Life in limbo for refugees on the overstretched island of Chios

It’s been one year since the first hotspots on the Greek Islands were set up, and half a year since the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016 came into force. John Owens writes on the fragile and complicated situation for refugees trapped on the island of Chios.

It was nearing 11pm at Chios harbour and the game of cat and mouse had begun.

Gathered in a small park just behind a travel agents on the seafront, groups of mainly young men waited for their opportunity to make a break for it and get onto the docked Athens-bound ferry no more than 20 meters away.

Between them and their way off the Greek island, however, stood police, blocking the path and preventing anyone who they thought might be a refugeea white English guy, I did not fit this description — from getting too close.

According to one of the men there — an Algerian — his friend had made it on board last week, but there was no such luck tonight, and as the boat disembarked the small crowd disappeared into the night, disappointed.

With thousands of refugees trapped on Greek islands ill-equipped — and increasingly unwilling — to host them, it is a scene that will continue to repeat, night after night.

And as tension and frustration build on the island in the wake of a recent attack on a camp there, their efforts are likely to get more desperate.

A Matter of Luck

As with the other Greek islands, Chios has far more more refugees than it can officially accommodate.

Brought into effect in mid-March, the EU-Turkey deal — currently looking very fragile — turned the islands from a transit point into a holding pen as the authorities attempt to go though thousands of applications for asylum in Greece.

Months pass for those who wait with no news from a service unable to keep up with demand.

Of course, this limbo is experienced by refugees on mainland Greece.

But on overstretched Chios, as with the other Greek islands, they are exacerbated, and unlike mainland Greece refugees have no chance to relocate elsewhere in Europe —those hovering around the port were only trying to get to Athens, after all.

Interested in covering the situation on the Greek islands for a while, I’d headed to Chios last month in the wake of clashes at the Souda refugee camp.

These clashes saw conflict between a small number of refugees and Greeks, with big rocks — and, some claim, petrol bombs — then hurled onto the tents of refugees from the ramparts of an overlooking castle.

That no-one died in this attack on the residents of Souda, which is based centrally in Chios’ main town and is one of two camps on the island, seemed to be a matter of pure luck. But such luck does not always last.

Most striking in the wake of this violence was the fear that it could easily flare up again, and there was little that had changed to stop it occurring again.

There has been an increase in police patrols around Souda, though many refugees in the camp consider the police hostile to them.

But the fundamental situation of the islands being kept as holding pens remains unchanged and it seems fractured relationships — at many levels — are exacerbating this.

Hopelessness and Anger

A sense of hopelessness and anger continues to grow among and between refugees stuck on the island in often poor conditions.

In some cases, tensions were flaring between groups of different nationalities over an asylum system that seemed to prioritize Syrian cases — though one Syrian I met in Souda had been stuck on the island for eight months.

Meanwhile, though the number of refugee boats arriving on the shores of these islands is dramatically down, they still do arrive, and like the other islands Chios seems barely able to cope.

At Vial, the other camp in Chios, I was approached by a teenage Iraqi girl whose family had arrived in recent weeks.

Though most in Vial live in containers, this family had to make do with tents- and amid heavy downpours their new home had completely flooded, leaving children no older than five to wade through water.

The prolonged nature of refugees’ presence here is also being felt beyond the camps, in the small communities that surround them.

Fractured relations

Like the trapped population they are hosting, Greeks on the island — many of whom have previously played a key role in helping those who washed up upon its shores — are running out of patience.

Citing a rise in petty crime and antisocial behavior, the sympathy of many islanders towards refugees is diminishing.

Though support is currently sparse, fears that Golden Dawn — the Greek neo-fascist group that some have implicated in the attacks on Souda — are among those who could take advantage.

According to one NGO worker, the frustrations of both refugees and hosts are being further fueled by a lack of information about what may come next.

This absence of information seems to result from many things, not least fractured relations that go well beyond the islanders and refugee population of Chios.

Europe’s short-term and ad-hoc response to the crisis have largely left Italy and Greece — which each had their own share of issues to deal with — to pick up the pieces.

Meanwhile, in implementing a EU-Turkey deal that renders its own islands virtual prisons, the relationship between the Greek state and the local authorities on Chios has also frayed.

In recent weeks, the Greek migration minister recently blamed these authorities for blocking the building of a new camp.

These authorities, however, responded by citing objections from the local population, and Chios deputy Mayor George Karamanis emphasized that uncertainty from the EU-Turkey deal was being felt at ground level.

Amid this back and forth, the months drift on, and with no end in sight the chances of more conflict seem only to escalate.

Core Reasons Unsolved

It is pretty bleak picture, and one enforced by the various riots that have taken place in Moria camp within Lesvos — most recently after a woman and six-year-old child were killed there in a gas stove explosion.

Of course, the reality is more nuanced. Positive work is being done by many on Chios and the other islands, and there are examples of cohesion between islanders and refugees, some of whom have been relocated into proper accommodation away from the camps.

I briefly got to meet one Syrian chef, for example, who has broken down barriers with the village community he currently lives among on the island with his cooking skills.

But with those on the islands suffering because of a deal that was made by European powers unwilling to shoulder their own moral responsibility, it is perhaps not surprising that the core reasons behind attacks on Souda appear so difficult to resolve.

Meanwhile, the young men will continue to gather at Chios harbour, hoping for their chance to escape.

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