Everyone remembers their first solo boat, brimming with frightened people, crashing into the beach with no coastguard to see them safely ashore. You get the babies out first, too small for a lifejacket, carried over the rocks and churning water for mothers that can hardly stand. You remember how they clung to you, weeping with gratitude, and wondering where they got the strength to start walking to the camp.
There was a lot of that in October, when refugee numbers on Lesvos were peaking and I was there as an independent volunteer. Aid agencies were shipping in supplies without the staff to direct them where needed. And when they clocked off in the evenings, or said it was too dangerous enter the camp, there was only us, the riot police and the refugees. We did what we could in a dogged war against deprivation and indignity from the beaches to the camps. Then and since, it’s been the independent volunteers sacrificing sleep, meals and dry socks without a thought, because the need was so great and there was no one else.
The day I left, a former Free Syrian Army soldier driven out by corruption in the rebel ranks and fear for his family, told me: “You give some food, a blanket, and to you it seems small. But to us it means everything. Independent volunteers are the only ones who listen to us; who try to understand us as people. That is a miracle.”
That miracle has been happening all over Europe. Wherever governments and aid agencies have failed in their obligations under international law, thousands of people from all over the world have stepped up. They are giving up their holidays, even their jobs, to stretch a hand across all we’re told divide us, to bring compassion and solidarity to the refugee road, from France and Hungary to Spain and Greece.
With a bankrupt government appointed the gatekeeper of Europe, holes in Greece’s aid system were inevitable, so solidarity networks were given the go-ahead to do the lifesaving work no one else was going to do. As Lara, a young Dutch volunteer now in Chios explains, aid agencies are strangled by the political realities of this crisis.
“Because of the rules, they can’t even meet basic needs,” she says. “As an independent volunteer you know if you don’t distribute your 20 blankets, so many people will be freezing to death and that’s on your conscience. If you work for UNHCR and you have 200 but are forbidden to give them out, the order comes from higher up so conscience doesn’t come into it.”
When I left in November, more independents were coming to do what the aid agencies couldn’t: from feeding hungry people without waiting for the right paperwork to giving lifts to unregistered refugees, the sick, the old, pregnant women and toddlers left to climb mountains cold and wet. But now, they are under attack.
2016 began with a move to have all volunteers registered with the police. In a crisis where immigration law criminalises vital humanitarian work, this is a recipe for disaster. And it is not just about elbowing out the political activists; to ‘allow authorities time to organise the registration process’, entire flights chartered for volunteers have been cancelled. Even Clowns Without Borders were barred from the camps. The same thing is now happening in France, where independent volunteers are being barred from the camps at Dunkirk and Calais, reduced to watching months of work burned to the ground by authorities branding them ‘uncaring’ and ‘dangerous’.
There’s another glaring cause for concern on the Greek front: over half their police are Golden Dawn supporters. So, fifty-fifty chance you’re registering sensitive information with an armed fascist. That wasn’t an abstract danger to any of us: we had witnessed the racism and brutality. One night, we were so afraid of the police in our building, we slept in the car.
With NATO warships now in the Aegean and Turkey stepping up the brutality of its border control, things on the island have slowed. But that cannot last and when it ends, things are going to look very different. Independent volunteers are being cleared off the islands to make way for Frontex and its militarised hotspot-detention system.
When they started throwing volunteers in jail, it was a sign of things to come. The first five were locked up on smuggling charges after they rescued 51 people from a stranded dinghy the coastguard would not look for. “They treated us like terrorists,” said one, when they were released on bail for €5-10,000 per head, facing a custodial sentence of five to ten years.
It was the beginning of a crackdown ordered from the highest levels. The Council of the European Union is preparing plans to equate humanitarian assistance with people trafficking, criminalising those saving lives at sea and caring for survivors on land. “We feel as if we are in the resistance in World War Two,” said Lara. “We were ‘randomly’ checked for papers and passports and told not to feed the hungry. Every move we make is being watched.”
In Lesvos, seven international volunteers were even arrested for ‘stealing’ discarded lifejackets and a volunteer-run spotting station guiding boats at sea was shut down. Self-organised support stations like Platanos have been threatened with demolition. The solidarity group writes that things have changed radically in recent weeks: “Frontex vessels appeared and together with the Greek coastguard are barricading the sea the whole day. Few refugees reach the shore [and so] no support from the frontline camps can be offered to these people, leading them to spend many hours without food, dry clothes and medical attention. Platanos sea rescue team was stopped several times from providing help or guidance to refugee boats and we were ordered to back away.” Too often, ‘authorised’ help never comes. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) more than 400 people have drowned so far this year.
In the north, border police have been forcing refugees away from volunteer-run food and medical stations and out of heated tents into sub-freezing temperatures – a barbaric practice condemned by Amnesty International. Police have also demanded fake bribes from refugees: €100 to cross the border. Stories like that really highlight the irony of police screening for volunteers with ulterior motives.
In Chios, where one volunteer photographer has been arrested on espionage charges, volunteers report that “Frontex is now present everywhere… And they no longer allow fisher boats rented by volunteers to leave the harbour.” Elsewhere, volunteers have had their accommodation stormed by riot police and been submitted to full-body searches.
Grassroots organisations condemn the deadly consequences of Frontex interfering with emergency volunteer rescue operations. As these are curtailed, volunteers report they are not being replaced, leaving boats without rescue to drown quietly in the darkness. One lifeguard, on condition of anonymity, told me tearfully: “You can’t imagine what it’s like… to have a mother hold out her baby to you from a waterlogged boat, and to tell her that you can’t take the child into safety because you’ll go to prison. I won’t do it.”
This is a bid to re-establish government control of Europe’s borderlands, particularly Lesvos, an island which, at last, the world was watching. Booting independents off the island, detaining refugees as sea and pushing boats back to Turkey all serve to sweep the refugee crisis off European soil – and under a Turkish carpet. At the same time, it re-directs donations back to the big agencies and destroys perhaps the most important achievement of this historic Europe-wide solidarity network: an army of whistle-blowers who educate and humanise this crisis for people back home.
But the crackdown is also opening eyes. Confronted with the barbarity of border control on one hand and the inadequacy of aid agencies on the other, young volunteers are looking elsewhere for answers. To quote 21-year-old James from Australia: “Seeing the agencies stand around, waiting for the solution to yesterday’s problem to be approved, while we were all getting things done with no funding… It taught me, the system can’t be this broken, it must be designed to fail people.”
If they can bring that conviction and commitment back with them they will be powerful agents for political change at home. And ultimately, that’s what it will take to bring justice and humanity back to the frontlines: a moral revolution at the heart of fortress Europe.