In the port-side café before the sun comes up, a group of men are talking.
“In the beginning, when there were maybe 40 of them in the boats, all wet, we helped them. Now they’re too many. They steal chickens. They shit in the fields. They threw stones at a woman.”
“Do you think it’s chance that they’re all coming here? The NGOs, the whatever they’re called, are making money off it. It’s a plan. A racket.”
“Eventually they’ll set off a bomb and sink the island.”
“Sink or float, what difference does it make? Are we happy, now we’re floating?”
Chios, my grandfather’s island in the northeast Aegean Sea, has become an open-air prison for more than 2,000 refugees. Almost all of them arrived after the March 20 “statement” signed by the European Union and Turkey, designed to stop the flow of people from Turkey to the Greek islands and then to mainland Europe. The statement followed the unilateral closure by Central European countries of the western Balkans route, which trapped more than 50,000 refugees and migrants in Greece. It cut time and space like a guillotine, arbitrarily separating those who’d arrived before it from those who landed after,
These late arrivals can’t leave the islands until their cases have been decided by the Greek asylum system, which is overloaded to the point of paralysis. The refugees are supposed to prove not only that they’re at risk in their home country but that they’d be at risk in Turkey, which the EU (but not Greece) considers a “safe third country,” if they want to have their asylum claim heard in Greece. Otherwise, they will be returned to Turkey.
Of the 8,500 women, children, and men who have landed on the islands since the agreement was signed, 400 have been returned so far, some to be detained for weeks without legal representation. About 200 have been granted asylum in Greece. The rest are rotting in overcrowded camps, “hot spots,” and locked detention centers, without information, adequate food, medical care, or security. And the boats from Turkey, though many fewer than before, continue to come in.
On Chios (population 52,000), already wounded by six years of deep economic crisis, wildly disparate worlds are haphazardly crammed together. Many locals have given their all to help the refugees; others have used their tractors to block the roads against them. The international volunteers include Basque cooks, Norwegian relief workers, Brooklyn doulas, Korean caterers, Greek firefighters, and a retired midwife from Bath. Among the refugees are Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, and Palestinians from Syria; Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis; a grandfather with Alzheimer’s, a child with hemiplegia, a 16-year-old mother. More than half are women and children—many, many children, who cling to your legs or take your hand and proudly count to 10 in English and in Greek.
Before the borders closed, Chios seemed to be coping, more or less, though more than 36,000 refugees and migrants passed through in 2016. Local people came through with lentils, rice, clothes, whatever they could spare. By August, an informal camp had sprung up in the public gardens. Kostas Tanainis, who runs a restaurant in the seaside town of Karfas, brought water every day from his small desalination plant; a friend offered an empty shop to collect donations. In October, the Norwegian Refugee Council set up the Souda camp on land provided by the municipality near the town’s medieval castle. In December, when the EU funded “hot spots” on the islands to register asylum seekers, the town bought Vial, a disused aluminum plant in the hills that Mayor Manolis Vournous had long had his eye on for a recycling facility. Vournous, who belongs to an independent local party, says the government in Athens arrogantly disregarded plans drawn up with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, for a humane registration center, complete with a dining area, playground, mini-market, and transportation to town. On March 20, when the EU-Turkey deal forced Greece to detain new arrivals, Vial became a locked prison.
UNHCR and many mainstream NGOs won’t work in closed detention centers; other volunteers aren’t allowed to enter. Food is now provided by military caterers and generally consists, the inmates say, of “macaroni, potatoes, macaroni, potatoes.” Some of the portions had maggots. Babies received just one serving of powdered formula a day, until media coverage caused a scandal. Tanainis says that when he went to Vial to deliver extra milk, he was kept waiting at the gate by guards for more than two hours.
Boredom, frustration, and uncertainty gnaw at people like hunger. Some detainees made a hole in the back fence, trampling crops and stealing chickens, eggs, and beans from nearby villages. A sheep was reportedly slaughtered and roasted on a spit. Fights broke out between Afghans and Syrians armed with stones, bottles, and razor blades; the police let it rage for an hour before intervening. Rami Halevi, a Palestinian refugee from Syria, likened it to a war: “That violence I escaped from [in] Syria—I don’t want to see it again.” On March 31, a protest against the conditions at Vial by local people, volunteers, and activists brought the refugees out to meet them, shouting “Freedom,” “Asylo,” and “No Tourkia.” The next day, Halevi joined 400 or 500 others who broke out of Vial for good: They walked the two hours to town and sat down at the port, refusing to be moved.
That’s when the atmosphere on Chios definitively changed. As the mayor puts it, “The local society felt suffocated. If you occupy the harbor of an island, you occupy part of the lungs.” Halevi, who moved to Souda camp after a couple of days on the dock, now says, “I think it was a good and bad idea. At the port, we make the authorities listen to us—there were TV cameras, interviews. At the same time, we don’t want to make trouble for the island. We are guests, and guests have to be respect[ful]. But we have rights also.” On April 6, with the refugees now confined to one end of the port, protesters (apparently led by the island’s small contingent of neo-Nazi Golden Dawn supporters) invaded the town hall and disrupted a council meeting. The next day, a mob attacked solidarity activists and refugees at the port. The police did nothing to stop it, instead arresting several activists and refugees.
* * *
When I arrive on the island on Orthodox Good Friday, a cold truce is in effect. In town I meet Shouaib, who’s walked the two hours from Vial (unlocked since the breakout) to buy tomatoes and onions for his wife, who misses them terribly. During the war in Afghanistan, Shouaib worked as a contractor for British and US forces. He left with his wife and four children (the youngest now 5 months old) after two men shot at him with a Kalashnikov. He paid traffickers $750 a person to guide the family on the 16-hour walk over the mountains from Iran to Turkey, and $1,000 to take them from Istanbul to Izmir and then by boat to Chios. In his wallet, Shouaib keeps a little wad of papers, which he unfolds carefully, reading me the numbers that prove he lodged an asylum claim when the family reached Chios on March 21, one day after the EU-Turkey deal went into effect. Claims are supposed to be heard within two weeks, but 40 days later he’s had no news, let alone an interview.
Driving back to Vial through fields and olive groves, Shouaib and I pick up two women with four small children making the journey on foot. One of the kids broke his arm falling off a top bunk; an ambulance took them to a hospital, but nobody considered how they would get back. Shouaib is calm as he tells me about conditions in the camp, the bad food and unmet needs (“child’s needs, women’s secret needs”), about the young single men who drink and fight or steal food from the farmers, about the terrible uncertainty, the waiting, the lack of information, “the nothing, nothing, thinking, thinking, ‘When can we go to Athens?’” But when he talks about his wife, Shouaib’s voice breaks. He’s worried that she’s losing weight, that there’s no blood in her hands; he’s terrified that she will die.
Even unlocked, Vial feels like a prison. It’s a bleak, rectilinear camp made of white shipping containers furnished with bunk beds but nothing else, and not a leaf for shade. One man has made a lethal-looking immersion heater out of nails, wood splinters, and bare wires stuck in a wall socket because there’s no hot water. The showers have no doors; the toilets overflow; there’s nowhere for children to play. Women lean out of the windows to show me the small, squashed rolls that accompany that night’s meal of peas, carrots, and oranges. A young wife pushes her husband toward me in a wheelchair; like Shouaib, he has papers that show he worked for the US government. Someone warns me to be careful: The man behind me, he says, is an informer for the guards.
Farida asks me to drive her and her two girls down to the Souda camp in town, where some of the Syrians from Vial have moved. She’s from Damascus: “Syria, boom,” she says. Her husband and other children are already in Germany, but, she tells me, an Afghan stole her passport, ID card, and phone. When I ask about her parents, she drops her head to one side and starts to cry. On the road, we meet the candlelit Good Friday procession from the village: Christ’s flower-covered bier followed by priest and congregation, chanting the sorrowful Byzantine liturgy. I stop the car out of respect, but one man glares at the hijab-wearing woman beside me. She looks at me questioningly. “Christ,” I explain. “Easter.” “Ah,” she says, “Isa… Eid al-Fasah,” and gestures that she’s sorry to be keeping me from church. How do I, an atheist, explain to her the arrogant thought filling me with shame: that if Christ were alive, he would be here with her?
The grief, frustration, need that’s washed up on these shores is overwhelming. It’s strange, on Easter Sunday, to watch Greek families tucking into their roast lamb a few hundred yards away from hungry refugees, but I understand them too. It’s not so different from the way most of us live in the insulated West, holding onto our comforts and our safety, shutting out the rest of the world for fear that if we open the door a crack, the flood will sweep us away. Now that the refugees are stuck here, not just passing through—now that Chios, like the other islands, is not the gateway to Europe but the rock on which hope breaks—refugees and locals are caught together in a trap built for them in Brussels. For the locals, it’s deeply disturbing—another blow after six hard years, another economic threat. But for the refugees, carrying lost lives, lost worlds, flashbacks of fear inside their heads, it can be catastrophic.
Since I left Chios, 28 people in Souda camp have gone on hunger strike. In Vial, two young men have tried to hang themselves. One almost succeeded.
* * *
On the other side of the guillotine, on the longed-for mainland, the roughly 46,000 refugees and migrants who arrived before the deal are also trapped. They’re spread across a chaotic network of formal and informal camps, which range from tolerable to grim to squalid and dangerous. Some are tent cities, some empty hotels, some built of containers like Vial. Most of the official ones are managed by the army, pending an (eventual) handover to the civilian authorities. Nobody seems to have a clue how the whole system works. Neither the refugees nor the Greek authorities appear to have acknowledged the fact that the border’s not going to open, that Europe’s “relocation” program is a sham (of the 63,302 places for refugees in Greece that the EU committed to offering last year, only 615 have materialized), that thousands of traumatized people will be living here for years.
Diavata, at an old barracks near Thessaloniki, is one of the gentler camps, alive with the sound of children playing on a dirt football pitch shaded by tall old pines. It’s managed by a young army major who obviously respects the people in his care; I follow him around as he sorts out a boy who’s lost his papers, a volunteer who wants space to start a school. Unaccompanied minors have tents in their own separate area, watched over by a guard. Elsewhere in Greece, they may be locked up in police cells or detention centers, or become prey to abusers, pimps, and traffickers; in an Athens square where migrants congregate, I see the small words “boy sex” scrawled with a phone number on a wall. But Diavata feels safe. Three sisters from Syria (a fourth was killed in Damascus) welcome me into their tent. It’s cold at night, and the ground is hard, and there are seven people sleeping there, including children. But they are soaking fava beans to cook in a blue plastic basin, and Amira, a lawyer, can smile as she points to the strange men’s clothes that are all she has to wear.
At Katsikas, in a disused airfield near Ioannina, the tents are pitched on sharp white gravel that lets snakes and scorpions in. Five soldiers in surgical masks are handing out today’s rations. “I have three kids at home—how do I know what I might catch from these people?” one says. “They don’t like it here? They can take a plane and go back where they came from. Or over the mountains to Albania. We don’t get paid extra for doing this. The people from the NGOs get paid.”
Musab, a journalist from the Syrian city of Homs, did a year in Bashar al-Assad’s jails, some of it in a cramped, dark cell with seven other people, a toilet in the middle, the food thrown on the ground followed by a rain of blows. He’s charging his phone from a post set up in the middle of the camp. If you’re a refugee, your cell phone is your lifeline, your only link to home and your frustrated future. Musab would love to take a plane: If you have money, he tells me, you can buy false papers and fly to Germany.
Isidora, a chemistry teacher from Spain, doesn’t get paid either. She’s handing out bright plastic vegetables to children in a tepee, trying to get the Kurds and Arab Iraqis and Syrians to play together and share. What do they need the most? “Psychologists. We give them paper to draw and—wow. They’ve seen so much violence. They have stone wars out there, real wars, with blood. And their mothers hit them.”
“This camp is shit,” says one of the volunteers in the airfield’s old Quonset hut, where a group from Spain has set up a clothes “shop” and a communal kitchen for the refugees. Jorge Martin-Garcia, an environmental engineer, is trying to sort out the water, sanitation, and hygiene. He explains that the drainage is bad and that children defecate outside, fouling the puddles where they play. The toilets are the wrong kind—sit-down Western ones rather than the hygienic squat variety used in the Middle East—so women get infections. A women’s space, a hamam, is needed: “We need to connect the culture with our actions. We need to make for them, with them.”
Fights break out regularly in Katsikas, too. The previous night, two men were attacked for allegedly being informers; others broke into the hut and stole 600 euros’ worth of food. “The camp is a little society,” says Pichel, a firefighter. “Like everywhere, there are good people, there is mafia. There’s always a minority who make trouble. Women without men—they have a problem.” As in Chios, the army and police don’t intervene: “They’re here to protect the Greeks.” And as in Chios, local politicians at the sharp end are incensed at the lack of consultation and planning by the Greek government. Pantelis Kolokas, deputy mayor of Ioannina, says the number of refugees isn’t overwhelming: “This thing could be managed to the benefit of local communities. We want to house people in empty buildings, to look at how they can be integrated. We knew this crisis was coming. But we’re always running behind the cart.”
Within the administrative chaos of the Greek polity, the camps look like a mad set of social experiments, with vulnerable people as their subjects (or victims). Vial is like a police state; Diavata could be a benevolent aristocracy; Katsikas is a military dictatorship where people’s basic needs are met by grassroots activists. The new order divides the refugees from Greek society. Throughout the autumn and winter, as the boats from Turkey kept coming, the solidarity movements from the economic crisis opened their arms to the visitors, collecting huge piles of clothes and shoes, diapers and strollers, tents and sleeping bags. The old informal networks, chaotic but human, kicked in. Many Greeks formed personal bonds with refugees. Now that a centralized, top-down system is being imposed, ineffectually and unwillingly, by a barely functioning state, unofficial helpers are being marginalized.
Outside the official network, a few local experiments in radical democracy are run (at least in theory) by refugees and Greeks together. The City Plaza Hotel in a run-down area of Athens, bankrupt and empty for seven years, was occupied this May by a group of activists over the objections of the owner, who risks losing it to the state for unpaid property taxes. The lobby is packed with young Greeks smoking and drinking coffee; two women on their hands and knees are scrubbing a blue tiled fountain. Loukia from the communications team tells me that hundreds of people have joined in the cleaning effort. Dimosthenis explains that the location is a political choice: “We were against state concentration camps—we don’t think refugees who come to Greece should be isolated from society. So we decided to make this in the middle of Athens.”
City Plaza currently has about 230 guests, 100 of them children; people are referred by word of mouth, and priority goes to vulnerable families. There’s a full-time nurse on the premises, a visiting doctor, and a psychologist. In the stainless-steel kitchen, Christian, a chef from Slovenia, is marinating 270 donated chicken breasts in honey and celery, assisted by volunteers and a few of the guests. Rima, with three small children, has recently arrived; she needs to join her husband in Germany but has no idea how to do it. She’s smiling, though: It’s clean here, and the people are so kind. Georgia, who’s showing me around, is in tears as we walk away: “They smile all the time, and they’re so grateful—for nothing. This country has had a lot of crises, and it’s been so difficult. Seeing all these people in solidarity, older people, everyone—it’s the only hopeful thing that’s happened in the last 10 years.”
* * *
Eidomeni, on the closed border with the Republic of Macedonia, is—or was—anarchy. When I visited there in early May, I found a vast tent city sprawled over fields edged with green wheat. Some 9,000 women, children, and men were surviving there. Many had come as the borders began to close; most had nowhere to go, either forward or back. Their tents blocked the railway track north from Thessaloniki—an artery for the Greek economy—and crowded the station platforms. Rain made pools and rivulets of mud. Nobody wanted to be there. And yet Eidomeni seemed to be turning into a town, with greengrocers, cigarette shops, barbers, falafel stands, even (reportedly) brothels in stranded railway cars. UNHCR was there, and Doctors Without Borders, who recently vaccinated several thousand children, as well as scores of solidarity activists and volunteers running a school, a cultural center, soup kitchens, giving asylum advice. There were also fights at night; unaccompanied minors vanished; traffickers trawled for desperate people willing to risk the illegal journey north. “In the rain or when the wind comes, when you see the tents fly and the clothes are wet, your heart will be destroyed,” a student from Syria told me. “The people around the world who don’t want to help the people here, you will see them like animals, monsters. Everything you believed in before is different from this.”
That morning Abu Mohammed, from Deir ez-Zor in Syria, had tried to hang himself. He sat hunched on a camp bed by his flapping tent, his wife rigid and upright on a straight chair opposite. The border had closed in front of him soon after he arrived. Europe, he said, had already taken in more than a million people. Why can’t it accept just 50,000 more? He said he would rather die than see his children living here. If he was dead, perhaps a charity would come and take them away.
Meanwhile, near the closed railway station, the flag of Greece’s 1967–74 dictatorship fluttered over a small house. Ioannis, the man in the bare front yard, told me he had it printed specially. He’d voted Pasok, the socialist party, all his life, as well as Syriza three times, but now he’s lost everything: his dairy business, the value of the house and car he went deep into debt to buy, his peace of mind, his safety. He has a 9-year-old son with special needs who’s terrified: The refugees “come out at night with axes, knives, they take drugs, they fight,” he told me. “They leaned over the wall there and said if I didn’t give them wood, they’d set the house on fire.” Next time around, he’s voting Golden Dawn, he added. “But I have a Kurd I’m taking care of. So don’t think…” The sentence hung unfinished.
In fact, the refugee crisis hasn’t pushed most Greeks to the right. Golden Dawn, which rode high in the early years of the crisis, isn’t seeing a big revival. That may be because, unlike the Central and Northern Europeans, who have slammed their shutters and closed their doors, the Greeks have already lived with these people, rescuing them from the waves; or because of the crisis they’re still in themselves; or because of the country’s refugee history and traditions of hospitality; or because they understand that the real responsibility lies with Europe, which, having tormented them with six years of austerity, is now displacing this burden onto them, too.
But as I write, the Greek state is clearing Eidomeni, removing people in buses (some hired from a company called Crazy Holidays) to bleak and barely ready official camps in the vicinity. The area is surrounded by riot police; all volunteers and journalists except Greek state TV have been shut out. So far, the evacuation has been peaceful. But some people I spoke to there said they didn’t want to leave; the place still represented a tattered kind of hope. At the border, they could still push, still believe that it might open. If they scattered, they said, they would be powerless.
The March deal, announced with so much fanfare by the EU and Turkey, is already fraying. It was a Band-Aid designed to buy Europe time and get German Chancellor Angela Merkel through another political crisis; nobody really believes in it. Turkey, under the increasingly autocratic Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won’t make the changes to its terrorism laws required to activate the European visa waiver for its citizens. European governments don’t want visa-free travel for 77 million Turks; nor do they want to take in the refugees they signed up to accept, who are still waiting in Greece and Turkey. The Syriza-ANEL government in Greece, which has just voted through the toughest austerity package yet to get another EU bailout, has neither the will nor the know-how to organize refugee camps for more than 50,000 people, let alone humane ones. Its commitment in theory to a notion of humanitarianism founders in practice on its failure to plan or organize, either within the camps or across the system.
But almost all of the refugees I met, however enraged they may be with the Greek authorities, understand where the deeper responsibility lies. “This is not Europe,” they kept saying. “This is not what we thought Europe would be.” Like the Greek government, but with fewer excuses and far worse consequences, the European Union has failed, again, to come up with a strategy for managing migration while protecting human rights. Sooner or later, the deal between the EU and Turkey will officially come unstuck; the refugees in Greece will realize that most of them are not going to Germany. Nobody seems to have a plan for what will happen next.