Borderline Justice: EU-Turkey deal is a disaster for refugees

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

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

Borderline Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

With Friends Like These…

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

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Kurdish PKK guerilla at Nerwoz celebrations, Qandil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Agendas?                     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abridged version published by Red Pepper Magazine

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

The Truth About Turkey: EU Deal Endangers Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published by the Huffington Post

And re-published by Hub Politic

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Yonous Muhammadi

How have refugees in Greece fared through the winter months?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published by the New Internationalist

EU Cracks Down on Independent Volunteers in Greece

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

Everyone remembers their first solo boat, brimming with frightened people, crashing into the beach with no coastguard to see them safely ashore. You get the babies out first, too small for a lifejacket, carried over the rocks and churning water for mothers that can hardly stand. You remember how they clung to you, weeping with gratitude, and wondering where they got the strength to start walking to the camp.

There was a lot of that in October, when refugee numbers on Lesvos were peaking and I was there as an independent volunteer. Aid agencies were shipping in supplies without the staff to direct them where needed. And when they clocked off in the evenings, or said it was too dangerous enter the camp, there was only us, the riot police and the refugees. We did what we could in a dogged war against deprivation and indignity from the beaches to the camps. Then and since, it’s been the independent volunteers sacrificing sleep, meals and dry socks without a thought, because the need was so great and there was no one else.

The day I left, a former Free Syrian Army soldier driven out by corruption in the rebel ranks and fear for his family, told me: “You give some food, a blanket, and to you it seems small. But to us it means everything. Independent volunteers are the only ones who listen to us; who try to understand us as people. That is a miracle.”

That miracle has been happening all over Europe. Wherever governments and aid agencies have failed in their obligations under international law, thousands of people from all over the world have stepped up. They are giving up their holidays, even their jobs, to stretch a hand across all we’re told divide us, to bring compassion and solidarity to the refugee road, from France and Hungary to Spain and Greece.

With a bankrupt government appointed the gatekeeper of Europe, holes in Greece’s aid system were inevitable, so solidarity networks were given the go-ahead to do the lifesaving work no one else was going to do. As Lara, a young Dutch volunteer now in Chios explains, aid agencies are strangled by the political realities of this crisis.

“Because of the rules, they can’t even meet basic needs,” she says. “As an independent volunteer you know if you don’t distribute your 20 blankets, so many people will be freezing to death and that’s on your conscience. If you work for UNHCR and you have 200 but are forbidden to give them out, the order comes from higher up so conscience doesn’t come into it.”

When I left in November, more independents were coming to do what the aid agencies couldn’t: from feeding hungry people without waiting for the right paperwork to giving lifts to unregistered refugees, the sick, the old, pregnant women and toddlers left to climb mountains cold and wet. But now, they are under attack.

2016 began with a move to have all volunteers registered with the police. In a crisis where immigration law criminalises vital humanitarian work, this is a recipe for disaster. And it is not just about elbowing out the political activists; to ‘allow authorities time to organise the registration process’, entire flights chartered for volunteers have been cancelled. Even Clowns Without Borders were barred from the camps. The same thing is now happening in France, where independent volunteers are being barred from the camps at Dunkirk and Calais, reduced to watching months of work burned to the ground by authorities branding them ‘uncaring’ and ‘dangerous’.

There’s another glaring cause for concern on the Greek front: over half their police are Golden Dawn supporters. So, fifty-fifty chance you’re registering sensitive information with an armed fascist. That wasn’t an abstract danger to any of us: we had witnessed the racism and brutality. One night, we were so afraid of the police in our building, we slept in the car.

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Frontex border patrol boat moored in Mytilene, Lesvos

With NATO warships now in the Aegean and Turkey stepping up the brutality of its border control, things on the island have slowed. But that cannot last and when it ends, things are going to look very different. Independent volunteers are being cleared off the islands to make way for Frontex and its militarised hotspot-detention system.

When they started throwing volunteers in jail, it was a sign of things to come. The first five were locked up on smuggling charges after they rescued 51 people from a stranded dinghy the coastguard would not look for. “They treated us like terrorists,” said one, when they were released on bail for €5-10,000 per head, facing a custodial sentence of five to ten years.

It was the beginning of a crackdown ordered from the highest levels. The Council of the European Union is preparing plans to equate humanitarian assistance with people trafficking, criminalising those saving lives at sea and caring for survivors on land.  “We feel as if we are in the resistance in World War Two,” said Lara. “We were ‘randomly’ checked for papers and passports and told not to feed the hungry. Every move we make is being watched.”

In Lesvos, seven international volunteers were even arrested for ‘stealing’ discarded lifejackets and a volunteer-run spotting station guiding boats at sea was shut down. Self-organised support stations like Platanos have been threatened with demolition. The solidarity group writes that things have changed radically in recent weeks: “Frontex vessels appeared and together with the Greek coastguard are barricading the sea the whole day. Few refugees reach the shore [and so] no support from the frontline camps can be offered to these people, leading them to spend many hours without food, dry clothes and medical attention. Platanos sea rescue team was stopped several times from providing help or guidance to refugee boats and we were ordered to back away.” Too often, ‘authorised’ help never comes. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) more than 400 people have drowned so far this year.

In the north, border police have been forcing refugees away from volunteer-run food and medical stations and out of heated tents into sub-freezing temperatures – a barbaric practice condemned by Amnesty International. Police have also demanded fake bribes from refugees: €100 to cross the border. Stories like that really highlight the irony of police screening for volunteers with ulterior motives.

In Chios, where one volunteer photographer has been arrested on espionage charges, volunteers report that “Frontex is now present everywhere… And they no longer allow fisher boats rented by volunteers to leave the harbour.” Elsewhere, volunteers have had their accommodation stormed by riot police and been submitted to full-body searches.

Grassroots organisations condemn the deadly consequences of Frontex interfering with emergency volunteer rescue operations.  As these are curtailed, volunteers report they are not being replaced, leaving boats without rescue to drown quietly in the darkness. One lifeguard, on condition of anonymity, told me tearfully: “You can’t imagine what it’s like… to have a mother hold out her baby to you from a waterlogged boat, and to tell her that you can’t take the child into safety because you’ll go to prison. I won’t do it.”

This is a bid to re-establish government control of Europe’s borderlands, particularly Lesvos, an island which, at last, the world was watching. Booting independents off the island, detaining refugees as sea and pushing boats back to Turkey all serve to sweep the refugee crisis off European soil – and under a Turkish carpet. At the same time, it re-directs donations back to the big agencies and destroys perhaps the most important achievement of this historic Europe-wide solidarity network: an army of whistle-blowers who educate and humanise this crisis for people back home.

But the crackdown is also opening eyes. Confronted with the barbarity of border control on one hand and the inadequacy of aid agencies on the other, young volunteers are looking elsewhere for answers. To quote 21-year-old James from Australia: “Seeing the agencies stand around, waiting for the solution to yesterday’s problem to be approved, while we were all getting things done with no funding… It taught me, the system can’t be this broken, it must be designed to fail people.”

If they can bring that conviction and commitment back with them they will be powerful agents for political change at home. And ultimately, that’s what it will take to bring justice and humanity back to the frontlines: a moral revolution at the heart of fortress Europe.

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

Originally published by Red Pepper