29. April 2017 · Kommentare deaktiviert für ‚Europe’s dirty secret‘: officials on Chios scramble to cope with rising tensions · Kategorien: Europa, Griechenland · Tags:

The Guardian | 28.04.2017

Frustration mounts among locals on the Greek island, where refugees feel like prisoners with no hope of getting to mainland Europe

Helena Smith

On a clear day the channel dividing Chios from the Turkish coast does not look like a channel at all. The nooks and crevices of Turkey’s western shores, its wind turbines and summer homes could, to the naked eye, be a promontory of the Greek island itself. For the men, women and children who almost daily make the crossing in dinghies and other smuggler craft, it is a God-given proximity, the gateway to Europe that continues to lure.

Samuel Aneke crossed the sea almost a year ago on 1 June. Like those before him, and doubtless those who will follow, he saw the five-mile stretch as the last hurdle to freedom. “You could say geography brought me here,” said the Nigerian, a broad smile momentarily dousing his otherwise dour demeanour. “But it was not supposed to keep me prisoner.”

Refugee flows via Greece were meant to stop when the EU and Turkey announced what was seen as a pioneering agreement to stem the influx in March 2016. In Chios, like other Aegean isles, residents initially welcomed the accord. It was short-lived. The influx of more than 850,000 refugees arriving in the country in 2015 was soon replaced by a steady flow, with asylum seekers coming in groups that were sometimes small, sometimes large, but always propelled by the same ambition: to reach Europe by way of its southern shores.

On Chios, more than 825 asylum seekers, the vast majority Syrians, arrived from Turkey in March. This month almost 600 have come. With at least 3,000, according to authorities, housed in two overcrowded camps – one makeshift, the other a razor-wire topped detention centre in a former factory known as Vial – it is anger that hangs in the air.

Greece’s Aegean isles have become de facto detention facilities – a dumpling ground for nearly 14,000 stranded souls, unable to move until permits are processed and fearful of what lies ahead.

“Anything could happen because everything is hanging by a thread,” says Makis Mylonas, a policy adviser at the town hall. “Chios, Samos, Lesvos, Kos, Leros were sacrificed in the name of Europe’s fixation to keep immigrants out,” he claims, listing the isles that continue to bear the brunt of the flows.

International aid organisations do not disagree. “Are we worried? Of course we are worried,” says Shane O’Brien, the UN Refugee Agency’s resident spokesman. “To say things are tense is to state the obvious.”

Officials are scrambling to cope with rising tensions. A coterie of far-right extremists has emerged and there have been attacks on migrant camps. Last week, neo-fascists threw incendiary devices at immigrants living at the Souda camp.

Frustration is also growing among refugees with nothing to do but wait for requests to run through an asylum-processing machine widely damned for moving at glacial speed. In March a young Syrian self-immolated.

“It’s an emergency,” says Chios’s mayor, Emmanouil Vournous. “The islands need to be relieved but we, also, need to take measures. Since we are here, planted by history and geography we need to understand the reality.”

For Vournous, measures would start with a second detention centre but islanders fearful that new facilities will act as a potential magnet have fiercely opposed the proposal. Tourism, once an economic mainstay, has dropped precipitously with charter planes no longer flying in.

“It’s been a catastrophe for locals,” says Manolis Sideratos, who owns a gas station in Chios town. “From one end to the other, the island is now identified with desperate refugees. You protest about it and you are branded a fascist. All we are saying is that all our islands have to stop being filters to Europe. Surely there is a legal way for people to leave places like Syria?”

With Chios’s main detention centre at bursting point and daily arrivals far outstripping deportations or EU relocations (also foreseen under the EU-Turkey deal), immigrants are forced to live in Souda, slatternly tents spreading with each new boatload beyond the castle along the shores that girdle Chios town.

In conditions denounced by human rights groups, cases of self-harm, mental illness and attempted suicides have reportedly soared – prompting mounting concerns that unless resolved the risks of radicalisation will also grow.

“The conditions are very bad,” sighs Aneke, who has lived under a soiled tarp in Souda since his arrival. “There was a day recently when everyone in the camp got very sick because of the food. There was a mini riot.”

The Nigerian’s initial request for asylum has already been rejected. Brandishing a set of medical papers, including a doctor’s testimonial that he suffers from pulmonary disease, the 27-year-old claimed he would be killed immediately if he returned home. “Fulani militants tried to get me,” he said pointing to a knife wound on his neck. “They killed my father and two sisters and I have death certificates to prove it. I will make another request.”

Refugees can apply twice for asylum before being deported back to Turkey under the EU deal. Many say they want to get to the mainland where camps house around 46,000 migrants and conditions are said to be better.

As on other isles, the great fear on Chios is of a mass rejection sparking violent reaction from refugees refusing to leave. About 400 second-time requests – most by young, single men – are thought to be pending.

“There is no way they will be able to deport people quietly,” says Nick Millet, a British volunteer. “The situation here is absolutely shameful. It’s Europe’s dirty secret. Why does this place exist? Why are children sleeping on a beach?”

With the Swiss aid group, Be Aware and Share, the Cambridge graduate has helped establish a parallel education system for refugee children who, officials contend, are unable to integrate in the local school system under the EU-Turkey deal.

Run out of a disused taverna and former doctors’ surgery, the school is one of the few bright lights on an island whose fault lines are otherwise worsening by the day. More than 200 pupils, including unaccompanied minors from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, attend lessons given by international teachers drawn to the cause via social media.

“We’ve witnessed a real transformation,” Millet enthuses. “Its amazing to see kids be kids in an environment that they should be in, an environment that is loving, caring and safe.”

In the depths of spring Chios is a sleepy place, its rhythms punctuated by the noisy arrival of night ferries, now the focus of stowaways determined to leave. But there is also a sense of menace that is impossible to ignore. “Another big wave from Turkey and it would be difficult to cope,” says Mylonas at the town hall.

Millet finds it hard not to agree. “This can’t go on for ever,” he says. “At some point something has to give.”


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