Joe Payten's Story – Chios, Greece, March - April 2016

For two weeks in March and April 2016, I volunteered on the small Greek island of Chios with a group named the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (the CESRT). The primary role of the CESRT for many months now has been to patrol Chios’s shores 24 hours a day and be present on the scene of any landings to help refugees as they arrive. On my first night, I was assigned to patrol the “North”, a route of a few kilometres stretching from Chios’s thermoelectric powerplant in the north to a lookout over Keramia Beach in the south, between 4am and 8am. We took over from those doing the 12-4am shift. In a rented car stocked with donated shoes, socks, clothes, medical supplies, food and water, myself and a fellow volunteer, a paramedic from Switzerland, drove to designated spots along the route. We waited at each for 20-30 minutes, listening intently. Listening, we were told in our training, is more important than looking on the night shift because the distressed cries of the passengers on the refugee boats are heard before the silhouette comes into view. These patrols would become the pattern of nights spent on Chios, and volunteers try to catch a couple of hours sleep either side of these shifts, whenever they can.

The North route is where Chios is closest to Cesme. A boat crossing here travels about 12 kilometres to reach Chios. For many months the majority of refugee boats that made the crossing came ashore at some point along this route. Since the deal struck between the EU and Turkey, which came into force on 20 March, however, the Turkish Coast Guard have patrolled this stretch of water heavily, with the assistance of NATO. Throughout the night they can be seen making long figure-eights, their spotlights scanning the water. They have slowed the rate of refugee boats leaving Turkey, but not stopped them. While the smugglers and the authorities play a game of strategy, the safe passage of refugees is an afterthought, as the boats now take a longer and far more treacherous route south in an attempt to loop below the patrolled waters and land on the southern tip of Chios.

At about 6am, we were called to Vokaria beach, one such spot in the south of the island, as a boat was about to land there. Families of refugees were already walking up from the beach as we arrived, accompanied by members of the extraordinary Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario (SMH) team, a group of lifeguards and paramedics from Basque Country who are trained in aid and rescue at sea, and who patrol Chios’s shores with their ambulance and life boat. We directed and walked with the refugees to the town square of Nenita, a small village in the south of Chios, where we helped them change into dry clothes, and handed out bottles of water and croissants from our car. As the sun rose on another typically cloudless day in Chios, families mostly from Iran, Afghanistan and Syria, speaking almost no English (and even less Greek) stood huddled in the Nenita square with garbage bags holding all of their possessions. Around them, coffee shops opened for the day and school children played in a yard adjacent to the square before the start of class. Life carried on as normal, while more than 50 refugees stood waiting, the land, language and journey ahead all unknown to them.

After a landing, and usually a lengthy period of waiting, a Greek police bus arrives to transport the refugees to the camp of VIAL. VIAL was formerly a registration camp the refugees were taken to on arrival in Chios, before they would continue on their journey to Europe. But since 20 March, it has been transformed into a detention centre, in contravention of the licence on which the camp operates, and its occupants’ human rights. Refugees are charged 3 euros to be transported to the site of their mandatory detention. The staggering indignity of this is matched by its illogicality. People smugglers will charge in the vicinity of USD 1000 per head for the trip to Chios. For a typical Afghan family fleeing their country, this is their entire life savings. With the clothes on their backs and carrying garbage bags of their possessions, they are then charged to be loaded on a bus to a prison. Many cannot pay; some refuse to. You might ask, as we did, what happens if a person cannot pay for the privilege of transportation to their imprisonment, as though they might be arrested twice. No one knows. Emblematic of many of the policies hastily implemented to deal with this crisis, no one has thought that far ahead. Those unable or unwilling to pay are loaded onto the bus in any event, after attempts to extract the fee have failed. CESRT volunteers are powerless in this appalling moment. We attempt to explain to the refugees where they are being taken in our best universal language, and neither encourage them to board, nor assist the police to load the bus. VIAL remains a state-run detention centre, and the access of NGOs to the camp is restricted to the point of being useless. The camp is overcrowded, undersupplied and under-resourced. It is a travesty.

The CESRT continues to patrol the shore 24 hours a day, however the rate at which boats are arriving on Chios has slowed markedly since 20 March. The political response has merely shifted the crisis, though, as Greece and the NGOs must now work out how to care for the thousands of refugees left stranded on Chios. On 31 March, hundreds of refugees left VIAL, many through a large hole in the fence, and walked into Chios town to wait at the port. For days, hundreds of refugees camped out here in the hope that they would board the next ferry to Athens and continue to mainland Europe. Many others registered at the UNHCR run camp of “Souda”, a short walk from the port. After night shifts, CESRT volunteers would spend their days in Souda (during designated access hours) and at the port, distributing food and water in conjunction with the other NGOs, and speaking with the refugees to hear their stories and provide support and solidarity.

The lack of information available to the refugees about their situation is alarming. Once they arrive in Greece, they are registered and given a form to declare their intent to seek asylum. Having declared that intent, they cannot legally be deported back to Turkey until their claim has been heard. Greek authorities estimated they would need 400 officials to process these claims. So far, less than 30 have arrived. Further information about the forms was not available for days. Many refugees questioned whether, if they applied for asylum in Greece, they would be precluded from eventually settling elsewhere in Europe. No one could tell them.

I met a family of 8 from Pakistan who asked me to explain an irregularity on their paperwork. They intended to seek asylum, the father told me (through a young Afghan man kind enough to translate). In response to the question “do you wish to seek asylum in Greece?” on their forms, however, the “No” field had been ticked by the authorities filling them out. This is not the only case of a dismayingly inexplicable error being made, and the CESRT volunteers began a painstaking effort to catalogue these errors by speaking to as many refugees as possible.

The potential consequences of such errors are catastrophic. 4 April had been designated as the day deportations of refugees to Turkey would begin, a date most volunteers presumed would come and go without event such had been the shambolic implementation of the deal thus far. We all hoped that it would pass by. The EU continues to assert that Turkey is a Safe Third Country under the terms of the deal. It is difficult to tally this position with personal encounters with refugees, one of whom told us they would sooner walk their families into the water and drown with them than return to Turkey; another, that he would self-immolate if he were deported.

In spite of this, 202 refugees, 66 from Chios, were deported to Dikili, Turkey, at around 7am that morning. The EU allocated one Frontex officer to each deportee – the only element of the deal that has been even close to adequately resourced. We do not know whether any refugees who were deported had intended to seek asylum. Many refugees had not even had the opportunity to declare their intent by 4 April. Recognising this calamity, the EU promptly halted deportations until more claims could be processed.

Violence, riots, drownings at sea – these are the ways in which refugee crises fleetingly manifest themselves to us when we encounter them in the papers and on TV. On Chios, volunteers glimpse the far more insidious side of this particular tragedy – the indefinite waiting. Having made the months long journey from their conflict-ravaged homes to arrive in Europe, refugees sit and wait. A Syrian shoemaker and father of five who is hoping to benefit from the family relocation program asks me whether I think Finland or Luxembourg would be a better place to live. He already envisions his family’s safe and secure future in Europe. Before that is even a possibility, he and his family will wait for months, months during which he cannot work, his daughters receive no schooling, and his family are gradually stripped of their dignity and humanity.

There are so many others like this. A 20-year-old Afghan man whose father and brother were both killed in conflict and whose mother is counting on him to find asylum in Europe for what remains of his family; a man from Syria whose home in Homs was razed by bombing (along with most of the city) and had no choice but to leave. Both of them, and so many others, will wait for months before they have any idea of whether their asylum claim is approved, let alone where they will finally settle.

Throughout this ordeal the hundreds of refugee children stranded on Chios continued to play and laugh with the volunteers and with one another. Some are too young to know where they are, but many are old enough to understand the gravity of their circumstances. I don’t know where their levels of resilience and perseverance come from, but I know that I don’t have them. Two weeks of volunteering were physically and psychologically draining; the experience these children are going through is simply not fathomable for me. Watching them play and smile, and listen obediently to their parents, in the face of the most extreme adversity, continuously brought to my mind an image of the feral impatience more privileged children are capable of when deprived attention, or made to wait at an airport.

Some of the most affecting contact I had with refugees came when the CESRT decided that we should distribute fresh clothes to those housed in Souda. In pairs, we made the rounds of the refugees’ containers, first to take orders of what each family needed, and the next day to distribute those clothes. Each of these containers is about 30 m2 in area, no bigger than an ordinary shipping container, and holds more than 10 people. They are bare except for rugs and anything the refugees have brought with them. At each container, the families would ask us to enter and sit with them, and offer us coffee, cigarettes and, in one instance, juice boxes from the family’s UNHCR backpack. Often we would politely refuse (not needing a fourth cup of coffee for that hour), but many would not take no for an answer. They would sit and talk with us, share stories, ask where we were from; intent on maintaining the customs of hospitality from their homes, and sharing what little they had with their guests.  Perhaps they did it to maintain sanity and keep a grip on their ordinary lives in such extraordinary circumstances; maybe it was out of respect for custom, or even gratitude that we had brought them clothes. Whatever the reason, I have never seen generosity of that kind before. Europe would be privileged to claim such people as its citizens.

The official-sounding name of the CESRT belies the volunteers that constitute it. Paramedics, nurses, management consultants, academics, journalists, lawyers, social workers, teachers, ordinary individuals from all walks of life. They come from Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, England, the Czech Republic, from all over Europe and beyond, brought together via Facebook and WhatsApp. And yet 24 hours a day, they continue to do the work in this crisis that no one else is doing, and to fill gaps that one would presume the authorities would prioritise. These volunteers are some of the most tireless, resourceful, practical and compassionate people that I have met. In combination, those qualities work miracles. I am truly privileged to have worked with and learned from them. The stranded refugees are evidence of what Europe has become; the volunteers are a reminder of what it still can be.