By Sam Sufrin
Sam Sufrin reflects on his work with asylum seekers on Chios, Greece
The port in Chios, Greece, is 14.6 km from the port in Cesme, Turkey. A boat ticket costs about 23 euros and takes around 30 minutes, but thanks to European Directive 2001/51 it is unlikely that any asylum seeker in Chios was ever able to take a safe and inexpensive commercial boat from Turkey. Instead they are forced into unsafe and expensive smugglers’ boats. Directive 2001/51 affects all who seek refuge in Europe by requiring commercial transport services to pay for the return of those who are unsuccessful in their asylum claims. Commercial services are therefore forced into deciding who is and who is not a legitimate asylum seeker before they are allowed to board. The response of these services has been to deny access to anyone without appropriate visas so as to avoid the risk of having to pay for the return of unsuccessful asylum seekers. This forces large numbers of people into using the dangerous smugglers’ boats. . The UNHCR estimates that 17,821 people have died or gone missing on their land and sea journeys to Europe since 2014. Directive 2001/51 is surely responsible for a large proportion of these.
In the summer of 2019, I worked as a volunteer for the NGO “Action for Education” that operates on the Aegean Island of Chios. My longer-standing colleagues at the Youth Centre and School had noticed a disturbing trend. When young asylum seekers had just arrived and started using our services they seemed relatively positive, engaged, and happy to participate in the activities. After a couple of months this positivity tended to fade and students would start to demonstrate much less energy and positivity, they became very tired and participated much less. You do not have to spend much time on Chios to understand why this happens. The conditions for asylum seekers on the island are abysmal and were only made worse by the 2016 EU-Turkey deal that forces asylum seekers to stay on the island whilst their cases are processed, which takes up to a year. The whole process can only be understood as structural violence.
Vial, the refugee camp on Chios, is situated several kilometers away from the city, right beside a garbage processing centre. Residents must walk past this every time they leave the camp. Once they have passed it, it is about a two hour walk to the city. There are no buses, except for the few provided by NGOs, but these only permit asylum seekers who are using their services to board, so in order to access vital services in the city such as banks, doctors, and Western Union, camp residents are forced into a four hour round trip on foot, or an expensive taxi ride.
Vial was designed to house around 1,000 residents, but since the summer of 2019 the actual number of residents has fluctuated between 2,000 and 6,000. Overcrowding has resulted in large numbers of temporary tents being used. The tents are hot during summer days and lack protection from the cold and wet winter weather. They are insecure, so residents are forced to guard their property from potential thieves. This is usually done by groups of friends or families using rotas. This severely restricts freedom of movement for the tent residents. One of my students, an unaccompanied minor, would miss school once a week because he was on guard duty.
The isolation of the camp is made worse by its lack of services. There are no parks to play safely in and few activities for young people to take part in. Almost every night I would see young children playing on the dusty road just outside the camp reception area, only 20 or 30 meters from the garbage processing centre. One game I observed many times on my way home from school was a sort of imaginary war with the local stray dog population. Children of about 5 or 6 would charge the dogs, laughing and screaming excitedly as they threw stones at them. The dogs would always scarper and would never put up a fight, but it made for uneasy viewing nonetheless.
The quality of the camp’s existing services is low. Food is repetitive and non-nutritious. For example, breakfast always consists of a single dry croissant and a carton of chemical-tasting orange juice. Water is limited: camp residents have two time slots each day to shower, and overcrowding of the camp has led to long queues for the showers, as well as poor hygiene.
The school was built by the UNHCR, and is run by Metadrasi (a Greek educational NGO), which permits Action for Education to teach English in its classes. It is far too small to enroll all of Vial’s minors, so a “five strikes and you’re out” system is used, the nominal aim of which is to give as many children the opportunity to attend as possible. The system appears simple at first: miss five days of school without a good reason and your spot is given to someone on the waiting list, while you get put at the bottom of that list. The problem with this is that students and teachers often do not speak the same language and teachers are often heavy handed in their application of the rule. Some students either do not understand the rule, are unsure how many days they have missed, or are unable to communicate legitimate reasons for absence to the teachers. On many occasions I saw teachers sending students back to the camp and to the back of the waiting list, while there were empty seats in classrooms. The students frequently appeared not to understand why they had to leave and seemed frustrated to be missing school.
The conditions in Vial made the strike system seem brutal. It is important to understand that many of the students were unaccompanied minors, such as the student who missed school to guard his tent, and many of them had suffered traumatic experiences before arriving in Greece. This makes sleep routines difficult, and waking up in time for school feeling motivated even more so. What made the strike system seem even worse to me was what I learned from a post traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) handbook, distributed to volunteers. The handbook highlights how important it is for minors suffering from PTSD to understand and have control of decisions that are directly affecting them. This is especially important for those suffering from PTSD who come from war-torn countries, where their limited understanding and control of the broader situation is often compounded by their horrific experiences.
The strike system robbed young people of that of understanding and control. The way that it seemed to punish asylum seekers for the conditions they found themselves in summed up perfectly the structural violence of the system that exists on Europe’s border. A lack of resources, and a legal framework designed to make movement across borders as difficult as possible, creates violent conditions in places that theoretically exist to assist and protect people on their journeys.
There were, of course, positive aspects to life in Vial. The camp is located next to a 6-a-side football pitch and residents frequently organize matches and tournaments. They form national teams, compete against each other, and every couple of weeks a new “world cup” champion is crowned – I think the DRC had just won as I was leaving. I also heard that residents had created their own schools within the camp, where children can learn to read and write in their mother tongues. That this level of agency, self-organisation and cooperation can still be sustained against the backdrop of the structural violence and the bleak conditions of Vial, seems reason to hope that change is possible.
Note: As I was writing this article Turkey opened its European borders which has led to approximately 13,000 asylum seekers attempting to cross the border into Europe. They have been met with lethal violence from state police forces, including tear gas and live ammunition – what is known as ‘push-back’. This wave of asylum seekers has resulted in changes to the situation on Chios as described in the article. Therefore this article stands as more of a historic account of the conditions on Chios.