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.