The Aegean islands are at breaking point. Spread across five islands — Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros — over 11,000 asylum-seekers wait to be transferred to mainland Greece. They wait in detention centres, ‘hotspots’ and make-shift camps, afforded only restricted access to transport, sanitation, food, medical support and their dignity.
On returning to Chios after 3 months away, the changes are stark. My own return coincides with the final eviction of Souda Camp, a non-governmental camp situated in the centre of the port town of Chios. At times, over 1000 asylum-seekers lived beneath the shadow of the town’s castle walls. With the final eviction of its last 60 residents early in the morning of 21st October, this port town might now claim itself ‘free’ from the perceived nuisances of such embarrassingly close proximity to the continuing humanitarian crisis.
But out of sight is not out of mind. These residents, along with the 435 refugees that have arrived in the last 72 hours now find themselves crammed into Vial Camp, the governmental, army-run facility 10 kilometres away. Hidden in the mountains, access is controlled and most NGOs are not permitted to enter. With an intended capacity of 1100, Vial Camp currently contains close to 2000 asylum-seekers. Recently, video footage shared by Chios Solidarity exposed the horrendous conditions of the camp. You can watch it here.
Earlier this week, one young woman gave birth. With no ambulance available, she delivered her baby on the floor of her tent, without any medical aid or attention.
But in Moria Camp, Lesvos, and in Vathy, Samos, the situations are even worse. On these islands, such were the abominable conditions that the Greek government this week announced plans to transport 2000 of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers on Lesvos and Samos to the mainland. This mass movement of people is a much-needed step in the right direction.
Since the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, the Aegean islands have been prisons for the thousands trying to reach Europe. These prisons witness suicides, riots, mental health crises and a fundamental retraction of basic human rights. Last winter, efforts to ‘winterise’ the camps failed systematically, with young and old dying from hypothermia in the camps. As winter approaches once again, last Sunday, the body of a 5-year-old girl was found in Moria Camp, Lesvos. She died from underlying medical conditions aggravated by the cold, the damp, and the denial of access to the medical attention that was the very reason her family came to Europe.
As the weather turns, over 100 solidarity groups and NGOs on the Aegean islands have signed an open letter calling upon the Greek government of Alexis Tsipras to take steps, transparently and immediately, to avoid a repeat of last year’s horrific winter conditions.
The campaign #opentheislands is signed by a powerful force of actors across Europe who have worked to fill the gaps left by governments and the EU.
As I walk around the town of Chios, streets, sidewalks and cafes that have been the haunts of asylum-seekers for many months are rediscovered by Greek locals. Today, old men shuffled back into the plastic chairs outside the bus station on the port, opening backgammon boards hidden away whilst refugees spent the day in the cafe’s inexpensive shade.
But the new lease of life this town might feel at having Souda Camp finally closed comes at a great cost to those suffering in the mountains a short drive away.
Meanwhile, vast swathes of UNHCR canvas have appeared in Vial Camp as its newest residents fight for room. Around me, shocked volunteers cry, ‘How can this be happening in Europe?’ We have sold ourselves a lie. This is the reality. It is this frayed border of Europe that best reveals the truth, that #ThisIsEurope.