When I write about the refugee crisis in Greece, I take my time. I try to avoid the overtly political, the preachy, the shock and awe. Instead, I prefer focus on the deep channels and themes that underscore what is happening here. But today you should be shocked, and considering the last few weeks, you ought to be awed.
Today I want—I need—to tell you about the past week here on Lesvos. It is important that you understand.
When I sat down to put my thoughts to page late Sunday night, it was the first time I had stopped long enough to sit down, with the exception of three uncomfortable hours spent sleeping on another volunteer’s floor in Mytilene, in two days. I was aching for sleep, but I was afraid of dreaming, forgetting, or letting things settle in and begin to feel normal, as change so often does on this island.
As you may have heard—or I hope you have heard over the exhausting volume of the American presidential election—the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement that allows refugees arriving in Greece to be detained and immediately deported back to camps in Turkey, now declared a ‘safe country,’ instead of allowing refugees to request asylum inside Greece, or move freely through the Schengen Zone to their desired country of asylum.
As a compromise, for every refugee that pays to be smuggled into Europe, a Syrian (and only Syrian- this is an important detail) refugee will be legally re-homed in Europe.
I can only tell the story of what happened next from where I was standing, and fill in the holes with information from volunteer channels and meetings staged in an attempt to understand the changes.
I posted my last update on Saturday afternoon and stood up to walk out the door for fishing when I got the call: in a surprise blitz, refugees were being taken out of the camps and forcibly relocated to mainland Greece. Buses were at all the camp entrances filling with refugees who were given no information about where they were going or their rights. Police had arrived at all of the unofficial camps to demand their immediate closure.
Simultaneously and without warning, the government removed every volunteer organization except for MSF and UNHCR from inside the Moria registration camp and locked the gates.
I volunteered to drive south to the port to bear witness to what was happening and help. When we arrived with our van filled with supplies, we found a port filled with discarded belongings and rubbish, refugees being ushered onto a ferry by police and frustrated dockworkers, and shell-shocked volunteers handing out the last of the meals they had cobbled together in their rush to respond to the call.
By that night, the Moria camp had nearly been emptied— only about 200 refugees who had been unable to pay for their new ferry tickets had been taken back there for the night. Kara Tepe was expected to be emptied by the next morning.
Once the last refugees were loaded onto the boat at midnight, volunteers immediately began laying out plans for the next day. Hot breakfast for 1,000, clothing, and sandwich bags, would need to be organized by 6:45 the next morning, when we were told the next wave of refugees would arrive.
Volunteers who had been in the port all day went to get dinner while the new volunteers began to clean. We picked up soup-stained teddy bears, half-eaten lentil dinners, and hundreds of small paper pamphlets with information written in Farsi and Arabic that had been dropped in the commotion. I had to go to Pikpa to make breakfast with Joakim in 4 hours, and at 12:45 am it was decided that I would stay at his apartment instead of inside the van with my fellow volunteers.
We were told that the enormous ferry, which had refugees loaded onto it as early as 1pm on Saturday, would be leaving by 1am for Kavala. When Joakim and I drove past the ferry again at 5am to make breakfast, it was still there. We later learned that it did not depart until at least 3pm on Sunday. That means that for over 24 hours, refugees were trapped inside of a boat with no access to aid or food, before beginning the 11-hour journey to Kavala.
The reason for the blitz is this: Kavala is mainland Greece. Refugee camps are being built there to handle the volume of refugees who are now stuck in Greece because they are not permitted to travel north across the Macedonian border.
Every refugee who arrived prior to midnight on March 20th has the right to claim asylum in Greece. Every refugee arriving from 12:01am onwards is illegal, and will be detained and deported. So, every refugee already in Lesvos and the other islands needed to be expedited to the mainland to prevent those with asylum rights from being mixed in with those who are to be immediately deported to Turkey.
Refugees were forced to buy their own tickets to this new ferry, and those who had already purchased ferry tickets to Athens had to pay to change their tickets. Those who could not pay for tickets did not have access to the same aid that they can apply for inside Moria. This was not aid work, this was profiteering.
My day in the Pikpa kitchen began at 5am. Joakim and I immediately began measuring out rice for porridge: nearly 1,000 meals for the port and an additional 500 for Better Days for Moria. The kitchen and office in Pikpa in many ways became a command center for the day. People came in and out for deliveries and pickups, bringing news and stories from the outside.
The first person we saw was Dino, a lifeguard from Boston, who came to pick up the porridge at 6:45am, still in his wetsuit.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, exhausted, like a man who could no longer be surprised. “There have been boats all night, and two dead on the beach this morning. Exposure.”
Later that morning, Isaac, a volunteer from Spain, walked in from working at the beaches and burst into tears.
The team from Better Days for Moria picked up their porridge at 8am and told us that about 200 of their Pakistani residents, who had been unable to register on the island and were considered illegal, had boarded a bus to the port voluntarily. However, when they found out at the ferry that they were being deported and not relocated, many had returned.
Before the spot on the floor where we packaged breakfast had cooled, we were preparing lunch for 1,000 more. We made endless cups of coffee for volunteers who came in muttering, “Strange day. Strange day.”
The WhatsApp groups buzzed all day with requests for supplies, speculations about the numbers of refugees left in the camps, ferry schedule information, and updates about buses leaving and arriving. What was particularly shocking was that despite the fact that we were dealing with a widespread government operation that involved scheduling a private ferry organization to transport over 5,000 people over two days, no one, not even UNHCR, knew what to expect and when to expect it. The information we had was cobbled together piece by piece by infinitesimal piece.
My day revolved around non-stop carrot peeling, lentil stirring, meal packaging, and onion chopping until my face was hot and wet with tears. When we finally cleaned the kitchen around 6 pm that night, still in shock, I went back to the port for my ride to Molyvos. Aid groups were there in full force at the port to distribute information, clothing, sanitary supplies, and meals to the thousands of refugees being loaded onto the ferries. Many of them no longer had any work to do of their own, since they had been evicted from the camps the night before.
In two months of working in Lesvos, I had never seen so many reporters. They were buzzing around every refugee who stopped to tie their shoes like gnats, and the far wall of the parking lot was packed with vans bearing enormous satellites. I was so happy they were there, I hoped so fully that the world would see this—the giant cues of family’s terrified and confused, being loaded onto the commercial entrance of the ferry. But, where had they been all this time?
I fell into the job of forming the refugees into organized lines. I stood at the front of the boat with the police and designated groups into family units to walk up the gangplank. I smiled and chatted and tried to make everything feel as normal and organized as possible. You could have knocked me over with a look, but I don’t think I gave myself away. I stared around at the other volunteers, running back and forth to find support for urgent cases, housing for those who had been bused to the port despite their ticket to Kavala being for the following day, and wondered how they were still on their feet.
When the crowds thinned and then disappeared, we walked to the waters edge and watched the boat depart. Refugees stood on the deck of the ship, waving down at us like they were vacationers departing on a cruise. The engines roared to life as the last of the sun dipped behind the horizon, and the boat’s passengers sang and cheered while the ferry pulled out of the harbor. Everyone left on the cement pilings of the port waved back, smiling, but many of their tired eyes were filled with tears.
The reaction of the island has largely been disbelief towards the swift implementation of the new agreement, considered by many to be a direct violation of human rights. Greeks, who have for years worked to build communities and camps to handle vulnerable refugees and provide them with a standard of care, feel as though their work is being completely swept away in a single brush stroke.
A small example of the changes: normally when a family member dies in the crossing, instead of the family being taken to the madness of Moria, they are taken to Pikpa to receive counseling, care, and a quiet place to sleep and grieve. The wives of the two men who died on the beaches that morning were taken to Moria, and the requests of volunteers to help these women, to move them to a more suitable environment or at least send counselors to check on them, went unanswered by the police.
Moria has become the prison it was always intended to be. Now, when refugees are brought inside, there is no freedom of movement. They are searched, their possessions and cell phones taken from them, and they are interred until either their unique asylum cases are processed, or they are deported. There is no outside accountability, no one to ensure that a humanitarian standard of care is being met, or if refugee’s legal rights are being met.
“It is an attack on everything we have built,” said a Greek coordinator at Pikpa Solidarity Camp. “It will be again like it was in October, where you couldn’t approach the refugee because they were illegal. The biggest change of the arrival of aid workers in the past few months is that now we can approach the refugee. We can run towards them to help, instead of away from them.”
Pikpa Solidarity Camp, which houses the island’s most vulnerable refugees—those with severe disabilities or who have experienced exceptional trauma, received notice that it was being shut down, to be a children’s summer camp. With the military-run camps, the mayor said that the camp would be ‘unnecessary.’ Their residents would be relocated to the mainland.
In the days that followed, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), UNHCR, and Oxfam suspended operations partially or entirely within the Moria camp in protest. Most of the migrants from Pakistan who lived illegally in Better Days for Moria were convinced to go peacefully over the hill to be interned at Moria. Those who resisted were arrested and taken by force. They were later seen by those in the port being loaded onto the ferry, handcuffed in pairs.
Information came in from refugees taken to the new camps in Kavala, which were revealed to be unfinished. Teenagers and children are sleeping in tents with no floors, on the grass or cardboard to keep their sleeping bags dry. Pregnant women in their third trimester are no longer considered vulnerable cases.
The next day, and every day that followed, I went back to the kitchen in Pikpa, not because there was work to do anymore, but to try and determine what will be left for us here when the dust settles.
A demonstration was organized yesterday to protest the new policies, and the peaceful volunteers clad in recycled life jackets we were met by riot police.
For months, we have been ready. On Saturday night, sleeping fully clothed on Joakim’s floor, I was grateful that I always have a toothbrush in my backpack. But what does it matter how prepared we are if we are forbidden from continuing to aid refugees?
I look around at the children playing in Pikpa camp while I wash lettuce for the staff lunch, and feel as though the island is being drawn into a silent, deadly gravity, swallowing everything outside of this moment, and washing it away. In an instant, a deal has unknitted everything so many have taken so long to build.
I understand parts of the deal. I understand the structure intended to deter refugees from coming to Europe illegally in an effort to reduce smuggling. But most believe that the people will not stop getting in boats. Some say they will come through Italy, instead. Smugglers have tremendous incentives to keep promising gardens of paradise on this side of the water, to lie to refugees about what they will find on these shores.
I will proudly say that I am Angela Merkel’s biggest fan. But I have always lived in a wonderful bubble of functional democracy. I have never before felt such unease that the government does not always have everyone’s best interests at heart. I don’t think I like who is holding them accountable. When we studied history in school and looked back to the times of our grandparents, we thought, unbelievable. We said, “Never again.” I had a teacher in high school with numbers tattooed onto his arm from childhood. I was happy; I thought, how modern today is, how far we have come!
As I reflect on what is happening now, how quickly we are sliding back to the refugee politics of just this past summer, when hundred—no, thousands— were dying on the water and there was scant humanitarian aid on the island, I can’t help but feel shocked that I might actually live in a primitive time.
For weeks I have said I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but that was referring to details. Never before have I felt such a complete blankness when it comes to the goings on of tomorrow. We operate minute-to-minute, and hour-to-hour instead of day-to-day. Camps teeming with people have become ghost towns. The media has descended and the internet is flush with images of children peering through the chain link fence from inside Moria. It is a strange thing to have such an intimate familiarity with the physical inside of a prison, and yet have no familiarity with the situation of those being trapped inside it.
There is no answer for those who ask me if volunteers will still be necessary on the island if they come in a few months. At the moment, every new refugee on the island is in, in effect, a prison. There is talk that the deal will collapse, that refugees will come in greater numbers as the situation in Turkey worsens and that Greece will not be able to handle the tide.
We all woke up on Monday and, foggy with exhaustion from the events of the previous days, read about the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Grief and disappointment was a crashing wave. Not simply for those lost and the heart of Europe which again is punctured, but all those that will continue to hurt as a result of this tragic violence.
What is difficult to communicate is that this is exactly the same fear and anxiety and violence that the refugees are running from themselves. Their hearts break for Europe just as ours do. They know everything of our suffering, yet we know, and care, so little of theirs.
Brussels was shocking. Syria is shocking. Turkey is shocking. Europe is shocking. America is shocking. These are the times we live in. We should all be shocked, and we should all be awed.