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.

Registration Slope Moria

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

Originally reported by Al Jazeera

Full story run by Red Pepper Online

Odyssey Entry I: There Is No Migrant Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The War on Terror’

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

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

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

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

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The War on Earth

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

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

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

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

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War on the Poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for The Leap