Chios Island — The Long Read
“I am here 20–3–2016 Why!!?” A poignant and difficult to miss phrase is scrawled onto a wall in the entrance of the Vial Hotspot on Chios Island. Since the signing of the EU-Turkey Deal, there have been a range of drastic measures devised to isolate and discourage immigrants, such as the creation of “Hot Spots,” areas that have become increasingly similar to detention centres.
This situation, which is present on all of the islands, can be described as dismal at best. Asylum seekers struggle tirelessly to meet their basic needs, and displacement and trauma have left countless in dire need of psychological support. But resources are limited; families and individuals wait weeks for medical examinations, only to be written off with painkillers and little else. Greece’s fifth largest island, and the closest greek shore to the Turkish city of Izmir, Chios has become purgatory. Here, newcomers are stranded and face months of gruelling uncertainty, anxiety, and the constant fear of deportation.
Overlooking the Turkish port of Cesme that rests on the horizon, Souda camp is built from white tents and aluminium structures branded UNHCR. Though comprised mostly of Syrians, Pakistani, Algerians, and Palestinians can be found in the camp as well. But the local government has been segregating the camps, removing many Afghan families and transporting them to the island’s second camp, Vial Hotspot. The Souda camp, located in central Chios, runs along the ruins of an ancient castle with access to the town centre, where stationed NGOs are able to provide much needed resources and support. However, many of these NGOs will be forced to leave in the approaching summer, taking with them many of the services and resources upon which so many people rely.
These organizations, including PRAKSIS, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Advocates Abroad provide access to educational programs, legal advice, food, water, emergency response teams, and basic sanitation and hygiene products. As the NGOs are forced to leave the islands, it is unclear how the Greek government and the three organisations allowed to remain could possibly make up for these lost efforts. Vial Hotspot, the island’s second camp, which is already isolated from these resources, has proved to be particularly unbearable. The camps, officially named “Reception and Identification Centres,” would be more accurately termed “detention and deportation centres” considering their dubious and inhumane conditions.
Vial is tucked away in a valley where an old aluminium factory used to be, surrounded by chain-linked fence and barbed wire. The camp is completely closed off to any NGO support or volunteers, and the only organisations in the area claim to provide medical referrals, translators, and legal support. However, all the camp residents we spoke to said that these services are not available or are grossly inadequate. Afghan families have been waiting six months following their appeals to hear back from their lawyer, and many young men wait over a year. Bred from isolation and overcrowding, rumours spread quickly and tensions between individuals, social groups, and communities have grown.
Out of desperation, some young men even resort to threats of self-harm in the hopes that their concerns will finally be heard after being neglected and denied much-needed psychological help. As it stands currently, only those in life-threatening circumstances can expect to receive proper medical support. This behavior has spiked following the recent death of a Syrian man who challenged the IOM by threatening his own life with petrol and a match.
Many mentioned, especially parents, that this limbo would be tolerable only if themselves and their children could receive psychological and medical support. A four year old Syrian boy had been talkative since learning his first words but has fallen silent since a bomb landed on his home, killing his mother. Depression, insomnia, PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are often ignored, only sometimes treated with painkillers and sleeping pills.
‘We are not animals’ states a young Syrian women. A cardboard box of mouldy spaghetti and loose pills is pulled out from under the bed; a boy had images on his phone of maggots crawling around in last weeks supper. Only some are provided prepaid debit cards, the rest are forced to eat dreadful spaghetti on a daily basis, occasionally getting food poisoning.
Up to 20 people are cramped into small containers, there is no privacy for pregnant women nor families with young children. Soap is not provided and the bathrooms are vile. The women’s bathroom have no hot water; if they want a hot shower they must use the mens bathroom.
The Human Rights Watch have denounced these spaces as unsanitary and overcrowded. Vial was originally made to hold 1,100 people but now exceeds way beyond that number. Fights break out regularly due to overcrowding and anxiety, local police do nothing to help within the camp. Families hide in their shelters until the conflict ends, the local police do little to interfere.
There are serious tensions between the local Greek community and foreigners; the young migrants and volunteers have been attacked, been victim to scare tactics such as sound bombs and verbal abuse. Following the approval of a hospital being built for both locals and migrants, a group gathered in front of a government building. A few passed out pages of a petition and cursed at foreigners in Greek as they walked by. Armed police stood attentive outside Souda Camp prepared to take on either side. In November 2016, camp Souda was attacked; fascists threw Molotov bombs and massive stones from a hill directly on top of tents refugees called home.
These refugees have fled their countries in need of safety but find themselves surrounded by a new type of danger on foreign lands. A Syrian single-father informed our team that, because of lack of law enforcement and protection both inside and outside the camp, he is forced to take his young children to sleep in the woods on several occasions. His requests for separate accommodation and/or permission to leave the island has been ignored for the last 6 months.
In Vial, two young men sit next to each other, taking turns to speak and closely examining the other as they quietly describe the last five years. They are Syrian, 28 and 23 years old, the younger was imprisoned after refusing to join the army and tortured, finally escaping after 4 years. He has lost contact with his family. The older friend is partially deaf from a bomb that killed most of his family. They are not related but have been close since childhood. Currently staying in Vial with a fellow Syrian they met after arriving on the island, they sleep on the floor with twelve other men. They share a phone and made clear that one would to not leave without the other; they survived the worst but still have a long way to go.
Although, it’s impossible to stay optimistic, families and friends come together to share tea and memories of home. Others enthusiastically discuss their favourite football team and cook traditional Afghan recipes like Qabilee. Children play, sliding down a steep slope on a mattress tugging on a rope woven with recycled clothing. The residents of all the islands currently face uncertainty as Greece’s high courts determine once again if Turkey is a safe country. Greece’s asylum process is becoming an attempt to ‘solve the issues on the islands’ by isolation and deportation keeping people away from the mainland where there are more opportunities for legal, medical, and psychological support.