The EU governments have failed to protect refugees and irregular migrants in Greece. JOHN ELLISON describes the awful conditions in Chios’s refugee camps
ANYONE who imagines that the EU governments have an untainted history of humanitarianism should take a sharp look at what is happening on the Greek island of Chios, whose eastern shore is just a few miles away from that of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.
Last month almost 4,000 refugees were reported to be confined to squalid official camps in dismal and unsafe conditions on this beautiful and mountainous island. Each week more join them.
Refugees from the Syrian war, but from elsewhere too, have been arriving for years by sea from Turkey, often on rubber dinghies after paying people-smugglers dearly for the privilege of dangerous travel.
The main town carries the same name as the island and is situated on the east coast, roughly half-way along its 30-mile north-south length.
Refugees are condemned to live in one of two camps. Vial camp is situated adjacent to a village at the end of a dusty track not far from the town. Souda camp is in the town itself, adjacent to the castle, and spilling on to the shore.
On this and other Greek islands — notably Lesbos, Samos and Leros — refugees submit asylum applications to the government but mostly wait, losing all hope and fearing the worst. Most are refused sanctuary. A small percentage have been allowed to proceed to mainland Greece.
The rest wait.
In March last year a cynical, Geneva–Convention-defying deal made between the EU and the Turkish government planned the peremptory removal from the islands of all irregular arrivals back to Turkey.
David Cameron’s Tory government had no quarrel with this harsher than harsh arrangement. The price to be paid to Turkey was up to €6 billion (£5.2bn) of funding and visa-free access to the EU for Turkish nationals. It was inherently likely to produce chaos and fierce resistance if effected and the risk of mass deportations to Turkey remains real.
This sordid pact trampled on long-established legal rights of refugees as if they had none. Those with a well-founded fear of persecution at home should be able to take sanctuary in another country, and be entitled to the security of the 1951 Refugee Convention protections. As it is, the already close to three million Syrian refugees stranded in Turkey are largely left to fend for themselves.
Acknowledging this, in May 2016 a Greek asylum service ruling upheld the right of a Syrian refugee not to be deported back to Turkey as these essential safeguards did not apply there. Another factor jeopardising the deal was the reported refusal of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
So most of those in the camps on the islands are beating time in inhumane conditions likely to deteriorate further as more refugees arrive. Adding to these grim prospects in July, the Greek government, as a result of changes to EU funding, will assume full responsibility for refugees on the islands. The present support by the UN’s humanitarian division (ECHO) for external relief agencies will come to an end. These agencies are being pressed by the Greek authorities to withdraw their services. Such a development may turn the handle further towards a human catastrophe. In April this year, Elle Zwandahl, a teacher from Suffolk with a specialist background in teaching children in care and unaccompanied children seeking asylum, volunteered as a teacher of English to refugee children on Chios. She worked with the organisation Be Aware and Share, which had been founded more than a year ago to help refugees arriving on European beaches, and relies on ECHO and Norwegian Refugee Council funding. Several full-time and poorly paid co-ordinators are supported by a stream of volunteers.
Zwandahl describes Vial not as a camp but as a detention centre. Guarded by barbed perimeter wire and run by the Greek army, its present population far exceeds the camp’s capacity. Civilian outsiders, including journalists, are not allowed inside.
The refugees occupy metal huts the size of garden sheds (reportedly up to 12 to a hut), and though food is provided by the military, it is of extremely poor quality. There is much related illness and inadequate access to doctors. For women there is no washing privacy. The only showers are communal and outside.
Adult refugees in Vial camp are allowed to visit Chios town on UNHCR buses. Another concession to humanity is the regular transportation on these buses of children from the camp to improvised schools (one in a disused doctor’s surgery, the other in a disused taverna).
In a morning school for younger children, and a high school for older ones, the beginnings of education are offered, mainly through volunteers like Zwandahl. The children’s daily hunger is barely satisfied by the provision of bread and fruit at school.
The town’s Souda camp, though fronted by security men, is less strictly barred to visitors. Food is supplied by the Norwegian Refugee Council. Souda is a tent city, in which rats, as well as people, reside.
She and other volunteers worked long hours, collecting dozens of children in clothes supplied from charitable donations during the week on the UNHCR bus from Vial camp and later returning them there after classes.
Teaching was only part of the task. Emotional support for the children is vital. They were inevitably affected by events and conditions in the countries from which they had fled, by the traumas of the journeys and by the degrading conditions in the camps.
On most days, Zwandahl found the children in her class to be calm and caring towards each other. On others they would be restless and disruptive, requiring much persuasion even to sit down.
Zwandahl asked one sad-looking seven-year-old boy whose behaviour was often difficult, what was wrong. He replied: “Syria no good. Bombs, hurt leg.”
On Friday April 21, the fascist Golden Dawn vigilantes entered Souda camp and attacked the refugees inside, causing security intervention and arrests. One of Zwandahl’s 17-year-old students was hospitalised.
While many of the children in the camps were from war-torn Syria, others were from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Kuwait, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. Not all had parents or relatives caring for them.
Despair is everywhere. Just before Zwandahl arrived on Chios, a refugee in his late twenties set himself on fire and died of his injuries some days later. Later, another man killed himself by jumping from the castle wall above Souda camp.
The British and other European governments have flagrantly failed in their duty to endangered refugees on the islands, just as they have failed to take positive steps aimed at ending the war in Syria. The claim that the West simply seeks to replace Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad with a more democratic government rings grotesquely hollow.
In his 2016 book Syria Burning, journalist and Middle East expert Charles Glass explains that the intervention of the US against Assad was motivated by his continuing alliance with Iran, a strategic asset against Israel which has occupied Syrian territory since 1967.
The equally authoritative journalist Patrick Cockburn in a foreword to Glass’s book queries the West’s commitment to secular democracy in Syria when the most important supporters of the Syrian rebels are Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the oil-states of the Gulf.
Stopping the war in Syria is one thing. Supporting the refugees now is another. And those in Chios and other Greek islands, left in the care of a country grossly impoverished by the EU and the IMF, and at risk of deportation to autocratically ruled Turkey, where human rights at present count for so little, need our help — and our government’s help too.
nJune 19 to 25 is Refugee Week, Britain’s largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees to our society. Hundreds of arts, cultural and educational events are being held nationwide in renowned venues, public squares, libraries, schools and places of worship to celebrate our shared future. Visit refugeeweek.org.uk for more information and to find events near you.