The students I’m working with on a journalism project have chosen to make a newspaper called Vial Life, a one-off publication exposing the awful living conditions endured by those inside Chios’ hidden refugee camp.
Police guard the camp’s perimeter, patrolling the barbed wire fences that keep asylum-seekers in and the prying eyes of journalists out. As one of the student journalists noted, ‘Why do they keep out journalists, unless they have something to hide?’
And he’s right. The authorities are desperate to hide the shameful and illegal conditions prevalent in this old, converted steal factory.
The students making the newspaper focus on the food - ‘not fit for animals let alone humans’ - and on the housing - overcrowded containers; improvised tarpaulin shelters; two-man tents sleeping families and all their worldly possessions. Everywhere, damp clothes and blankets hang from fences, chairs and washing lines, drenched again and again by the increasingly frequent storms hitting the island as we head into winter.
Outside the barbed wire, new tents spring up daily in the surrounding forests and fields. In scenes that recall the woods of Calais and Dunkirk, new arrivals warm themselves by open fires, trekking through mud to access the government and UNHCR facilities that are well above capacity.
One morning, whilst gathering an opinion poll from amongst their classmates, they tell me of the queues that form in the 4 o’ clock darkness before dawn, by those waiting for the morning’s water and food distribution: an unvarying diet of packaged croissant and cartoned juice with straw. Later, lunch amasses similar queues and the consistent promise of dry rice, pasta, or a hard-boiled egg.
Many reject this food in protest of its inadequacy, instead cooking for themselves by what simple means they have at their disposal.
This is the backdrop on which the political games and legal violations play out for 2500 refugees. Only this week, efforts to expand the camp, to bring in more containers - boasting, if not heating or privacy, then at least a solid roof - have been forestalled by residents of the neighbouring village of Χαλκιοσ. This injunction, part of a political game to put pressure on the national government to find an alternative location for Chios’ refugees, condemns this marginalised community to a freezing winter, reliant on canvas and cardboard for cover. Pending this appeal on January 21st - many bitter weeks away - much-needed containers lie in wait just meters from the camp, inaccessible to those that not only have a desperate need them for them, but have a universally-recognised right to them.
All this while, 1000 children on the island have their rights continuously violated. Without adequate access to education, legal support and social services, they are often subject to the violent force of the ‘law’.
On Tuesday of this week, a 10-year-old boy was severely and physically abused by a Greek Special Police Officer. The child, passively protesting his temporary school suspension by blocking a bus, was approached and in the first instance kicked powerfully by the officer. With no prior warning or attempt to remove the child by other means, he was lifted off the ground, before crumpling in a heap, bloodied by the incident.
Blatantly, in front of many school children, NGO workers, officers of the law, and refugees, this sickening act of abuse was carried out without a second thought and without repercussion.
Witnessing it myself, just meters away, was not only personally traumatic, but scary: scary that the perceived and actual power felt by those maintaining ‘order’ emboldens police to act with a sense of immunity. It raises further worrying questions about more private acts of abuse that take place behind closed doors and the closed gates of the camp.
Meanwhile, for the students making Vial Life, being spokesmen for their own situation is not just a school activity, as it would be in any average school. Rather, it is a protest against the governments, the UN, and the media who continue failing to uphold their most basic rights.