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

 

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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