By Nazek Ramadan
The weather in Lesvos is improving, the sea is calmer and clearer, and so the number of migrants making the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe is increasing. So are the deaths. So far 2,365 people have perished since January this year.
Here we go again.
With no let-up in the Syrian war; and fighting, human rights abuses and extreme poverty elsewhere people will continue to seek sanctuary and a better life, even if it means taking huge risks. It is a human instinct.
As images of crowded boats and seas are again splashed over front pages, I joined Rise, a network of European refugee-led organisations on a fact-finding mission to the Greek island of Lesvos. We were keen to see for ourselves the impact of the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal, which aims to discourage migrants from making the sea crossing to Europe. In return, Turkey receives aid and political concessions.
Migrants (a term I am using to include refugees) who travel via Turkey to Greece will be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or their claim is rejected. It is unclear who makes these decisions and on what grounds.
The deal also specifies that for every Syrian migrant sent back to Turkey, one Syrian already in Turkey will be resettled in the EU. The main aim of the 1:1 scheme is to discourage people from coming to Europe, although there is a limit to the number of those allowed in for resettlement.
Some 2,300 experts, including security and immigration officials and translators, were sent to Greece to help enforce the deal.
The deal is inhumane and against international protection conventions. It discriminates against certain nationalities such as Syrians and Afghans whose asylum applications in Greece are dealt with on the basis that Turkey is a ‘safe third country’ and therefore are refused.
And it doesn’t work. In Lesvos, tourist postcards have given way to images of boats and dinghies crashing onto the shores and spilling desperate survivors and human bodies onto beaches. Overwhelmed by the human tragedy unfolding before their eyes, the island’s residents got their feet wet and rushed to the rescue.
The harbour in front of the Blue Sea hotel in Mytilene, the island’s capital, is where the large passenger ferry to and from Turkey docks, alongside the ships of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency tasked with protecting the EU’s external borders. Frontex’s website defines the organisation’s responsibilities as “coordinating and organising joint operations and rapid border interventions to assist Member States at the external borders.”
Those on the ground have a simpler interpretation of Frontex’s role: keeping migrants out of Europe.
Turkey is visible from the island. I am told the quickest journey takes 20 minutes, but it’s not an option for most of the migrants using the ‘Turkey route’. With Frontex policing the sea, desperate migrants are damned whichever course of action they choose: staying put in a place where they struggle to survive, or taking greater risks and ending up at the mercy of smugglers.
A young Syrian asylum seeker outside the Moria, the biggest migrants’ camp on the island, told me: “It took 21 attempts to get here, because of the harsh treatment of the Turkish coastguards, who imprisoned, beat and tortured me. In the final attempt, the captain abandoned the boat and we were forced to take control and make our own way. I spent all my savings only to face deportation back to Turkey. After facing a dangerous journey by sea, and after suffering torture at the hands of the Turkish coastguards, who shot at us in the dinghy, the coastguards cut the dinghy in half in the middle of the sea. People fell into the water. Thank God, I was lucky, but my friends drowned. My wife and mother are still in Syria waiting for me to help them out of the country.”
Asked what would he like to do now, he replied: “Nobody wants to stay in Greece. The Greeks themselves are leaving because they cannot find work. How are we supposed to find any work? If we try to go to Athens we are caught and returned here. This is now a prison. They’ve brought more machinery to make the camp bigger to keep us here.”
Other asylum seekers were terrified of being sent back to Turkey because of the brutality of the police there and because they don’t know what will happen to them if returned.
An Iraqi who has spent a year at the Moria camp says: “There is no justice here: they give one person a status and refuse 50 who they detain and deport. As we speak, there are five Iraqis in detention. The situation in the camp is bad, food is poor, and the money they give us is too little to survive on.”
Our group also visited the Pipka solidarity camp, a childrens’ summer camp before volunteers and NGOs turned it into an open refugee camp for vulnerable groups, such as people with disability, illness, and pregnant women.
All migrants at Pipka and on the island have arrived from Turkey by sea. A female asylum seeker told our group, at a briefing organised by Amnesty: “We are ready to die when we take that boat. You have to be on that boat to understand what’s it like to make that journey.”
Another African asylum seeker explained that “it is not a boat: within an hour the water starts coming on board. If you are lucky, the rescue will see you. We have a lot of unaccompanied minors but no education on the island. We are making a lot of demonstrations because of the situation in the camps.”
There are up to 4,000 asylum seekers in Lesvos, 2,000 of whom are in the Moria camp, which is a mixture of an open reception and detention centre. Migrants in Lesvos are mainly from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and Cameroon.
Staff and volunteers at the camps reported an increase in suicide attempts, self-harm, psychotic attacks, hepatitis and other physical and mental health problems among migrants in Lesvos. Residents at the Pipka camp include babies, cancer patients, HIV and heart patients as well as victims of torture. “Everyone is entitled to healthcare but the healthcare system is collapsing in Greece - long waits, very few medical staff and so on”, a nurse at the camp explained.
A Syrian asylum seeker at Pipka told me of his concerns and fears for his elderly unwell mother. They have been on the island for nearly a year and feel trapped. “I can cope with all the hardship; I am a man I can take it. But I am very worried about my mother. She has already been through a lot. The uncertainty is torture. I do not understand what is the point of sending Syrians back to Turkey only to replace them with Syrians from there. We cannot survive in Turkey.”
There are no reports from Turkish NGOs on what happens to people who are returned. NGOs say it is difficult to take legal action against the EU-Turkey Deal. From August 2017, EU funding will go directly to the Greek authorities rather than to the NGOs. Greek NGOs have started to feel the pinch and are reducing staff and services and are worried about the future of their operations.
The EU-Turkey Deal punishes those who have made the risky journey in search of safety and a better life. Sending Syrians and others back to Turkey is sending a train passenger back to the station from which they set out when they have almost reached their destination - except that there are no ticket machines at the station: they have been sealed off as the EU shuts all legal routes.
A policeman says: “We have nothing against these people [the migrants], but they are asking too much of us, we cannot give them what they are asking for, and Europe will not drop the Dublin Regulation which also returns refugees to the country where they first touched land]. We are in this sad situation.”
Before entering the small airport building to leave I took a last look at the sparkling sea and spotted a deflated dinghy on the pebbles.
This beautiful little island is a becalmed ship, with those aboard stranded at sea.