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After the EU Turned Greece into a Refugee Warehouse, a Backlash

Refugee children and Greek villager on a horse
Nick Paleologos/SOOC
Refugee children watching a Greek villager riding by their camp, Chios, Greece, February 9, 2020

Chios, Greece—Framed on both sides by squat stone walls, a narrow road leads to Vial, a refugee camp on Chios, a Greek island in the northern Aegean that is, at its nearest point, just four miles off the coast of Turkey. The pothole-pocked path bisects the village of Chalkio, passing an EKO petrol station and a scatter of shops, a couple of Byzantine churches, and the ruins of half-collapsed pre-Byzantine towers that once belonged to local grandees.

The closer you get to the camp, the more you see signs of the disarray that is driving up tensions on many of the Greek islands that have become holding sites for more than 42,000 refugees and migrants. Women hang laundry on clotheslines strung up in a vast olive grove that climbs up a hillside. A man uses the restroom under the shade of a tree. Mounds of garbage rise from the earth. Soiled diapers dot the fields. “Welcome to Europe” reads a banner, a sarcastic gesture that locals pinned up on a small storage building. Beneath that, in a message directed at the European Union authorities, it reads “Chios Not For Sale.” Another bend and you reach Vial’s front gate. In front of a police bus parked there twenty-four hours a day, a few riot squad officers standing around casting distrustful glances at passers-by.

Vial was built to accommodate fewer than eleven hundred people, but today, according to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, it is home to more than 4,700 asylum-seekers—almost five times more than the number of Chalkio’s inhabitants, and close to a tenth of the entire island’s native population. A few have caravans, but unlucky majority live in a shanty town of tents and shacks, without electricity or running water. Throughout the daylight hours, you hear the chinking of hammers as the inhabitants construct their improvised dwellings and the dull thud of axes echoing across the fields. At nighttime, they toss the firewood they’ve gathered onto campfires uncomfortably close to their shacks. No shack looks the same as the next.

On a brisk afternoon in early February, I met twenty-five-year-old Omar al-Daloo and thirty-year-old Saber al-Kolak working on a garden they planted in front of their shelter. Along with another friend, the pair left the Gaza Strip late last year. They had hoped to reach Germany or somewhere else in Western Europe, but their travels ended in Greece, from where the closed borders of the country’s neighbors to the north have made it nearly impossible for refugees to continue their journeys. Both men have wives and children at home, and hope that obtaining asylum will afford them family reunification.

Another refugee, in his mid-twenties, appeared in front of their shanty with a ramshackle drum kit. He started playing, and a group of children soon gathered. A frigid gust of wind swept through the camp and sent shivers through the tarps around us. I noticed some of the kids were wearing only sandals; others were without winter jackets. Yet they all cheered the drummer on.

An asylum-seeker playing on a makeshift drum kit
Nick Paleologos/SOOC
An asylum-seeker playing on a makeshift drum kit to entertain children in Vial refugee camp, Chios, Greece, February 8, 2020

Even after three wars with Israel between 2008 and 2014, al-Kolak never planned on leaving Gaza, but unemployment there exceeded 50 percent last year, opportunities were shrinking by the day, and he was struggling to provide for his family with a job at a café on a plummeting salary that some months never came at all. Leaving through Egypt with the others, they traveled on to Turkey, reaching the coast, where they waited for days. When finally their turn to make the crossing came, their dinghy bobbed across the Aegean and reached Greek shores a couple of hours later. When al-Kolak first saw Vial, it was like a “bad dream,” he said, and he felt his hopes deflate. “There’s no life here,” he told me. “It’s the same conditions we lived in our homeland—the only difference is, there are wars there and no wars here.”

Later that night, we sat on lawn chairs in their shack. For twenty days, al-Kolak and his two friends gathered materials—sheets of half-rotten wood for walls, steel pipes for the frame, and burlap sacks for insulation. They purchased the busted wicker chairs and the worn mattress they huddle together on each night from residents of a nearby Roma encampment. A piece of plywood nailed to a window frame serves as the front door, an old refrigerator’s static condenser as the door to their sleeping area. Rows of bamboo sticks support the wooden ceiling. A painting of the sea hangs on one wall, the kind you’d find in a cheap motel. A clock nailed to another wall no longer works; its batteries died weeks ago, and the hands are stuck at 6:44 PM.

The trick to keeping out rats and snakes, they told me, is filling in any gaps between the shack’s walls and the dirt beneath it. What can’t be kept out is noise from neighboring tents: hacking coughs, sobbing, domestic arguments, screaming, moans, and groans.

Last month, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees called for “decisive action” to alleviate overcrowding and plummeting living conditions in camps on Greek islands. The agency estimated that, on five islands, more than thirty-six thousand people were living in facilities that together had a planned capacity of 5,400. On Chios, the UNHCR’s senior communications officer, Afroditi Stavraki, said that life in a camp like Vial can be especially trying for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. “There are people who have not seen a doctor yet,” she told me, “because there are [too] few medical staff members.”

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When the refugee crisis took hold in 2015, Greece was still slogging through a brutal economic recession that saw wages decimated, unemployment peak at nearly 28 percent, and suicide rates rise by 40 percent over a five-year span. Despite Greece’s financial hardship, the response to the refugee emergency was extraordinary: Greeks from across the country flocked to the islands to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving and passing through.

Then, in early 2016, other European nations slammed shut their borders, leaving tens of thousands of asylum-seekers marooned in Greece. In March that year, the European Union reached a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of arrivals, and the leftwing Syriza-led government responded by confining asylum-seekers to the islands while their applications processed. The camps filled up, misery deepened, and anger fanned out. Europe had made its choice, and Greece, situated on Europe’s southeastern sea border, was left to deal with the consequences—in a move that, for many Greeks, felt reminiscent of the way the EU had pushed the country to implement brutal austerity policies during the economic crisis.

Although the EU then poured billions of euros into Greece to provide facilities and improve asylum services, the closed borders turned Greece into what refugee rights groups described as a “warehouse.” Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers were then stuck in the country. When snap elections were held in July 2019, Syriza, which had come to power more than four years earlier, was dealt a hefty defeat by its rightwing counterpart, New Democracy.

Once in control, New Democracy imposed a hard line on immigration, promising to ratchet up deportations by the thousands, introducing legislation that narrowed asylum-seekers’ rights, evicting several refugee squats in Athens, and clamping down on new arrivals. But the boats and rafts kept washing up on Greek shores. During the second half of 2019, arrivals surged to the highest levels since the EU–Turkey deal went into effect. Now, more than one hundred and twelve thousand asylum-seekers are bottlenecked in Greece, more than one third of their number on the islands. As the government is scrambling to come up with an effective deterrent to new arrivals, local politicians around Greece have revolted against a refugee presence they see as overwhelming their communities.

The backlash first erupted in the fall, in some ways recalling the bloody rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in the 2012 parliamentary elections. In October, buses carrying four hundred refugees were blocked from entering Vrasna, a village on the mainland, when locals barricaded the streets and lit dumpsters ablaze. Elsewhere, mayors on the islands of Kos and Leros have led groups of locals to prevent ferries carrying refugees from disembarking in their ports.

*

An improvised stove pipe in Vial refugee camp
Nick Paleologos/SOOC
An improvised stove pipe in the shanty town of Vial refugee camp, Chios, Greece, February 9, 2020

Nadir Zitaway, a thirty-year-old Palestinian refugee from Syria, lived in Vial for more than two months in late 2018; the government later transferred him and his wife to an apartment in the mainland city of Thessaloniki. Born to a family displaced to Syria by the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation, Zitaway has lived his entire life stateless. In December 2012, he lost a finger in an explosion when government forces dropped a barrel bomb on a street in his hometown in Umm Walad. In 2014, another bombing flattened his family home, and he was never able to locate his parents: he dug through the rubble, searched for them in makeshift clinics, and scoured the list of the local dead. Four more grim years of war crawled by before he and his wife made their escape for Europe.

Now Zitaway was revisiting Chios to look for work. In Thessaloniki, he hasn’t found a job, and the monthly cash card he receives for each of his family members (equivalent to $98 per person) runs out in two weeks. In Vial, he navigated the maze of tents, stepping over human feces and kicking aside urine-filled water bottles. Most of the toilets in the settlement are broken, and the line for the ones still working can take up to an hour or longer, residents told us. “Very sad,” said Zitaway, marveling at the camp’s growing sprawl and guessing that it had nearly doubled in size since he left.

It was in Vial that he learned his wife was pregnant. She later gave birth to their first child in Thessaloniki—a miracle, he said, since she had suffered two miscarriages in Syria. When they lived here, Zitaway and his wife had a makeshift structure made of tarps. With few interpreters on hand, camp authorities would often ask him for help translating for asylum-seekers who didn’t speak any English. Yet when he would later ask the staff for a proper tent, he said, they would “act like they don’t know me.”

As we walked through the camp, a Syrian man stopped us. “We’re dying little by little here,” he said. He didn’t give his name—like many in the camp, he feared that speaking out about the conditions could harm his asylum case. Later, Zitaway said he would expect “boundless violence” if the government didn’t overhaul “the whole system.” In early February, some two thousand asylum-seekers on Lesbos marched in protest, and police showered them with tear gas canisters and stun grenades. In the wake of that disturbance, far-right mobs armed with clubs and other weapons went out hunting for asylum-seekers. “Things are going to explode in all the camps, especially the closed ones,” Zitaway warned.

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Arrivals have now fallen but have not halted. In January, the UNHCR estimates, more than four thousand asylum-seekers reached the country.

In late January, local communities went on the offensive again, and thousands went on strike on Kos, Lesbos, and Samos islands. Soon after, the government announced plans to build a 1.67-mile floating border wall as a pilot project near Lesbos, which will cost an estimated $560 million. As for the private companies supplying equipment to the camps, the barrier could turn out to be a highly profitable enterprise for the as yet unnamed contractor to which the Greek government awarded the project.

Last month, leading government spokesperson Stelios Petsas announced emergency powers to build closed detention centers that will replace the makeshift camps on the islands. Border controls would also be strengthened, he said, and deportations would be expedited. Greek media reports cite officials explaining that in some cases, such as Chios, private contractors will build fences and other infrastructure for the closed centers. Facing a backlash to its initial proposal to seize land by legislative order, the government said it would rent the sites for these new centers.

George Koumoutsakos, a deputy minister for migration policy, says the new closed centers, which should be up and running by July, will cost an estimated 250 million euros ($270 million). Entry and exit will be regulated by permits, and the camps will be locked down at nighttime. Processing asylum applications should take twenty-five days or fewer, he told me. For Greece’s future negotiations with the European Commission, Koumoutsakos expressed hope that countries not on the EU’s borders will agree to take in more of the asylum-seekers currently stuck in Greece. But with the four so-called Visegrad Group countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—still opposed to mandatory relocation quotas, negotiations will likely be difficult. “What we are suggesting is a mechanism for compulsory and I would say immediate solidarity if there is a crisis,” said Koumoutsakos, suggesting a pre-agreed plan to redistribute the asylum-seekers across the EU.

Adalbert Jahnz, a European Commission spokesperson on migration, home affairs, and citizenship, commented that the EU is “currently assessing” whether Greece’s new closed detention centers comply with the union’s laws and whether the bloc will provide funding for their construction and operations. He told me that the EU is working on a new pact to “address migration and asylum issues,” while “fostering European unity,” though it is unclear whether that will include a more extensive redistribution of asylum-seekers.

a protest in Athens against migration
Nick Paleologos/SOOC
North Aegean island residents interviewed by Greek news media at a protest in Athens against migration, Greece, February 13, 2020

With Syriza now in opposition, its past migration policies seem almost benevolent in comparison to those of the New Democracy government. Syriza spokesperson Alexis Charitsis described the latest plans as “farcical” and “irresponsible.”

“Rather than internationalizing the issue and calling on Europe to take on its responsibilities, [the government] firmly declares that the living conditions in the new centers—prisons they are planning—will avert refugees from attempting to reach Greece,” he told me. Meanwhile, he added, New Democracy continues to dole out heavy servings of “far-right populism, consisting of frivolities like the ‘floating border wall’ and tolerance to racism and xenophobia.”

Although the New Democracy prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has threatened to raise the issue of sanctions for EU countries not taking in a larger share of asylum-seekers, he has taken no action—a point of contention not just with Syriza but with local communities across the islands and mainland. The government’s promise to allocate some 9 million euros ($10.36 million) to thirty-six municipalities hosting asylum-seekers did little to placate opponents of its migration policies.

On February 13, a few hundred demonstrators gathered outside the Ministry of Interior in the capital. Led by North Aegean Islands Regional Governor Kostas Moutzouris and mayors from several islands, the rally was called after the local leaders severed dialogue with the government over its new migration program, fearing that the closed detention centers signaled a permanent presence of refugees on their islands. The crowd included a hodgepodge of people from the right and the left, including some who’d traveled from the islands to attend. Standing at the edge of the demonstration, the regional governor, Moutzouris, said violence between locals and asylum seekers “may happen again at anytime,” but that “the point is there is now a kind of violence between the people and the government.”

The government “is acting in a one-sided way, taking decisions by itself only,” he told me. “We get nine or ten million [euros for relief]—it’s not the point. What is [the point] is to save our lives, save our country, save our islands.”

In the weeks following that demonstration, further unrest broke out on Chios and Lesbos, with local protesters clashing with riot police and attempting to sabotage construction efforts for the closed facilities. On Lesbos this week, villagers from Moria set up roadblocks and others attacked asylum-seekers, NGO workers, and reporters. Meanwhile, thousands of refugees and migrants have massed on Greece’s northeastern border with Turkey after Turkish officials announced they would no longer prevent people from trying to reach Europe.

Greek woman protesting in Athens
Nick Paleologos/SOOC
A woman from the island of Lesbos bearing a placard that reads “Moria cannot live under threat,” referring to the village next to a sprawling refugee camp where an estimated 20,000 asylum-seekers live, at a protest in Athens, Greece, February 13, 2020

*

On my second night in Vial, families were warming their hands around small campfires blazing outside their shacks as the moon rose over the mountains. I found Saber al-Kolak and his roommates in their hut, shoving plastic bags and water bottles into an oil drum they’d rigged as the base of a fireplace. The searing smell of chemical smoke filled the room. No one felt good about chopping down the olive trees belonging to villagers in Chalkio, and they’ve tried to use wood as sparingly as possible. Still, none had received funds on their cash cards, and with their savings long spent, they had no way of purchasing firewood.

Al-Kolak placed a blackened kettle atop the makeshift stove and dropped a few Lipton teabags inside it. Later, as he drank his tea, he picked up his phone and showed me photos of meals he used to make in Gaza: pizza, pastries with za’atar, pies and other sweets.

Everyone was hungry. That day, they had had only bread to eat, they said, because the portions of chicken and potatoes doled out in camp arrived too undercooked to be safe to eat. Only an hour earlier, I’d spotted a stack of the day’s meals piled up, unopened, next to a garbage can at the edge of the field. I asked who was responsible for the meals, but no one seemed to know whether it was the military or the camp administration.

Prepackaged meals discarded in Vial refugee camp
Nick Paleologos/SOOC
Prepackaged meals discarded as inedible by asylum-seekers in Vial refugee camp, Chios, Greece, February 9, 2020

I later learned that it was the army that distributed food provided by catering companies in the camps, but the confusion highlighted how Vial’s residents, like those in most of such camps I’ve visited over the last five years, have so little access to information about the developments that govern their lives. Often, before they arrive, all they have to go on is what the people-smugglers tell them, but no one in this tent knew the islands were closed before they came; few knew much about Greece, and everyone had believed they’d be able to continue their journeys to Western Europe. “We knew there would be difficult conditions before we came here,” said Omar al-Dalool, “but we couldn’t imagine this.”

Were they worried about the government’s plans to build closed detention centers? They’re already in prison, they said, marooned on islands surrounded by waters they’re forbidden from crossing. Still, they expected things to get worse. With everyone living on top of one another, fights over food and water distribution and spots in the morning queue to see the doctor were already a daily reality. Just a day earlier, some Palestinians and Somalis had clashed after a minor disagreement, over exactly what no one could recall. There were threats, stones thrown, knives pulled out, and several men ended up being carted off to the hospital. “We’ll all slaughter each other,” al-Dalool predicted grimly.

A shadow fell over al-Kolak’s face. After a pause, he said, “If I knew what life here was like, I would’ve rather died in my country.”