Despair in Europe’s refugee camps

Refugees sit around a fire in Idomeni refugee camp, on the Greek-Macedonian border.
March 31, 2017

One year after European Union leaders signed a deal with the Turkish government to cut off the wave of desperate refugees seeking to reach Europe’s shores, the policy has caused even more death and suffering.

As of March 14, nearly 20,000 refugees and migrants had arrived in Europe this year after making the desperate trip across the Mediterranean Sea, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project. That is a sharp drop compared to the same period last year, when more than 152,700 people entered Europe.

Yet the number of migrant and refugee deaths has actually risen — as a direct consequence of EU governments clamping down on their borders, forcing refugees into ever-more-dangerous crossings. As of March 14, 525 migrants and refugees had been killed or gone missing this year, while 482 were reported killed or missing in the first 73 days last year.

Under last year’s deal, the repressive regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was given billions in aid, ostensibly for the refugees, and promised faster progress in Turkey's negotiations to join the EU. In exchange, Turkey agreed to take in undocumented refugees arriving in Greece.

For each refugee sent to Turkey, the EU promised to take in a refugee directly from Turkey’s camps at some point in the future. As a result, just under 1000 refugees have been deported to Turkey from Greece.

Abysmal conditions

But thousands more already in Greece have been stranded in a kind of legal limbo resulting from EU leaders’ unwillingness to let them in. They are stuck in abysmal conditions in prison camps.

“Many of the camps are overcrowded and there are frequent clashes, with those inside tired of the long wait for asylum papers and fearful of being returned to Turkey,” Agence France-Presse reported on March 19. “On Lesbos, there are nearly 5000 people in camps nominally built to hold 3500, according to government figures.”

Those in the camps also face repeated police brutality.

But that did not stop European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos from hailing the EU-Turkey deal as a success because it has cut the number of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from about 10,000 a day to less than 100 a day.

Images from the camps in Greece showed refugees living in tents amid heavy snow during winter. In January, three people in the overcrowded Moria camp on Lesbos died within six days — possibly from carbon monoxide poisoning from the wood-burning stoves detainees are forced to use to keep warm.

“During the four months I have been here, I have not been interviewed once, and they [authorities] keep postponing [my interview],” Arash, an asylum seeker from Iran, told Human Rights Watch in February.

Driven to despair by the detention and suffering from nightmares he says resulted from torture in Iran, Arash tried to visit the camp psychologist, but was told there was a long waiting list. Arash later attempted suicide.

A fire inside the Moria camp in September burned many refugee families’ meagre belongings and tents. Fahim — who had travelled from Afghanistan — explained how dire the situation was to the aid organisation Save the Children: “People here are so sick of the situation. Every single person is suffocating.

“Because we've been here so long our minds are decaying, they become rotten from within ... This whole place is a ticking time bomb and I don't think anyone is paying attention.”

Children

According to Save the Children, the appalling conditions in the camps are psychologically devastating for the estimated 5000 children who remain in them. Its report, A Tide of Self-Harm and Depression, documents a spike in children harming themselves and displaying other signs of psychological trauma in the camps.

“The EU-Turkey deal was meant to end the flow of ‘irregular migrants’ to Greece, but at what cost?” asked Andreas Ring, humanitarian representative for Save the Children in Greece.

“Many of these children have escaped war and conflict, only to end up in camps many of them call ‘hell,’ and where they say they are made to feel more like animals than humans. If conditions remain unchanged, we could end up with a generation of numb children who think violence is normal.”

Some children have found ways to leave the island with smugglers in the hope of reaching the EU — only to find themselves victimised again.

According to a recent report from the EU’s criminal agency Europol, about 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared after arriving in Europe — many thought to be victims of human trafficking.

Refugees are caught in an impossible situation. For many, the choice is stark: risking life and limb in the increasingly slim hope of making it to Europe or staying at home, where the threat of war, repression and other catastrophes in countries such as Syria may be an even bigger threat.

Obscenely, the lack of decent treatment for refugees is by design. “It sends a message to migrants: Do not come,” Dimitris Christopoulos, president of the International Federation for Human Rights, told the New York Times.

Anti-refugee sentiment

Now, refugees are being cynically exploited by international leaders. Leading the way is US President Donald Trump, who has demonised Muslim immigrants and refugees in particular as a terrorist threat.

But it should be remembered that the stage was set by former president Barack Obama — whose administration took in a pitiful number of refugees, despite the fact that US imperial policies have been a major driver of the refugee crises.

Anti-refugee sentiment has been whipped up by far-right parties across the EU — like Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France.

Jane Collins, spokesperson for the far-right UK Independence Party, recently sneered: “There needs to be a strong message sent out that we will be turning back boats from whence they came.”

But the response from centrist politicians has been predictably craven as well. Fearing a surge of the far right at the polls, political leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have not only failed to defend the rights of migrants and refugees, but have capitulated to racist scapegoating in an effort to shore up their political base.

In Italy, where more than 500,000 refugees and migrants have landed over the past three years, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of the centre-left Democratic Party has pledged to crack down. He reportedly sent out a directive to police stations across Italy to increase deportations. The government has also announced plans to open 16 new migrant detention centres.

Merkel was hailed as a “hero” for maintaining her composure when Trump refused to shake her hand last month. But the woman being hailed as the new “leader of the free world” engaged in textbook immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia as she launched her bid for a fourth term as chancellor.

At the annual conference of the centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU), Merkel “pledged that not all of the more than 1 million migrants who flooded into the country last year would be allowed to stay, and that those who are will have to integrate into German society,” reported Britain’s Telegraph.

Reportedly, Merkel’s call for a ban on the burqa won the loudest applause from delegates. “Showing your face is part of our way of life,” Merkel said, adding, “Our laws take precedence over honour codes, tribal customs and sharia.”

But if the politics on offer from Europe’s political leaders are centred on racism and scapegoating, others are fighting for a different vision — exemplified by the call to smash Fortress Europe by opening the borders and letting the migrants and refugees in.

Solidarity

That was on display on March 18-19, when marches and rallies took place in several cities across Europe to coincide with UN Anti-Racism Day. In London, Glasgow, Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen, Athens, Paris and others, thousands marched and embraced refugee and migrant rights as central demands. Demonstrators also posed broader opposition to the nationalism of right-wing politicians like Trump and the vicious racism of far-right forces.

In Lesbos, refugees themselves took the lead in a protest of 2000 people. They marched against racist persecution and specifically opposing the deal between Turkey and the EU that has amplified the suffering for so many. “Shut down Moria” was one of the main calls.

In Athens, about 15,000 took to the streets, including Syrian and Afghan refugees.

In Britain, about 30,000 turned out in London for a march against racism, war and poverty, and in defence of refugee rights. Anti-racist supporters carried signs that read “Migrants make our [National Health Service]” and “Blame austerity, not migrants”.

Zakariya Cochrane of Stand Up to Racism, the group that called the march, told Press TV that the rally was about “anti-racists uniting and going on the defensive on all the issues: child refugees, defending migrants and refugees, the divisive policies of Donald Trump and Theresa May.”

These protests came on the heels of a February demonstration in Barcelona, which drew more than 160,000 calling on the government to allow refugees in. On banners and signs, marchers proclaimed: “Enough excuses; Let them in now.”

That kind of solidarity has to be our guiding principle. Defend the refugees and end their suffering. Open the borders and let them in now.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Issue