitoring member states’ adherence to international law was in a myriad of ways giving Greece a green light to continue. Which it does.
Israel is probably one of Greece’s closest allies now both economically and militarily. Israel is a serial lawbreaker. No other country comes near when it comes to ignoring international law with impunity. There is now more than a whiff of Israeli influence on Greek refugee policy. And who better to show Greece how to develop a militarised control strategy for refugees?
Always to the disadvantage of the refugees, Greece now has a government which in so many key areas is simply unintelligent. Sending squadrons of riot police to Lesvos and Chios was not a bright move. Government ministers are now attacking NGOs and volunteers working with refugees with extreme vitriol blaming them for causing unrest amongst the refugees and on the islands. Again not a bright move with worrying unintended consequences. At the beginning of March migration minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos called the NGOs bloodsuckers and agitators and facilitators of refugee traffic and hence border weakening. One immediate effect of such statements was the arrival of neo Fascists especially from Austria and Germany on Lesvos. Proclaiming that they had come to help and show solidarity with those police and soldiers guarding Greece’s /Europe’s borders they have been attacking refugees and NGO workers and volunteers. When confronted on Lesvos by outraged locals, the neo fascists were reported as threatening “ to do to you what we did in Kalavryta” when the Nazis killed 483 men and boys there in December 1943 (Keep Talking Greece 5/3/2020). This particular group has now been driven off Lesvos.
Simultaneously in the Evros area we now see armed vigilantes, with official support, driving their tractors and trucks in the remote border lands on the look out for refugees. The government praises the patriotism of these hunters and all those who drove out with food and drink to nourish the soldiers. But as Yannis Laskarakis, a newspaper publisher in the northern city of Alexandroupouli wrote “ We see them [vigilantes] with our own eyes, arresting migrants, treating them badly and if someone tries to help the migrants, he has the same fate” (BBC News, 7/3/2020). When governments sanction violence and hatred, not against equivalent opponents, but defenceless men, women and children who are weak and desperate for life and safety, they are dangerous to us all. And in Greece where there has long been a vibrant fascist stream within the society and the police in particular, the government is playing with fire unleashing elements over which they have no control.
Samos has not as yet witnessed much in the way of vigilante and fascist activity. I don’t know why. There is plenty of rumbling discontent about the NGOs as unaccountable plunderers but then this has been the case for years here. Neither have we seen the physical attacks on refugee workers and agencies which on Lesvos and Chios resulted in projects being withdrawn or suspended and volunteers leaving the islands for their own safety. On Samos it is the coronavirus strategy which has now led to the closure of every refugee project in Samos town and within the hotspot itself.
With all the shop, bar and cafe closures, and other virus protocols stressing self-isolation, there are now few locals on the streets of Samos town. On Monday of this week I would estimate that 90% of the people out and about in town were refugees. This bothers the police and probably many others, but it is the police you see on the streets trying to prevent groups of refugees from gathering and insisting that they keep 2 metres apart. But as one group of refugees pointed out to the police, “you want us to have space when we are out in the town but in the camp you pack us like beans in a tin”.
I want to conclude with a discussion we had in the shop a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about humanity. Where had it gone ? Was it really dead in the world today. Then Mohammed a young guy from Gaza bluntly observed “the system does not do humanity. Never has as far as I can tell”. There was total agreement amongst us. With Sofiane summing up what we thought when he said “the rich and the powerful in this world don’t give a fuck about us. And when I say us I don’t just mean refugees but all the poor of the world. They rob us every day.” Then Alice, from Somalia made a point which we felt was so important when she said that in her eyes humanity was not dead. She sees it everyday in the camp and in how we survive. And I saw the same in Somalia. Amongst the people. Humanity is alive. It is how we live. But it is not ‘up there’. Only with the people.”
Within a few hours of posting, I received the following e mail from Salma, a single woman from Uganda who was in the Samos camp before moving to Athens.
“On my side out here, I am trying just like any ordinary human being to keep my head above the water by working to ensure that at least I have a decent roof over my head and some small bread at my table to eat. I arrived in Athens four months ago and unlike most of my counterparts, by the special grace of the good God above, i was lucky to get a small blue collar job as a cleaning lady for a cleaning company here in Athens. It doesn’t pay much just 3 Euros per hour and I happen to work 6 hours a day on average. For this I am grateful every though it is really tiring and back breaking. But what choice do I have but just to keep on going as I wait for my decision from the Greek Asylum to come through. At least I have something to keep myself busy and put bread on my table. Another aspect that really helped me out to get this job was the mere fact that whilst I was in Samos during last Summer season, I moved up and down to obtain the necessary documents that can permit me to work anywhere in Greece because by then I also managed to get another small part time job as a kitchen assistant. These documents are of so much help to me especially as I carry on my work here in Athens. Many of my counterparts can’t get jobs because they don’t have these papers owing to the fact that the new Government no longer grants AMKA to refugees anymore. Because of this aspect, many are left stranded often resorting to several dubious ways of earning some money such as prostitution and drug trafficking. But what really baffles me is the fact that even those who have acquired their residence permits and passports also find it hard to get employment although some use the advantage of their newly acquired permits and passports to ferry drugs to and fro Europe and also engage in life threatening activities like prostitution and money laundering. So I sometimes ask myself, could this be as a result of the dependence syndrome which has been caused by the laxity of the slow Greek asylum system or the Greek economic crisis that is still on going? Anyway I’d seem so unfair to judge anyone at this point because I myself I’m not a saint.”