The Gates of Europe: One Month in a Refugee Camp

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At 2:42 AM I opened Facebook; I had just arrived back at the apartment from a birthday party of one of the older guys in the Port Crew. The latest message read: “35 is just arriving at pantali I drive with them now to Lakki if someone is awake, they may come down to Lakki for help thank u ✌”.Somehow, I was still clothed, so I got out of bed and drove my trusty rental scooter down to Panteli Beach.

At around 3 AM, we arrived at the camp where the refugees were placed in the detention area so they could be processed in the morning. I took out my headlight since most of the camp runs without electricity, which was when I got my first glance of the group of refugees. They looked well to do and spoke Arabic, so they were most likely Syrians. This was good, since they probably had enough food and water before they set out on their boats and were not at immediate risk of dehydration. However, all of them were completely soaked, in the middle of winter, albeit the extremely mild Greek winter.

The police had left one guard to make sure they did not leave the tent and there were two other volunteers who both spoke Arabic. Since I was part of the Port Crew, I had access to the emergency supplies. I went to get two blankets, three cookies and one bottle of water per person. They all thanked me, but they were obviously still very cold. None of them seemed to need any immediate medical attention, so that was good. Therefore, I figured that at that time there was not much more I could do for them; they would have to tough it out until the morning. At this point it was 5:30 AM and I had a morning shift starting at 7 AM. Wanting to sleep as much as possible I just slept in the van for about an hour, getting ready for another day of hard work.

During the Christmas vacation in 2015, I went to Greece to volunteer in the refugee camps for about a month. The willingness to go help in the refugee camps did not grow out of any beautiful ideals like altruism, but was rather a coincidence. In order to bolster my resume in a unique way, .I randomly asked everybody I knew if they knew about any volunteering spots. Although I got many positive replies,  none fit into my schedule. Then when I asked my roommate, she said: “Wait, I think my aunt did something with refugees.” I sent a few e-mails and one phone call later, I had suddenly obligated myself to go Greece for about a month during the Christmas vacation. Then I pushed it out of my mind for the remaining two months.

At this time, I knew very little about the refugee crisis, so I started researching it. Sure, we had all heard about ISIS at that point and about the millions of refugees in Germany, but that was about all I knew. The short version is that there are many different groups fighting for different things supported by different great powers. However, they have one thing in common: they are all fighting in Syria. If you are interested in a more detailed explanation of the Syrian Civil War, I would recommend watching the 6 minute video Syria’s war: Who is fighting and why by Vox on YouTube.

The biggest victim is the average Syrian citizen: their homes are being destroyed by fighting and airstrikes from the US, Russia and many others. Their sons are forcefully conscripted by all sides of the conflict and if they do not join their family will be murdered. The economy is in shambles and there is no truly safe region left in the country. If your home is destroyed, nowhere in your country feels safe, where do you go? For most refugees, even now,  this means Turkey, where as of late last August there are 2,726,980 refugees according to the Turkish government . Of these people, 90% does not live in traditional refugee camps, which means that they largely have to fend for themselves. There are NGOs helping this huge exiled population but they can only do so much. These people have no or very poorly paying jobs with children more often than not having to work to make sure their family stays fed and warm during the winters. Most refugees in Turkey have lost hope, but there is only one option if they want to change their situation, go back to Syria. However, before the gates of Europe closed, they could instead move on towards the European Union.

After making the decision to go the European Union, the refugees first have to travel to western Turkey with the help of the human smugglers. The central hub of Turkish smugglers is in the city of Izmir, the third-most populous and western-most city of Turkey. After buying a smuggling package they are transported to places along the coast from where they are taken to one of the Aegean Islands. Most of the people doing the actual smuggling are  refugees themselves; these are the people who could not afford the price to be smuggled to the EU and earn their crossing this way. The people actually receiving the money, paying for the boats and the non-functioning life vests are the Turkish organised crime. The price of the crossing depends mainly on the weather and ranges from 400 to 800 euros per person with half price for children. Pictures of how cramped those boats are, have been widely circulated by mainstream news. Just remember that this was and still is common, as the smugglers want to maximise their profit. They do not care about the safety and the survival of their clients as they are paid up front.

For the people coming to Leros, the island where I was volunteering, the journey began from the coast near the city of Didim. They were taken to coast where the boats were all prepared, everybody received a non-functioning life vest and they embarked on the boats. If the refugee felt unsafe going on the boat and did not get in they would lose all their money since they would not get a refund. Then the boats arrived at the tiny island of Farmakonisi, a military island with about ten soldiers permanently stationed there. The soldiers would round up all the refugees and put them in a small, rocky, fenced-in area with one building without windows, a door and just half of the roof. The refugees were usually held  for one to two days but with bad weather they could be stuck there for five days. The soldiers never gave them food and water except during emergencies. Then the Vos Grace or the Illias would pick them up. The Vos Grace is a big search and rescue ship from the UK which has a capacity of 350 refugees, medical staff, a Frontex detachment and about eight Royal Marines in full combat gear. The Illias is a small ferry with a capacity of sixty refugees and none of the previous amenities. The Greek government  has paid them handsomely for this transportation.

Source: modified from Google Maps

After being picked up by these boats, the refugees would be taken to Leros, an island in the Aegean Sea with 7917 inhabitants during the 2011 census with barely thirty police officers between them, even including the reinforcements from the mainland. The camp was in the town of Lakki, close to the biggest port of the island. The camp itself consisted of two old warehouses (which gave a few volunteers a nasty fungal lung infection), about fifteen small tents, one larger tent, the big processing tent, basic hygiene facilities and the Doctors Without Borders building. All of this was fitted in an area smaller than the Grote Markt. There was an official capacity of 1000 refugees which would be a tight fit in ideal circumstances. Sadly enough, sometimes we were above capacity by quite a lot of people, one night even getting close to 1600 refugees. When this happened, all the single men were forced to sleep outside on the gravel. Even in the tents, the only things that separated the refugees from the gravel were wood pallets, some tarp and an extremely thin personal mat and blanket, both provided by the UNCHR. A portion of the people had to sleep in the mould-infested warehouse which apparently could cause fungal lung infections.

My duties consisted of manning the port where the Vos Grace and Illias dropped the refugees. Imaginatively, we were called the Port Crew. Since the crew mostly consisted of volunteers not associated with any of the NGOs our group had a distinct character. It was mostly people in their mid-to-late twenties with distinct lack of respect for authority and probably some undiagnosed drinking problems.. Maybe some were a little rough around the edges, but we were definitely the hardest-working volunteers, regularly making 16 hour days whilst being available 24/7 for unexpected arrivals. Our responsibilities were to take care of the refugees immediately when they arrived at the port. We were tasked with giving them water, food, dry clothes and screening for medical emergencies. For us to do our work effectively, we had to depend on how much the police would allow us to do. Sometimes we would be allowed into the detention area of the port to do whatever we wanted, other times we would not even be allowed to give water to refugees. One police officer’s bad night’s sleep could mean  the difference between getting water and food during a multiple hour wait after up to five days without food and clean drinking water. The work was tiring and sometimes we had to argue incessantly with police and camp coordinators to get the refugees the care and sleeping spots they needed, but we kept doing it just to lessen their suffering as much as we could.

Before being released to the camp all refugees were processed, which meant registering their names, father’s name, family members, country of origin and date of birth. This would be combined with a picture and fingerprints. If they had passports, these would be taken away since they technically did not need one after getting their papers from Frontex. After this, they were released to the port crew and we would take them to the camp.  In the best case scenario,  after two days the police would come and distribute their papers with which they could purchase a ticket at the ferry ticket office. With this ticket, they would be taken from Leros to the port of Piraeus which is connected to Athens. Since the papers were released in batches, the ferries would sometimes be filled to the brim with refugees. Every time this happened, the volunteers would come to the port and say goodbye to all the people they had gotten to know personally. Sometimes it got very emotional, especially if a volunteer left together with the refugees.

To be honest, I saw a lot of traumatic things there, but I have also made some of my best memories on Leros. Maybe it would have been more interesting to read those exciting stories, but they are also intensely personal in nature, not only for me, but also for the refugees and other volunteers involved. I think that for most people, the refugees are a political issue, something to be debated about, a problem to be solved. I hope that my limited experience with these people has at least made you think a little more about what they have been through. Currently, about 60’000 refugees are  stuck in Greek refugee camps without a future, without hope.