Whilst Europe and Turkey are pushing refugees back, institutionally and physically, to the supposed “safe third country” that has yet to live up to its business-for-human rights deal, securing the rights of refugees remains in the precarious hands of volunteers and independent pro bono lawyers. In reporting on the scandalous living arrangements within the “hot spots” in Greece as well as in Turkey, it is clear to me that a fair, timely asylum procedure as well as basic humanitarian principles – such as access to food and water – are being violated systematically. Furthermore, the border between Syria and Turkey has effectively been closed since the deal, with violent push backs of refugees to Syria, as well as the shooting (by the Turkish army) of those who attempt to cross and seek shelter.
After having both researched and worked in the camps in Chios, Lesvos, Athens and Idomeni, I am at once taken aback by the injustice of the new deal with Turkey. Equally, I am amazed by civil society, especially the anarchist initiatives in Greece, housing thousands of newcomers to Europe without blinking an eye or any questions. However, a systematic crack down on such initiatives has escalated, providing evidence of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination on both sides of the detention fences, as well as the surrounding areas, where volunteers attempt to mobilise.
The situation for refugees in Greece is dependent on the structures such a deal places on a situation that has a civil aspect in the ascendant. Several reports since October have expressed the essential humanity on the ground, rather than any reliance on the slow, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all approach of the NGOs in Greece. Indeed, without volunteers and local initiatives, none of the informal camps would have existed. Refugees have expressed this, as well as their fear of the official camps turned detention centres. “They see us as numbers and treat us like animals, in here,” said Ali, a detainee at Vial in Chios.
Hence, such networks and informal structures have been congratulated officially by the UN, local authorities (especially in Lesvos) and other international organisations. However, I have three general observations that suggest that there is room for improvement by the EU and the local authorities carrying out the procedures in question, including the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and European and domestic police and military forces.
First of all, there are huge issues with regards to discrimination, which is implicit as well as explicit and systematic inside as well as outside the official camps. It is based on gender and ethnicity and is obvious amongst the international NGOs and the police forces.
As reported previously, access to asylum is very limited for those of North African and Asian heritage. This is despite the fact that by law, everyone can, potentially, fulfil the criteria of being persecuted, or in danger due to wars, local as well as global. Following the EU-Turkey deal, 700 Pakistanis in Moria’s informal camp were rounded up and imprisoned in a separate part of the detention centre, with very limited access to the asylum process. “I missed three breakfasts in a row, queuing up for the asylum office,” explained Sami, from Pakistan. “Every morning the officer came to the office, asked ‘Who is Pakistani?’ and told us to leave the queue.” Furthermore, the “Asylum Rights” information sheet given out at refugee registration is purposely not translated into Urdu, but just English and Arabic.
The fact that there is no outreach inside the official and some unofficial camps, makes the environment very dangerous and intimidating for women and children. UNHCR reported three days ago that 20 per cent of the arrivals in Greece are women and an alarming number – 40 per cent – are children, without any access to education for months. These groups will not come and complain about this to officers, as they are recognising the chaos of it all, already distrust the system and have much more serious fears. The reluctance to do outreach means that women have to sit and guard their children and belongings and so cannot go to get information or seek safety or medical help, which is in great demand. In the official camp in Moria, many women would go next door with their whole family where volunteers would come to them and identify their needs. Volunteers in the unofficial camp in Idomeni explained to me that the female refugees, after being pressured to move to the nearest camps, are fearing for their safety, which depends on the networks created between male patronage in the camp; this would be broken by a move and leave them vulnerable.
Trafficking is rife in places like the port in Athens, Piraeus and Idomeni, where large numbers of people see very limited assistance and insufficient shelter, food and water; where a disorganised situation leaves women and children unattended and without a safe place to sleep. Refugees as well as volunteers have reported several incidents where men had come and tried to force children away during chaotic food distributions; in Idomeni, three “doctors” were reported to have been organ trafficking with a number of children. This was reported from several refugees; sadly, it is not an uncommon phenomenon in times of crisis and displacement.
The gendered aspect of the discrimination in and around the camps is also felt by the volunteers, who are abused and harassed systematically by policemen as well as local civilians. Such incidents have been seen especially on Chios, where several female volunteers reported harassment and insufferable systematic crack downs and threats. A female volunteer at the Solidarity Cafe, a safe haven for refugees who may use the house to talk and get advice over a cup of tea, has been threatened numerous times; one police officer even threatened to rape her. During an unwarranted raid at the cafe, the officer took her to a separate room when she refused to answer his questions; he checked that no one could hear and said that he would take her to the basement at the station where “no one could hear her scream”. She did scream, there and then, and a fellow volunteer came forward and insisted that he had witnessed everything. Inside the police station, the girl was called “bitch” and other derogatory terms, whilst the officers apparently drank two whole bottles of red wine in front of the volunteers. The Cafe and its mobile “soup kitchen” service is harassed constantly by police as well as by local fascists, who throw Molotov cocktails into the house and under the van driven by the female volunteer.
Another incident in Lesvos involved a young volunteer who wanted to report a suspicious vehicle that was “picking up” young Pakistani boys from the unofficial camp “for money”, some others explained, clearly embarrassed. Seeing the man come by on several evenings, the volunteer stopped the local police officers who were patrolling the area. She asked if he was the right person to report this to, and following her report the officer shrugged and said, “It is just sucking” and that she “shouldn’t do such dirty work [for the Pakistanis in the camp].” Moreover, he told her that she was very beautiful and that if she kept talking to him, he would kiss her. So, by reporting the sexual exploitation of minors in a camp, the volunteer was sexually harassed; and due to her gender the case was not taken seriously, violating the protection role that many of the Greek police officers appear to have forgotten about.
In Idomeni, all journalists and volunteers are stopped in their cars before heading into the camp. There have been several incidents where police officers have taken individuals to the police station and forced them to strip naked; at no time have charges been made against them. A Swiss volunteer claims that she was forced to strip naked and kept overnight without charge; she wasn’t even allowed to change her tampon, putting her health at risk.
The random crackdown and the sexualised way in which it occurs, is intended to threaten the volunteers – predominantly women – who are sacrificing their own safety, time and money to support the refugees in a situation where no official camp or local authorities have admitted that they are actually superfluous to its management.
During their occupation of the port in Chios in mid-April, refugees were targeted by an angry mob of local fascists, who threw bottles and Molotov cocktails. Indeed, they continue to threaten refugees – including families – as well as the volunteers.
Apart from the well-deserved wide coverage of the inefficient asylum procedures, resettlement, reunification and relocation plans, the actors on the ground are suffering unbearable discrimination and intimidation. All the while, the Greek government seems to resort to inhumane methods of pushing people to comply with the new infrastructure of new military camp settlements in an attempt to manage the new influx of people. This mobilisation is facilitated by threats and starving people to go into the military camps by refusing to allow volunteers to provide food and refusing to offer basic facilities. Meanwhile, the authorities hand out pamphlets about the health risks of staying by the border in Idomeni and tempt refugees with health and welfare services which, according to the volunteers, the military camps do not even have.
The Greek authorities have tried to reduce the tension in Idomeni on the border with Macedonia by dispersing people to other camps. However, camp members have already gone and come back because of snakes and snake bites; many families had to flee from such an environment. However, by starving people and intimidating the volunteers helping in these “unwanted” settlements by the border, rather than responding to their requests of opening the borders or starting to secure a speedy but fair asylum and reunification system for families in particular, the authorities are losing any sense of urgency, which is so important for the people in the camps. People are counting the days, with scarce information or outreach, which is making them feel even more disenfranchised from their own situation and unable to make the right choices for themselves and their families.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.