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.