Right wing tendencies in Chios and Greece threaten safety of refugees and activists
The island of Chios, located in the Aegean Sea, is the unforgiving ‘temporary’ home of around 2000 refugees. The vast majority of them live in Vial refugee camp, located 6.8km from Chios’ main port and town. Vial is no exception to most refugee camps in Greece; the conditions are dire and overcrowded, toilets are lacking, the food is appalling, snakes and rats are incessantly intruding residents and neighbors. NGOs on the island provide for most of the services and provisions, including medical care and the distribution of basic goods. Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT), for example, provides for 90% of the provisions of Vial camp according to their founder Toula Kitromilidi, who is a Chios local.
One of the main difficulty’s refugees face in their asylum process, according to a local legal organization, is that the process is very unfair. People are not informed about their rights or the procedural steps required, which are very long and complicated. Some interviews are being scheduled for as late as 2023, and the interviews themselves can last as long as 9 hours where people relive traumas and revisit very painful parts of their past.
In contrast to the miserable condition’s refugees experience on Chios, Chios itself has always been a wealthy island and even the Greek financial crisis of the last decade barely touched it. Attitudes from locals in Chios have, over the years, shifted with regards to refugees. When the first boats began arriving on the island in 2015, people were supportive. Local groups of people cooked for the arrivals in the park to show their solidarity with the refugees, and they made up to 700 meals per day. Once refugees were taken to the no longer existing Souda camp, local teachers and Jenny, a local activist, organized open playgrounds for the children of all the camps and supported refugees along with other friends. As Jenny points out, even those who did not actively help refugees were accepting of them because “in the beginning, many refugees came from wealthy families, they slept in hotels, went to restaurants and in some cases were taken advantage of, with locals charging them up to 10 euros for a sandwich or 5 euros for a bottle of water.”
Currently, however, apart from Jenny and her group of solidarity friends, and a few other local NGOs including CESRT and FEOX, public perception of refugees has shifted. Disinformation and misinformation about refugees feed xenophobic attitudes, and perceptions range from people fearing that refugees on Chios are there to convert society and religion into Islam, or that people should not get too close to refugees because they might catch an illness.
Added to the mix, the neo-Nazi, fascist political party Golden Dawn and other likeminded informal groups like the no longer active Committee Against Refugees (Παγχιακή Επιτροπή Αγώνα) are present on Chios. Over the last few years they have been very active and engaged in violent attacks on refugees, on numerous occasions. Most notably in two pogroms in 2016 when refugees in protest occupied the town hall and people in solidarity with them were attacked by local mobs in the main square, and again when locals threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at refugees from the castle walls situated above the Souda camp. Both of these attacks were organized and planned ahead of time and many fascists traveled from Athens in the days prior in order to carry them out. These larger-scale events are only two examples of countless isolated attacks against refugees throughout the years. Not only are the refugees under attack, but local advocates working in solidarity with them, like Jenny and her friends, have suffered harsh consequences for being supportive of refugees. Jenny and one friend--who prefers not to be named--have both received death threats, intimidations of violence, and direct attacks. These intimidations and attacks have disincentivized helping others, in fear of what might happen.
In 2019, the most recent attack took place 3 months ago where eggs were thrown at refugees; however, currently the violent attacks by the Golden Dawn and other fascist groups have subsided after some heavy prison sentences were given to some of their members after they attacked the chief of police Athanasios Basioukas in 2017, when he wasn’t in uniform and was assumed to be someone supportive of refugees. Therefore, it has been much safer on the streets, both for refugees and local activists, but according to Jenny and her friends, the true danger is bigger than ever. Before, the fascists were visible and open about their views. Now, people with the same ideas of forcible suppression and fear for diversity are dressed in suits and ties, and their views are reflected in the policies they legislate. They know how to captivate public opinion and they disguise their motivations in nationalistic and populist sentiments. On June 3rd 2019, the recent municipal elections in Chios were won by ex-military Stamatis Karmantzis with about 52% of the vote. Karmantziz will become the new mayor of Chios. In the past, he has been quoted as saying: “a good Turkish is a dead Turkish” and he shares many values of the Committee Against Refugees. Furthermore, many seats in the municipality are held by the party Χίος Μπροστά (loosely translated as Chios in Front) which is a new political party with links to the Committee Against Refugees.
Due to the further solidified anti-refugee political climate, local activists in solidarity with refugees fear hate speech will become more legitimized and people’s extreme right-wing sentiments will be backed by those in power. This election is in itself part of a wider national Greek movement towards the far-right and in a few months the far-right is also expected to win the national elections, making these developments even more worrisome as they will be reflected on the experiences and processes of refugees all over Greece.
According to local activists, some of the expected consequences of these political ideologies gaining more power are:
- Vial may become a detention center and a closed camp, meaning people will not be able to leave freely into town to buy necessities or visit community centers run by NGO’s such as Action for Education and others which provide a safe space for refugees to learn new skills, relax and enjoy a community outside of the camp.
- Massive deportations may begin, which is something few people are aware of and public information on this possibility is very limited
- Increase in refoulment, the militarization of the border, increased pushbacks including masked military men damaging refugee boats.
These developments must be resisted and the example of the brave people in solidarity with refugees should be followed: Fighting in the streets against these ideologies and putting public pressure on the authorities not only to treat refugees with dignity and respect but to change the systemic violence currently exerted on refugees within the current political framework both in Europe and in Greece.
Indeed, these developments are not limited to Chios or Greece but are evermore present in many countries and cities throughout the EU. Refugee camps like Vial, not only provide for dire living conditions for refugees but also marginalize and exclude refugees from society, allowing for prejudices and hate to grow. The EU must abolish the Dublin regulation and allow people to freely search for a better life.
Alarming conditions for refugees in Samos
A team from Mare Liberum recently travelled to Samos. Video, photos and report document their observations on the human rights situation on the island.
On the Greek island of Samos, it is only a five minute walk up a hill, from the Vathi central square until the infamous “hotspot” is in sight. This “hotspot”, the refugee camp, pours over the hills on the outskirts of town. Its official capacity is 650 residents, but the actual number of inhabitants is unknown. Official numbers by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, report 3,200 refugees currently living on Samos as of May 2019; other NGOs believe there are more than 5,000.
The numbers change daily as some people are transferred to camps on other islands or the mainland and new arrivals continue to land in Samos. Barely a night goes by without a boat managing to dodge the patrolling coast guard and cross the 1.6 kilometers of water between Turkey and Samos at its closest point. The dinghies carry between 30-60 people on average.
Around the official gated camp where people live in containers, the so called “jungle” spreads, which is where the majority of the refugee population is situated. The terrain is not at all lush, as the name jungle would insinuate, but it is unruly. Hundreds of 5 euro beach tents and shelters made with plastic and spare pieces of wood are placed on the hillside, between piles of trash. The whole camp is covered in garbage as any official waste disposal system is not functioning. NGOs like Refugee4Refugees, founded by Omar, a Syrian refugee who is on the island since 2015, try their best to clean up the site. Refugee4Refugees has managed to dispose of 15 tons of trash in the last few months, but the camp is still a vile dump. Rats are everywhere, some the size of a one liter bottle, which in turn attracts snakes up to two meters in length.
Debbie*, 22, is from Ghana. She arrived on Samos four days ago. She is five months pregnant and alone on the island. She says she does not know who her child's father is: "I was raped in Turkey by two men." When Debbie arrived in Samos, she saw a doctor from the camp who handed her some papers in Greek writing. It's her diagnose and referral to another doctor. She does not know how to read it nor who to ask for its translation. She doesn’t know where to go next. She lives in a small tent with a stranger she met just days ago. There is no sanitation in this area and, therefore, hygiene is extremely poor. The only water available for washing comes from a small hole in the ground near a mountain of garbage.
The camp is informally divided into different sections by ethnicity. To the west of the “hotspot” are mainly people from Palestine and Iraq. Sitting in the sun, with an absent-minded look, is Mahmoud. His friends say he is crazy. Mahmoud crossed the Aegean swimming from Turkey to Samos with his friend Abdul because they could not afford to pay the smugglers. At sea they became separated. Mahmoud immediately alarmed the police when he arrived on the island. After an unsuccessful search and 17 days without news, Abdul’s body was found. Mahmoud and a group of other refugees held a small funeral for Abdul. One of them shot a video when they opened the body bag during the ceremony. It shows Abduls lifeless torso, grey and bloated from over two weeks in the water, bite marks on his chest.
About five minutes from the camp is Alpha, a community and educational center, where refugees can take courses in English and Greek or music and computer skills. Bogdan, who founded the center with his NGO Samos Volunteers, says things went from bad to worse after September and October 2018 when an additional 4,000 people arrived. He sees his students’ mental health deteriorate in front of his eyes, especially after two or three months of being on the island and living without toilets, showers or any feeling of safety. "Not knowing what is going to happen to them, that is the hardest part," says Bogdan, and he adds that between the thousands of traumatized people, the camp and the jungle share one psychologist.
Several NGOs like Samos Volunteers and Refugee4Refugees try to ease the situation by offering educational spaces and activities, legal support, or aid in the distribution of tents, sleeping bags and hygiene products. However, Bogdan says the conditions in the camp do not seem to be improving, instead they are getting worse: “Nothing functions. Everything is broken. What do you want to prioritize? I don't want to prioritize anymore.”
Meanwhile, tensions within the camp are rising. In January, the francophone African community organized large protests against the terrible conditions of the camp and “jungle”. They attempted to march again in May, but police forces violently stopped them from speaking out. Volunteers and journalists on the scene were also taken in for questioning; their phones were checked for pictures and videos captured at the protest .
Émery, from the Congo, was there that day. He lives in a tent he set up for him and his wife just a few meters from the main road, where the African portion of the “jungle” begins. The hills here are steep, which makes it even harder to put up an upright tent, and the area is closer to the garbage dump, were the stench is the worst.
Émery and his wife have been living here for 10 months, without any change in sight. Hopes turned into frustration and frustration turned into anger. Émery is a learned man. He speaks English, French and Portuguese and talks about the colonial powers that have been exploiting Congo's mineral resources for generations, about racism and capitalism in Africa and Europe. “We come to take back what the West has stolen from us. They exploited our bodies and minds for hundreds of years. If they don't want us here they should leave Africa for Africans. How can we survive?" He says that all his suffering might be worth it, if it allows his grandchildren have a better life.
But his optimism is interrupted by thoughts of how inhumane life is in Samos, where he says he and his neighbors are treated worse than animals. After demonstrators were beaten down by the police, his patience came to an end. "There will not be a next protest," says Émery, and he sounds like he means it. "Next time there will be fire. We will light this place on fire."
*The names of all residents of the camp and jungle have been changed to not jeopardize their asylum application process
Mare Liberum operations 23.5.2019
During our watch at the east coast of Lesbos, mission coordinator Farshad took some time to explain Mare Liberum's operations in the Aegean Sea. The situation between Turkey and Greece continues to be precarious for many people fleeing to safety in Europe. We are here and we are working for the human rights of anyone attempting to cross the waters.
Mare Liberum sets sail! 19.5.2019
We are finally back at sea and now on watch on the East coast of the Greek Island of Lesbos, facing the Turkish border. We are delighted to continue our mission monitoring human rights in the Aegean, after the courts lifted our illegal suspension in port. As people continue to attempt to cross the sea everyday, we work to bring the public an independent and accurate account of Europe’s border. Video
Life-jacket graveyard at Lesbos' North shore. 16.5.2019
In the hills near the Greek town of Molyvos ten-thousands of life-jackets paint a picture of what migration looks like at the European border. Almost all of them are so-called "fake life-jackets", sold in Turkey for around €10. They are filled with layers of plastic material that allows them to float for a short while, before they soak up and become an additional weight for people after capsizing. These jackets are often the only ones refugees can afford, especially when they need multiple attempts to cross the Aegean. The worst jackets are those for children. They are plastic jackets for swimming pools, not meant to be used on a boat, with a written warning: "Will not protect against drowning." Many people trying to come to Europe cannot swim. In an emergency, these fake life-jackets are their only hope. Creating safe migration routes for refugees seeking asylum is possible – but the European Union has chosen not to. Mare Liberum will set sail soon, hoping to make the Aegean Sea a little less deadly.
Photos: Mare Liberum/Dylan Lebecki & David Fischer
Mare Liberum is ready to set sail once again 23.4.2019
Reflections on one year monitoring human rights in the Aegean
Mare Liberum is monitoring human rights in the Aegean Sea by ship, and we are prepared to set sail for the second season of monitoring human rights. Our dedicated volunteers feel the urge to prevent unnecessary deaths at Europe’s maritime border. Mare Liberum aims to observe, document and draw public attention to the dangerous situation at the European border.
It has been one year since Mare Liberum arrived on Lesvos.1 Shortly before we arrived we were sadly reminded why we started the Mare Liberum project. Fourteen people - two families from Iraq and Afghanistan - drowned in the Aegean Sea because their boat sank. Despite being alerted, the Greek Coast Guard did not rescue them.2 During 2018 alone, 174 people lost their lives trying to cross the Aegean Sea. Since the beginning of 2019, sixteen refugees have already drowned.3 On April 11th refugees reported they were “refouled” 4 from Greek waters into Turkish waters. Mare Liberum’s aim is for this not to happen anymore. People are drowning, though they could live if legal and safe passage were offered. We are there to bear witness. People should be rescued and have their human rights respected, without regard to their origins. The lives of refugees should be equally valued to those of people with an EU-passport.
However, even with a good idea and the best of intentions, one still has to go through a lot of legal trouble in order to be able to pursue this idea. But for us, it was and continues to be worth it. One year ago, ahead of our mission, it was our goal to get the ship ready to sail. Many volunteers helped us by painting, de-rusting and so on. Our vanguard and long-term mission coordinator arrived on Lesvos in April 2018 and networked with all the organisations and institutions present there. Soon every volunteer and every Coast Guard member on the island had heard of Mare Liberum, even before we were ready to sail. And this is exactly our goal: authorities in the region should know we are there, watching.
MARE LIBERUM with new paint.
From the beginning
The search and rescue NGO Sea-Watch had performed a monitoring mission in the Aegean in 2017.5 Though their priorities shifted more towards search and rescue in the centrel Mediterranean, they saw the importance of the continuation of an oversight mission in the Aegean. They trusted us to continue the activism for refugees and human rights, and so they supported the founding of Mare Liberum. Not only that, they even sold us their former ship (SEA WATCH 1) for just a single euro.
Upon arrival in Greece, the positive chaos and inspired commotion of 2015 had ceased. Both the number of refugees crossing the maritime border to the European Union (EU) and the number of volunteers receiving them have decreased. Now that the EU-Turkey Deal 6 had been implemented, the international attention towards the situation had faded. Coast Guards and the EU border agency FRONTEX are gaining back control of the sea between Turkey and Greece. What hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that too many people die after being shipwrecked and the pressing misery pushing for people’s arrival to Europe continues to worsen. After arrival in the EU, refugees are forced to live in overcrowded camps. The current conditions of refugee Camp Moria 7 serve as a prime example.
Furthermore, our arrival was met by a climate of repression and criminalisation. Spotters of Lighthouse Relief 8 were being pushed away from their spots. Civilian initiatives to help those people arriving by boat were prevented by the authorities. The Coast Guard was not allowing the search and rescue unit of Refugee Rescue 9 to help people in distress. Just as we were about to start our mission, three volunteers of a search and rescue organisation were arrested on Lesvos. Sean Binder, Nassos Karakitsos and Sara Mardini 10 were amongst the accused and arrested for collaborating with smugglers. It wasn’t until the following December that they were finally released. 11 These false allegations and unwarranted arrests are a clear example of the attack on solidarity-organisations in general. Meanwhile, in the central Mediterranean Sea the search and rescue NGO Sea-Eye 12 was forced to stop its mission because their flag was withdrawn. Contrastingly, the search and rescue organisation Mission Lifeline 13 was forced to stay out at sea with 234 people on board since they were denied access to the ports. We ourselves had to be very careful with our actions; however, the Seebrücke movement 14 gave us immense support, and backing from Germany pushed us forward to follow through with our plans.
Bringing our mission statement to life
Finally, at the end of August 2018 we had our flag and permission to sail. We navigated to the north of Lesvos which is one main arrival point for refugee boats. We were saluted from the shore and warmly welcomed by our friends working in the town of Skala Sikamineas. Some hours later, Frontex approached us during our dinner to check our papers. It showed us yet again that we were at the right place and that the authorities were aware of our presence. So we celebrated the start of our mission and the very same night we began sending out night shifts, looking out for refugee boats.
After some weeks of monitoring at sea, we realized that it is very difficult to be at the right spot when a boat is arriving. We are not allowed to patrol border alongside Frontex, so either they were always the first to arrive to a boat, or the refugee boats reached land without having been detected. Still, we kept observing. We remained at the ready. An additional approach that we adopted has been to monitor the general situation, investigate political and social developments affecting those on the islands and at sea, and act as a loudspeaker to call more attention to a what has become a neglected issue.
Spreading the word about Mare Liberum
As tension in the region continues, Mare Liberum continues to be a reliable source for updates from the ground. Due to our ability to take journalists on the water, tangibly show what refugees go through to reach Europe, and explain how the EU’s authorities behave, our shop is often frequented by journalists.
Fortunately, the media’s special coverage of our work caught the attention of the Punk-Rock-Singer Monchi of Feine Sahne Fischfilet.15 Monchi not only visited Lesvos and camp Moria, but he also stayed several nights on the MARE LIBERUM 16 with our crew. We cannot thank him enough for his work in calling more attention to the European border. The band took us on tour with them to all of their concerts and organized events in collaboration with Audiolith, their booking agency, where we could present our work alongside the association Solidarity at Sea. 17
Solidarity at Sea is managing support to the criminalized volunteers of the IUVENTA-crew. The IUVENTA was used as a search and rescue vessel saving a total of 14,000 people from the sea bordering Libya, before the Italian police seized the ship in 2017. Regardless, some of the former crew members are not afraid to continue working for refugees’ rights with Mare Liberum. 18 We will keep on struggling side by side, as we live by the solidarity and the support of many. 19
Refugge Camp on Samos
Expanding our horizons
In November 2018 we sailed the Mare Liberum to the island of Chios in order to get a better understanding of the situation one hundred kilometers south of Lesvos. We met with local solidarity actors and were taken to and informed about the situation in Vial, the local refugee camp. Again, the Coast Guard visited us 20 and showed us that they were very aware of our presence, which is just what we want. A few months later, in January, we went to Samos to support other local initiatives and obtain a better understanding of the situation on the island, which gets even less international coverage than Lesvos. It was striking to see how a manageable and predictable situation such as the winter was deliberately not being handled properly, showing a complete lack of respect and heavy discomfort for the migrants who are forcibly stuck on the island.
After broadening our scope of activities and expanding our horizons within less than four months of sailing, we ended our first season in the beginning of December. Just like everyone else on Moria and Vial, we had to prepare for winter the best we could.
During these winter months we did several public appearances, informing people about our work and organizing internal workshops. Despite being in between mission seasons, we do not keep quiet. Three years after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, we published a joint statement with several other NGO’s, calling for European leaders to end this humanitarian crisis. 21 We also took to the streets, together with refugees, denouncing the policies that force people to either live in horrible conditions or die at sea.
We repaired and prepared our ship to be ready for the next season, which is starting very soon. Many volunteers contributed their time to make this happen. We will continue our mission and to strengthen the support of solidarity and fundamental human rights.
Demonstration in Mytillini on the ocasion of three years EU-Turkey-Deal, 16.3.2019
Many refer to the EU-Turkey-Deal as a dirty, considering that the EU is trading people. The EU pays money to Turkey for taking back refugees who have arrived to Greece via Turkey. Turkey is intercepting about 50 % of refugees-boats now. Before it was only about 20 %. For further info: https://harekact.bordermonitoring.eu/category/monitoring-the-eu-turkey-deal/ https://sea-watch.org/en/why-we-demand-the-cancellation-of-the-eu-turkey-deal/ https://www.msf.org/euturkey-two-years-deal-continues-fail-thousands-people-seeking-asylum ↩
Moria is an EU-hot-spot refugee camp on Lesbos, harboring nearly 9,000 people when there is barely enough space for a third that number. See also: https://www.borderline-europe.de/unsere-arbeit/ein-gef%C3%BChl-von-ohnmacht-auf-der-gef%C3%A4ngnisinsel-lesbos ↩
See report on Monchi on Mare Liberum: https://www.spiegel.de/plus/feine-sahne-fischfilet-ostdeutschland-auf-den-punk-gebracht-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000160086114 Video: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1530480907052285 ↩
On October 13, 2018 in Berlin, 242,000 people demonstrated for impartible human rights as part of the #unteilbar demonstration. Thanks you to the CCC for hosting us (https://media.ccc.de/v/35c3-9909-updates_von_der_europaischen_aussengrenze) and thank you to Plus 1! (http://www.taz.de/!5508734/) ↩