It is 10 days since I finished volunteering with CESRT Offene Arme. It’s hard to believe the scale of events that have escalated since. So much is being shared on social channels about what is happening on the ground to try and raise awareness.
I want to take this opportunity to explain a little more about the island, and the chain of events that have led to this eruption of tension and outcries from every community involved in handling the refugee crisis. There are many perspectives and opinions in this intense time of difficulty, there are also endless facts and stories I could share to paint a picture of what was experienced on the ground, but for the purpose of this overview article I will try to be brief – to explain a little of everything rather than delving into specific issues. I will be focusing also on Chios, as it is where I have the most information from my own experiences and resources shared with me.
Chios (pronounced kHe-os) one of the Aegean islands off the coast of Turkey. It’s home to approximately 6000 displaced people who are fleeing their home countries in fear of their safety and are looking for asylum. Officially, the island is x12 its capacity for refugees. Landings have been occurring since 2015/16 at which time up to 20 boats arrived per night.
Chances are, if you have heard anything in the news about the refugee crisis on the Greek/Turkish border, you will have been hearing about Lesvos and very rarely about Chios. Both islands are facing crisis in their own right and I do not wish to compare ‘which situation is worse’ but instead highlight the need on Chios as equally as important. Lesvos has approximately 19 000 people residing in a camp build for 5000, on Chios there is 6000 in a camp built for 1000, proportionally both are a disgrace but the larger overall figure means that the majority of attention from media, volunteers and aid are focused on Lesvos and therefore I feel it’s crucial to have conversations regarding all of the Aegean islands (including Kos and Samos) that are in need of support and not consistently spotlight one. As I have just mentioned, I will be drawing from my own experiences in this article and therefore discussing Chios, but voices on all islands need to be heard.
There is one official camp on the Chios named Vial. It holds 100 containers and was built to provide temporary accommodation for 1014 asylum seekers. There are 4 toilets and 2 showers. There are also only 2 doctors available supporting wherever they can with very limited resource. The number of residents in the camp has now increased exponentially from around 2000 in July 2019 to approximately 6000 now. Yet the resources just mentioned have remained the same, putting extreme strain on the system. The official camp has exploded into the surrounding farmer’s fields into an over spill area known as ‘The Jungle’ where people have built temporary structures out of wood and tarpaulin. The picture below shows the only Arial view of the camp I have been able to find. Since it has been taken, many of the empty field are now stacked with tents.
According to the latest available UNHCR (United Nations High Commission of Refugees) reports over one-third of arrivals in 2020 have been children. Of those, more than 6 out of 10 are below the age of 12. Additionally, 15% of all children were registered upon arrival as unaccompanied or separated, mainly from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. (data.unhcr.org/mediterranean).
The photo below is also a UNHCR report which shows the split of nationalities in camp. With the Assad Regime advancing across Syria, most recently and publicly into Idlib, even more Syrians are being forced to leave their homes which we are seeing the effects of on Chios and on the Turkey/Syria border. Longer-term volunteers have also noticed an influx of arrivals from Somalia, a nationality which was previously not prevalent in camp.
Boats can arrive (known as a landing) along any stretch of the east coast of the island as people journey the ~10km stretch of Aegean Sea. Often boats of similar nationalities land in similar repeated landing spots due to their corresponding ‘smuggler’. A common misconception is that the smugglers are on the boat. This is not the case. The ‘smuggler’ facilitates everything needed to start the journey, loads the boat with their customers, chooses one of the asylum seekers to drive the boat and sends them in the initial correct direction with the hope they arrive on Greek shores. This journey is perilous as boats leave in the middle of the night to try and go unnoticed by the Turkish coast guard. They’re are often carrying significantly more people than should be on such a small boat, and have poorly designed life jackets/tire inner tubes as floatation devices. People do not make this journey unless they feel they have no other option.
Once arrivals are registered in camp and assigned the date of their first asylum hearing they are given a sleeping bag and tent (note, this is only possible if stocks permit it. Items are often donations and for context, there have been 6 tents in the last 3 months delivered to camp). The current asylum process is also very unclear as with the introduction of a new Greek government, existing systems have been reformed to give only 25 days to prove why you require asylum (a very difficult and strenuous procedure with significant fact checking, legal support and translation services required) in comparison to the previous timeframe where arrivals had months to compile this information. Conditions in camp are atrocious and are worsening with every landing, worse than I think any picture or description could show.
Rather than discussing these conditions I want to discuss the people residing there. It is perhaps easy to think that because these people are now living in extreme poverty that this is how they have always lived. This an idea that needs to be rectified. These asylum seekers are coming from developed civilisations and have been thrown into squalor through no fault of their own. Despite these harsh conditions there is proactive positivity in camp, and a want to help their neighbours. One such example is a camp resident cleaning team that work daily to move the vast levels of plastic and food waste through camp to municipality collection points. They do this not only to feel a sense of purpose, but because they continue to try and improve conditions for their neighbours and wider community. There are so many incredible and talented individuals in camp: social workers, translators, nurses, chefs, engineers, police officers, even a gentleman who is writing a book about his experience in camp with a publisher on the main land, all waiting in this purgatory unable to share their talents with our global community.
Something that I feel many of the volunteers and NGO’s in Chios are proud of is the communication across the island. There is have a fantastic network between authorities including local and international police, NGO’s and independent volunteers, and within camp communities and community leaders which is a testament to everyone. This has allowed the humanitarian aid to be delivered in safer, consistent and collaborative ways which effectively harness available resources. There has also been a lot of effort to build relations with the local community to create an awareness of the organisations and what they are doing to avoid alienation or resentment. This is not the case on every island.
TENSIONS ON THE ISLAND AND THE ESCALATION OF THE LAST 10 DAYS
In the last 10 days the island has been in constant flux with conditions mounting to create a painfully hostile and distressing environment. There are so many causes and triggers which have led to this eruption. I will try to outline the major events and then explain, to my knowledge, how two unfortunate incidents have coincided amongst many other pressures to create this disaster. On Tuesday 25th of February, riot police from Greek mainland arrived to deter locals from protesting the building of permanent detention facilities for refugees on the island (see video below).
These riots continued for a number of days with protests, tear gas and violence which shut down the island. Simultaneously Erdogan, Turkey’s President, announced that Turkey would no longer stop the flow of people migrating through to Greece which caused pandemonium as people rushed to cross the waters/to the gate between Turkey and Greece in case it was their only opportunity to make this move. Since then there have been reports of locals not letting arrivals disembark from the boats in Lesvos, and the Hellenic coast guards have threatened and shot at boats to force people back to Turkey. In this process a 6/7 year old girl has drowned (see more here)
The local community has turned on the camp and NGOs with threats on Chios and violence on Lesvos against aid workers, blocking entrances to Vial camp and limiting the extent of aid which can offered. Only 2 nights ago a warehouse full of aid resources on the outskirts of the Chios city was burnt down. Fights have been prevalent in Vial camp with frustrations rising and a fire destroying a number of tents in the centre of The Jungle.
This is alongside a number of reports of tear gas being used with messages from camp residents saying they are finding it hard to breathe. The Greek government has also announced that, against the regulation of Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights International Human Rights Law, that they will not be processing any asylum requests for the next month. This has been condemned by the United Nations and can be seen only as a ploy to deter any further arrivals onto the islands. NGOs are abandoning operations as it is no longer safe and many volunteers are leaving the island due to this escalation.
It is important to stress how this is not the fault of the Greek island community. The refugee crisis has put extraordinary pressure on the local community – a hospitable, generous population who were existing in an already struggling economy. The local people cannot be judged for their actions in the past days, especially as their seemingly harsh actions and opinions do not reflect the opinions of the population as a whole. Statements have been released by members of the public expressing this. The people of Chios since 2016 have acted in nothing but a welcoming and selfless manner but have been given near to no support from the wider EU community. They are also victims in this situation.
Just over a month ago a slanderous video was released spreading misinformation about the organisations claiming aid workers are being paid for their work (the roles are voluntary) and the suggesting the support being given is encouraging people to come to Chios therefore exacerbating the problem. There were also claims regarding the behaviour of the refugees and the potential Islamification of the island. Community relations committees were formed to break down this tension through conversation and action, but clearly indicated underlying concerns across the island. In comparison to Lesvos, at a similar time where multiple riots were occurring against volunteers and refugees, things on Chios seemed to be relatively stable.
The first major catalyst involves the proposed detention centres. The new Greek government has pledged to replace the current temporary camps with closed detention centres. The Chios people have been discouraging the erection of these facilities for some time with their objections being ignored by the wider government, not only because they do not wish to have a permanent institution but also because the what has been proposed will be inhumane and against international human rights regulations.
It is unfortunate that during this time Erdogan ‘opened’ the Turkish side of the border, stating that the EU have not withheld the terms of the EU Turkey agreement from 2016 causing an influx of boats to arrive. It is believed the current number of arrivals has been over 1200 people in the last few days. It is devastating to see the lives of people who are already fleeing for their safety being used as pawns in a political game.
HOW TO HELP
I believe there is a need for the following short and long term actions respectively: immediate decongestion of the Aegean islands onto mainland Europe to relieve the overwhelming pressures on the islands; to campaign and advocate for ceasefire in Syria to allow people to return home, something many camp residents will tell you they long to do. This long term action is tackling the root cause of this mass migration and is imperative in this crisis. In the short term we are talking about finding safety for 42 000 asylum seekers across all the islands. A drop in the ocean within the population of mainland Europe.
A glimmer of light during this time is the agreement of ceasefire within Afganistan. Hopefully in time this means the rehabilitation of Afgani refugees can begin.
All of this information can feel difficult to digest especially when meaningful action feels so out of reach. This issue which has been in and out of our headlines for 5 years now is one of thousands of newsworthy events and it is impossible to stay current with every crisis. My aim from this piece is to start explaining more about what is happening on the ground because whilst a lot of the critical change-making decisions are ultimately out of our control which can leave a feeling of helplessness, simply having and spreading awareness is crucial.
There are a few petitions currently circulating of which I have attached links below. In the words of a friend and CESRT Offene Arme coordinator, Whatever you think about petitions, It defintely won’t do anything if you don’t sign it.
Writing letters to Members of parliament is also a potential route for action. I’m a big believer in the butterfly effect. Every person who hears and understands what is going on is one person closer to creating this positive change.
Choose Love are also running a fund raiser with a match donor so any support would be hugely appreciated.
If you are still with me, thank you for reading about something I feel incredibly passionate about. It is an hugely complex issue that I have barely scratched the surface of but hope to have spread more awareness through.