Ms Danou, Director of Vial Reception and Identification Centre on the island of Chios, Greece, is not the first public official to resort to absurd rhetoric. She is far outmatched by the likes of Donald Trump (‘I don’t get along with rich people. I get along with the middle class and the poor people much better…’), Boris Johnson (accusing Papua New Guinea of ‘cannibalism and chief-killing’) and even Björn Höcke (‘Let us not forget, the Syrian who comes to us has still his Syria… But if we lose our Germany, then we have no more home!’).
But when in a meeting on 20th July 2018 the Director pleaded, ‘Vial is our home', it seemed like she wished to join the shortlist for BuzzFeed's top-ten political gaffs of 21st century.
Attended by NGOs and volunteer groups working tirelessly on Chios, the new Director of Vial at first seemed to promise good news: closer collaboration between authorities and NGOs, greater transparency, a direct line of communication with First Reception, and a degree of acknowledgement that we have to work together, recognising the gravity of the situation, to improve the dire conditions of the camp.
But when pressed on the matter of gaining access to Vial for NGO workers, there was disappointment. Lawyers were still not to access clients; distributors were still not to enter inside; educators were still not have appropriate avenues to register vulnerable groups. The perimeter would remain guarded by police and inaccessible to outside eyes.
Nevertheless, some change was set in motion, so much so that organisations have been able to run informal activities on the camp’s small football space since. Indeed, the organisation of which I am a part managed to run several events in Vial, including a successful football competition, talent show, samba performance and children’s fête.
But, as I’ve recently reported, we were soon disappointed, when contacted by the Director last week and instructed to remove a photo of the conditions of the camp. They wished to remove the offensive sight of tents, barely-lit toilet facilities, rubbish skips in the middle of residences and tarpaulin strung up between trees. They wished us to remove the context of our event, it’s raison d’être, its value.
Let us be clear: the events we have run in Vial are not holiday games. They are an attempt to make up for the lack of pastoral, psychological and social care organisations in Vial provide.
Why was our photo so offensive? It might be because the Director still considers Vial a shared ‘home’, one that is private and clearly has no need to be held up to public scrutiny or to be accountable to anyone other than her team. The rhetoric of a ‘home’ is a clever excuse for doing away with all these.
In the meeting, the Director explained to us that, like our own homes, we don't just allow anyone inside. Vial is our home and only those who live there can come inside. If you were a parent, you wouldn’t let strangers come inside a place where your children live. Vial is our home.
It is interesting to note the semantic slippage between her use of ‘home’ and First Reception’s official language, which elsewhere calls the site a ‘Hellenic Police Identification Centre’. For greater comparison still, take a look at the Google Maps reviews of Vial, where users most frequently associate with it the word ‘prison’.
But if it is indeed a ‘home’, one wonders at the proliferation of rodents and rubbish, the routine police brutality, intimidation tactics and seizure of personal possessions, the absence of locks from doors, theft, frequent electricity and water shortages, lack of wifi, the absence of appropriate medical facilities and transport to shops services, the inability to cook, to go to school, to work…
Ms Danou’s use of the plural ‘our’ is particularly outrageous. If Vial is her ‘home’ too, then she is blessed to be a second home owner, for she goes from ‘home’ to home every afternoon, where she no doubt has television, internet access, transport, a fridge, an oven, a bed and maybe even her very own shower.
Luxuries, you cry! And all the more so when you consider how this Director has been on Chios a far, far shorter time than many of those living in Vial. Her access to such ‘luxuries’ throws into sharp relief the desperate realities of camp - or should I say ‘home’ - life.
Voluntary organisations are not invited into her apparent 'first' home. Instead, we are met at the door with shouts, threats of arrest, intimidation and a closed door. This is, as Ms Danou has explained, because ‘Vial is our home’. She is protecting the children and adults inside.
Forget the absurd rhetoric of ‘home’ and a policy that manages movement in and out of the camp on the basis of public protection rather than domestic privacy remains sensible. Indeed, it is not the closed-door policy itself that raises cause for questioning, but rather its inconsistent implementation.
For whilst NGO workers aren’t allowed inside Vial, the management of the camp pays no attention to a whole fleet of motorbike-riding coffee deliverymen who ferry coffees to the staff working inside the Centre all day, every day. These unchecked, unregulated and unauthorised freddo-espresso-carrying drivers have remarkably free and ready access to the camp.
This leads me to the following dilemma. First Reception either:
puts their own right to coffee over the rights to protection and safe-guarding of refugees and asylum-seekers; or
arbitrarily enforces a policy that is aimed not at protection but at keeping a situation hidden from those who might reveal its darker secrets.
This issue of coffee-delivery is a scandal. It is an invasion into the ‘home’ and private space of asylum-seekers in the care of First Reception. Like NGO workers, who knows if these coffee drivers mean harm or good? Will they observe a speed limit? Watch out for unattended children? Will they provide underhand aid and voluntary help - God help us! Will they deliver racist remarks or commit violent action?
The point is that we do not know. And, on the assumption that First Reception takes their safe-guarding seriously, their prioritisation of coffee over care, of doughnuts over due diligence is as worrying as it is infuriating.
Ms Danou is wrong to call Vial a ‘home’ and to include herself amongst its residents. Until she foregoes her rights and experiences it first-hand for a day, a week, a month, a year, such rhetoric is at best naïve and at worst dangerously disingenuous. Vial remains a de facto detention centre, which under Ms Danou’s caffeinated watch, continues to fail vulnerable communities seeking protection on European soil.