When one door closes, another one closes.

Katie O'Neill
Mar 23, 2016 · 5 min read

What a whirlwind the past 5 days have been. It was only 5 days ago that I was working longer shifts as I tried to train new volunteers to take over lead roles for the distribution tent (a tent that has become my second home, complete with a strong love-hate relationship). As of Monday, we closed the door for potentially the last time and plastered it with a sign that said ‘Safe Journey’. The intentions behind this statement are heartfelt, but the reality of the situation means such a journey is unlikely.

On Friday evening, the EU-Turkey deal was agreed upon; yet again, diplomacy and political agendas were pursued to the detriment of human lives. Under the €6billion deal, all refugees arriving from March 20 onwards will be deported back to Turkey. On Saturday, the announcement came that the island would be evacuated by Monday and the Moria Registration Centre would turn into a closed detention facility. By the end of Saturday, police and army presence was increased and all NGOs & volunteers were told they needed to leave the inside of the Centre by midnight. 10 boats arrived that night. One of those boats saw two deaths. Volunteer lifesavers attempted to resuscitate a man as his wife and children stood by, visibly distraught. These new arrivals fell outside the pre-March 20 bracket and thus, are being sent back to Turkey. Two fellow volunteers were on the beach that night, and later spoke to a UNHCR staff member. He told them that a week ago he would’ve been able to assist this family; put them in a hotel and ensure they were given a safer onward journey than the hell they had been subject to. Now, due to the new deal, he says their hands are tied. This family will be deported back to Turkey. Incomprehensible. Inhumane.

Are we forgetting that human rights were made for times like this?

The early hours of Sunday evening were spent “celebrating” Persian New Year, which consisted of politely and subtly eating around the pieces of lamb on our plates that had taken our friends hours to prepare. It was also Amine’s birthday, which he tried to keep from us. I’m sure this will be a New Year and Birthday that will never be forgotten.

Ultimately, the past 3 days have been spent saying goodbyes to people in a way we never thought we would have to. For our Iranian friends, we waved & screamed goodbye to them as they boarded the ferry headed for Kavala in the north of Greece, entirely unsure of what awaited them upon their arrival. For our Pakistani friends, we bid them a similarly teary farewells as they voluntarily chose to go to the inside compound. Their reasoning for their decision: as police presence and the likelihood of the riot squad moving into our Olive Grove increased, these Pakistani men chose to go inside as they didn’t want to put the volunteers at risk. For our Moroccan friends, their particular shitty options are elongating their decision-making process altogether. There has been an eerie emptiness around camp for these past few days that is looking unlikely to fade. And our camp is not in isolation — all the camps across Lesvos, and other Greek islands, are being evacuated so the islands can be representative of the EU: seemingly & happily refugee free!

An emotional farewell. An unknown fate

For our friends who boarded that ferry to Kavala, their journey has been long, tiresome and a complete violation of their human rights. This ferry was docked at the port in Mitilini, Lesvos, for over 30 hours as it waited to reach its 2,500 capacity made up entirely of refugees. And just to add another layer of disbelief… the refugees had to pay for these ferry tickets themselves. They’re being forced to leave the island against their will and have to be able to fund their own tickets, or otherwise count on volunteers & NGOs to cover the cost. This also included those who already had a ticket for Athens for a later date, who had to pay a fee to get the ticket changed to go to Kavala instead. Whilst docked, only a few volunteers were able to get on board to deliver food and water & only for a limited amount of time. The ferry departed at 1:30pm. 20 hours later, we got a dropped pin of our friends location: 8 miles off the coast of Athens. Yes, Athens. The ferry did not go to Kavala, and no, no one who paid the fee to get his or her ticket destination changed saw any of that money again. 23 hours later, the ferry docked in Athens — a trip that normally takes 10 hours. Where was that extra time spent? On the ferry. Waiting in the middle of the ocean. In the dark. With limited food. Filled with vulnerable people. People traumatized by, amongst other things, a boat journey on a neighbouring strip of water that got them to Greece within the previous weeks.

All smiles before the unjustifiably long journey that was to come

At 11:30am, the boat was unloaded: Syrians first, Iraqis second, then there were only Farsi speakers left — a combination of Afghans and Iranians. Our Iranian friends moved on to busses without any information as to where they were going. They travelled on this same bus for 20 hours. No food. No water.

The bus stopped overnight on the side of the road to wait for the other 22 busses to catch up so they could all arrive at the camp together. Oh, one moment of generosity … this stop was near a single restaurant, ill-equipped to feed 1,000 refugees and where a plate of meat and rice cost the small fee of €20. Finally they arrived at their new ‘home’. An old military base, staffed entirely by military personnel. No electricity. No hot water. 8 singles per tent. 1 family per next tent. 1 doctor on site. “The food was nice. It was labelled with our ID number to make sure we all only had one”.

Segregation based on nationality. Deprivation of information. Rationing and limitation of food and water. Such stories sound all too scarily reminiscent of a dark place in our history.

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”

We now head across mainland Greece to verify and document such accounts as we hear that they are, unfortunately, commonplace.

NGOs are forced to shut the doors to their services as Greece is forced to shut the doors to the islands’ camps. And as the EU shuts the door on Greece, the world continues to shut the door on our fellow man. It is humanity that is left out in the cold.

Katie O'Neill

Written by

‘We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together like fools’