The future of the left since 1884

Prison islands

Our government must take responsibility for the abysmal treatment of refugees reaching Europe, writes Teresa Thornhill.



The EU-Turkey deal of March 2016 reduced drastically the number of refugees reaching Europe via Greece from the peak of 856,000 in 2015; but individuals and families continue to cross the sea from western Turkey to the Greek islands. 11,403 have already made the journey this year, most in overloaded inflatable dinghies, between 1 January and 3 June 2018. At least 80 per cent of this year’s arrivals hail from countries currently riven by extreme political violence:  according to UNHCR, 42 per cent are from Syria, 23 per cent from Iraq, 11 per cent from Afghanistan and 3 per cent from Congo. A staggering 38 per cent are children. And as the weather improves, the numbers are increasing.

While the UK remains a member of the EU, our government must take its share of responsibility for the abysmal treatment to which those arriving on Europe’s south eastern fringes are subjected. Most are fleeing war, torture and/or sexual violence. Many will have experienced extreme trauma before setting out on their journeys. Some see relatives drown in the course of the sea crossing. Yet when they arrive on Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros or Kos, after a small minority are deported, the vast majority face inordinate delays in the processing of their asylum claims. Waits of up to two years are not uncommon, and during this time the refugees, though not detained, have little option but to live in overcrowded and increasingly dangerous camps. Many NGOs left the islands in 2017, leaving only small volunteer-run projects to assist the refugees.

It is Greek law which confines those seeking asylum to the so-called ‘prison islands’; but the policy suits Brussels, because, if accommodated on the mainland, some individuals would slip through the northern Greek border into the Balkans, heading for northern Europe. There have been many calls for ‘de-congestion’ of the islands, and in December 2017 the authorities transferred some refugees from Lesvos to the mainland. The improvement in conditions was short-lived, however, as new arrivals soon took their places.

When I visited Lesvos in March 2018, its former army camp, Moria, was housing around 7,000 migrants and refugees, in accommodation – if one can call it that – adequate for 2,000 at most. The flimsy summer tents in which some died of exposure in the harsh winter of 2016 – 2017 had been replaced by ‘isoboxes’ (like caravans), but up to twenty men slept in each one. Washing facilities offered only cold water, except in summer, and lone women and unaccompanied minors lived in constant fear of sexual assault. Medical provision was minimal, as was help for those whose mental health could no longer withstand the combined ravages of war trauma, loss of home and family and acute uncertainty about the future.

There are regular protests in Moria, which sometimes develop into violent confrontations with the Greek authorities. The confrontations make the camp even more dangerous for women, children, the elderly and the disabled.

In mid-April, an Afghan living in Moria fell ill and died in hospital. Believing he had not received adequate care, a group of Afghan families left Moria in protest and set up camp in Sapphos Square in the heart of Mytilene, Lesvos’ port city. Police asked the refugees to leave, citing concerns among local business people about the impact on tourism; but they refused. On the night of Sunday 22 April, the group, now numbering over one hundred, were subjected to a furious attack. The assailants, who were Greek, shouted fascist slogans and the phrase ‘let’s burn them alive!’ while throwing fire flares, wet pebbles and pieces of concrete at the refugees. The police formed a cordon between the attackers and the refugees, but made no serious attempt to halt the violence. Volunteers and activists stood with the refugees, who steadfastly refrained from responding with violence. Many refugees were injured, some seriously.

The attack continued intermittently until, in the early hours of the following morning, riot police using tear gas and pepper spray surrounded and forcibly evicted the encampment. One hundred and twenty refugees were arrested, charged with an offence of occupation of a public space and given a trial date in May 2019. None of the attackers were arrested until pressure was put on the state prosecutors by the Ministry of Migration. Some of the assailants  were then charged with unknown offences..

It has since emerged that the attack was premeditated, with around ten right-wing activists from Athens travelling to Lesvos specially in order to whip up anti-migrant hatred among local Lesvos shopkeepers. Greece’s fascist party Golden Dawn is believed to have played its part, seeking to use the refugee issue to fight the left wing government of Alexis Tsipras.

On 25 May, tensions in Moria reached such a pitch that intense fighting broke out between refugees, involving attacks on recently arrived Kurds. Around one thousand fled the camp, fearing for their safety. Many eventually reached Pikpa, a small independent camp near the airport which takes those refugees deemed exceptionally vulnerable. The Pikpa team allowed in 350 new arrivals, seventy of whom were brought to them by the police. This has placed Pikpa’s very limited resources under severe strain. No support was forthcoming from UNHCR or the Greek authorities.

On 5 June, with the Kurds still too frightened to leave Pikpa, Moria sent its camp administration to visit. They announced new measures to improve the safety of the Kurds at Moria, backed by the threat that for any who refuse to return, their asylum applications will be deleted from all databases, placing them at risk of deportation to Turkey. This, despite the fact that asylum seekers are not legally required to reside in Moria; and in abject disregard for international refugee law, which requires that all asylum claims be properly considered.

This is the depth of disregard for human rights to which Europe has now sunk.

Teresa Thornhill

Teresa Thornhill is a child protection barrister and the author of Hara Hotel: A Tale of Syrian Refugees in Greece (2018).


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