Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Trapped (Εγκλωβισμένοι)

All photos and links come from Haniotika Nea. More photos are found in each link mentioned.

On the 31st of March, 2014, 345 people of undefined status were picked up in the sea 70km off the small harbour of Paelohora, a summer resort town on the south-western coast of the Mediterranean island of Crete. The rotten rusty leaky boat they were travelling on was towed by an oil tanker that was in the general area of the Libyan Sea, which the boat people boarded.

These people carried similar hopes and dreams of entering Europe as many others who have traveled in a similar way before them. Their quest: to seek a better life, like the many people all over the world who move from one place to another, both within their own countries and beyond their borders. Among them were women and minors whose ages could not be determined on sight. Their arrival coincided with claims by Médecins Sans Frontières that "Migrants face 'living hell' in Greek detention", as reported by the Guardian. Their arrival also coincided with the start of the tourist season in Hania, and the first charter flight to the region.

The boat people arrive in Paleohora

What do you do with 345 people who have nowhere to go in a foreign country? Only the state can get involved at an initial stage. Only the state has the right to be involved. The status of these people has to be determined, their health must be checked, their nationality must be verified, their reasons for finding themselves in this predicament must also be ascertained. At the same time, food and accommodation must be secured for them. It is not the job of the individual residents, nor should any of these actions be viewed as a form of goodwill. The problem of smuggling people into another country is a global one, and there are international laws which govern it.

Despite their undefined status and unexpected arrival, these people need to be accommodated in some way. There was no public space big enough to put them up in Paleohora. The hotels there are nearly all small family-owned businesses; they were empty at the time, but in all fairness, their use does not extend to providing free accommodation out of solidarity, nor should the state be paying such businesses to cater for the needs of unauthorised people in the country. The issue of where such people are accommodated, even temporarily, is a contentious one: no one really wants these people in their back yards, so to speak.

From Paleohora, they were transferred to EMEX, a centre which houses exhibitions in Hania, mainly of an agricultural/culinary nature, as well as the local water board, located in lush countryside with orange orchards and olive groves, about 10 minutes out of the town centre. (EMEX also happens to neighbour the long-standing minimum-security agricultural prison where low-risk prisoners are often seen outside the complex under guarded conditions working on the land; it is also close to the recently opened maximum-security prison.)

Local authorities and volunteer associations were all involved in the organisation of temporary accommodation facilities for the arrivals.

Bedding donated by various associations (a lot is most likely made in one of a number of local SMEs producing mattresses for the town's tourist industry - they are replaced regularly by large hotels, and the old ones are donated to those in need), chemical toilets, heaters and separate women-and-children quarters (for privacy) were set up for them by the local Red Cross and Samaritan groups. INKA supermarket, the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh), the old people's retirement home (a state institution in Hania), the Orthodox Academy in Kolimbari (a religious-based unit) and the NATO Missile Firing Installation in Akrotiri offered their kitchen services (they each cooked an extra number of meals to make up the portions required), while the local state authorities, including Doctors of the World, began the Herculean task of working out who is who (smuggler, refugee or opportunist), which country they come from, and who needs medical attention.

The issue of how this leaky boat ended up in Cretan waters is also under scrutiny: it had first sent a distress signal from the sea zone of Malta, which begs the question about who 'pushed' it into Greek waters. While the state bodies did their utmost to meet the arrivals' immediate physical needs, Steki Metanaston (one of a number of anti-fascist, anti-racist groups in Hania, which has a very well-organised left-wing political climate in this respect, hence attacks of the Golden Dawn nature are practically non-existent in Hania) expressed the view that the state was 'unprepared' for this incident, since it treats migrants as 'illegals' and 'without rights', and the accommodation provided for these people was inappropriate. (You can find out more about their manifestos in this article, including discussion of the Dublin II treaty.) The various police associations of the island also complained about the diversion of all forces towards the guarding of the accommodation quarters of the migrants, potentially leaving the island unsecured; many officers worked throughout the two days needed to sort the migrants into groups, without adequate rest and nourishment. At the same time that this was going on, in Iraklio (the biggest city in Crete), a people-smuggler's ring was broken.

It is believed that the group consisted of mainly Egyptians (approximately 2/3), who will face deportation, while a large number of Syrians (not the complete remaining third) will not, as they are considered possible victims of a warzone, therefore, they may apply for political asylum. 6 smugglers were identified among them.

People who try to enter a country illegally are also organised in their own way, to meet their own demands. Three days after arriving in Hania, the Egyptians in the group decide to go on a hunger strike because they face the threat of deportation, also refusing to sign documents that stated their undefined status. The hunger strike did not last long, but the Egyptians continue to be held at EMEX, while the Syrians were given a document stating that they have 6 months to leave the country if their status remains undetermined.

Some of the more vulnerable Syrians were then removed from EMEX and taken to a hotel in the town, where they were allowed to stay until Monday (ie a week after their arrival); the others were looked after by the Rosa Nera squat (another strongly rooted left-wing organisation in Hania). No provision was made for the food needs of those who were dismissed from EMEX. It's cold and wet at the moment in Hania - where do these people go once they leave the hotel?! But that is not the worst of it: these people can apply for refugee status only in Athens, not Hania... but they are not allowed to travel to Athens as people of undetermined status, because Athens (together with the regions of Kerkira because it close to Albania, Thesprotia because it neighbours Kerkira, and Axaia because of the port area in Patras) is considered a Greek 'departure gate' - therefore, they may not go there because they may attempt to enter another country illegally... and Northern Europe doesn't want any more illegals in their countries... which are often blamed on Greece's incapability of dealing with issue... which is why Greece wants to pull out of the Dublin treaties (which state that illegal arrivals in the EU must be returned to the EU country where they first entered the EU... which is more often than not Spain, Italy and Greece).

And the icing on the cake: if these arrivals apply for refugee status in Greece, they will not be able to go to another EU country until they are given that status, which they may not get from the Greek authorities, and even if they do eventually get it, it will take years - Greece is often slammed for not dealing with this issue very quickly, and for not issuing such a status to most of the applicants. This also applies to other EU countries, as well as non-EU countries - no country hands out refugee status that easily. The paradox in the present situation is that it is highly unlikely that any of the boat people actually want to stay in Greece: they want to go elsewhere (their most likely destination while on that leaky boat was in fact Italy). There is a more pressing need right now: their status in Greece needs to be determined. Right now, they basically have a kind of non-status... leaving them, for all intents and purposes... trapped.

Boat people were rare in Greece before the barbed wire wall was put up between Turkey and Greece, which effectively stopped illegals arriving in Greece on foot. Some drowned in the freezing Evros river, but the wall basically meant that the only entry point to the Promised Land (aka the EU) was by sea. So the recent arrivals in Hania are effectively trapped here, and will be illegal residents in 6 months' time, unless they are offered another solution.

I wondered what would happen to these people after Monday when their hotel stay expires. I am pretty sure that these people will not be sleeping on the streets of Hania during that time, as their food and accommodation needs will be met somehow. In fact, this is what happened: churches, schools and local bodies collected clothing and food, while their hotel stay was extended: another two overnight stays will be paid for by the local authorities. (NB: the state said it could only afford to pay for one night.) In the meantime, the Egyptians seem to have disappeared overnight - no doubt, they were transferred to a holding centre in Iraklio, where they would eventually be boarded on the overnight ferry boat to Athens, from where they will eventually be deported.

Photo of two Syrian children: from
The number of minors on board that leaky boat was estimated at 107 - a huge number given that there were 345 people in total. Just 5 were from Syria and the other 102 were Egyptian. For the time being, they will not be deported: instead, they will be taken to various holding centres for minors in Athens, Thessaloniki and Crete. The accounts of members of the local authorities that are directly involved in the case are enlightening:
"... you try to find relatives of the first or second degree living legally in Europe, who want to get their children back to have a family reunion. The children from Syria have some relatives living legally in Germany and are likely to go there. The procedures may last for 1-2 months, but eventually the children will go where they want..."
"...Two shocking facts that I will never forget during these eight days in the holding center for the immigrants are: A boy from Egypt, who asked me anxiously if, at the guest house where he will be hosted, he will be able to go to school, because that was his dream. And all five children from Syria, on opening their suitcase, pulled out of it, not games, but the Syrian flag, which they hoisted..."
"... We hope to stop this tragedy... And we become better as individuals and as a state, we cannot close our eyes to them and sweep these problems under the carpet..."
From these accounts, it is clear that most of the local people want to see these arrivals being helped in some way... but most people cannot provide the help themselves. The above newspaper report shows both feelings of solidarity towards these people's plight, and the typical lackadaisical nature of Greek decision-making. 339 unexpected strangers needing hospitality is a lot to handle in one go. It's not easy to take them into our homes and it's not easy to feed them either. Above all, it is not the job of an individual, whether a person or a private organisation: it's the job of the state, as dictated by international laws.

As an example of what I am trying to say, I will use the provision of meals to illustrate my point. My workplace (MAICh, which was also involved in the provision of meals for the boat people) will be staging a dinner during Holy Week (next week) as an act of solidarity towards vulnerable social groups in Hania. This move is symbolic - many of our students are from the general areas of the countries where the recent arrivals are from. Naturally, the institute would want to keep its doors open to vulnerable groups on all days of the year, not just on festive days, and not as a one-off occasion. This comes at a time when the institute has had its state funding cut, and it faces its own financing dilemmas. But at the same time, it has expressed that it is open to collaborations with other organizations of the city.

This may all sound as though it goes against the principle of Greek hospitality, but it also goes against the international laws often created by countries who make war (in both the literal and figurative sense), leaving refugees in other countries, who are then distributed among yet other countries that are not necessarily well equipped to look after the needs of their own people, let alone strangers. The countries that have the luxury of distance, and therefore do not have to deal in any way with the immediate problems of these unfortunate people, are no better in the way they handle them: the so-called developed nations of the world do not accept so many refugees as may be believed by refugees themselves, nor are those countires in a rush to change their laws so that they can accept more. Take New Zealand for example: it accepts 700 refugees per year - that's a couple of boat loads of the size that arrived overnight in Hania last week. As I write this, an unconfirmed sighting of yet another boat in Greek waters is being checked, this time near the island of Kithira - that's not far from Crete...

I will end this post with a quote from Athens - The Truth" by David Cade:
‘Do you think we are racists?’ I (David Cade) say I’ve no idea, that I’d just like to know what she (a Greek psychologist) thinks. She replies that there are two definitions of racism: one that belongs to countries like the United States, the UK, and France, and one that is more general and appropriate for countries like Greece and Italy. Greece, she reminds me, is not like Britain, France, Spain, and other countries which have gone out all over the globe in recent centuries and conquered and colonised other lands. In her opinion, Greece’s problem is that as a member of the EU it’s being forced to wrestle with a definition that is only appropriate to countries where racism describes the treating of members of an invited resident race as inferior. But this definition can’t be applied in a country where immigrants arrive uninvited and unwanted. Greeks, Chryssoúla says, can’t be described as racist because they really don’t think of immigrants as being inferior. She reminds me that Greece is famed for its traditional philoxenía, its hospitality or, literally, its love of strangers, and she tells me many Greeks have given much help to immigrants, particularly by providing food and clothing when they turn up on the islands. And, indeed, I’ve witnessed several Greek restaurant owners giving food free to immigrants who simply stop and ask for it. So Greeks are well-disposed to visitors but draw the line at those people seeking to populate their country without permission or invitation. ‘To your country,’ she says, meaning the UK, ‘your government invited many people from India, from Uganda, and the Caribbean. To invite them and then to treat them badly, now that is racism! But to not invite immigrants and to not wish that they force themselves upon your country, that cannot be called racism!"
Just a thought. I think my country and her people are doing what ever they can for these people. And now, it's time the countries that created the status of these people also pulled their weight. It is heartening to know that, despite Helena Smith's sensationally headlined article being placed prominently on the Guardian website when it was first published, of the 1269 comments made on the article, the overwhelmingly majority are pro-Greece. As a commentator pointed out:
"It is sensationalist and shameful to be writing such articles, demonising a country, as if all of us, here in the UK and throughout the EU have nothing to do with it! Move the UK where Greece is, geographically, and then tell me how it feels like to be inundated by the world's most desperate people from every border, at the same time as the majority of your people is descending deeper in poverty and misery."
UPDATE 11/4/2014 - This report appeared in today's Haniotika Nea:
"The Syrian immigrants who are still being hosted at a hotel in Nea Hora (a suburb of Hania) are asking for help to leave Greece to go to European countries where they have relatives and the laws are more friendly to refugees. Speaking briefly before the local media, the migrants thanked all the Greeks who stood by them during their stay in Hania but also indicated that they had meant to go to neighboring Italy, and from there to other European cities. Among the Syrians are many children and minors with their parents who traveled to escape the flames of war."

If anyone thinks that Greece should be wasting her resources ascertaining the status of these people who don't want to stay here, they are completely deluded.

UPDATE: A month later, the Syrians are well and truly trapped in Hania.

UPDATE 1/8/2014A solution was proposed by judicial order for the Syrians to be moved into the old psychiatric unit (close to my work place) that is no longer used. This was countered by the local hospital administration which still holds authority over the old premises, who stated that the buildings have not been cleaned for over a decade since they stopped being used, the water/electric facilities are not operating, there are no safety mechanisms, and the premises are basically uninhabitable in their present state. It  looks like the Syrians are well and truly stuck here without any options.

UPDATE 8/8/2014: The story of the Syrian refugees' stay in Hania ends tonight: "On the initiative of the Regional Government, a solution was found, regarding the Syrian refugees remaining in Chania for four months. Of the remaining refugees who do not exceed 70 in number, they will be given tickets to leave for Athens today. There will be an attempt to take them to camps for political refugees. It should be noted that of the [original] 140, many Syrians have managed recently in different ways to leave the country and go to Northern European countries where they have relatives and friends." This is the first time that the newspaper has reported the departure of the 'trapped' refugees. In essence, where there is a will, there is a way.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.