A fire at Camp Moria on Lesvos island, Greece last night
A fire broke out at Camp Moria on Lesvos island in Greece.
According to UNHCR figures, as of September 13, there were 5,600 people seeking refuge on the island where there are facilities with a capacity for 3,500.
More than 94,000 people have reached Lesvos island, by sea, so far this year.
Last night, The Guardian reported:
Thousands of refugees detained at one of Greece’s biggest camps, on the island of Lesbos, have fled the facility amid scenes of mayhem after some reportedly set fire to it, local police have said.
Up to 4,000 panic-stricken men, women and children rushed out of the barbed-wire-fenced installation following rumours of mass deportations to Turkey.
“Between 3,000 and 4000 migrants have fled the camp of Moria,” a police source said, attributing the exodus to fires that rapidly swept through the facility because of high winds.
Approximately 150 unaccompanied children, controversially housed at the camp, had been evacuated to a childrens’ village, the police source added. No one was reported to have been injured in the blaze.
But damage was widespread and with tents and prefabricated housing units going up in flames, the Greek channel Skai TV, described the site as “a war zone”.
Readers may recall how, prior to March 20, refugees arriving on the Greek islands were registered at “hot spots” before receiving paperwork to travel onto Athens and continue their journey into Europe.
From November 2015, there were signs that this might change with some nationalities (people from Pakistan, for example) not being given the opportunity to register and continue their journey into Europe.
But for the vast majority, especially Syrian refugees, the process was relatively smooth and quick.
All that changed when the EU and Turkey struck a deal which caused outcry across many working in the humanitarian sector.
On Lesvos island, where there is almost 65% over capacity, the situation and conditions are dire and individuals waiting on Lesvos are desperate to leave the island and head to the mainland in the hope of better conditions and, eventually, continuing their journey.
This desperation has led refugees to risk everything they have, again, to try and make it off the island and onto the mainland.
Further to this…
Emma Hett, from Dublin, volunteered on Lesvos and, later the Greek mainland, from March to July this year. During this time, she worked with many people seeking refuge who had arrived on the Greek island from Turkey.
Some months after the March deal, Emma also spoke with several refugees who explained to her what options are available for those stranded on Lesvos without papers but who are desperate to leave.
Due to the high levels of checks and police on the water, people who wish to leave Lesvos are forced to attempt the process through established smuggler networks.
The smuggling rings in Lesvos operate in tandem with each other and so there is little or no conflict or tension between them.
The option of a travelling in a small dinghy from Lesvos to Athens, in the same way most travelled from Turkey to Lesvos, is not an option here.
Instead, refugees stranded on Lesvos, desperate to reach the mainland in search of better conditions, are forced to pay large amounts of cash to smugglers if they are to have any hope of leaving.
Finding a smuggler to help get you off Lesvos isn’t a problem. And you don’t even need to go looking. The short answer is one doesn’t find a smuggler, a smuggler finds you.
On Lesvos, the majority of smugglers are from Pakistan or Afghanistan. However, they are directed and controlled by Greek smugglers. The Greek smuggler operates through the Pakistani or Afghani smugglers who make direct contact with refugees.
They approach refugees in camps and anywhere where refugees may be gathered (in certain places around Mytilene or at the beaches). These smugglers usually speak several languages (Urdu, Greek, sometimes a little Arabic but usually not English). They operate in conjunction with other smugglers on the island, and throughout Greece, and are usually well connected.
Once the refugees have agreed to travel with the smugglers to the mainland, they are offered the opportunity to stay in one of the several smuggler houses in Mytilene. They usually pay roughly €100 per month to cover expenses while living there.
This is very appealing for many of the refugees who are living in either dire conditions in the Moria detention centre or outside in the forests surrounding Mytilene. According to Sami – a Pakistani refugee who was desperate to leave Lesvos and contacted a smuggling ring to help him do so – in one house, there were over 100 people resident at one time.
Yet, for many, this is better than staying in Moria, illustrating just how poor the conditions are in Moria.
To buy a ferry ticket allowing people to leave the island, you must show your identification paperwork. Refugees can buy identification papers for roughly €200.
These are always original papers, usually from Syrian and Afghani refugees, and they are received from mafia contacts in FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).
The mafia source these papers from those already off the island and travelling on through Europe. In return for selling their papers, the smuggler takes these refugees the remainder of the journey across the border. These papers are then sent back to smugglers on Lesvos who can sell them on. Papers are sold on Lesvos for €200. For a family of five, the cost is significant.
In addition, some local residents in Mytilene have sold their resident papers (Greek papers) to refugees to allow them to travel on a ferry to the mainland.
It’s worth keeping in mind the desperate situation local people on Lesvos are facing with, first, a hugely damaging economic crisis, immediately followed by the refugee crisis which has forced many, who are dependent on tourism, into financial difficulties.
Some hotels in Molyvos, in northern Lesvos, have reported that hotel bookings are down 95%, forcing some to close for yet another season.
Most registration papers that are bought are from Syrian and Afghani nationals who are generally the first nationalities to be registered and moved through the system quicker than people from other countries.
For some nationalities (Iranian, Pakistani, etc) these papers can be difficult to use (aesthetically, they look very different). Another option open to those desperate to leave the islands is to buy “Protection Papers.” These are papers that are given to individuals on Lesvos who have lodged asylum claims and have received the first acceptance (allowing them to travel throughout Greece). These are referred to as “White Cards.”
Two years ago, these were coloured red but have more recently been printed in white (International Protection Application Card). The going price for these cards is €90. These are given to all nationalities so they have the added benefit of appearing more authentic.
While registration papers and white cards are relatively cheap for those travelling solo (maximum €200), they are also known for being unreliable. Port police scrutinise the papers and look out for those travelling on somebody else’s papers.
Another option available is to buy a “Red Passport”, an EU passport, which, while prohibitively expensive for most at €1,000, stand a better chance of not being scrutinised at the port.
The €1,000 passport option is a one-off attempt (if you are arrested then the problem is yours and the smugglers will not provide a second “free” attempt, as is the case with some €200 registration paper “deals”).
Obviously, the cost of being smuggled is high and it is done only in cash-in-hand transactions. This can lead to a vulnerability for smugglers who could be caught being handed large quantities of cash.
However, they have found a solution to protect themselves. Money is transferred globally to those who need cash for these transactions via Western Union. When the refugee agrees to travel, via smuggler to the mainland, no cash is exchanged on Lesvos. The smuggler network in Athens operates the cash transfer.
For example, a cousin or friend of a refugee on Lesvos, wanting to travel, will meet a smuggler contact in Athens, at a secret location, and hand money over that has been sent to them via Western Union. This way, the smuggler ring on Lesvos never has to handle any cash.
Once confirmation of the transaction carried out in Athens is received by the smuggler in Lesvos, the papers are handed over.
It is the responsibility of the refugee to buy the ferry ticket themselves. From Lesvos, there are two ferry operators; Blue Star (Government) and Hellenic Seaways (private). In order to buy a ferry ticket, you must show valid identification to the tour operators/ticket sellers.
So, prior to buying a ticket, you have to have either bought or faked registration papers or some form of identity card.
The first step to getting onto the ferry, and off the island, is to present yourself with your papers at the port. The police then check the papers and they give permission for you to buy a ticket in the kiosk in the port area.
The local shops in Mytilene which also sell ferry tickets are more risky for refugees and they have been known to call the police from the Moria detention centre when a refugee has presented themselves to buy a ticket and they feel the papers are fake.
Therefore, it is safer for the refugees to buy their ferry tickets in the port.
Sometimes, when someone attempts to buy ferry tickets in the kiosk, the operator will not issue the ticket based on the presumption the papers/ID are fake. When this happens, the refugee phones the smuggler who, in turn, phones the agent and resolves the issue, after which the ferry ticket is issued.
Most of the Pakistani and Afghani smugglers operating on Lesvos, have been living on the island for a long time, speak fluent Greek, and can communicate with the kiosk agent directly.
While a smuggler is on the phone sorting out this issue, it is out of sight of the port police, so there is no risk to the refugee being caught at this time. In addition, there is no risk to the ferry operator getting into trouble from issuing the tickets and they receive extra money for issuing the tickets from the smugglers.
Once the refugee has been issued their ferry tickets (approximately €45, from Lesvos to Athens), they can attempt to board the ferry. Some are successful and board the ferry and travel to Athens. Others are stopped when trying to board and are arrested by the police.
There are also a large number of plain-clothed police officers in the port area so, until the ferry departs Lesvos, the refugees are on edge.
If arrested, they are usually handled very violently by police. The police then rip up the papers and ticket, bundle the refugee into a waiting police van and, once the ferry has left (and any other suspected refugees have also been arrested and placed into the van), they are taken into a closed detention facility inside Moria hotspot.
There is no formal punishment for refugees, for this offence, but access to facilities is decreased (i.e. less food) when held in the closed detention facility. They are usually held here for two to three days, before being released. For the majority of refugees, this is not a deterrent. It just forces them to find another €200 and try again.
Many people have also tried to travel to Athens in shipping containers. Some are successful but the majority are not. This shows the risks some are willing to take, out of desperation, to leave Lesvos and the dire conditions they are faced with.
The smuggler mafia network on Lesvos also has contacts within the Greek police force. This is appealing to refugees as it increases their confidence that they are more likely to be successful.
There is the option of paying an additional €1,800 to the police, via the smugglers, to ensure they aren’t stopped when attempting to board the ferry. For many though, this isn’t an option as it is too expensive.
Instead, they attempt it without the insider support of the police force and, if they are unsuccessful, they are forced to save up again and attempt the journey for a second or third time.
But for those who have travelled this way, with the support of the police, they have been successful. For others, they take the risk and attempt to board the ferry without bribing the police. What’s clear is that if you have the money to bribe the police, you are more likely to be successful in being smuggled off the island.
This summer, there was another alternative being offered to refugees stranded on Lesvos. A single police officer (operating independently of other police officials) inside Moria, with mafia contacts, was offering to smuggle refugees to Athens for €700.
During one particular week in June, 10 people from Pakistan successfully travelled this way. This is particularly appealing to Pakistani refugees who have, in some cases, been stuck on Lesvos since December and are now desperate to travel to Athens. They are also already significantly indebted to smugglers for their journey from Pakistan to Greece.
They also, aesthetically, don’t look like Syrian refugees and are generally stopped more often and, in some cases, are on first name terms with the port police, thwarting any chance of future attempts with fake papers.
Some of the Pakistani smugglers on Lesvos, who have lived on the island legally for many years and have EU passports, are married to Greek women. These wives have also become involved with the smuggler operations and travel with a male Pakistani refugee – to make it look like they are a couple. These refugees travel with fake identification cards while the Greek wives travel with original, legitimate paperwork, strengthening their legitimacy.
What is clear, is that the EU Turkey deal has not stemmed the profits being made by the smugglers across Europe. If anything, prices have increased, and refugees, especially those travelling as family units, are sinking further and further into debt in order to travel on and try and build a future.
It all comes down to money, the more you have the more successful your chances are of getting off Lesvos. The less you have, the more desperate and vulnerable you are and therefore the more likely you are to be taken advantage of. As options became more limited for refugees after the EU/Turkey deal in March, the options became more dangerous.
This summer, smugglers offered refugees who had little or no money left another option to fund their journeys, drug smuggling. Refugees were given the option of distributing drugs (on Lesvos this was mostly heroin and cocaine) between the refugee camps on Lesvos to other refugees.
Many have taken up this offer, especially those from poor families who cannot depend on their families to send them additional money to fund their onward journeys. For many, the cost of the journey to get as far as Lesvos has put huge financial pressure on their families at home.
After several failed attempts with faked papers, they are forced to enter the drug smuggling option. This option is also being offered to the unaccompanied minors in camps on Lesvos. This group of refugees are particularly vulnerable and are easy targets for smugglers.
The money made from selling the drugs within the camps is split 50/50 between the smuggler and the refugee. This is a way for the refugee to make money in order to fund their journey ahead.
However, the risk is high – if refugees are caught with the drugs, they are arrested and brought to jail in Mytilene. This would also impact their future chances of gaining asylum in Greece.
Graphics from the UNHCR showing the capacity and occupancy rates at sites for refugees across Greece (top) and the number of people known to have died or gone missing this year, as of August 31, in comparison to 2015
According to the latest figures from the UNHCR, there are now59,569 refugees and migrants on Greek territory.
The figures also show the following numbers of people on the islands versus the capacity of the facilities available.
Lesbos: 5,388 people versus facilities with a capacity for 3,500.
Chios: 3,316 people versus facilities with a capacity for 1,100.
Samos: 1,351 people versus facilities with a capacity for 850.
Ekathimerini, a daily Greek newspaper which is sold with the International Herald Tribune, in Greece reports:
A year after the European Union launched its refugee sharing plan so member countries could help overwhelmed Greece and Italy less than five percent of the migrants have been relocated.
European Commission figures show that only 4,473 asylum seekers were relocated as of September 1.
The plan is a cornerstone of the EU’s strategy to deal with more than one million people who entered Europe last year in search of sanctuary or jobs. It commits countries to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece, Italy or any other member state deemed unable to cope by September 2017.
EU Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said Monday that, despite the slow pace, “what we are doing is not insignificant.”
BBC News producer Will Vernon tweets from Lesbos island, Greece where 4,345 people are currently being detained.
Last night at the detention centre in Moria, on Lesbos Island:
Andrew Connolly, for Raw News, reported:
A mass riot has broken out between refugees and police inside the Moria detention centre on the Greek island of Lesbos during the night of April 26.
On Tuesday afternoon, thick, black plumes of smoke could been seen floating above the facility and Raw News witnessed numerous refugees being carried out injured and suffering from tear gas inhalation.
NGO sources inside confirmed that [the] riot started in the wing which detains unaccompanied children, which then intensified after police beat a child, and subsequently used tear gas.
Human Rights Watch released a report today in relation to the deportations that have taken place from Greece to Turkey, as part of the EU/Turkey deal – of which Ireland has contributed €22million.
The report paid particular attention to Chios island where the UN claimed 13 people – 11 people from Afghanistan, and two people from the Democratic Republic of Congo – were wrongly deported on April 4.
The report states:
In visits to the VIAL detention center on Chios on April 7 and 8, Human Rights Watch spoke with 12 friends and one relative of 19 Afghans who were deported from Chios on April 4.
Based on those interviews and text messages exchanged between those interviewed and the deportees, Human Rights Watch documented an array of irregularities and violations.
The authorities did not inform people that they were going to be deported, did not tell them where they were being taken, and did not allow some of them to take their personal possessions.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, thirteen of those deported from Chios had expressed a desire to seek asylum in Greece, and that number could be higher,
The Greek authorities appear to have hurried the forced returns from Chios, and the 136 other deportations that day from the nearby island of Lesbos, to meet a publicized deadline for the start of returns under the ill-conceived EU-Turkey deal that went into effect on March 20, 2016.
That deal allows the return of asylum seekers to Turkey on the presumption that Turkey is safe for asylum seekers and refugees.
…The deportations from Chios began around midday on April 3, when Greek police at the VIAL detention facility took dozens of people to the main building [Tabakika] where police and Frontex register new arrivals, and where the Greek asylum service is located.
The authorities separated the 66 people they had identified for return, witnesses said. The 12 friends and one relative of the 19 deportees, who did not want their names published, told Human Rights Watch that the police had called people on the false pretext that they were to be registered, including for asylum.
“Salim,” a 24-year-old man from Afghanistan, said the police took three of his Afghan friends, Ilias Haqjo, Mohammad, and Reza (full names unknown), all between 20 and 25 years old, without their possessions.
“They came here and told them they have to go to register,” he said. “They left happy and when they came out the police were waiting for them…. If the guys knew they were going to be deported, they would have taken their bags, their papers, their money.”
…On the other side, in Dikili, Turkey, the authorities hung blue tarps on the fence around the registration tents to block journalists and human rights monitors from contacting the deportees. The police commander at the area denied a Human Rights Watch request to access the site.
The deportees were then loaded onto buses and driven away. Police at the site told Human Rights Watch that they were headed to Kirklareli, near Edirne, and the media subsequently reported that the people deported from Greece were being held at the Pehlivankoy removal center in that town.
The deportees on the buses in Turkey, however, seemed not to know where exactly they were going. “Now we’re in the bus, they’re taking us to a camp,” Mohsen Ahmadi wrote his friend “Amir” around 3 p.m. “Why there?” “Amir” asked. “I don’t know, the camp is near Istanbul,” Ahmadi replied.
“When you arrive, let us know,” “Amir” wrote. “OK,” Ahmadi wrote back at 8:28 p.m., but that was the last message that “Amir” received.
…Human Rights Watch collected the phone numbers of four of the people who were deported from Chios on April 4. As of April 18, none of them had replied to messages on Viber, the application they had been using. When called, three of the phones appeared to be shut off and one of the numbers was not working.
The legal basis of confiscating phones from people being deported, if any, remains unclear. Given that asylum seekers and migrants rely on their phones to stay informed and to keep in touch with family, such measures appear unnecessary and cruel, as well as a violation of the individuals’ personal property rights, Human Rights Watch said.
The amount of powdered baby milk each infant in Vial allegedly gets every day
Further to the picture (above) circulating on social media last Thursday…
Patrick Kingsley, of The Guardian, reports:
Babies detained in Greece under the terms of the EU-Turkey migration deal are being denied access to adequate supplies of milk formula, refugees and aid workers have alleged.
Approximately 25 babies under the age of six months, whose mothers are unable to breastfeed, are being given roughly 100ml of milk formula just once a day on the island of Chios, according to photographs sent by detained refugees and testimonies provided by phone.
… A 35-year-old Afghan construction manager, detained in a detention centre on Chios since 21 March, said he had been forced to mix water with bread to stop his five-month-old daughter going hungry.
The man, who said he worked as a contractor for the British army in Afghanistan but asked not to named for fear of victimisation, said: “They are only giving us half a cup of milk for all 24 hours – but that’s not enough. There’s no more milk for lunch or dinner or during the night. This is a big problem. There are maybe 24 or 25 babies under six months.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council, which maintains a presence on Chios, confirmed the claim and said the number of infant children may even be higher. “It’s clear that baby milk [formula] is not being routinely distributed,” said Dan Tyler, the NRC’s protection and advocacy officer on Chios. “I did a series of meetings with refugees last week, and mothers brought up [the issue of] baby milk all the time.
Moria detention centre on Lesbos island this morning
You may recall yesterday’s deportation of 202 migrants from Lesbos and Chios islands in Greece to Turkey, with the assistance of 180 Frontex officers.
The deportations are a part of the €3billion EU/Turkey deal, of which Ireland is contributing €22million.
Last week the Department of Justice announced it will send three case workers from the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC) and the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS), and two members of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal to the Greek islands.
The department said it is also considering a request from Frontex for border guards to assist them with the deportations – even though Ireland is not a member of Frontex.
Last night on RTÉ One’s Drivetime, Lesbos-based journalist Andrew Connolly spoke with Mary Wilson.
Mr Connolly said:
“I’ve just been at the Moria detention centre talking to Pakistanis… based on my conversations with some of them, it’s very, I find it difficult to believe that some of the deportees this morning might have even understood the concept of asylum.
Again it’s being claimed by the Greek authorities and the European Asylum Office and also the UNHCR they seem to be satisfied that everyone was told their rights but they didn’t claim asylum in Greece.”
Further to this, Patrick Kingsley, in The Guardian reports this afternoon that the UN has told how 13 of the 202 deported yesterday may not have been given the opportunity to seek asylum before they were deported – as police officers “forgot”.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek asylum. Mr Kingsley reports:
Some of the first people to be deported from Greece under the terms of the EU-Turkey migration deal may not have been given the chance to claim for asylum, the UN refugee agency has said.
Police “forgot” to process the asylum claims of 13 of the 202 asylum seekers sent back to Turkey on Monday, the first day the deal was put into practice, according to Vincent Cochetel, director of UNHCR’s Europe bureau.
… Cochetel said on Tuesday that 13 Afghans and Congolese asylum seekers – who reached the Greek island of Chios after 20 March, and who were deported back to Turkey on Monday – were not allowed to formally register their asylum claims, due to administrative chaos on the island.
… Cochetel told the Guardian: “For four days after the 20th, the Greek police did not register any intention to seek asylum as they were no prepared [or] equipped for this, so we started providing forms to people who had declared their intention to seek asylum.”
“The police received most of the people with these forms and … forgot some apparently. It is more a mistake than anything else, we hope.”
…On Monday, more asylum seekers landed in Greece from Turkey (228) than were deported in the opposite direction (202).
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew will visit Greek island Lesbos next week #refugees
On Tuesday, journalist Oscar Webb, from Lesbos island, reported:
Up to 190 shipping containers are on their way to Lesvos, Samos and Chios, to be used as offices by 600 EU asylum officials and 430 interpreters. According to the terms of the deal between the EU and Turkey that came into effect on 20 March, ‘all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands … will be returned to Turkey’.
Sixty judges will preside over appeals committees – also to take place in containers – for people who do not immediately accept deportation orders. And 2500 police, security and army personnel from Greece and other EU states, with eight ships and thirty coaches, will enforce the deportations. Until the material and manpower arrive, the refugees and asylum seekers are waiting in detention camps on the islands.
On Lesvos, close to a thousand refugees – the unlucky ones who arrived, in some cases only by minutes, after the 20 March deadline – have been placed in the island’s only detention centre, near the village of Moria.
They were met at sea and on the beaches by police who took their photos, gave them numbered wristbands, issued them with arrest papers (‘you have been legally arrested … currently you are being held here legally and temporarily … please be patient’) and took them to the camp. More arrive almost every day.
Conditions are bad in the Moria camp. The Greek authorities are struggling to look after the detainees without the help of charities and volunteers. Last week, the UNHCR, Médicins sans Frontières, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and the Norwegian Refugee Council all said they were pulling out.
Further to this…
The Department of Justice released a statement earlier this morning, saying:
Ireland will shortly be sending three international protection case work experts to the Greek Islands. The experts will come from the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC) and the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS).
Ireland will also be offering the services of two members of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal to support the establishment of Appeals Committees. This is also being coordinated by EASO [European Asylum Support Office].
The agreement requires that the return of irregular migrants to Turkey will take place in full accordance with EU and international law. Furthermore, all migrants must be protected in accordance with the relevant international standards and in respect of the principle of non-refoulement.
This contribution will be on top of the four Irish experts sent earlier this year from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service and the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner to Greece and Italy to support the relocation of asylum seekers under the EU Relocation Programme.
Ireland is also considering a request from Frontex to EU Member States for the deployment of border Guards to assist in the return of people from Greece to Turkey in compliance with international law. There are some limitations on what Ireland can do, given it is not a member of Frontex, but it would like to help where it can.
Meanwhile, Hannah Lucinda Smith, in The Times reports:
Turkish border forces are shooting refugees dead as they flee the civil war in Syria, The Times has learnt.
Sixteen migrants, including three children, were killed by guards as they crossed into Turkey over the past four months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring organisation.
An officer in the British-backed Free Syrian Police and a Syrian smuggler living in Turkey said that the true number was higher.
The deaths cast further doubt on an EU migrant deal struck 11 days ago. It classes Turkey as a “safe third country”, meaning refugees can be returned there without fear of persecution.
A report, published today by Human Rights Watch, states:
In a visit to Piraeus (the main port near Athens) from March 8 to 22, 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 45 asylum seekers and migrants who had recently arrived at the port from Greek Aegean islands or Greece’s border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. An estimated 5,000 women, men, and children are sleeping in squalid, unsanitary, and unsafe conditions in passenger waiting areas, in an old warehouse, in tents outdoors, and even under trucks.
In the absence of any visible government support or personnel, the day-to-day operation of the camps is dependent on volunteers. These volunteers work to coordinate, among other things, the provision of tents, blankets, food, and clothing; identify vulnerable groups; and provide activities for children. For the most part, medical care is provided by aid groups.
….With no presence of the Greek Asylum Service, nor of any other officials who could provide people with much-needed information about their options in Greece and elsewhere, rumors are creating uncertainty and confusion, Human Rights Watch found.
Some people interviewed said they were afraid they would be deported to Turkey if they boarded one of the government-run buses transferring people to official reception camps in an effort to clear the port.
Many others had heard that conditions at the government-run camps were not good, prompting them to stay at the port until the “borders open.” Others said they had gone to the camps but found the conditions so bad that they returned to the port.
…“I’ve been here [in Greece] for one month and not even one drop of water has touched my body,” said Nawael, a 34-year-old Syrian woman in a wheelchair who has been in Piraeus with her husband and three children for more than 10 days.
“Here it is very hard for me to go to the toilet. My husband helps me at the door and random women help me inside the toilet. I don’t sleep at night because my body is itchy. My husband helped me and I washed my hair with cold water, but then I got sick. Ten days ago, I got my period and I swear to God, I still haven’t had a shower. And I [usually] pray, but given that I haven’t had a shower [to perform required ablutions], I can’t pray.”
Meanwhile, at an open refugee camp recently built in Ritsona, some 70km north of Athens….
Refugees, who were forcibly returned from Idomeni at the Greek/Macedonia border to Athens on Wednesday night, queue for food outside Tae-Kwon-Do Stadium in Athens on Thursday morning
After spending Autumn working with refugees arriving in Lesbos Broadsheet’s Olga Cronin returned to the Greek island this week.
On Sunday, November 29, the EU struck a deal with Turkey. In return for €3billion, visa-free access to Schengen zone countries for the citizens of Turkey and a speeding up of the process of allowing Turkey into the EU, Turkey promised to stem the flow of refugees travelling from Turkey to the Greek islands.
The agreement was made as high numbers of people seeking refugee protection – the majority of whom are from Syria and Afghanistan – continue to travel from Turkey to Greece on inflatable rubber dinghies.
The number of people who have died this year while trying to cross the Aegean Sea is unknown while, according to the UNHCR, more than 3,440 people have died trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean.
According to the latest figures from the UNHCR, 768,916 people in total travelled across the sea to Greece between January and December 8 of this year – 58 per cent men, 26 per cent children and 16 per cent women.
A total of 447,958 – or 58 per cent – landed on Lesbos alone.
Chios and Samos islands have seen the second and third highest number of arrivals with 105,691 and 91,243 landing on its shores respectively during the same time period.
Although it’s less than two weeks since the EU/Turkey deal, and fluctuations in the number of people arriving are common – with numbers commonly dropping in tandem with political events such as a visit of a politician or dignitary to an island or Turkey’s recent general election – the UNHCR figures indicate the smugglers, perhaps inevitably, may be changing the route upon which they send people.
The winter weather is also likely to be a factor, but smugglers offer those travelling in bad weather a discount.
The daily number of people arriving on Lesbos island decreased dramatically in just a matter of days, from 2,462 on Sunday, November 29 to 1,337 on Friday, December 4.
Boats are very much still arriving on Lesbos, with the figure rising to 3,231 on Monday, December 7, but the location of where the majority of boats are arriving has changed dramatically from the north of the island – where the Turkish coastguard activity has been most visible to date – to the south.
The coastline of northern Lesbos – just six kilometres from Turkey – is unrecognisable from how it looked just a few weeks ago and volunteers and rescue teams present in northern Lesbos now feel it’s a waiting game in regards to deciding where they should place their efforts.
Gone is the necklace of washed-up bright orange lifejackets along the northern coastline, due to a substantial clean-up operation – with a mountain of thousands upon thousands of lifejackets piled high in a dump outside Eftalou – while the unofficial camps outside Skala Sikaminias and in the car park of nightclub Oxy, outside Molyvos, no longer have the swarms of people huddled outside trying to sleep on cold, muddy ground, often without any shelter or blankets.
The south of the island is receiving more and more boats every day, prompting volunteer and rescue groups to send teams to the south, and volunteer groups to increase their night-time operations in Camp Moria where, as of the weekend, all nationalities must register and where those not from Syria must sleep – often outside, in mud or on a section of pavement, without blankets.
Sadly, the change has come at a time when the north has seen a substantial increase in both volunteers and returnee volunteers arriving.
New infrastructure and provisions have also been put in place.
The International Rescue Committee has built a camp on the so-called dirt road between Eftalou and Skala Sikaminias, equipped with enough tents to provide shelter for 1,500 people and is scheduled to open in a matter of days, while Médecins Sans Frontières and Greenpeace have launched three rigid hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) – strengthening the huge rescue efforts of the Spanish Pro-Activa Open Arms lifeguard volunteers who have been present on the island since September.
Much like the south of Lesbos, the other Greek islands have also experienced significant change. Chios, which lies south of Lesbos, saw a sudden spike in arrivals from Turkey with the figure jumping from zero on November 28 to 2,139 on November 29 – placing tremendous pressure on the locals who have led the effort to provide for those arriving, along with the skeletal number of volunteers who were present at the time.
Those working at Tabakika in Chios – a freezing cold and rundown former factory building which serves as a Frontex hotspot and where smoking area-type heaters heat the area officers register arrivals while those waiting to register go without – are currently trying to work out how to provide food to those arriving as the prospect of opening a food station has prompted fears of attracting rats.
Refugees waiting to register may leave the camp to buy food in local stores but, for those who don’t have any money, they could face remaining in their wet clothes and living off of water and crackers provided by the UNHCR for up to three days.
A clothes distribution hut is in place in the camp but it is only opened when there are three volunteers present. If there are fewer than three present, as is often the case, men, women and children sitting in wet clothes must remain in them.
Those helping people off boats try to offset this by hurriedly trying to provide dry clothes – mostly donated – from the back of their cars as soon as refugees reach the shores.
Depending on the number of volunteers present at a given time, and what they have in their car at the time a boat arrives, this can amount to just a pair of socks with a small plastic bag in lieu of dry shoes.
In an effort to prevent – in children especially – hypothermia, volunteers hand these little bundles out, telling people to take their wet shoes and socks off, to place the dry socks on, followed by the plastic bag, and to then put their feet back into the wet shoes.
A bus system is in place in Chios whereby, once a boat arrives, volunteers can call for a bus – which is organised by the local authorities – to come and collect people and take them to Tabakika. The police running the buses charge €3 per adult while children on the near 60-seater coaches can travel the 10-minute or so journey for free.
After registering, refugees can go to a makeshift camp set up in the shadow of the Castle Of Chios, called Souda, to sleep. Just a few minutes’ walk from Tabakika it is equipped with two 250-capacity tents and multiple IKEA shelters. Souda is cleaned daily.
On Samos, between November 28 to 30, the number of arrivals rose from zero to 517 while Kos saw the number of arrivals rise from less than 50 on November 29 to 229 on November 30, rising again to 378 on December 7.
Leros also saw the number of arrivals rise from zero on November 28 and 29 to 264 on November 30.
In the meantime, as the number of arrivals from Cesme in Turkey to the shores of Chios rises, so does the death toll.
On Tuesday, it was reported that six children, including a baby, died when a dinghy – believed to have been bound for Chios – capsized off Cesme.
Separately, it was reported Wednesday that at least 11 people, including five children, drowned and 10 are missing after a boat sank off Farmakonisi island.
But change isn’t only afoot on the Greek islands.
On Wednesday night – the eve of the 67th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” – approximately 2,400 refugees were rounded up and forcibly put on buses in Idomeni, at the border between Greece and Macedonia, and sent to Tae-Kwon-Do Stadium in Athens.
The move followed several weeks of authorities only allowing the citizens of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to pass through the border, putting a blanket ban on those from other countries and prompting smugglers to offer those stranded other methods of getting further into Europe.
The ban disallowing those not from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to pass forced them to camp out in squalid conditions while some sewed their lips shut in protest. Last week a Moroccan died after he was electrocuted. It’s been reported he had climbed on top of a train carriage when he came in contact with electric cables.
It’s also been reported that, prior to these people being put on the buses, journalists were removed from the area to a place two kilometres away and that some were asked to delete photographs. Volunteers were also removed.
Following the eviction of those at the camp a volunteer in Idomeni wrote on the Facebook page, Forgotten In Idomeni:
“When the camp was re-opened, it was clear that people didn’t have time or weren’t given the opportunity to gather possessions. Refugees reported from inside the camp that people were dragged from tents and some were beaten. Others gave up and left peacefully. All hope lost.”
After refugees register on the Greek islands, Syrians are given a document which allows them to stay in Greece for six months while all other nationalities are given a document which orders them to leave Greece, or return home, within 30 days.
Many of those who had been in Idomeni were there for three weeks meaning their deadline to move is fast approaching.
Different treatment for different nationalities isn’t uncommon in Greece.
In Lesbos, only Syrian families can sleep in a camp near Mytilene called Kara Tepe – which has facilities much more favourable to those provided at the barbed wire-fringed former prison that is Camp Moria, just two miles from Kara Tepe.
As thousands of refugees continue their journey from the Greek islands, via ferries, to Athens and more and more buses return from the border with Macedonia to the Greek capital, many long-term volunteers and solidarity groups on the islands – who are largely dependent on the testimonies of other volunteers via Twitter and Facebook for details of events on the ground – are starting to feel that perhaps Athens will be their next stop.
I’ve spent the past few months working with various volunteer and solidarity structures in Greece, Serbia, Croatia and Calais. In response to the degrading conditions, dislocation and discrimination that many of those seeking refuge face as they travel, volunteer networks have attempted to embody practical solidarity and real welcome.
These groups have spent time with and learnt from the courage, resilience and dignity of the women, men and children who are journeying such long distances in the hopes of re-building lives of safety and stability.
I’m travelling back to Lesvos/Lesbos on November 10 with a group of experienced, calm and dedicated medics from Ireland- nurses, mid-wives, paediatric doctors, EMTs and a surgeon- and logistical support volunteers.
We will work alongside existing medical groups and volunteer networks as a mobile unit, responding to the medical and other practical needs of those surviving the winter crossing in rubber dinghies and decrepit wooden boats. We are covering our costs through friends and family so the money raised here [link below] will be spent on procuring additional medical supplies and vital medical equipment…