Bringing Solidarity Home – Comment Is Free

Until she saw her baby, the mother would not eat, drink or move. She sat soaked and trembling, looking out across the Aegean for a rescue boat we knew wouldn’t come. Three hundred people had been on her boat when it sank. All night, we volunteers had been seeing in the rescue boats, providing urgent care and gathering names of the missing. We’d had reports that two newborns were flown to hospital in critical condition. Chances were that one of them was hers, but the police wouldn’t let us drive her to the hospital. Rescued at sea by the authorities, she was formally “in detention” until she registered. “No papers, no hospital,” they said.

Hours before, I’d performed CPR for the first time in my life, on a little boy who hadn’t survived. I was in shock too and haunted by the notion that this mother’s presence might somehow make the difference between life and death for her child. At the very least, she was being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. We sat shoulder to shoulder, in silence, with her relatives around her. “Where do you hope to go?” one of the other volunteers asked in a weak attempt to dent the silence.

“To Britain,” a relative replied. “To live free.”

The refugee camps have always been there, swelling quietly with the very human consequences of the political system that governs our lives. But with the age of televised warfare, the lights came on. War is becoming real for us, for the first time in a long time. Here are its orphans, its exiled freedom fighters and grieving mothers, camping out right on our doorstep. Conflict, climate change, globalisation: it can’t be some grisly reality TV show after all; here are its refugees, real human families throwing themselves on the southern steps of Fortress Europe.

What happened next was extraordinary. There’s the side of the story we know: politicians scapegoating, talk of swarms and cockroaches in the press; a thundering Brexit vote followed by a spike in hate crime so sharp it gave the nation whiplash. But then there’s the other story, less often told: that well below the radar of the mainstream media, tens of thousands of people from all nations, of all ages, cultures and political persuasions, started giving up jobs, studies, relationships and reliable wifi and heading for the borderlands to do their part. They flooded in to do what politicians and aid agencies wouldn’t: from illegal ocean rescues and calling out police brutality to running art therapy classes, feeding thousands and sorting sky-high piles of donated clothes across the continent from Norway to Calais.

I feel enormously proud to have been part of that movement. I learned a lot as a solidarity volunteer in Greece. Some of those lessons were traumatic – I still have nightmares a year later – but I think I learned as much about politics in weeks in Camp Moria as I did in years at university. The most personally challenging and painful lesson was a simple one: it will never be enough. However many volunteers we have pulling 15-hour shifts, politicians in halls of power far away are doing more damage in a week than we could undo in a lifetime. For all their summits, resolutions and deals, in 2015 one in 269 people crossing to Europe died; this year it’s one in 88.

With deprivation and incarceration systematically inflicted on people in the name of border control, when we say “refugees welcome” that is a commitment to campaign for radical change here at home – or it’s meaningless.

In December 2015 I was taken out of action by a serious spinal injury. Being forced home was infuriating. I started providing online support, fundraising, anything to fight the creeping sense of powerlessness, to stay connected. I started following the news again, watching in horror as governments closed the Balkan route and levelled camps at Calais and Dunkirk. Autonomous humanitarian aid was being criminalised, camps sealed off from independent observers and mass deportations introduced. Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey deal started edging “the refugee crisis” off our front pages; it was someone else’s problem now. Europe had paid a handsome price to make it so.

Coming home, it’s strange trying to figure out where you used to fit in. Media headlines about immigration stop being abstract and become about people we know. Apathy and discrimination start to hurt instead of just irritate because we’ve seen their casualties starving and cold and the empty orange lifejackets floating in the sea. We know what it costs. We’re not supposed to just fit back in when we come home. We’re supposed to be opening eyes. The fight for refugee and migrant rights out there can’t be won without a radical political shift here, in the heart of Fortress Europe.

The solidarity-based approach developed and demonstrated by the best of the independent volunteers has enormous potential to achieve this. It has the power, not just to save lives, but to change lives; to heal the divisions in our communities torn by politicians scapegoating the poor and the undocumented for a crisis they created.

It’s not about charity. It’s about recognising shared responsibility for the state of our shared world; understanding we have always been connected.

By refusing to provide safe passage, refusing its fair share of refugees and detaining over 30,000 undocumented people every year, the British government is reinforcing the precedent that black and brown lives don’t matter. If that passes unchallenged, we are all forced into a more dangerous, divided and desolate world. And with states cracking down on independent solidarity work, simply saving lives is becoming a political act.

Humanitarian aid without a political movement is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with water one teacup at a time. Every time they raze Calais to the ground I am reminded of that painful truth.

One of the most urgent battles for asylum and immigration justice in the UK is against detention. This pointless, brutal practice is the most harmful aspect of the system. It cripples the ability of detainees to fight their own legal cases or speak out for justice. With a growing protest movement at detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, ending detention is a fight we can win right here at home. That means everything from raising awareness to the direct action of the fearless grandmas who brought immigration raids to a halt in Glasgow. A movement that broad is ambitious; but ambition and vision are all that will stop our descent into barbarism.

Work that builds practical solidarity infrastructure and political resistance which work together, from the heartlands to the borderlands, outlines the way forward: projects such as These Walls Must Fall, which combines campaigning with a solidarity-based approach to migration and asylum support to empower those affected to fight back for their rights as part of our community. We’re taking on a multi-million-pound industry which profits from the system and has close ties to the government. But if we win, that victory would be felt well beyond our borders.

If walls can fall in Fortress Britain – they can fall anywhere.

Originally published by the Guardian online & in print, 29th December 2016
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Borderline Justice: EU-Turkey deal is a disaster for refugees

EU governments leading the charge in the War on Terror have bought the right to turn their backs on its casualties for a cool £4.6 billion by striking their deal with Turkey. In exchange for the funds and lessened visa restrictions on Turkish citizens, the EU has been able to violate its international obligations and outsource its refugee crisis.

For its part, the EU promised to resettle one refugee from Turkey for each one deported back from Greece, trading them like gambling chips across the table until they reach their cap of 72,000: a fraction of the 2 million refugees already there. Amnesty International describes the deal as “a death blow to the right to seek asylum” demonstrating an “alarmingly short-sighted and inhumane attitude”. And with NATO warships launched in the Aegean to help ‘seal the maritime border’ and authorities moving in to sweep away independent volunteers in Greece and elsewhere, Fortress Europe has slammed its doors on Syria and is doing its best to cover up the human cost.

Borderline Justice

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Ongoing protests by refugees against inhumane conditions at Camp Moria, Lesvos (April 2016) – reportedly triggered by riot police teargassing minors who broke out of detention

The EU-Turkey deal has unfolded against a backdrop of rapid militarisation in the EU’s refugee response system. On land, the military are playing an ever-greater role in the reception and detention of refugees. Meanwhile, the Greek government scrambles to follow EU directives for so-called ‘hotspots’ and military ‘relocation camps’ for the processing of migrants and refugees in the Aegean islands – which some Greek soldiers have likened to concentration camps and refused to help construct.

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has described the Syrian refugee crisis as a ‘major security threat’ and deployed five NATO warships in the Aegean. Stoltenberg insisted the naval operation was “not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats” although they have admitted that’s precisely what they will do with those ‘rescued’ at sea.  They will also carry out reconnaissance against the smugglers, but pass their information back to the Turkish state.

So here we begin to see the insanity and ultimate ineffectuality of the EU-Turkey deal. There are few threats to refugees on their territory that the Turkish government doesn’t seem to have a hand in – starting with the smuggling networks they’re being paid to eradicate. Though publicly committed to clamping down on the smuggling networks packing refugees into ‘the death boats’ to Greece, many on the frontline are convinced that here again, officials are in fact complicit. If you’re with the right smuggler, police and coastguards give you a pass. One smuggling boss, who calls himself Malik al-Behar (‘King of the Shores’) even describes his landing docks as ‘military territories’ under surveillance by the Turkish police.

In the last quarter of 2015 when I was in Lesvos, thousands of refugees arrived every day. The boats only stopped twice: the first lull surrounded an official visit by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for which the camps were cleared and cleaned and thousands of refugees were shipped off the island; the second coincided with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey, when arrivals on Lesvos’ chaotic northern beaches more than halved.

I shared this observation with Abdul Majid, a Syrian refugee and former Free Syrian Army soldier: “That’s just how it happens.” He smiled as though it were obvious. “When a politician is coming with media, they change everything, make the camps look nice. This is the system they have to hide the situation from the European people. [The politicians and smugglers] are all in on it together.”

Turkey’s border control efforts have always been contradictory. One the one hand, officials turn a blind eye to massive smuggling operations with links to the political establishment. On the other hand, the authorities need to send a different message to the EU. This has a lot to do with the fact more than 4,000 people have drowned in the Aegean since January 2015, resorting to more dangerous and desperate crossings to evade the authorities. As any experienced volunteer will tell you, the authorities deploy incredible violence to stop these boats.

Such accounts are ubiquitous amongst refugee communities, though they are often afraid to report it to the authorities and those that do are invariably ignored. Yonous Muhammadi, president of the Greek Forum of Refugees, put it plainly in our interview: “We have evidence of these things,” he said, referring to violence and illegal pushbacks on both sides of the Greek-Turkish border. “The problem is, they say, when we as refugees are speaking it is ‘not so credible.’”

So it is the independent volunteers who bear witness to this brutal and secret history: the capsizings, the cutting of fuel lines, firing live ammunition and even electrocuting passengers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) had started publishing similar reports long before the EU deal was finalised, but their alarm bells were met with silence from politicians.

When I was in Lesvos, one young refugee from Damascus recounted how his boat was repeatedly rammed by the Turkish coastguard. “Many people fell in the water and drowned,” he said, staring hard at the sea. “I don’t know how many, but they beat us, one, two, three times. They have no feeling.” He spoke on condition of anonymity, ultimately expecting to be deported back to Turkey himself. He told me the boat was carrying 67 people, with twenty infants. “Only nine of us reached Lesvos… I don’t know why they do it.”

“The world continues to see Turkish border police open fire on human beings, including children, clearly fleeing from Islamic State and the Syrian regime, so forcing people back to Turkey cannot be considered a reasonable solution to the crisis,” adds independent human rights consultant, Ashley Anderson. “It has a strong financial incentive to turn a blind eye to smuggling operations and a long-term political interest in stopping migration on behalf of the EU. It’s like a dog chasing its own tail.”

No Refuge

Turkey certainly has a strong incentive to stop the boats at all costs; the EU deal depended on it. Ankara wanted the EU to relax visa requirements for Turkish citizens and got £4.6 billion to maintain its refugee camps and secure its borders. In exchange, the Erdoğan administration has been building fences, deploying water cannon and upgrading its surveillance systems. Even so, both fighters and weapons are known to routinely cross the border, parts of which periodically fall under the control of armed militants. Meanwhile, a senior researcher from Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned Turkey’s border closures for “forcing pregnant women, children, the elderly, the sick and the injured to run the gantlet of Turkish border officials to escape the horrors of Syria’s war.”

Those who make it into Turkey are ensnared in desperate poverty. Already there are more Syrian refugees in Istanbul – mostly sleeping rough – than all of Europe has resettled. Less than 0.1 percent of Syrians in the country are in line for work permits, few refugee children find a place in school and the camps are wracked with deprivation. Yet the mainstream media commonly refers to them as some of the ‘nicest in the world’.

In reality, media access is so limited that much remains hidden from the outside world. This is glimpsed only through leaked videos like this one – showing 2,500 refugees being housed on the floor of a sports hall sharing ‘two toilets and no exits’ – and testimony from independent volunteers. In February, Danish volunteer Nina Aandahl was working in Torbali, where “there were more than 2000 refugees living in awful conditions, mostly Syrian Bedouins. Volunteers made many improvements: a kitchen, a school, sanitation… I went home for a break and when I got back, the police had forced everyone out.”

Her Palestinian colleague Mohammad Khanfer adds that many local camps are now labour camps, where refugees must work just to earn water and food. He also speculates the Torbali camps were closed due to “too much publicity and too much help [from volunteers].” Camps are now even being built on the Syrian side of the border, within the warzone itself. Tens of thousands of Syrians are trapped on the wrong side of the line, begging to be let into their ‘safe third country’.

Because Turkey is not a full signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it assumes no obligation to assess asylum claims on its territory and, as any Syrian will tell you, it is ‘common knowledge’ that smuggling is the only way into the country. Given the violence on the border, this alone exposes the insanity of EU claims that Turkey is a safe route for refugees.

In April, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 16 Syrian refugees, including three children, had been shot dead at the border. Picked up by the media, the story amplified the alarm bells frontline volunteers and refugees had been ringing for months. As far back as November 2014, Amnesty International was reporting that Syrian refugees were being abused, threatened and killed by Turkish authorities.

More recently, HRW and Amnesty International have reported that Turkey has begun systematically ejecting refugees by the hundred back into Syria, including unaccompanied children.  Turkey denies the allegations, which amount to a systematic violation of international human rights law, but many report being beaten or detained them before pushing them back into the warzone they came from. In one documented case following a fire at the Süleymanşah camp that killed at least two children, 600 people were deported back to Syria without trial on the grounds they were ‘spies for Bashar al-Assad’.

No official investigation has been called and the EU deal rolls ahead regardless. Erdoğan is determined to present Turkey as a strong candidate for EU membership. That means projecting strength and competence in ‘managing’ the refugees on behalf of European powers. It does not mean the political reform necessary to make Turkey a safe refuge, and the EU remains determined to turn a blind eye to that. According to EU Council President Donald Tusk: “Turkey is the best example for the whole world for how we should treat refugees… Nobody should lecture Turkey on what to do.”

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Secret photo taken on deportation flight to Turkey staffed by Frontex and leaked to me

 

With Friends Like These…

Far from providing safe refuge, Turkey has been escalating border control efforts since attempted crossings skyrocketed in June 2015. Within the next few weeks, Islamic State took credit for a bombing in Suruç that killed 33 people, mostly members of socialist groups. Since then, the Erdoğan administration has pushed for tighter border controls on counter-terrorism grounds. But many Turks held the government responsible for security failures. A spokesperson for the progressive People’s Democratic Party (HDP) went so far as to say the bombing could not have taken place without active assistance from the Turkish state. Similar concerns were raised again in October when a bombing that killed 95 people at a leftist peace rally in Ankara and witnesses and bereaved relatives accused the government of failing to provide any security for the event. There are even reports of police blocking ambulance access and tear gassing survivors.

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Kurdish PKK guerilla at Nerwoz celebrations, Qandil

While waging a cold war against progressive forces in Turkey, Erdoğan maintains a civil war against the Kurdish minority, whose leftist militants have been the most courageous and effective fighters against advancing ISIS forces. The Turkish state condemns them as ‘terrorists’ – but it was the pre-dominantly Kurdish forces of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and Democratic Union Party (YPG) that rescued thousands of Yazidi civilians from ISIS in 2014, fought to protect Christian communities in Syria and have renounced all violence against civilians – which is more than we can say for the ruling government.

To weaken the ethnic Kurdish and progressive resistance, it has worked doggedly to disrupt collaboration between the PKK in Iraq and Democratic Union Party in Syria, is crippling frontline resistance against ISIS, al-Nusra and other far-right Islamist groups throughout the region. By August 2015, the Kurdish forces of the YPG, having driven ISIS out of Kobani and Gire Spi, were about to push them back from their last Turkish border town, Jarablus: a crucial supply route for recruits and supplies. Many speculated this would trigger a domino-chain of catastrophic defeats for the terrorists. But then Erdoğan stepped in, declaring Jarablus a ‘red line’ which, if crossed, would bring the might of the Turkish army down on the YPG.

At this point, even establishment figures are calling for Turkey’s expulsion from NATO and as David Graeber writes, if Turkey treated ISIS like it does the PKK, “that blood-stained ‘caliphate’ would long since have collapsed – and arguably, the Paris attacks may never have happened… Yet, has a single western leader called on Erdoğan to do this?” No.

And that’s not all. Evidence is mounting that Turkey is doing much more for ISIS than turn a blind eye. Many refugees fleeing their tyranny and brutality are convinced that the Turkish government actually supports the very terrorists they need asylum from. In an open letter to Ban-Ki Moon, Syria’s UN envoy Bashar al-Ja’afrari accused the Erdoğan administration of facilitating the crossing of armed terrorists from Turkey into Syria, supplying weapons and involvement in the “smuggling of stolen Syrian oil by ISIS into Turkey.

It is only right to be critical of the source, but I was in Lesvos months beforehand hearing the same eye-witness reports from refugees. They report seeing Turkish soldiers giving military and medical aid to Islamist militants. ISIS commanders have publicly stated most of their weapons and supplies come through Turkey, and so-called ‘aid convoys’ have been found to contain weapons shipments, some flown right into Ankara airport.

David L. Philips, a director at Colombia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, compiled an extensive research paper on Turkish state support for ISIS. It not only corroborates refugees’ accounts but indicates Turkey also provides military and recruitment training, and references leaked audio tapes that appear to show the head of of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation conspiring to falsify a pretext for Turkey to go to go to war in Syria:“If need be, I’ll send four men into Syria. I’ll formulate a reason to go to war by shooting eight rockets back into Turkey; I’ll have them attack the Tomb of Suleiman Shah.”

The paper also documents Turkish forces fighting side by side with ISIS in the battle for Kobani. Meanwhile, in an interview with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, a former US intelligence official said: “We knew there were some in the Turkish government who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria…”

Hidden Agendas?                     

Greek officials have said they would need a 20-fold increase in staff just to enact the deal as it stands. But not only is it short-sighted and unfeasible, it’s also definitively illegal under international human rights law. In Turkey, refugees have no real constitutional or legal protection. Simply put, as even the UN High Commission for Refugees admits, they have no rights. ‘There but by the grace of Erdoğan they go.’ This means conditions could go from bad to worse very quickly, should the murky complex of geopolitical interests that surround this deal turn against them.

On paper, the deal is supposed to secure Turkey both as a safe haven and a border guard for Fortress Europe. Clearly, the Erdoğan administration is failing – was always going to fail – on both fronts. As one Iraqi refugee eloquently put it: “Turkey helps ISIS and fights Europe’s Migrant War – how can it be safe for us?” Which begs the question: why cut the deal?

The distinctly European notion that enough walls and enough violence can fortify Europe against the refugee crisis reflects the serious moral and intellectual inadequacy of our policymakers. Refugees fleeing these brutal conflicts will not simply ‘give up and go home’ in the face of a few roadblocks. They can’t. There is no home for them to go back to. That is why the dynamics of this crisis have always been so fluid. Even if the deal is successful in turning Greece into the bottleneck for mass deportations to Turkey, desperate and resourceful people will find another way – even if the road is longer and more hazardous. Crossings from North Africa to Italy are already soaring to over 16,000 so far this year. With search and rescue operations cut across the continent, we can expect to see more stories like the 500 people who recently drowned off the Libyan coast, especially if the deal remains intact.

So as a solution to the crisis, the deal was doomed from the outset. It won’t stop people trying to make it to Europe. Human rights groups and international authorities are up in arms. All parties maintain serious reservations about its feasibility. And it’s been made in brazen disregard for the fact that Turkey is on the other side of this war, defiantly supporting the region’s most barbaric terrorist groups. But what it is an intelligent strategy for, is the relocation their struggle out of sight.

Belgian migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas famously said “we don’t care if you drown them.” But of course, a lot of people did care. They worked hard to get the truth heard over the din of popular racism, party politics and foreign policy agendas. They got the world watching the treatment of men, women and children like animals and an international solidarity movement blossomed.

But under a corrupt and repressive regime, it’s not so easy for the world to watch Turkey. This is a nation that jailed more journalists than China last year. And if the refugees’ struggle – for dignity, for freedom, for life – is swept under a Turkish rug, it’s out of sight.

A good friend of mine, an Iraqi Kurd who fled ISIS persecution and thankfully made it to Germany, once wrote to me that “at home, you are mute, you cannot have an opinion about anything,” and that more than money, than food, than a house, he wants “to know what it feels like to be free.”

Deporting refugees to Turkey strips them of this right, in the name of which we have bombed and occupied their region for a generation. And that it to say nothing of what faces those trapped on the Syrian side of the border, caught between the advance of ISIS and the locked gates of Fortress Europe.

Abridged version published by Red Pepper Magazine

Thanks go to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for their exemplary work on this subject. Thanks too, to all the refugees and volunteers who continue to share their experiences with me. Your courage inspires me every day.

The Truth About Turkey: EU Deal Endangers Lives

The fatal shooting of 16 Syrian refugees at the Turkish border, including three children, have amplified fears over the EU-Turkey deal struck to outsource the refugee crisis from European territory. The legality of the £4.6 billion deal relies on Turkey being a safe country for refugees. But this latest in a string of scathing human rights reports paints a far darker picture.

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Under the deal, all migrants and refugees reaching Greece are immediately deported to Turkey without a review of their asylum application; a violation of international law, according to senior UN officials. This latest report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is considered conservative by sources on the border, who say many more have been killed.

There are also widespread reports that Ankara has been pushing hundreds of refugees back into Syria on a daily basis, including unaccompanied children. This would amount to a systematic violation of international human rights legislation, subsidised by the EU.

That is not a new development. Since the beginning of 2015, over 4,000 people have drowned trying to evade the Turkish coastguard on the crossing to Greece. The coastguard has long been accused of deliberately capsizing, firing upon and even electrocuting boatloads of men, women and children.

“My boat left with 67 people and twenty babies. Only nine of us made it,” said one refugee from Damascus, afraid to give his name in case he is deported back to Turkey. “They push people in the water and they drown… I don’t know why they do it.”

Turkey certainly has strong incentives to stop the boats at all costs; the deal depended on it. In exchange for becoming its border guard, the EU relaxed Turkey’s visa requirements and awarded Ankara £4.6 billion.

Those who avoid being pushed back into the warzone they fled from are ensnared by desperate poverty. Less than 0.1 percent of Syrians in Turkey are in line for work permits, few refugee children are in school and the camps are wracked with deprivation.

Many refugees describe deplorable conditions in the camps, although the mainstream media commonly refers to them as some of the ‘nicest in the world’. In reality, media access is so limited and controlled that in truth, much remains hidden from the outside world. This is glimpsed only through leaked videos like this one, apparently showing 2,500 refugees being housed on the floor of a sports hall sharing ‘two toilets and no exits’. Some of the newer camps are even being built on the Syrian side of the border, within the warzone itself. At the time of writing at least 35,000 Syrians are trapped on the wrong side of the line, begging to be let into their ‘safe third country’.

Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence to suggest the Turkish government is supplying and providing direct military assistance to Islamic State and other terrorist groups driving refugees out of neighbouring countries. To quote one Kurdish refugee from Iraq: “Turkey helps ISIS and fights Europe’s Migrant War – how can it be safe for us?”

Despite damning reports from Human Rights Watch amongst others, no investigation has been called into the deaths or human rights abuses. Instead, EU funds keep flowing and NATO warships have been deployed in the Aegean to help Turkey ‘seal the maritime border‘. And with 156 journalists arrested there in 2015 alone, Turkey may not be the place to keep refugees safe, but it’s a prime location to hide their persecution.

Originally published by the Huffington Post

And re-published by Hub Politic

 

Human Rights, Self-Organisation & the Power of Solidarity: an Interview with Yonous Muhammadi

Afghan refugee organizer Yonous Muhammadi speaks to Marienna Pope-Weidemann and Samir Dathi in Athens, Greece.

Eleonas, on the outskirts of Athens, is home to Greece’s first official, open reception centre for refugees. Living conditions for the 200 or so residents tower head and shoulders above so-called ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers elsewhere in the country. But it’s special for another reason: it exists because the refugees themselves made it happen.

In October last year, Afghan refugees were sleeping by the hundreds in a local park. In response, the Greek government set up Eleonas – a makeshift camp in an industrial neighbourhood on the outskirts of Athens – but a long history of racism and abuse meant refugees were unwilling to go there. Everyone thought Eleonas would just be another detention centre.

Then the Greek Forum of Refugees stepped in. This international network of communities – from Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and beyond – worked to build trust with the newly arrived refugees, and volunteered for months to make Eleonas what it is today: the most humane official camp in Greece.

The new EU-Turkey deal has opened an opaque and industrious system of mass deportations. This is already crippling the capacity for independent volunteers to act as human rights watchdogs and establish open humanitarian spaces for refugees. In this context, the role of refugee-led organization will become more vital than ever.

Yonous Muhammadi is the Forum’s president. A mild-mannered man, he has represented refugees in the Greek capital for over a decade. He speaks with the easy frankness of someone whose authority stems from a wealth of collective experience.

Forced to flee Afghanistan while at medical college in 1997, he supported refugee communities in Pakistan and later moved to Iran, where he risked imprisonment to teach at a secret school for ‘illegal’ children. After being imprisoned for trying to return to Afghanistan, he resigned himself to leaving permanently, and reached Greece, via Turkey, in 2001.

Younus has encouraged Afghan communities in Athens to organize. They formally combined with other refugee groups in 2012 to become the Greek Forum of Refugees, which has become a powerful force for mobilizing and getting refugee voices heard. ‘All our goals are achieved by participation of refugees themselves,’ says Younous. ‘And Eleonas is an example of how important that participation is.’

 

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Yonous Muhammadi

How have refugees in Greece fared through the winter months?

This winter is especially cold and conditions are really difficult. People fleeing are still obliged to arrive in Greece via the Aegean Sea, and still the EU will not even discuss safe, legal passage. Greek authorities have also been discriminating against independent volunteers. On the Greek islands, volunteers’ work is essential for the safety and reception of the refugees. They should be thanked, not arrested.

The situation at the Greek border is also really worrying. Many vulnerable people are trapped at the border in freezing temperatures. A few groups are taking advantage of this situation to rob refugees. Just recently, an attack left someone dead. That proves how little protection there is.

People stopped at the border can return to Athens, but the situation is no better here. The official reception centres will only accept Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Eritreans and Yemenis. Otherwise, unless you are an unaccompanied minor, you are sleeping on the streets or in parks with no assistance, or being arrested and taken to detention centres, where people are really afraid for their survival.

Tell us about conditions in the official ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers in Greece. In 2014, a lot of human rights groups condemned conditions as deplorable. Has anything changed?

In 2014, we had more than 9,000 people in detention, even Syrians. The numbers have dropped but conditions still do not meet the standards of human rights law. In September 2015, there was a hunger strike by refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The conditions are impossible! When you see it, you can’t believe how people can survive there.

We have reports [documenting the poor conditions]. Greek friends speak out about it – but the problem is, when refugees are freed they just want to leave because there is no trust in the authorities.

Before they even reach Greece, you know, these refugees have suffered so much, they have been attacked so many times by police at the borders of Iran, at the borders of Turkey – everywhere. And when they go the Greek police after attacks by fascists, the police do nothing. So if there is a law broken, most of the time they don’t want to speak about that, they just want to leave.

They are being attacked by the fascists and going to the police and they do nothing. Once, I asked an Afghan woman if she had been attacked by the fascists. She said no, there was some small thing but it was not important. I asked her what it was. She said she was in a queue when one ‘gentleman’ she said, he came and took off her veil and slapped her in the face. But this was not violence for this woman. She said that it was not important, not really a hate crime. Most of these people are used to this violence. They have been born in violence. They have grown up in violence. We know the condition of women in Afghanistan. They don’t know that it’s a crime here.

Reports continue to surface of abuses and illegal pushbacks by the Greek authorities at the borders. The Police deny that it’s happening at all. What are your thoughts?

Before 2014, there were huge numbers of pushbacks, not only at the Evros land border [with Turkey] but also in the Aegean Sea around the Greek Islands. We have collected witness statements from refugees themselves.

In some cases they tried to cross seven times, but every time they were pushed back – not just deported, but removed very violently. There have also been many cases of sexual abuse. And we are still getting cases like this, with authorities deporting refugees back to Turkey and saying: ‘don’t you dare come back to this border.’ People are beaten and robbed.

We have evidence of these things. But the problem is, they say, when we as refugees are speaking it is ‘not so credible’. They always say this. The Greek authorities will never accept that they have carried out a single pushback. But the research, by Human Rights Watch and others says otherwise. There are still pushbacks happening at Evros, I can tell you that.

The presence of big aid agencies in the Greek islands – UNHCR, Red Cross, UNICEF and so on – increased towards the end of 2015, but has been quite minimal given the scale of the crisis. You’ve highlighted the vital role of independent volunteers. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, the most important help comes from the simple solidarity movements. It is self-organized people trying to help. That is very important. There is no other initiative or motive behind this, they just want to help as fellow human beings. So there is no money, no salary, nothing – just humanity.

Independents are the first people on the scene to rescue and welcome refugees. UNHCR and other organizations, with all their power, are actually helping less than ordinary people in places like Lesvos at the moment.

How do you think the Paris terror attacks by ISIS last November 2015 have impacted refugees in Greece and Europe?

The anti-refugee and anti-migrant voices all over Europe are trying to use this to call all refugees terrorists. But the reality is they are running away from the terrorists in their own countries. And usually terrorists don’t use the refugee route. The families coming from Syria, from Afghanistan are the victims of terrorists.

We have held demonstrations against ISIS and the Taliban, and in solidarity with the victims of terrorists in France. We can understand families’ mourning because we know this feeling well. All of us have lost someone. My 16-year-old brother died in a terrorist attack, as did my cousin. It should be clear that we are running away from them and fighting against them in every way we can.

What is it like to be an asylum seeker in Greece today? What psychological pressures are people put under?

Until 2014, we were recording daily attacks on refugees. In 2010, our offices were attacked by Golden Dawn. But this issue goes beyond the fascists: the whole asylum system is a massive obstacle to integration and empowerment. Some people wait ten years for a decision, unable to imagine or plan any future because the rights they have are so limited.

The Greek state provides no support to students. We often meet people pursuing their studies without shelter or food. This is a real problem.

Victims of torture, and trafficking struggle to integrate and are particularly vulnerable because the authorities provide no access to psycho-social rehabilitation.

What is the long-term solution to the European Union’s current refugee crisis?

The problem with the EU is the powers are always trying to push their problems on to each other, especially to the outer border. There is no responsibility sharing. I have been here more than 13 years and I am fed up with this. Solidarity should be the responsibility of every country. No one wants to take the refugees in the same way that no one wants to leave their homes in the first place. The main solution is to stop the wars! Why is there this in Syria? Why did I have to leave Afghanistan, for example?

The other thing that’s important is functional, realistic co-operation with the countries that border Syria. Not like they’re doing with Turkey – it wants EU money and membership and doesn’t care about the refugees. At the moment, all the decisions the EU and other are making are in their own economic and geopolitical interests. Only if there is political will to benefit the refugees, will we be able to find a solution.

I don’t hold out much hope that it will stop. It [the West] interferes in Afghanistan – not in my interests as an Afghan – and here we are, 13 years later, thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent and what is the result? We are still hearing of cities being captured by the Taliban and others and so we have thousands of people who are running away.

Originally published by the New Internationalist

EU Cracks Down on Independent Volunteers in Greece

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Platanos: a self-organised refugee help point threatened with demolition in Lesvos, Greece – photograph by Marienna Pope-Weidemann

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.

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Frontex border patrol boat moored in Mytilene, Lesvos

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.

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Locally organised refugee solidarity march in Mytilene, Lesvos, Greece (November 2015)

Originally published by Red Pepper

Odyssey Entry VI: Crossing No More

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‘The Monument for Refugees?’ the bar woman frowned. ‘Sorry, I do not know this place.’ Apparently none of the locals did, and it wasn’t on the town map. We had just crossed the border from Turkey and arrived in Orestiada, a small Greek border town founded by Turkish refugees in 1923. The Monument for Refugees commemorates those families who left Turkey for Greece—often under duress—as part of the population exchange between the two countries.

Greece and Turkey are divided by the mighty Evros river, a fierce natural barrier for those seeking to cross the border. But northeast of Orestiada, where the Evros bends, 12.5km of that border is dry land. Since time immemorial, this ‘gap’ in the river has provided safe passage for refugees through Turkey into Europe.

In recent years it’s been trodden by 100,000s refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. They pass through in search of asylum from countries wrecked by war, poverty and climate change. But that’s all over now. Greece has raised the drawbridge and Orestiada has become a bastion of Fortress Europe.

Evros Fence blog

The Evros fence

The fence was built by the right-wing Samaras administration in 2012. 12.5km of 13ft tall razor wire fencing complete with heat sensors now block this entry point, and over a thousand special police officers have been deployed to guard the Evros border. Clearly the austerity regime spares no expense when the threat of immigration is concerned. The land on both sides is designated a ‘controlled military zone’ and when we visited we were under constant scrutiny by our police escort and two stern-faced soldiers.

Whilst the militarisation of the border has achieved a sharp reduction in ‘irregular crossings’ here, it has forced more refugees to cross the perilous Aegean Sea, where soaring numbers of people are drowning in their quest for asylum. As one young Kurdish refugee told us, ‘no one endangers their children’s lives unless they have to. We have to. To stay is death or slavery.’

Boats have been going down in the Aegean and claiming double-figure casualties since 2012. From September of this year there has been an astronomical surge in sea crossings and the death toll is rising sharply. 20 October set a new record, with over 10,000 arrivals in a single day. The following week, as over 50,000 people attempted the crossing, at least 50 people drowned in just 72 hours. 17 were infants. Another 6 infants drowned along with five others when their boat sank on Sunday 1 November. Many more have drowned since.

We put this to Orestiada’s police chief, Pashalis Syritoudis. He has played a leading role in border control in the Evros region. He is an officious looking man, impeccably smart, with neat grey hair and a humourless face. ‘This operation has had very impressive results’ he told us proudly. He went through the stats: 28,000 were arrested in 2011, and 23,000 in 2012. But with the fence, 2013 saw just 492 arrests. To him this was a clear barometer of success: fewer arrests mean fewer refugees attempting to cross his border.

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Child detained at Fylakio

We pointed out that following his operations, drownings have increased in the Aegean. Syritoudis was un-phased: ‘We are obligated to protect the borders of the EU. So this is what we do.’ He then added as an afterthought, ‘Of course we don’t like what’s going on in the islands and we hope for a political solution.’ When we asked him what that solution might look like, he became irritated: ‘I cannot answer a political matter. I do whatever the headquarters tell me.’

We then questioned him on the widespread reports of illegal pushbacks in the Evros. Tales of the pushbacks are commonplace in the camps, which might have something to do with why journalists are forbidden to interview refugees there. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently published reports of refugees who managed to cross the Evros being robbed, beaten and forced back into Turkey by unidentified men in violation of international law.

Syritoudis was dismissive at first. ‘The Greek police doesn’t approve and doesn’t use these methods… these claims about push backs are part of a general plan to unfairly accuse the police.’ When we asked if anyone else might be responsible for these abuses, he was categorical: No. If that were happening in his jurisdiction, he’d know about it.

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Fylakio detention and ‘first reception’ centres

The First Reception Centre

Despite these operations, some refugees do manage to cross the Evros river into Greece where they are arrested and detained at the First Reception Centre on the outskirts of a nearby village, Fylakio. The centre was established in 2013 to hold people during their asylum applications. It was supposed to get the refugees out of prison and into a more humane facility providing medical, legal and psychosocial support.

We visited the Frist Reception Centre and interviewed its Director, Christos Christakoudis. We had read damning reports from 2014 that criticised its inhumane and degrading conditions. And for a reception centre designed to eliminate the need for prisons, it looks an awful lot like the detention centre next door. The perimeter bristles with razor wire, studded with armed guards and angry dogs.

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Christos

Christos greeted us warmly, dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt. We immediately asked if we could see where the refugees live, but their huts were fenced off in a separate section of the facility. They were unable to leave their caged area, and we were not allowed in. All we could do was observe them on the other side of the fence. As the refugees saw us approach, they excitedly huddled to the fence to talk to us, clearly not used to visitors. ‘Reporter? BBC?’ asked one man, eager to tell us his story. We mimed to him that we were not allowed to speak. Another inmate beseeched us repeatedly: ‘It is no good here. Like a prison’ and ‘Police bad! Where is UN?’ One young boy told us quietly ‘I want to run away.’

We later learnt these Fylakio detainees 2 blogparticular refugees were Yazidi, a group that has suffered extreme brutality at the hands of ISIS in northern Iraq. Now they find themselves imprisoned in the place where democracy was born.

We asked Christos why the refugees had to be locked up. Was this appropriate for victims of war and torture, for women and children? Christos explained it was in their best interests. ‘Where will those people stay? Who will manage their food if you have an open place? … If those people are in the open air, you cannot provide for them.’

We were unconvinced and pressed the matter; Greek law demands detention be a last resort. His next argument was lack of resources: ‘If we were well organised as a state, as a country, if we had the funding to support open reception centres, of course. But according to my experience, I don’t think it is something that can happen.’

Safe Passage Now

Greek officials have previously admitted to deliberately and systematically subjecting refugees to degrading conditions as a disincentive; part of the brutal logic of border control. Perhaps this is the real reason the First Reception Centre is set up like a prison.

As for Christos himself, he is clearly a well-intentioned man. But like many in authority, he works with a deeply ingrained sense of paternalism: it is not only his duty, but his right to decide what’s in the refugees’ best interests. If it was European citizens in there, we’d all be calling it a breach of human rights and civil liberties. For them, it’s called the ‘asylum service.’

In opposition, Syriza condemned the fence. In power, it has so far failed to bring it down. In the face of so many deaths at sea, the possibility has finally been raised – but that was dependent on a wider EU deal and before the Paris bombings. Now, France is demanding the deployment of ‘rapid response teams’ of border guards to the Greek-Turkish frontier and the screening of all refugees entering from Turkey for terrorist links.

While world leaders ramp up the War on Terror rhetoric, countless refugees, deprived of safe passage, will keep drowning in Evros and the Agean, to be buried in unnamed and overcrowded graves. We did eventually manage to track down the Monument for Refugees in Orestiada. It stands hidden in a dilapidated, backstreet crossroads. A lonely symbol of the town’s forgotten past.

Monument to Refugees blog

Written with Samir Dathi & published by Red Pepper

Odyssey Entry V: Learning from the United Ba’alam

My five weeks volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos had felt more like five months; to borrow from Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In the thick of a humanitarian crisis you bond quickly with people and see extraordinary things. But I don’t mind confessing, I was tired. The bigotry, violence, and corruption I’d been confronted with, not to mention the bone-deep apathy of many senior aid workers, had worn me down. And the Nameless had sunk that week. I was struggling to stay focused on the extraordinary.

The silhouettes of the refugees lined the deck of the ferry in the soft evening light. As I stared up at the towering ship, it felt like an early scene from Titanic: all smiles and waves and anticipation for the start of a new life in a new world. The big secret, of course, is that for many of them there is no new world—at least, not like the one they imagine, the image of freedom and equality we project for the people of the global South. But it’s hard to be the one to tell them that, after everything they’ve been through to get on that ferry to Athens.

Imagine leaving whatever’s left of your home, saying goodbye to everyone you ever knew; fleeing across a war-torn country to the mass camps in Lebanon, tent cities of squalor that stretch as far as the eye can see; the agonizing wait in Turkey, being spat at in the street; risking the deadly Aegean crossing at night, rather than be spotted by masked men who at best will send you back and at worst, sink you right there in the sea; being churned through Lesvos’ registration system, the endless queuing in heat, hunger, and the cold, and then finally, finally, the ferry to Athens.

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Welcome to Sparta

I don’t know why I thought the ferry would be different from the camps, but it wasn’t. They are run like floating apartheid states. Families that could afford one got a cushioned seat to sleep on with their children and the floor of one large hall was reserved for women and children, but many were either crowded out or too afraid or resentful of the staff to go inside, so they slept on deck in the biting wind. From what I saw, one volunteer (me), about eight Greeks and four tourists populated the entire ‘VIP section’ of this colossal cruise liner.

Every time someone tried to leave the ‘refugee hall’, the door guard would put a hand in his face. Sometimes he’d ask to see their ticket, conjuring images of the riot police back at the camp screaming “NO! GO!” in peoples’ faces; but often they didn’t ask anything at all. I had to negotiate permission for them to charge their phones for five minutes in the socket by my chair. For some it was their first chance to tell their families they’d survived the crossing.

I got a pretty clear sense of the situation the moment I boarded, handing my ticket over to one of two Greek attendants at the door. He complained this was too many people for them to manage alone. I agreed, and hurriedly took it back from him, conscious of the hundreds of people still waiting behind me. I was about to pick up my bags when the other guard, a soft-spoken Greek in his early-twenties, flashed me a smile. “It’s like Sparta!” he said proudly. I paused. “It’s too big a challenge for just two of you,” I agreed, “but it’s not like Sparta. The Spartans were fighting other soldiers, these are civilians.” I deliberately made no gesture towards them, as though the racism of Greece’s far-right were some sort of secret that could be kept; like the refugees didn’t know it better than me by now, after coming through Camp Moria.

“But they’re black,” he said flatly. My jaw practically hit the deck but he kept talking. “So they’re like soldiers. It’s a black army.”

“Look, how many women and children you can see.” I was getting angry now. I had no patience left for this. “This is not the war,” I snapped. “You ask these people about war. They can tell you some stories, it destroyed their homes and killed their families, that’s war!” His colleague was between us now, a hand on each of our shoulders, and I let him shepherd me towards the escalator. I wish I’d gotten the guy’s name, but the reality is if you complained about every individual that treats refugees like animals, you’d never be off the phone.

The floating camp

When I went to collect the key to my cabin, a staff member escorted me to the room and when he opened the door, we found two young Afghan mothers with two babies and grandma sitting cross-legged on the floor. They rushed to cover their hair, and so began a quite distressing exchange. They spoke Dari, he spoke Greek, and I speak barely any of either but somehow managed to get him out of the room and them to stay.

Turns out one of them had paid for ‘cabin ticket’ and the rest had to be kicked out, not because anyone else had booked the beds but because the sacred principle of private property is worth making an infant and an old lady sleep on the floor. So important was this principle that I, a woman travelling alone on a ship full of men, would not be allowed to keep the key to lock my own door.

I protested, and was taken to the Chief of Staff, who did his best to horrify me with tales of these barbarians who didn’t know how to queue properly (sure they do, they’ve just been at it for weeks in the camps,) peed on the toilet floor (there’s always one…) and once tried to light a fire in a cabin (once during freshers week at my uni, a British law student put plastic in the microwave. This is not a race thing.) I kept my cool this time. I sympathised. I said they were just changing the babies and then I’d get rid of them myself. And then I stole the key.

It was the small victory I needed to put a smile back on my face. On the way back I stopped by the café to pick us up some well-earned chocolate cake and even helped the café staff form a line by teaching them how to say it in Arabic (while amusing all the customers with my camp impressions) and encouraging them to smile. I told them what the lines had been like at Moria and they were horrified. I think it put the whole thing into perspective for them.

It’s amazing how much you can communicate when you have cake. Within fifteen minutes I had them smiling and laughing instead of hiding in the toilet. I showed them the key, we established that I could lock them in and would come back later to sleep. I was as grateful to them as they were to me, for giving me the chance to help put a proper roof over someone’s head after days of handing out bin bags to mothers and babies at Moria in the pouring rain. It was like coming back to life.

That gave me the energy to go and distribute some takeaway food from the ship restaurant where the waiter, to his credit, clearly cottoned onto my intentions and gave me obscenely large portions of everything. I emerged on deck to distribute it to some of the families sleeping outside, and recognised Abdul Majid, a Syrian man I’d been speaking to earlier. He spoke perfect English and was as keen to tell his story as I always am to listen.

The night the Nameless went down I had been desperate for a good story. A single human experience I could witness and record that offered hope. That night there was only grief. But my story of hope had finally found me.

The tale of the United Ba’alam

“We were strangers in Turkey but now we are a family,” Abdul Majid began. “We will stay together, protect each other, feed each other. We are brothers and sisters now. This is above politics.”

The 35 Syrians met on a dinghy (‘ba’alam’) from Turkey to Lesvos. 32 are Muslim, three Christian. Five are women and five are children. Some were pro-government soldiers; others were anti-government protesters.

“It’s the same, like you say happened in Greece,” Anas told me in hushed tones. His family was back in Turkey, waiting for a chance to come across safely. “When a politician is coming with media, they change everything, make the camps look nice. This is the system they have to hide the situation from the European people.” The daily reality they reported was worlds away from what the public has seen: hunger, deprivation, and exploitation, even organ trafficking. “I knew one guy, he was injured and got ‘medical treatment’ in the camp. Then when he got to Europe he was still having problems, so he went to another hospital and they told him: ‘do you know you only have one kidney?’”

With their $1,000 tickets from the smugglers, they were “packed like pickles” in the back of a truck and taken to Izmir, near the coast. “We could not move, but there was a hole for air,” Abdul said comfortingly. “It wasn’t like that freezer truck with the dead people. Our smugglers were actually quite good. They said they’d only put 35 of us in a boat and not send us out in bad weather. ‘We don’t send people out to die, it’s bad for business,’ is what they said. So, we were lucky.”

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The United Ba’alam crossing from Turkey to Lesvos

My companions grimaced as they recalled their painfully long wait on a Turkish beach for the chance to set off. They had to go at night, for fear of being stopped, beaten, or even drowned by the masked men that patrol this stretch of the Aegean, both in Greek and Turkish waters. The first night, the water was too rough to risk a crossing. On the second, they had gotten the boat into the water when someone spotted the Turkish coast guard. Terrified, the women and children scrambled out while the men lifted the boat above their heads and ran for the treeline. They escaped, and on the third night made it to sea—but some way into Greek waters, the boat started to slow.

Abdul called the Greek coast guard and asked for a rescue, but the man who answered was dismissive: the weather was calm. Abdul insisted the boat wasn’t safe, that it was taking on water and the children were frightened.

There was a pause. “If it’s not safe, why did you get on the boat?”

“Please sir, we are from Syria!”

The coastguard told him they should have stayed in Turkey and asked for their location, but became angry when Abdul tried to ascertain it in Arabic. He was ordered to speak English, turn on the GPS, and give his full name. Frightened now, Abdul hung up and explained to his fellow passengers he did not think help would come.

It was then, Abdul told me, that they realized they would have to rely on each other and organize themselves if they were going to make it safely to Greece and beyond. So they went from being 35 strangers to a United Ba’alam.

Looking back on Syria

Abdul and Bassel were sitting side by side as we talked. “Here we are great friends,” they agreed. “But at home, we would be trying to kill each other.”

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Abdul is a Sunni Muslim from Daraa, which remains under military control despite heavy resistance from the Free Syrian Army. Though he never fired a weapon, Abdul was a pro-democracy protester and supported the Free Syrian Army. “They are not all good, though,” he admitted. “The problem is there are people on all sides who want this war.”

Bassel is from Bloudan, an isolated Christian town. He fought in the army and supports Assad, but became disillusioned during his service. He remembers bitterly how the government supplied his village with weapons they said they would need and then, having promised to stay, pulled out of the village, leaving the Christians to fend for themselves in a conflict made inevitable by what looked from the outside like Christian aggression. A devout Christian himself, he also blames the West’s wars and Islamophobic media for the growth of Islamic State. “It gives the Christian world a bad name,” he said desperately, “like we haven’t moved on since the Crusades. They tell such lies about Islam; it drives people to violence.”

“There are enough weapons in Syria for all the world to fight,” Abdul told me.

“I’ve seen the weapons warehouses,” Bassel murmured. “You cannot see the end of them. It’s like a tsunami.”

Everyone agreed that cracking down on the private arms industry was crucial to ending the war. They reported personally witnessing British, French and Americans selling weapons to both sides of the conflict and also to Islamic State militants: an ugly reality that is just now making its way into media reports of an $18bn Middle Eastern arms race the USA looks set to win.

Abdul holds Assad and foreign economic interests responsible for stoking bitter sectarianism in a nation where, for centuries, different ethnic and religious groups lived side by side in relative harmony. “The West doesn’t hate Assad as much as they pretend, he has been a puppet for them,” he speculated. “They always say they hate their dictator when they want to break the country apart. Just like Saddam and Gaddafi.”

When it came to the question of Western intervention, there was heated but respectful debate between the pro and anti-government crew. Ultimately though, they all agreed that military intervention by foreign nations was the problem, not the solution.

“Western bombing will destroy the entire country, like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Anas warned. “Look how many refugees are fleeing with us from those countries now, ten years after Western liberation!”

Anas, Abdul and Bassel all agreed: “NATO’s just after the petrol, same as always, and Russia wants to stop the gas pipe… They don’t care what happens to the people.” Everyone recognized that ultimately, the conflict would require political compromise, but its chances were dimmed by the sheer number of competing international forces at work now.

The youngest of the group, Salem, had been silently listening to the debate. Abdul told me that Salem had left his wife and children at home in Damascus for the moment because, in the absence of safe passage to Greece, they were too afraid of “the death boats.”

Now, he spoke. “All the world hates Syrians. Europe just needs us to die, to run from our country and die in the sea if we don’t die on the land before we get there.”

Those words stung. I felt ashamed of my country, that we could project such inhumanity. I told him this wasn’t true of the European public, but that it was in the interests of those in power to divide and rule in Europe—just like in Syria. What, then, was the solution, he wanted to know? I told him I believed that if that the media did a better job of educating the public, and people understood who you are, what you’ve suffered, and what you hope for, progressive political change might follow.

He looked disdainful, and told me that foreign coverage “bears no resemblance” to what is actually going on at home; his friends nodded their agreement.

“What good is the media? Maybe you are different, but the ones we see on international TV, they explain nothing, they ask no questions, bring no hope, give us no power as a people. They’re just counting the punches as Syria is beaten to death.”

I remembered the media’s obsessive counting of the “migrant dead” after the Nameless went down, and I could see where he was coming from. It might be at odds with the free market model, but reporters have a moral obligation to convey nuance, not bulldoze it; to tell the stories that matter instead of sensationalizing the ones that don’t; and to give people a chance to speak for themselves in more than sound bites.

It means recognising heroism and courage where we find it, not reducing a whole nation to infighting victims. It means telling and learning from stories like the United Ba’alam.

When I described my own frustrations as a human rights and peace activist in Britain, Salem’s tone changed again. He hoped, he said, that I would not lose faith. “Not when I meet people like you guys,” I said. I was so moved that this man, pushed to cynicism by such extraordinary suffering, was now able to give me that gift.

“This is how all people should be,” Abdul smiled. “See now, how we are sitting and talking together. This is what Syria needs to do. This is what East and West needs to do. It is the only thing that gives any of us hope one day to go home to a land free and peaceful and shared by all.”

Abdul Majid is right. Those 35 strangers cast adrift and alone in a great, dark sea overcame their differences and found solidarity. From one end of Europe to another, they stayed united and survived. And from the broken aid system on Lesvos to the halls of power in Fortress Europe and at the Pentagon, we all have much to learn from the United Ba’alam.

***

 

The next day, as I hauled my sleep-deprived body up for the coffee necessary to power me off the boat, I met Christos, an old Greek man from the island of Chios who spoke about six words in English. “Refugee helper?” he asked. I nodded. He squinted at my Greece Solidarity Campaign badge—which reads ‘solidarity’ in Greek—and became irrepressibly enthusiastic.

IMG_5166 - CopyHe met my eye and raised one hand. “Greece,” he said. He raised the other. “Syria.” He put his hands together and said: “Same.”

Then he swept his hands across the crowded deck. “Love, love, love!” he sang.

***

The United Ba’alam crew made it to Germany, where most reunited with family. Eight members continued on to Norway, where Bassel and one other man will apply for asylum. The remaining six returned to Sweden, where all but one chose to register. Now that he has seen his crew safely to their final destinations, Captain Abdul Majid is returning to Germany to meet his brother and seek asylum there, and hopes one day to bring his wife and children. His elderly parents, he says, “will die before they leave Syria.”

Originally written for The Leap