Strug­gling to sur­vive in in un­san­i­tary camps and stuck in a bu­reau­cratic night­mare, asy­lum-seek­ers live in limbo on the Greek is­land of Les­bos.

Stuck in un­san­i­tary camps and a bu­reau­cratic night­mare, asy­lum-seek­ers live in limbo on the Greek is­land of Les­bos, say Ya­nis Varo­ufakis and Ge­orge Tyrikos-Er­gas

Irish Examiner - - News -

IN 2015, hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees landed on Greece’s is­land shores. Today, the in­ter­na­tional pub­lic has been lulled into be­liev­ing that Greece’s refugee cri­sis has abated. But it has be­come a per­ma­nent scourge, blight­ing Europe’s soul and brew­ing fu­ture trouble. The is­land of Les­bos is its epi­cen­tre.

The story of one refugee, Shab­bir, who is 40, demon­strates how starkly re­al­ity clashes with Europe’s of­fi­cial sto­ry­line. Shab­bir lived with his wife and two young chil­dren in a mid­size town in Pak­istan, where he ran a car­rental busi­ness.

One night in De­cem­ber, 2015, Is­lamist ex­trem­ists petrol-bombed Shab­bir’s neigh­bour’s home, and waited out­side for the flee­ing fam­ily. Shab­bir’s neigh­bours were Chris­tian, and the ex­trem­ists wanted to evict them and con­vert their home into a madrasa (re­li­gious school).

Shab­bir rushed to his neigh­bours’ de­fence. Des­ig­nated an apos­tate, his busi­ness was burned down, his brother was mur­dered, his wife and chil­dren fled to nearby vil­lages, and Shab­bir, to­gether with his el­derly fa­ther, took the long, cruel road via Iran and Tur­key to imag­ined safety in civilised Europe.

Along the way, Shab­bir’s fa­ther died of ex­haus­tion on some snow-cov­ered Turk­ish moun­tain. Months later, af­ter board­ing a traf­ficker’s flimsy ves­sel on Tur­key’s Aegean coast, Shab­bir found him­self ship­wrecked, sur­rounded by dozens of drowned fel­low refugees. Picked up off the coast of Les­bos, he was brought to the Mo­ria camp. That is when his next or­deal be­gan.

No Westerner who saw Mo­ria dur­ing the win­ter of 2016/2017 could do so with­out feel­ing de­hu­man­ised. Mud, refuse, and hu­man ex­cre­ment formed a magma of mis­ery, a hellscape sur­rounded by barbed wire, the of­fi­cial in­dif­fer­ence re­flected in the puny re­sources pro­vided by the Euro­pean Union and Greek au­thor­i­ties.

Refugees like Shab­bir faced a min­i­mum of nine months be­fore meet­ing any of­fi­cial who would re­ceive their asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tion. Within the camp, a small makeshift of­fice, sur­rounded by more barbed wire and hun­dreds of de­spair­ing refugees, would ad­mit one or two per hour for their first in­ter­view.

“If you are a lit­tle ill, Afghani, or Pak­istani, it may take 12 months be­fore you speak to an of­fi­cial,” one refugee told us. “We are ghosts roam­ing around with­out any­one notic­ing,” he re­marked: “I wish we had died in the war, in­stead.”

Wan­der­ing around the camp, seg­re­ga­tion was in plain sight. Some fam­i­lies were af­forded the lux­ury of con­tain­ers, guarded be­hind tall fences. De­spite the ab­sence of run­ning wa­ter, heat­ing, or any fa­cil­i­ties, they were the priv­i­leged ones.

Walk­ing north­west up the hill was like ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the as­cent of in­hu­man­ity. First, there was the Afgha­nis’ shan­ty­town, en­veloped in mud and an un­bear­able stench. On the hill­top were Pak­ista­nis in the same dire con­di­tions, burn­ing any­thing they could find in order to cook.

Next to them were Al­ge­ri­ans, feared by all the oth­ers and caged be­hind a triple row of barbed wire. At the foot of the slope, just next to the ap­palling semi-open-air toi­lets, were the Afri- cans, amidst whose tents ran filth from up the slope.

A year af­ter Shab­bir ar­rived on Les­bos, and three months af­ter his first in­ter­view, his asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tion was re­fused and a de­por­ta­tion order was is­sued. His ap­peal was un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously re­jected and, when he tried to seek refuge with sup­port­ers in a nearby vil­lage, the po­lice mounted a manhunt.

Even­tu­ally, he sur­ren­dered, be­fore be­ing taken back to Tur­key. For weeks, we heard noth­ing of his fate. Then we learned he had been re­turned to Pak­istan, where he had been lo­cated by the Tal­iban and shot. He is ap­par­ently alive though we do not know his con­di­tion.

Shab­bir had imag­ined, he told one of us, that, “de­spite be­ing Mus­lim,” Europe would give him asy­lum, “not least be­cause I thought that de­fend­ing Chris­tians at my fam­ily’s ex­pense would mean some­thing here.”

But Europe had other ideas. The EU deal with Tur­key’s pres­i­dent, Re­cep Tayyip Er­dog˘an, ne­go­ti­ated in 2016 by Ger­man chan­cel­lor, An­gela Merkel, had a sin­gle pur­pose: To stop the flood of refugees from Tur­key to Greece at all cost. If that meant that the EU would bribe Er­dog˘ an with sev­eral bil­lion euro to vi­o­late in­ter­na­tional leg­is­la­tion pro­tect­ing refugees like Shab­bir, so be it.

In Septem­ber alone, an­other 2,238 refugees ar­rived in Les­bos, de­spite Tur­key’s at­tempts to cut the flow. A camp de­signed for 2,000 peo­ple now houses three times that num­ber. In early Oc­to­ber, the first au­tum­nal storms turned the Mo­ria camp into a mud field again.

Europe pre­tends that this crime against hu­man­ity is no­body’s fault. The Greek au­thor­i­ties blame the EU for not pro­vid­ing funds, the EU blames Greece for not do­ing enough with avail­able funds, and large NGOs are pre­oc­cu­pied with main­tain­ing their own lines of com­mand and fund­ing.

The only sur­vivors in this moral ship­wreck are the lo­cal grass­roots teams — com­pris­ing vol­un­teers from all over the world and smaller NGOs — that have been keep­ing the spirit of hu­man­ity alive.

Mean­while, the West, in gen­eral, and the EU, in par­tic­u­lar, per­pet­u­ates the eco­nomic, en­vi­ron­men­tal, and mil­i­tary fac­tors which are driv­ing the un­fold­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter.

Gal­rim, an­other Pak­istani refugee in Les­bos, ex­plained to us Europe’s blun­der: “The Is­lamist ex­trem­ists have a plan. By spread­ing fear and loathing,” he says, “they wish to ghet­toise refugees in Europe, to cut them off from Euro­pean so­ci­eties, to make them vic­tims of Euro­pean xeno­pho­bia. It is their re­cruit­ment strat­egy, by which to stoke the fires of East-West ha­tred and ren­der them sig­nif­i­cant play­ers.”

Gal­rim should know. A demo­crat, who op­posed bal­lot-rig­ging in his town, his body was bro­ken by mafia net­works in ‘safe’ Tur­key, in a suc­ces­sion of tor­ture ses­sions for ransom. On one oc­ca­sion, he was dragged be­hind a speed­ing truck. Gal­rim’s asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tion was also turned down, plac­ing him on the de­por­ta­tion list.

Some 2,500 years ago, Sap­pho of Les­bos wrote:

Their heart grew cold they let their wings down

To pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing to hu­man­ists across Europe, we need a new move­ment to cam­paign for refugees’ re­lease from odi­ous con­di­tions and a swift asy­lum process. Be­yond that, we need to end the poli­cies that are con­tribut­ing to their des­per­ate flight.

Ya­nis Varo­ufakis, a for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter of Greece, is pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at the Univer­sity of Athens. Ge­orge Tyrikos-Er­gas is a folk­lorist liv­ing on Les­bos, where he co-founded AGKALIA, an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed, grass­roots team work­ing with refugees. Copy­right: Project Syn­di­cate, 2017.

Pic­ture: Aris Messi­nis/AFP/Getty Images

Refugees and mi­grants ar­rive on the Greek Les­bos is­land af­ter cross­ing the Aegean Sea from Tur­key. The Mo­ria refugee camp on the is­land has be­come a hellscape, our writ­ers say, where refugees live in shan­ty­towns and sur­rounded by mud, hu­man...

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