Yesterday morning 15 women and 13 men, all from Syria, began a hunger strike in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, near the Turkish coast. They arrived on the island after March 20, the day the “statement” agreed between the European Union and Turkey to stop the flow of refugees from Turkey to the islands came into effect. The statement (which has no mandatory force in international law) says that the EU now considers Turkey a “safe third country” for Syrian refugees; any Syrian arriving in Greece since that date will be returned to Turkey, unless the Greek asylum service determines that he or she would be at particular risk there.
About 8,000 refugees have landed on the Greek islands since March 20. They cannot leave the islands until their asylum claims have been judged a process that under the statement is supposed to take two weeks, but that, for most of them, has not even begun. The hunger strikers are in Souda camp, an assembly of tents and RapHuts in the shadow of the town’s Venetian castle, run by the municipality with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. This is what one of them wrote to me by WhatsApp from the camp, lightly edited:
Hi my name is Wassim Omar. I am married and I have 3 children. I have my brother here with me also. My age is 34. I’m from Syria, countryside of Damascus, Al Zabadani-Ain al-Fijah. (It is a very important area because there’s a spring from which drink most of the people in Damascus city.) I was an English teacher and my wife a Maths teacher also. We left Syria on March 3 2016 because we were threatened with killing many times by Daesh (Islamic State) and Jabhat al-Nusra, and the regime army wanted us to do our military service to kill people. So my father, who was a journalist at the Syria Arab News Agency, insisted us to leave.
Our journey was so terrible and so difficult and cost so much money. We went from Damascus to Idlib for 2 days. We passed through regime army checkpoints and I thought maybe each checkpoint would take me or my brother for army service because we hadn’t done our military service yet. Our journey to Idlib cost $4,000 but it is ok because we passed.
We arrived at Idlib and crossed the Syrian-Turkish border and it was so hard journey especially for the children, over high mountains in rainfall. At midnight as we passed a soldier saw us and shot fire so we ran as fast as we can with our children crying. We reached the cowshed of the runner or pusher and spent that night there. The bad runner threatened us by taking one of my children unless I gave him $2,000 to take us to Izmir so I paid.
When we reached Izmir we met a new bad runner. He treated us so badly and didn’t allow us to go free so he got $3,000 to take us from Turkey to Chios. We arrived on 20 March 2016, the bad date. Since that time until now nothing happens. We ask all the organizations what’s next, they say we don’t know. So our strike is to have a person who answers our questions. These are our claims:
- We want a lawyer to speak in the name of us.
- International protection/relocation in other EU countries.
- Specific time for interviews appointment.
The EU-Turkey deal has created a desperate situation on the islands. Women and children are being held in grim camps and detention centers with young single men, without access to information, medical care, adequate food, legal support, or psychological help. Fights break out between angry, frustrated refugees; the guards don’t intervene. Three days ago some 200 people were moved against their will from the overcrowded government camp in Chios—where three men had sewn their lips shut in protest against conditions—and locked in a new detention center on the island of Kos.
“The UN and police in Chios they force us to go,” a Syrian Kurdish woman writes from there. “They lied to us. They told us if you don’t go we will let you sleep outside on the floor. We are in jail, nobody cares about us. Even the UN doesn’t ask about us. We want somebody help us. We want to go out from here.” Like many refugee women now trapped in Greece with their children, she is trying to join her husband, who made it to northern Europe before the borders closed. He too is sending messages: “In the name of humanity, I ask you to deliver a message to human rights organizations and the Red Cross please!!!! I’m taking your number from my wife!! She is now in this island prison. I know you can help!”
This week, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants issued his report at the end of his visit to Greece. While recognizing the immense difficulties facing the country as it struggles to cope with the largest movement of refugees and migrants since 1945, he also “deeply regrets” the increased use of administrative detention, the absence of government services and safeguards for vulnerable people, and the lack of information and coordination. He underlines that detention “can never, ever be in the best interests of a child.” His harshest condemnation, couched always in the UN’s careful diplomatic tones, is reserved for the EU:
Through slowly stripping away the rights of asylum seekers and migrants, Europe is creating a new ‘normal’ and forcing Greece—a country in the midst of an economic crisis—to carry an overwhelming responsibility in securing EU’s external border, regardless of the human and financial costs. At the same time, by not condemning EU member state actions of violence and non-adherence to regional and international humanitarian and human rights laws, the EU has effectively condoned human rights violations committed by its member states.
The voices filling my phone with silent cries for help are only the barest tip of the tip of a huge iceberg. Wassim wrote to me that some of the children in the camp also talk about going on hunger strike. I wrote back, “Tell them they have to eat and grow up big and strong.” He answered, “Ok, I’ll do. But at the same time you tell the EU governments this deal is the biggest shame in the history of the whole EU. If you can help us to send our voice to USA or Canada governments or embassies it is better because they maybe help us more than the EU governments, because the last will say we have a deal with Turkey.”
I told him I would try.