I am here 20–3–2016 Why!!?” A poignant and difficult phrase 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 migrants, such as the creation of “Hot Spots,” areas that have become increasingly similar to detention centers.
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 aluminum structures branded UNHCR. Though comprised mostly of Syrians, Yemeni, 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 downtown, 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 organizations 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 a particularly dire situation. The camps, officially named “Reception and Identification Centers,” would be more accurately termed “detention and deportation centers” considering their dubious and inhumane conditions.
Vial is tucked away in a valley where an old aluminum factory used to reside surrounded by chain-linked fence and barbed wire. The camp is completely closed off to any NGO support or volunteers, and the only organizations in the area claim to provide medical referrals, translators, and legal support. 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, rumors 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 alcohol 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 fell 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 have no hot water; if one wants a hot shower they must use the mens.
The Human Rights Watch have denounced these spaces as unsanitary and overcrowded. Vial was originally made to hold 1,100 people but now the population exceeds 1,500 people. Fights break out regularly due to overcrowding and anxiety, local police do nothing to help within the camp. Families hide in their homes until things calm down.
There are serious tensions between 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 local and migrants, a group gathered in front of a government building. A few passed out pages of a patrician 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 enforcement and protection both inside and outside the camp he has been forced to take his young children to sleep in the woods on several occasions. Although camps are becoming increasingly segregated and his request for separate accommodation and permission to leave the island has been ignored.
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 torchured, finally escaping after 4 years he has lost contact with his family. The older is partially deaf from a bomb killed most of his family. The are not related but have been good friends since childhood. Currently staying 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; this is unmistakably dangerous and concerning but proves a diligence even within the younger generation. The residence 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 as the EU turns a blind eye to human rights abuses both at home and across the channel.