We Like the Idea of Asylum Seekers, but Not the Real Thing

We Like the Idea of Asylum Seekers, but Not the Real Thing

We Like the Idea of Asylum Seekers, but Not the Real Thing

The 12-foot-tall puppet of a Syrian refugee has been welcomed in New York and around the world. Real refugees? Not so much.


Little Amal, the 12-foot-tall puppet of a Syrian refugee girl, went looking for her mother in Brooklyn last week, as she has done all over the world. She was greeted enthusiastically by crowds of children and adults who were charmed by her lifelike movements and huge, blinking eyes, and by the grace with which the puppeteers made her move, dance, peer into windows, and even reach out for a hug.

I went to see her with my 7-year-old grandson, whose first comment, on looking around at the crowd from the perch of his grandfather’s shoulders, was “Isn’t she a little overwhelmed?” He was full of other questions, too: “How did she lose her mommy? Where’s her daddy? Why can’t she find her mommy?” We explained the Syrian war to him as best we could, the plight of refugees, and how families can get separated—this last one particularly worried him. And then he asked, “When is Little Amal going to find her mother?”

When indeed?

On September 23, the same day as we were greeting Little Amal, more than 77 refugees drowned off the coast of Syria, including many Syrian children. Only two weeks earlier, four Syrian children and three women died of thirst and starvation on stranded boats off the coasts of Lebanon and Turkey, boats nobody would rescue, bringing the total number of refugees who have died in the Mediterranean in 2022 to more than 1,200. Most of these deaths occur because the EU’s coast guard, Frontex, along with Greece, Turkey, Italy, Malta, and Libya, are not only refusing to rescue boats but deliberately pushing many of them back out to sea. Greece and Italy have even criminalized the rescue of migrants, arresting and charging as human traffickers volunteers who save lives.

I’ve been going to Greece for the past four years to look at how real refugees, Syrians and others, are treated at this major gateway to Europe. These people are not simply seeking “a better life,” as newscasters keep saying, but a life in which they will not be killed, imprisoned, tortured, or starved to death. Yet, far from being welcomed as Little Amal has been (although even she was stoned in Greece), they are being treated with astounding cruelty, and not only by being abandoned at sea.

Exactly a year ago this month, for example, Greece opened a new detention center for asylum seekers on the island of Samos as a model for the way they will be treated in the future. Built at a cost of €38 million, paid for largely by the EU, it is placed in a remote location in the mountains, and designed to keep 3,000 people locked up and out of sight.

Named Camp Zervou, it employs an elaborate new surveillance system called Centaur. From a base in Athens, a closed-circuit network of video monitors tracks the movements of detainees inside, all of whom must wear an electronic bracelet. Drones hover constantly overhead. Perimeters are festooned with alarms and cameras. Gates are controlled with metal detectors and X-ray machines. Nobody is allowed out between 8 pm and 8 am. And an automated system for public announcements blasts out of loudspeakers throughout the day.

It is worth remembering that the people being held in these conditions are not criminals but human beings who have fled wars and persecution in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, the Congo, and Somalia to exercise their legal right to seek asylum from persecution and murder.

I went to see Zervou last summer, and there is no way to describe it except to say that it looks like a shiny new concentration camp. Set in a valley between mountains, far from any village, shop, hospital or NGO, it is a vast patch of bare earth holding row upon row of white metal shipping containers, squeezed tightly together, and surrounded by two layers of 20-foot-tall hurricane fencing topped with barbed wire. Nary a tree, shrub or flower is in sight. It is exposed, hot—and hideous.

The European Union gave Greece $152 million to build not only Zervou but also four other such remote, closed camps on the Aegean islands, with the idea of better fortifying the EU’s borders—in other words, as a way of locking refugees out of Western Europe.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the International Rescue Committee, and Amnesty International, among other international human rights groups, have called Zervou and other similar camps inhumane and punitive. In 2020, MSF released a report testifying that holding people in closed camps like Zervou exacerbates the traumas they have already suffered as refugees, enhancing depression, breakdowns, and suicidal tendencies among adults and children alike. “This system has inflicted misery on people, put their lives in danger and erodes the right to asylum,” the report declared. “The EU and the Greek government are spending millions of euros to standardize and intensify policies that have already done so much harm.”

Zervou now forbids anyone without an ID card to leave the detention center at all—cards most people never get—making it indistinguishable from a prison.

Little Amal would not fare well in such a place.

Meanwhile, as she walks through adoring crowds in New York, anti-refugee rhetoric has become the cornerstone of every right-wing politician’s campaign from Italy to Denmark, Sweden to Spain, France to the UK—and, of course, here in the United States, where, as I write, Republican governors in the South are shipping asylum seekers to Democratic states in the North, labeling their pawns “illegal immigrants” and “migrants.” It is much easier to welcome a puppet, it seems, than a real, live refugee.

So how am I to answer my grandson’s question—when will Little Amal find her mother? Must I tell him that she will have to wander the world until asylum seekers are no longer vilified as “migrants” looking to get rich but welcomed as people who are doing what any of us would do were we forced to flee our homes to stay alive? Must I tell him that, until then, no matter how far and long Little Amal walks, she will never find her mother?

The answer, surely, lies in two essential places: our hearts and our voting booths.

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