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

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Aid Agencies Keeping Feet Dry on Lesvos

I didn’t come to Lesvos as a volunteer. I came as a journalist, to report truthfully what I saw there. But in those crucial, urgent moments – when a few people struggle to feed 2,000 or screaming women hold their infants out to you from a storm-battered boat and there is simply no one else to put out their hands and help, you can’t just stand there and ask for an interview. At least, I couldn’t. So my five days on the island became five weeks. And it was in the act of volunteering whatever support was needed that I found the real story of the refugees: the story of how apathy and mismanagement turned a crisis into a tragedy.

It begins at the beaches. We all know boats are sinking – more than 3,000 lives have been lost this year in the Mediterranean crossing. Just the other day, a boat with 300 people went down. Apart from limited rescue operations by an overstretched Greek coastguard, what I call ‘the Independents’ – small bands of volunteers from Lesvos and around the world – are often all that stand between the refugees and that ugly, growing number.

On my first day on the beaches I was swimming buoyancy aids out to refugees jumping from waterlogged dinghies. That was the day I first used CPR and later, watched as the government registration rules kept a mother from holding her dying child. All this as representatives of a major aid agency stood with dry shoes on the beach taking photos with their phones. The rule, to which I am sure there are exceptions, seems to be that after a day on the beach you can tell the aid workers from the volunteers on the basis of who has wet feet.

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At the island’s makeshift refugee camps, everyone has wet feet. Trench foot and flu were rampant during last week’s storms, and in the absence of adequate shelter construction or even tarpaulin provision, we volunteers handing out bin liners created a frenzy. For weeks, police had been using violence and teargas almost daily. Food shortages have been constant and the near-total absence of translators aggravates regular episodes of panic and violence during the agonising and ineffectual registration system.

Nights are the worst. Once the aid agencies ‘clock off’, there is no one to help the lost child, the bleeding mother-to-be, the ailing grandfather. And in the face of every kind of deprivation you could name, comes a chorus from every corner: “It’s not our jurisdiction.” So the volunteers make it theirs, and even when the world is watching, this is the reality it never sees.

The aid system in Lesvos can and must be reformed. For me, there are three vital elements missing: honesty, humility and humanity.

Honesty

The crisis sweeping Europe is not going away any time soon. Refugee numbers Police Kick at Moria (taken by refugee)are on the rise and winter is on the way. Without radical reform, thousands of men, women and children are going to die needlessly on European soil.

Neither frontline governments nor NGOs can possibly prepare for this unless they are prepared to tell this simple truth.

Perhaps if this were not a debt-ridden nation in the midst of its own crisis, there would be a “gigantic humanitarian effort” under way in Greece, but for the record, there is not. And Camp Moria has not been a place where children get PlayStations and have their faces painted. The racist violence, corruption, police impunity and legal failures criticised in the past are very much still part of the picture. As worrying as this is, the fact is: only the Independents seem willing to speak about them.

Humility

What frustrates the Independents more than anything is the apparent territorialism of the big aid agencies. In one particularly revealing incident, a woman whose infant had drowned on the crossing was literally fought over on the beach by employees of rival charities keen to represent her case and the media attention it would garner. Bartering in this kind of ‘poverty porn’ alienates the refugee community from those who are meant to be supporting them.

Many Independents come with vital skills: lifeguards from Denmark, coastguards from Spain, paramedics from Norway. The list goes on. But often, it’s the basic contributions that are most needed: small-scale fundraising, cooking and cleaning, building shelters and perhaps the most precious commodity of all: time. “You guys are the only ones that make us feel heard,” one refugee told me. Independents also enjoy a degree of freedom that allows them to respond more efficiently to rapidly changing circumstances and endless red tape. We’re prepared to drive hypothermic children to shelter without waiting for police permission, for example. And we are present at all hours in places formal agencies have abandoned.

Most Independents understand that those working for formal organisations, while empowered in some ways, are restricted in others. But when overstretched, the only answer is to collaborate with Independents as autonomous, equal partners in the provision of a lifesaving service; to share resources where possible and maintain a dialogue always.

The same goes for refugees themselves. Many have urgently needed skills – from construction to translation. A formalised and mutually beneficial system to utilise these skills could transform the camps.

Lack of coordination and support leaves untrained Independents working night and day, not getting what they need, while aid agencies seem to have storehouses full of resources and lack the personnel to distribute them. If only an efficient, dynamic relationship could be built between these two sides, we might start to see some of the infrastructure needed to cope with what is surely still to come.

Humanity

Last week, when I needed to get papers fast-tracked for a bereaved mother whose infant was hospitalised and on the brink of death, I asked a UNHCR (UN refugee agency) staff member what could be done for her. He just stared at me. “Please, can you take her name at least? We can have someone look for her tomorrow, make sure she gets where she needs to go,” I implored. He shook his head: “Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I asked him exactly what his responsibility was. He ignored me.

Independent volunteers distributing bin bags at Moria

Independent volunteers distributing bin bags at Moria

I got my degree in Politics and International Development from SOAS, University of London. When I started, I was aspiring to work for UNHCR myself. What I learned at university made me more critical of the structures in which they operate, but after my experience in Lesvos I really don’t think I ever could. Time and again I’ve been shocked by the apathy and detachment displayed by the professional aid workers. There’s also the question of how Syrians are treated so much better than anyone else, something the aid system doesn’t seem to be contesting nearly enough.

In a crisis situation when most suffer without even the basics, some will always try to cheat the system. It’s not like there would be a level playing field even if they didn’t – the survival game is rigged and competition is brutal. But that doesn’t give anyone, from a position of power and privilege, the right to make generalised assumptions that every starving, dehydrated woman that faints in the queue is faking it or just “hysterical” (a favourite camp term). Once you start making generalised assumptions like that, dehumanising the ones you’re meant to help, you’re no longer qualified to be of help.

***

On the ferry to Athens recently, I hid two Afghan mothers with infants in my cabin so they’d have somewhere to sleep out of the oceanic wind, and spent my evening on deck with some of my new-found Syrian friends. As we talked the night away, we found ourselves cracking jokes about all this, doing impressions, demanding “PAPERS!” from each other whenever someone needed the toilet.

But like me, I think they laugh to keep from crying. Their endurance, their dignity, their courage to carry on, is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. They’re not victims, they’re survivors. And if my critique of the aid system here seems idealistic, it is only because I hold it to the standards they deserve. The people I have met and the stories they have told me are all the evidence we need: we can do better than this.

Originally written for IRIN Global

Odyssey Entry III: Crete & the Myth of the Economic Migrant

Crete is a remarkable island of outstanding natural beauty and vibrant traditional culture. I arrived there at the end of the tourist season, as the tavernas and hotels were preparing for hibernation. In Chania, a beautiful coastal town drenched in romantic colonial charm, a great black banner reading “Refugees Welcome” hung from the old Venetian castle overlooking the harbour. But none could be seen amidst the tapestry of designer shops and coffee bars. Still, their ghosts seemed to fill the streets and a sense of foreboding quickly entered most conversations on the topic.

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When I told people my next stop was the island of Lesvos, eyebrows typically rose above hairlines. Many business owners said they feared tourists getting the “wrong impression” about Greece. When assured that I thought highly of their country and knew what to expect on the island, eyebrows fell off the backs of heads. Then, why would I go? Don’t I know how dangerous it is, “a white woman alone at the camps”?

One hotel manager described the refugees in medieval terms, as “Muslim invaders.” I reminded him that they were not soldiers but civilians, many of them women and children. He was dismissive. “They are single men looking for an easy life. They should stay and fight for their country, like we did,” he replied, referring to the Greek civil war of 1946-49. “They have no respect for our culture,” one hotel owner complained, repeating the now widespread myth about refugees defecating in Greek churches (which turned out to be a lie cooked up by supporters of the fascist Golden Dawn party on Twitter).

Since the financial crash, many progressives have looked with envy at the spirit of resistance that has fueled Greece’s mass strikes and civil disobedience and swept Syriza into power. But those days may be coming to an end. The day I arrived in Crete there was (another) general election; Tsipras was running for a renewed mandate after bowing to the austerity memorandum that a clear majority of Greeks had bravely voted against in his referendum.

I was sitting with the staff at an empty tavern watching the results come in on TV. They were all socialists and Syriza supporters, but none had bothered to vote, considering the outcome both a foregone and ultimately meaningless conclusion. “He betrayed us after the referendum,” growled the elderly chef, stubbing his cigarette out for emphasis. “We vote and we vote and nothing changes.”

It brought to mind Emma GoIMG_1401ldman’s famous adage that if voting changed anything, it would be illegal. Tsipras held onto power, but voter turnout plummeted to 56.65%, the lowest ever recorded in Greece since the restoration of democracy in 1974, and Golden Dawn received 100,000 votes. In the islands of Kos and Lesvos, which have been overwhelmed by refugee numbers, support for the neo-Nazi party has doubled.

Many progressive Greeks are suffering a crisis of faith. Tsipras’ pyrrhic victory has cost him the confidence of a disillusioned country. Basilis, a tall, eloquent man in his early forties who would seem more at home lecturing at a university than working at a taverna, told me that, though passionate, he felt too old and too tired to continue the political struggle. Instead, he would go back to his family farm for the harvest.

The island’s iconic rolling orchards of olives and oranges are part of the fabric of life here. December’s olive harvest is an annual event of immense cultural (if not economic) significance to Crete, where small-scale organic agriculture is still an intrinsic part of community life. Young and old, rich and poor, in the orchards or just in the garden, most Cretans still maintain a close connection to the land. And they work without pesticides, using Indigenous methods like limewash to protect their crops. When I told Basilis how much we pay for organic tomatoes in the UK, I had to Google it before he’d believe me.

This culture—and the reduced stress levels, high life-expectancy, and sumptuous food that come with it—is a big draw for tourists, oblivious to the fact their banks and governments at home are threatening it with extinction. During a visit to Crete’s blue lagoon, one local had explained to me that areas of outstanding natural beauty in Greece are marked as “zones protected from the EU.” But the vast bulk of GreIMG_2241ece’s agricultural land has no such defence. Under the terms of the austerity memorandum signed by Tsipras, taxes on Greek farms will double, forcing many organic family farms out of business. In this economic climate, only big agribusiness can thrive by compromising the environment, food quality, and wages.

“The banks are pressuring families to sell off land to pay their debts,” Basilis told me. “I keep telling people, don’t you see, you’ll sell a bit, your children will sell a bit, and your grandchildren will have no land. Monsanto will come in with its pesticides and chemicals and rape the land. To have no money is bad but at least with land we can still feed ourselves properly. But not for long.”

What I witnessed in Crete—the growing xenophobia and corporate enclosure of the farmlands, the social breakdown and erosion of hope—seemed particularly poignant given the island’s venerable history. Four thousand years ago, it was from this island that the ancient Minoans built an astonishingly advanced civilization, with its pioneering literature, theatre, and seafaring, and established a society marked by remarkable sexual and social equality. Where property was held in common, today selling off land and services to private interests is, for many, the only way to survive.

Many Greeks have opened their hearts and homes to the refugees. But for others, the economic crisis makes exclusion not only justifiable, but essential. “We must stop building camps to encourage them, they need to go,” one small business owner told me in Crete. “We have no resources to care for our own people.” With war veterans eating out of rubbish bins in Athens and the suicide rate soaring, that much is true. In a way, it’s also ironic. As youth unemployment hovers around 50 per cent, Greece is already producing its own “economic migrants”: educated young men and women whose talents the Greek economy can’t use, and who now dream of doing meaningful work for a decent wage abroad.

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Originally written for The Leap

Entry IV: The Sinking of the Nameless: Recollections of a Volunteer/Journalist

Great tragedies are supposed to have names. The Titanic, the Lusitania… Their dead live forever in the stories we tell about them and the living fight for change in their memory that they might not die in vain. This is just a boat of ‘migrants’ that sunk in the Aegean, another number, another regrettable spat of collateral damage in the border war. But not to us, the ones who were there when the rescued came into harbour. Not to me. Last night was the most traumatic of my life. Back home, I spoke with confidence about how ‘borders kill’ – but now I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I will never forget the sinking of that nameless ship.

Official Count So Far: 35 confirmed dead (5+ children) – not that the officials are bothering much to keep counting… Many still lost at sea & families waiting for news including Named Shorooq, still in Greece searching for her children.

My friend Ashley and I were supposed to drive back across the island of Lesvos to Mytilini yesterday, but every couple of kilometers along the beach we saw another dinghy coming in without enough volunteers to meet them, so we stopped, and stopped, and stopped again. The sky was blue but the sea was furious, the wind was biting. Freezing children bundled into cars, battles for access to the bus, ambulances called for the sick… it’s chaotic and distressing, but it’s the daily reality on the beaches here and it’s remarkable how quickly you adapt, find a way to be useful and to cope. We were not prepared to cope with what was coming.

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Another two-storey wooden boat that just made it to the beach

We hadn’t eaten all day so we decided to stop at the port in Molyvos to grab some food. We were a few bites into our bread when the sirens started: the coastguard was coming in from a rescue. We ran to the water, where volunteers, locals and medical teams were converging, armed with emergency blankets. Rumours flew that this was a bad one. We expected people who’d been in the water, but had no idea the boat that went down could have had 300 souls on board.

Later that night, I would meet Gabriel, a photographer I knew from Skala who’d seen it happen from the cliffs. He was the one to call the coastguard. He showed me two photographs, taken he said just a minute apart. The first was a blurry image of a two-storey wooden boat – the kind that started appearing on the beaches during last week’s storm, left at terrifying angles on the beach with broken windows and emergency blankets fluttering from the railings. In the second photograph, the boat was gone completely; all that remained was a pool of orange life preservers, shining in a great expanse of blue.

Ten or fifteen children came off that first rescue boat, which headed immediately back out to sea. I threw my camera around my back and put my arms out to receive a young Syrian boy from the coastguard. He couldn’t have been more than nine years old. I ran for the medical team, transfixed by his face, that looked so peaceful but for the dullness of his skin and the blue in his lips. I lay him down by a doctor, who was already working on a little girl, so I got my first crash course in CPR. It was terrifying. I was so afraid of hurting him, of doing something wrong. 30 chest compressions. Hold the nose. Two breaths until the chest rises. (Please, look this up on YouTube if you’re coming out as a volunteer.) His mouth was freezing. Sometime into the second round another medic arrived and we worked as a team. The boy started coughing up water, and once he was breathing right we stripped him of his wet clothes. Then the medic was gone again.

I’ve been an atheist all my life. But that was when I started praying.

I wrapped him up and lifted him onto my lap, tearing off my jacket and covering his body with mine. I don’t know how long we sat there. I glanced over and saw Ashley holding a little girl by her ankles while the medics tried to get the water from her chest. Every time I saw a medic I had them check him. They were overwhelmed with critical cases and they said he was okay. But he didn’t look okay to me. I was rocking him back and forth, talking constantly in English and my pathetic amount of Arabic, trying to keep him awake. I’ve never felt love as desperate and immense as holding that boy in my arms. I don’t even know his name, but I will never forget his face.

A good friend warned me recently that you cannot be a volunteer and a journalist. Journalists do not get involved. I thought about that a lot as I held this boy, who in that moment had only me in the world, and watched photographers circling like vultures, getting in people’s way, shoving their lenses where any decent human being must surely know they don’t belong. And all I could think was: If it’s true you have to choose, I don’t want to be a journalist anymore. Finally the ambulances came, and in a few minutes he was bundled in the back and whisked off with the others. From what I hear, it sounds like he didn’t make it. They’re saying most of the children died. They had been in the water too long.

We thought it would be over then, but I was woken from my daze by the second siren; the coastguard was back with another boat full of people. I took an Afghan woman from the boat. She gripped my neck like she was still drowning, but had no concern for herself. “My mother, my brother!” She screamed. I tried not to think of my own mother drowning. “Boats are still coming,” I told her in English. I knew she understood but she made no response. “We have to care for you now.” At first she wouldn’t let me. I sat her down and blanketed her before working on the clothes. “Please, please, my mother is a good woman.” I nodded. “So many people who come here are good,” I said.

Her name was Sultana. She was alone now, she kept saying. We got her changed, shaking and crying, and in that moment feeding her water was the most beautiful thing I have done in my life. The local priest had opened the church for shelter so I took her inside. Recovery position. Coughing up the last of the water. I took her name and promised I’d look for her family, that she should stay where it was safe and I’d come back for her. She kissed me and kissed me. I did come back for her, but she was gone, and in the chaos I couldn’t find her again.

Nameless5There was one more boat after that and fewer people this time. By now, the coastguard had given up the search. Locals had opened their tavernas and cafes for shelter, making caldrons of tea while elderly Greek women rocked motherless babies in their arms. There were so many families split. I ended up working with a translator to help the International Rescue Committee (IRC) compile a list of names. I was dealing mostly with the mothers. They were relieved to have someone asking after their children. Typically they stayed calm while they spelled each name and gave the age of each child. Then when it was done, and the helplessness set in, they broke down and wept and beat the floor. I held them as they cried, feeling useless. One of them, a beautiful Syrian woman called Named Shorooq who I’d helped change before, had lost her husband and all three children. But she was one of many.

When the translator left I hid in an alleyway where no one could see me and sat down to cry. It didn’t last long – it couldn’t. I wiped my face, stood up and went back. The first person I ran into was a volunteer asking for help with another mother. She sat in a doorway with her wet clothes still on, refusing everything, even water and sugar tablets. She would take nothing until we found her two month old infant. I spent a long time trying to figure that one out. Once she recognised me as ‘the person on the phone’, her eyes started following me wherever I went. Every time I took a call, there was hope in her eyes. I started gesturing ‘no news’ as quickly as possible.

Then the news came: there were two very small babies at the hospital, but it looked like they wouldn’t make it, and we couldn’t bring the mother to the hospital because the police weren’t letting anyone in. She had been rescued at sea, so she was ‘in detention’ until she registered and got her papers. No papers, no hospital, they said.

In my shell-shocked state of mind, and with the mother’s eyes always on me, I became fixated on this singular injustice. While I assisted the other volunteers, I kept returning to it. I argued with the police. I argued with the sole UNHCR staff member. No one with the power to do anything seemed willing to try. I was haunted by the notion that the presence of its mother might make the difference between life or death for that baby. At the least, she was being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. My rage became unspeakable.

Suddenly, like an alien from another planet, good news appeared for the other mother: ‘Shorooq family found.’ They’d been dropped somewhere else and were being driven back. I grabbed a translator and headed to where I’d left Named. It sounded like it was all of them, but we didn’t want to risk it so we told her all we knew was that some relatives were coming. She started crying again, kissing my hands, refusing to let me go. I decided to wait with her, as much for my sake as for hers. I needed to see something good happen.

We held each other as we waited and I listened to her pray. Every time a van came she was moving with impossible speed, despite her exhaustion, her nose pressed against the windows looking for her babies. In the third van, her husband came, carrying her youngest, 2 year old Razan, in his arms. There Nameless4were no others.

She fell to the floor and screamed, thumping his legs as she wept, still gripping my hand. This wasn’t what we’d been waiting for. It was almost worse than nothing, as though in the presence of this little child all she could see was the absence of the other two, the death of her hope. I told her more people were coming, that names were still being found, children were still in the hospital. It was possible they were alive. But I didn’t really believe it, and neither did she. Her daughter, Maram, was six. Her other son, Malak, aged three. Eventually, she took Razan in her arms like she would never let go.

I left them grieving together and went to give the other mother some answers. I couldn’t bear to see her waiting any longer. I explained there were babies at the hospital receiving intensive care. We could not bring them to her, or take her to the hospital to identify them. I was sorry. At the very least, I would find someone to help see her to Camp Kara Tepe in the morning, to be fast-tracked for her registration papers. Naturally, I went to the UNHCR guy. As calmly as I could, I told him I accepted there was nothing to be done for her tonight, and that she knew it too, but please could we just talk about what would happen tomorrow, so I could tell her something. Anything. He stared at me and made vowel sounds. “Please, can you take her name at least? We can have someone look for her tomorrow, make sure she gets where she needs to go?” He shook his head. “Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I asked him exactly what his responsibility was. He ignored me.

Now I was really incredulous. I felt sure he could do something, or at least try. Anyone with phone numbers and the will could have done that. “You know the police will not listen to her, even if they understood Arabic,” I argued. “Please, can we talk together and try to figure out how to do our best for her?” He walked away from me, but with the help of the IRC, we formulated a plan to have them collected in the morning and another family member fast-tracked so she didn’t have to go to the hospital alone. I think I knew then she would be going to identify the body. I don’t have words for how that conversation felt.

I spent the rest of my time in a waterfront café, getting a few people fed while Ashley used her smartphone to help people contact their families back home. Across the table from me, a volunteer from Drop in the Ocean, an incredible Norwegian organisation, was comforting a teenage girl named Sara whose entire family had been lost at sea. She wouldn’t take any food. An LCD TV screen shone down on us from the ceiling, showing adverts and a basketball game: a window to another universe that never seemed so unreal. Then the news came on, and we watched images of ourselves from the hours before. It was so surreal.

Eventually we found somewhere to stay. We talked a little, just to hear each other’s voices I think, and I cried quietly until I fell asleep. This morning I was straight on the laptop looking for coverage, which was a typically disappointing experience: all superficial reports that a few ‘migrants’ have drowned off Lesvos.

So I wanted to write this and post it today, a small contribution to the record of what really happened and my way of remembering the Nameless.

From what I could gather from the refugees last night, around 300 people were packed onto two-storey boat that looked like it was built to hold a third of that number. In the rough conditions, the weight was too much, and the top floor crashed down onto the bottom and the whole thing went down in less than a minute. People would have been trapped underneath, the children’s lungs rapidly waterlogged by the force of the water. The irony is, those with vulnerable companions pay extra for the wooden boats, because they’re meant to be safer. So more women and children, more elderly refugees and those with disabilities, went down.

I’ve been thinking about the smuggler than ran that ship, how much profit he made from those extra hundred tickets and paid for with lives. Apparently he escaped in a second boat. I wonder if he’ll be haunted by this catastrophe for the rest of his life. But it doesn’t really matter. As long as this war continues, the refugees will keep coming as sure as the sun will rise.

This morning we returned to the harbour. The sea is calm and life is going on. The tavernas are serving, the volunteers are back out here and a procession of new refugees make their way up the hill to the camp. The crisis is relentless, because the causes of the crisis are relentless.

And as long as the EU refuses to grant these refugees safe legal passage, the smugglers will continue to exploit them. Ultimately, it is our governments with the power, resources and responsibility to act, who I hold responsible for what happened last night; and what is happening in so many nights in so many places across Europe now.

One of the doctors saving lives at the harbour last night, Zakia from the UK, told me this morning that the odds of those children were never good, after being in the water for so long. “Especially here on the island, the hospitals just aren’t equipped to deal with this kind of catastrophe. You need surgeons trained to perform tracheotomies, oxygen, ventilation… To be honest, when they’ve taken in that much water, even if you can get the heart beating again, really the best thing you can do is hold them.” I did that. And that brings me some comfort, but not much.

What we really need, is safe passage for the refugees. Now.

Nameless1

Odyssey Entry II: Lesvos’ Hidden Humanitarian Disaster

12th October 2015 – Police beatings, tear gas, hunger and chaos. It sounds more like the repression of the Arab Spring than UN staffed registration centre for refugees. But at Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos, this is the shameful reality.

Registration Queue Clash at Moria  Copywright: Ruby Brookman Prins

Riot police clash with refugees at Moria

Lesvos has long been on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis, with almost 200,000 arriving this year. The vast majority are fleeing government persecution and ISIS forces in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They come to Lesvos from Turkey on what they call ‘the death boats’, the lack of legal channels having created an unregulated market for people smuggling, with drowning common due to overcrowding. The lucky ones are met on the beach by local and international volunteers; the rest by paramilitary coastguards and riot police.

Arriving on the island, I worked with volunteers from the PIKPA camp – the only truly humanitarian camp I’ve seen, run entirely by volunteers and donations – distributing food at Camp Karatepe. One staff member from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) told me he had only 13 colleagues on the entire island. Syrian families huddled in scarce spots of shade and squalid conditions. Yet it did nothing to prepare me for what I saw at Camp Moria that night.

‘The Hell Hole’

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Registration queue crush at Moria

Moria, described to me as a ‘hell hole for non-Syrians’, is Lesvos’ main camp and where all migrants and refugees must register. The police prohibit journalists from visiting without an escort, and speaking to the refugees or photographing the facilities is forbidden. When I arrived, aid workers were outnumbered by riot police. At night there were none at all, leaving a handful of young international volunteers to fill the gulf left by the international agencies. They had no medical staff and only what basic food and pharmaceutical supplies they could scrape together themselves.

Many people sleep exposed to the cold at night, without tents, sleeping bags or warm clothing. Volunteers save their blankets for children and those who arrive soaked in sea water. The ‘toilets’ consist of a few portapotties and concrete rooms floored with swamps of human waste. Between two locked and fenced off ‘reception centres’ bristling with razor wire, a steep slope leads to the registration office where everyone must register to proceed to Athens or anywhere else. When I arrived there were hundreds queuing through blistering heat and cold of night while riot police loomed over the line. Women and children, sick and injured, are all subject to the same degrading conditions.

One volunteer, who complained to UN staff that surplus food at Karatepe should be feeding Moria’s hungry, was told that it was too dangerous and to ‘leave Moria to the police.’ The consequences of this policy have been dire and instructive. These people are traumatised, hungry, thirsty, exhausted. Waves of panic and frustration are commonplace. Refugees and volunteers widely report that the police, lacking any proper training, often respond with violence. Families commonly queue for days and each time the line is disrupted they must begin the ordeal from the beginning.

Two young volunteers from the UK, Annie Risner and Ruby Prins, recalled how tensions escalated in the early hours of Tuesday last week: ‘A diabetic man had collapsed for want of insulin. An Afghan woman recovering from heart surgery collapsed unconscious in the queue. The police wouldn’t help. We called an ambulance, then the violence started. Police were beating men and women alike. When they throw the teargas people really start to panic because there are families in the line. Kids get crushed, joints get dislocated and bones get broken in the stampede.’ The Hellenic police declined to comment. UNHCR writes: ‘Any difficulties that may arise in relation to crowd management due to high numbers of new arrivals [do] not constitute an excuse for the use of violence or any kind’.

Police Kick at Moria (taken by refugee)

Taken by a refugee at Moria

A New Moria

The following day brought something new to this island: the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras and Austrian chancellor, Werner Feymann. Their visit lasted a grand total of three hours. Much more time was spent sweeping refugees under the carpet prior to their arrival. According to local media, over 45,000 were removed from Lesvos in the past fortnight. Journalist Sofia Christoforidou reported extra ships being brought in to take refugees off the island and block new boats from coming in.

Volunteers and refugees feared that seeing the full extent of the crisis might prompt Tsipras to shut the border and trap countless numbers in Turkey, where conditions and police brutality are even worse than in Moria. Still, the volunteers I spoke to all wanted to get the truth out, not cover it up. At Moria however, the authorities opted for a more unorthodox approach: they hid the real Moria and built a fake one.

One volunteer sent this statement, on condition of anonymity: ‘The authorities set up a fake camp, did a bit of gardening and brought in a few Syrian families… Volunteers do what they can but the UN has been totally absent, MSF [Medicines Sans Frontiers] working only a few hours, a few tents but most sleeping in the dirt. There has been regular tear gassing and assaults by police. Shame on the Greek government, the UN and the organisations that allowed this to happen.

Many others repeated the same bizarre story: buses brought in to obscure the main camp and on the outside, the filth hidden under fresh concrete, and food and chairs put out. Meanwhile, the sick and injured from the previous night went unattended. UNHCR consultant Ron Remond told me this was in the interests of the Prime Minister’s safety. His visit lasted twenty minutes: time for a selfie with newly materialised UN staff and one quick peak behind the bus. Then he was gone and that night Moria descended once more into chaos.

Annie and Ruby reported rioting, refugees forming human shields to protect the vulnerable and threatening a walk out. ‘We were being treated like animals,’ explained 19-year-old Ali from Afghanistan. ‘We’ve had no shelter, no food, no answers, just beatings. We said we would walk out of the camp, a thousand of us, all together.’

But when I visited the camp again on Saturday, it was unrecognisable. A new fast track system had been able to register thousands in 24 hours. UNHCR was bringing in more people, the camp had been cleared of rubbish, bottled water had gone out and kids played together in the Save the Children camp.

By the next day, however, things were going back to normal: fast-track registration was terminated, people queued all day without moving and were told the ID numbers they’d queued for all the previous day were null and void. However, following my report for Al Jazeera, the Hellenic Police issued a statement saying they had ordered an ‘urgent investigation’ into brutality at Moria. All this shows what can happen when the world is watching. But Old Moria is what happens the moment we turn away.

Turning the Tide

Following his visit to the capital of Lesvos, Mytilini, Tsipras called again on Europe to help resolve the humanitarian disaster Greece has neither the financial resources nor the moral obligation to face alone. But his calls for ‘greater collaboration with Turkey’ caused alarm. They foreshadowed this week’s negotiations between Turkey and the EU, which proposes to pay President Edrogan $1billion to expand the Turkish camps and shut the Greek-Turkish border in collaboration with Europe’s corporate border guard, Frontex.

Moria Family Seperation

Families by separated detention fences at Moria © Marienna Pope-Weidemann

The inconvenient truth for EU leaders is that refugees say they are not safe in Turkey. Sana, a 29 year old Kurdish teacher, told me the Turkish camps ‘were very bad. They beat us and insult us, they say if we did not deserve exile then we would not be here. They won’t even give milk to the babies. They hate us.’ Others report being robbed, tortured, and even witnessing Turkish soldiers aiding ISIS. Many also fear that Edrogan might quietly push thousands back into Syria and Iraq, trapped with ISIS behind them and the steel walls of Europe in front.

The EU has long been allocating billions for border control, with precious little left to fund lifesaving humanitarian work in disaster zones like Lesvos. As security tightens, refugees move on to find another way, leaving aid agencies scrambling to keep up. I asked one Kurdish father if harsher security measures would dissuade him. ’41 members of my family are dead. My daughters, 10 and 12, were kidnapped and killed themselves rather than be sold as slaves,’ he said with tears in his eyes. ‘I have to get my wife and son out, do you understand? What do I have to fear from fences?’

For now, refugees are still arriving in Lesvos in their thousands. On Thursday night 56 people were saved from drowning and one toddler lost his life. The very next night the lack of safe, legal channels for the crossing cost another life: a baby hidden in a bag and mistaken for baggage, tossed overboard to stop another ‘death boat’ sinking.

UNHCR’s Ron Redmond highlights the need to legalise passage and calls for EU funds earmarked for humanitarian work. But he also said that European states have every right to control their own borders and in truth, there is a growing contradiction there. With the spread of such incredible violence throughout the region, the EU will have to make a choice: to open the gate, or let countless numbers of people die on the other side.

Registration Slope Moria

Syrian families leaving Moria now hoping for sanctuary in EU © Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Originally reported by Al Jazeera

Full story run by Red Pepper Online

Odyssey Entry I: There Is No Migrant Crisis

The vast majority of the men, women and children crossing into Europe from the south refugees from war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. But there are no migrants anymore. Not in this crisis. The three furies of conflict, climate change and chronic poverty have wrought instability throughout the global South. It’s usually some combination of these factors that drive people to risk their freedom and their lives in illegal border crossings. They take that risk for the same reason any of us would: they have nothing left to lose; their freedom is already lost, their lives already in danger. And that is precisely what makes a refugee.Entry1aEvrosArestees

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone with well-founded fear of persecution in their home country “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Those in power tend to interpret this in the narrowest possible terms, curtailing the numbers owed meaningful protection for their human rights. But the moment we recognise the poor as ‘a particular social group’, an entire spectrum of structural persecution reveals itself. Well beyond the most obvious forms of persecution – the torture, murder and violence sweeping its way across the Middle East and parts of Africa and Latin America – we find a broad and systemic denial of the right to food, water and shelter; the right to work and fair wage; to healthcare, education and social security, all of which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Such persecution reveals itself not only in the home countries but also in the ‘developed nations’ where these people hope to re-build their lives. The UK is an excellent example of this, where basic welfare and even civil rights are increasingly conditional when applied to asylum seekers and – to put it as bluntly as political correctness allows – ‘low income earners from non-Caucasian backgrounds.’

As lawyer Frances Webber writes in her ground-breaking book, Borderline Justice, one way or another most ‘illegal migrants’ are in truth “refugees from globalisation, from a poor world getting poorer as it is shaped to serve the interests, appetites and whims of the rich world, a world where our astonishing standard of living, our freedoms, the absurd array of consumer novelties, fashions and foods available to us, and thrown away by us, are bought at the cost of the health, freedoms and lives of others.”

It’s a reflection of the depths and endurance of racial prejudice in Europe today that term ‘economic migrant’ is being bandied about at all in the midst of the greatest refugee crisis since World War Two. This is not to mention the array of brazenly derogatory language, from ‘welfare tourist’ to near-genocidal cockroach comparisons and ominous references to ‘swarms’ at our borders. This rhetoric reflects a deeply rooted culture of disbelief: from a position of extraordinary privilege, it makes deplorable assumptions about the character of human beings based on nothing more than their class, their birthplace and yes, the colour of their skin.

To understand this crisis – its causes and consequences – we need to look at the big picture.

‘The War on Terror’

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Abuse at Abu Ghraib: prisoner had electric wires attached to his hands and genitals, and was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box

For almost fifteen years now we have watched our governments fight their War on Terror with incredible military and social violence. The rise of ISIS and the steady disintegration of stability in the Middle East is testament to their failure, or their success depending on how cynically you want to look at it.

Now, with what they disparagingly call ‘the migrant crisis’ (as though the problem is this mass exodus of civilians rather than the war itself,) there can be no more pretending they are just after this or that dictator, like drug addicts promising each fix will be the last. “But you must understand, this next guy’s really bad, if we can just take him out, we’ll have peace.” That sort of rhetoric is laid bare now it’s the persecuted and pro-democracy dissidents being imprisoned, beaten and gassed on European soil. This is total war not on terror, but on the poor.

Of the hundreds of thousands risking their lives to reach Europe this year, the vast majority are refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – two of which NATO has already  invaded and occupied. Furthermore, it’s no coincidence this crisis unfolded following NATO’s bombing of Libya to oust Muammar Gaddafi, a long-time ally whose dissidents and refugees Britain had been detaining without trial and deporting straight back to him up for years. (Thank you Wikileaks, for telling the world.) Even so, once they decided ‘Gaddafi had to go’, to that end the US, UK and France were willing to shower with weapons the very terrorists they had sworn to oppose. Now they are in ISIS hands and pointed at innocent people. So, fighting terror with war has proven about as strategic as fighting fire with petroleum.

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The War on Earth

We might also do well to note also that the same corporations that cashed in big on oil profits after the attacks on Iraq and Libya are now waging a titanic battle against climate action. Their lobbying efforts threaten to force us off the cliff into the abyss of unstoppable warming.

Leading scientists are warning that without radical change, we can expect a temperature increase of 6°C, meaning catastrophic implications for our species. Cities and islands will be swallowed by the sea, entire communities will drown in tsunamis and mega-storms, extreme drought and poisonous pollution will make great swathes of the planet uninhabitable. That will tear societies apart, trigger new wars and create millions of environmental refugees.

So when you look at the big picture, these stories are intimately linked. Climate change is on track to become the biggest driver of forced migration, dwarfing the historic 56 million people already displaced by conflict. Not to mention the fact that war and climate change are intrinsically connected, and not just in terms of the role oil interests play in foreign policy. A growing body of research highlights the significance of severe drought in sparking conflict in Syria and throughout the Middle East. Environmental factors were also been critical in the Rwandan genocide more than a decade ago, so it’s nothing new – but it is getting worse.

Globally, natural disasters have increased fivefold in the past forty years, with floods and storms claiming 1.45 million lives. Between disasters, the steady warming of the planet puts poor societies under incredible strain, spreading hunger, conflict and disease. The warming of the Indian Ocean has irreversibly altered the continent’s weather patterns and the scorching of East Africa has begun. Environmental legislation and a rapid transition from fossil fuels would be the single most effective and humane method of border control. To quote Ellie Mae O’Hagan: “mass migration is no crisis: it’s the new normal as the climate changes.” Her observation will prove prophetic as long as powerful interests are able to obscure this obvious connection.

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War on the Poor

And then there’s austerity. This too is an ironic tragedy fit for the old Greek epics. For much of Europe, austerity is a post-crisis nightmare. But of the global South, it has long been the law laid down by a united West. The theft of public wealth and welfare being carried out by the Troika in Greece elsewhere in Europe, for all its horrors, is really just a more cautious version of World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies tested in developing countries the world over. For forty years they have made vital aid and loans conditional on the neoliberalisation of Southern economies and the deliberate strangling of public healthcare, education and industry. And in the event of uprisings like the Arab Spring, the governments which dominate those development institutions are at the front of the queue to sell the weapons and information technology necessary for effective repression.

Ostensibly, this is all in the name of mutually beneficial economic growth: the consistent neoliberal solution to conflict, climate change, economic crisis and just about any other chronic social issue. But this is a growth model that in promoting conflict, inequality and environmental degredation, fundamentally contradicts the kind of economic development that can improve wellbeing. What it does do, is serve another well-documented if not well-publicised agenda. As US strategic planner George Kennan said of the USA back in 1948: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 of its population. [Our] real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with… vague — and for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization.”

Capitalism has always had its sacrifice zones: the places and people whose extinction and exploitation are deemed acceptable in the name of growth. But what the bank bailouts and Great Recession have facilitated, and what austerity reflects, is an unprecedented expansion of those zones northward, into the industrial countries once protected by a social democratic consensus. As competition for public services, housing, and jobs is artificially intensified by spending cuts, it becomes that much harder for progressive parts of society to argue for a humane response to the refugee crisis.

In a better world, this would highlight the common interests between the poor and persecuted in all nations and promote solidarity; but the great tragedy of our times is that it’s threatening to drive millions of refugees to the North at precisely the moment it is least able and willing to receive them. As Tsveta Dobreva writes: “In times of crisis, people search for an explanation for their sudden difficulties. Ultimately, immigrants, both regular and irregular, have become this crisis’ scapegoats.”

To defend itself against an enemy it sees everywhere, Europe is building walls. Concrete barricades are springing up across the south, bristling with barbed wire and armed guards. Over the coming months, I’ll be traveling across Europe to report on the refugee crisis and the broken system that created it. I’ll be relaying stories directly from refugees themselves and joining the dots between the wars, warming and austerity that drive them from their homes. And, I’ll be meeting some of the remarkable people raising their voices to say that migrant lives matter, and fighting back against the powerful interests that drive corruption, conflict and climate change all over the world.

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Solidarity with Refugees March in London, 2015 – Marienna Pope-Weidemann –

Originally written for The Leap