As the sun sets on the island of Lesvos, my heavy heart sinks along with it. These have been days of many devastating blows.
The controversial EU-Turkey deal turned the most vulnerable among us into pawns in a political game. Under this legislation, all refugees arriving in Greece will be put into detention centres and then are most likely to be deported back to Turkey. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have called the deal a ‘historic blow to rights’, and have called for the deal to be stopped. Nevertheless, the deal has come into effect. Instead of being assisted in the way that is most humane, ethical and in line with the refugee convention, refugees will be handed over to a country with a track record indicating that refugees will not find the protection that they so desire. The efforts of the EU have been inadequate, even shameful.
The clear lack of shame is best demonstrated by Germany’s decision to pull its embassies and schools out of Turkey following Saturday’s attack, not even 24 hours before it deemed it safe for refugees. This sends a very clear message about how much we value the lives of those begging for our protection. We held the futures of these Kurds, Syrians, Afghans, women, children, mothers and fathers in our hands and we have failed them.
Within less than two days of the deal being reached, the island which has been a beacon of hope to hundreds of thousands, stands empty. As a member of one of the most active NGOs on the island and one of the few working in Moria registration site, it is appalling how little information and warning we were given at every stage of every decision. Humanitarians and NGOs on the island have been desperately scouring the web for any information to pass onto each other and most importantly, to the refugees. Up to this moment, we have still not received any official communication from the authorities. There are certain aspects of the deal that are still not clear- this includes how likely the chances of being granted asylum to non-Syrians will be and how this will work, nationality by nationality. There are too many rumours, half truths and fear due to the massive and hasty overhaul. It should not be part of our job to guess what information should be passed on to those desperate for answers: information is the most basic need for the people here.
The NGO I am a part of in Lesvos was established by volunteers in September, at the the height of the crisis. At this time, more than 3000 people were arriving daily. The villagers were bearing the brunt of this humanitarian emergency without any assistance from the government or donors, but they were struggling to handle the massive influx of people needing their help. There was a desperate need for a reception site where people could be warmed, clothed and fed. Our reception site was built as a response to that need, and was ever-growing. Months later, as part of our mission, operations were expanded to assist the Danish Refugee Council in the running of Moria registation site.
In the end however, we were given less than 24 hours’ notice that we had to evacuate the camp. On Saturday afternoon we spent 1000 Euros on a beautification project to bring some joy, peace and beauty to those living in Moria. On Sunday we walked out of the camp gates for the very last time, riot police and loudspeakers seeming to push us out faster.
As an NGO, we have played a key role in supporting refugees, the local commuity and Greece as a whole. We commit to buying locally, and have an environmental clean-up project which helps to clear the island of life jackets, debris and boat parts. Despite being so conscious of the context, and despite the large gaps we were filling in, we were not part of the consultation process at any phase. In a matter of days, two of our biggest operations were shut down as a direct result of the deal. Nevertheless, as an NGO, we are committed to providing relief to refugees and we will not stop. We have, and will continue to adapt.
The absolute inhumanity of this process is, above all, reflected in the eyes of the ones we have all gathered onto this tiny island to help: those seeking refuge. The first groups that were sent off the island were herded from the camps to the port with no idea of where they were going. Translators and information leaflets were nowhere to be seen. The trauma of having seen war, of having given up everything, of having lost family or friends to a senseless conflict, of engendering your loved ones on a journey spanning hundreds or even thousands of miles over river, land and sea only to possibly be deported is unimaginable. The anger, fear and intense hopelessness must be all-consuming.
For the ones that NGOs managed to give information to later, the truth was not much more comforting. We knew they were going to Kavala to then be sent to a ‘hotspot’ but this is where it ends. It is of little comfort to someone who is at the mercy of politicians who have shown so little humanity.
The most difficult part about this situation is that we could offer no legitimate answers. Their deadly journey across the sea was not the end- it was only the beginning. What can we offer these people when we ourselves feel so little hope? When we have no idea of what their journey will hold, or if they will find the safety that they are so desperate for? We offer hope and encouragement but it feels like deception. It feels empty.
Shame on Europe. Shame on the world. Shame on us all.