You can’t stop a ship dead in its tracks, but sometimes you can change its course.
And that’s what happened recently in the Aegean Sea in a new twist in the evolving refugee crisis my colleagues from Amnesty International were researching on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios.
On 5 April, we were on board a night-time ferry from Mytilene, Lesvos, to Chios, when we were informed that our destination had changed because of “the refugee situation”. Hundreds of refugees and migrants were camping out in the open on the main dock in Chios harbour.
Because our ferry – a towering mass of metal the length of two football pitches – posed a serious threat to them, we were diverted mid-voyage and docked at another port an hour’s drive away.
At the time, the island of Chios was hosting more than 1,600 refugees and migrants, with Lesvos hosting around twice that number. Some 1,200 were being held in prison-like conditions in VIAL, a closed detention centre built around an abandoned aluminium factory 5.5km inland on Chios. Several hundred more people were sleeping rough in the port after fleeing overnight clashes in the camp several days earlier.
Perched on the edge of the port
The morning after we arrived, we witnessed the highly precarious situation of those camped in Chios port. The juxtaposition could not have been more jarring between the scenes of squalor on the dock and the bustling harbour-side cafés just metres away.
Dozens of tents and makeshift shelters fashioned out of blankets and tarps lined the dock area’s fences. Many people also lay bundled up in blankets near the water’s edge or huddled into any pockets of shade along the adjoining street.
A bright red and pink dome tent in the middle of the dock bore several handwritten signs with pleas for help. One, scrawled on a baby’s bib, said: “Help us. We are Syrian Children. We need…emergency help. We don’t want [to be] still here in Greece. And we don’t want [to be sent] back to Turkey. We need sa[fety] and peace.”
A short walk further down the port, near the rocky shore, we came across a large white tent emblazoned with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) logo. A respite from the late morning sun, it had become a temporary home to multiple families. Small groups of Syrian and Afghan men chatted outside while some children played around a small row of what looked like fishermen’s sheds.
Escape from Afghanistan
We sat in the shade of the port police building across the street as two Afghan men told us their stories. A small boy from Kabul played in the background, stealing curious glances at us from time to time.
One of the men, F., aged 20, told us he and his family had to leave Herat, Afghanistan because it wasn’t safe for them there.
His older brother used to work as a translator for US government forces, which had angered relatives in the Taliban. He told us that, after receiving death threats from them, his brother escaped and applied for asylum in Germany.
But then the Taliban set their sights on the rest of F.’s family, who they called “pagans”, he said. F. told us that around a year ago, they beat him, injuring his nose and face and leaving him with breathing problems.
After that attack, F. too fled Afghanistan, along with his mother and four younger brothers. They made a difficult journey through Iran and Turkey.
When they attempted to cross to Chios by boat, Turkish police arrived on the beach and his family got separated in the fracas that ensued. Weeks passed and they had heard nothing about the fate of the two youngest brothers, aged 12 and 13.
F. said his mother is beside herself with anxiety. When we first saw her, she was unable even to speak to us, and when I later returned, she was sobbing loudly, apparently overcome with grief and stress.
She took out several small bags to show me the medication she was taking for hypertension and other ailments. She said she hadn’t eaten in many days.
Detained on Chios
When F., his mother and some 50 other people arrived on Chios around 20 March, Greek police took them to VIAL detention centre.
“When we went to register the following day, the police never asked why we are here or where we want to go. They never asked us if we want to apply for asylum,” F. told us. Instead, they were told they would be sent back to Turkey.
“We can’t go back to Turkey,” he told us, visibly distressed by the prospect.
Like many of the refugees and migrants we interviewed on Chios and Lesvos, F. was confused about the asylum process and his rights. More than a week into their detention at VIAL, he and his mother were given a document about the asylum process in Farsi, Arabic and English. But they didn’t apply because they were told it was for new arrivals only.
Then, on the night of 1 April, clashes broke out between some of the Afghans and Syrians detained at VIAL.
F. said the violence was terrifying and made his mother even more distressed. Her blood pressure shot up and she grabbed her things, insisting that they escape. Along with around 400 others, they broke free of the detention centre and went to the port, which had virtually no infrastructure or services to sustain them.
“The situation is dire here – there’s no food, no water, nothing. They told us to go back to VIAL to apply for asylum, but we can’t go back to that camp. We came here to be free and not in jail,” F. told us.
On the move again
A week after the refugees and migrants first arrived in the port, tensions in the local community erupted into violence when some anti-refugee protesters stormed the makeshift camp. Overnight on 7-8 April, police cleared the dock, bussing many of the refugees and migrants to a park in another area of the town.
When my colleague contacted F. again afterwards, he said he and his mother had followed police instructions to go to an open centre a short distance up the coast. While they had access to some facilities and a degree of security there, they told us they were sleeping out in the open because all the available tents were full.
F. and his mother’s case is just the tip of the iceberg. Amnesty International’s team interviewed 89 refugees and migrants on Lesvos and Chios, and each story was as disturbing as the next. The vast majority had a poor understanding of the asylum process or their status, and there was virtually no information or access to legal aid available. An environment of uncertainty, fear and confusion prevailed.
This chaos comes as a direct result of the Greek and EU authorities’ ill-preparedness to implement the EU-Turkey refugee deal agreed in mid-March. The mass returns must be halted until a range of human rights guarantees can be put in place.
The deal is a bit like a massive ship: it might be too late to stop it entirely at this stage, but European leaders can and must change course to avoid crushing refugee rights in its wake.