Tuesday July 05, 2022

The global heart of darkness

November 30, 2016

In mid-November, more than a hundred locals on the island of Chios descended on the Souda refugee camp in the middle of the night. Refugees were terrified; they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help.   

Among the injured was Karim, a 19-year-old Syrian boy I met in September. He told me that while running away from the attackers, he fell and injured his hand. This was not the first time Karim had to run for his life. While he managed to get out of his hometown Raqqa alive, others were not so lucky.

Sitting in a stuffy metal container in Souda camp in September, he told me about one of his friends who fled to Turkey, but was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) members there. His head was returned in a bag to his family a week later.

Karim had been on the island of Chios for over three months when I met him, and he is still waiting now to hear from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) about his case. He fears being deported back to Turkey, where his life could be in danger.

Like Karim, many refugees on Chios worry they will be deported back to various warzones. But, there are also others who wish to return to conflict-ridden countries where at least they could die in dignity, rather than die a slow death in Greece, stripped of their humanity and will to live.

During the two weeks I spent in Chios volunteering as a legal translator, I witnessed extraordinary despair. Each day, a refugee would attempt to violently end their own life and every person I spoke with had suicidal thoughts. This feeling of hopelessness has not receded since I left and conditions seem to be getting worse, as each day passes.

Once the refugees step off the rafts, they are bussed to the administrative processing centre, which is a converted warehouse in a desolate location. The building has one entrance: a locked metal gate that is constantly blocked with tens of desperate bodies, pushing, waiting to enter. People wait for hours in the heat or cold to get inside.

Once they make it to the entrance, the Greek police, who man the door, thoroughly search each person.

There, refugees wait again to get thoroughly searched by the private security, as well.         The militarisation and securitisation of refugee camps are more than apparent here, and it is clear that private interests are profiting from the misery of others. By the end of this process, all refugees have been fingerprinted and registered to a European Union database.

Once the refugees are registered with the asylum office, they get a number for their case, which is the only way they are identified, and then are assigned a tent or a metal container. After this, they must wait again, until their number is listed on a board in the camp to begin the interview process for asylum in Greece.      

For many, this is an endless wait; for a long time, the EASO was prioritising only the files of Syrians and some other highly vulnerable cases, leaving non-Syrians in limbo.

The wait in an overcrowded camp with deplorable conditions is especially unbearable. The refugee camps that have sprung up in the last year on Chios are meant to house 1,100 people, but currently 4,000 are housed there. Understandably, there is intense stress on the infrastructure and services available.

Refugees are essentially imprisoned within the camps and are not allowed to travel beyond the city. If they find themselves outside, they risk not only arrest and detention by the authorities, but also aggression by the locals.

I met a Palestinian-Syrian family, who said that their two-year-old daughter was beaten by a Greek man in the small park by one of the camps. The girl was taken to the hospital seeking treatment for the bruises that covered her tiny body. The police, they say, did nothing to help them.

The world is witnessing the   greatest displacement         of people since the World War II, in addition to the complete destruction of some of the oldest and richest civilisations on earth. Has Europe failed in the preservation of human dignity and relapsed to a historical period it vowed never to repeat? And to what end? To preserve a mirage of Fortress Europe?


The article has been excerpted from: ‘The global heart of darkness’.