Bringing Solidarity Home – Comment Is Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published by the Guardian online & in print, 29th December 2016

Odyssey Entry VI: Crossing No More

Evros fence closeup blog

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

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

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

Evros Fence blog

The Evros fence

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

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

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

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

Fylakio Child blog

Child detained at Fylakio

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

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

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

Fylakio blog

Fylakio detention and ‘first reception’ centres

The First Reception Centre

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

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

Christos w Fylakio Detainees blog

Christos

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

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

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

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

Safe Passage Now

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

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

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

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

Monument to Refugees blog

Written with Samir Dathi & published by Red Pepper