Many men, women and children continue to die at the borders of Europe as they flee their homeland. If they survive, they will be treated as criminals.
By Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones
Wasim is a refugee from Syria. In late July he was dropped by boat on a remote, densely wooded and rocky shore of Samos island, with his wife, young son and baby daughter. Without enough water or food, he swam to find help. Ignored by passing boats, he eventually found help, and from there went to the police. He was immediately arrested and held for a subsequent six weeks. Throughout this time and despite, from the beginning, pleas that someone look for his wife and children, he heard nothing from or about them. Six weeks later he would find them dead.
We first met Wasim Abo Nahi at the beginning of September. He had just returned to Samos island in the eastern Aegean from Athens, where he had been held for processing as an undocumented refugee. He was accompanied by his nephew, Abdalah and Mohammed, a friend from Athens. All of them are Palestinian refugees.
Wasim had returned to Samos to search for his wife, Lamees, his 9-month-old daughter Layan, and 4-year-old son Uday, whom he had left on the island six weeks earlier when he was detained. He was overwhelmed with anxiety as none of their families or friends had heard anything from Lamees during those weeks. He feared that they were dead, but as no trace of them had been found he hoped that they were still alive and being sheltered somewhere on the island.
Wasim’s deepest fear was that his family had perished in the forest fire which had engulfed the remote mountain side soon after he had left them in his desperate search for help after they had landed from Turkey. It was to this area desolated by the fire that we returned on Sunday September 11. Even scorched and burnt it was a difficult terrain with no paths or roads where we had to break through charred shrubs to make any progress. With Wasim leading the way we eventually found the place where they had first landed. There were some baby clothes and pampers. Importantly, they were just outside the area of the fire so there was still hope, although the fact that there had been no sighting of the family or contact with her cast a despairing shadow.
Wasim was desperate to find them. Every day he and his friends scoured the mountain side, sometimes accompanied by a few police officers and a couple of volunteers from an Athens-based human rights group. On Friday afternoon, Mohammed, Abdalah and Sofiane found some heavily charred remains and gold bracelets worn by his children and wife. Although we now await the results of the DNA tests on what little remains, we have little doubt that these are the remains of Wasim’s family.
Sadly, Wasim’s tragedy is all too common. There is abundant evidence that many men, women and children continue to die at the borders of Europe as they flee their homeland as refugees. And if they survive and breach the frontier and arrive, as they do every week, on islands close to Turkey –such as Samos — they are then treated as criminals and subject to all kinds of de-humanising treatment. In this sense, the direct cause of the death of Wasim’s family may have been the fire, but in truth it was a much bigger set of policies and politics which killed his family. If these tragedies are to be avoided — as they can and should be — it is these wider systems and processes that need to be changed.
Fleeing the conflict engulfing Syria and the Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia where they had lived, their options were severely limited. Wasim’s passport, which identifies him as a Palestinian refugee living in Syria, is worthless as a travel document. None of the neighbouring Arab states recognise this passport and would refuse him entry. The same applies to much of the rest of the world, which ruled out travelling to Damascus and leaving by plane which he could have afforded. So he took the route of thousands of refugees without papers and travelled through Turkey and paid 7.000 euros to be brought across the narrow stretch of the Aegean to Samos. The legacy of the Nakba, when so many Palestinians like Wasim’s grandparents and parents fled cities such as Haifa in 1948, runs deep and continues to condemn thousands to miserable lives in refugee camps, where their rights are deeply compromised and limited. This needs to change.
But whatever their nationality, what kind of world forces refugees fleeing for their lives and their sanity to go “underground” in order to find safety? Why are they exposed to such vulnerabilities and exploitation which leads so many to dangerous boats and end expensive routes into Europe? In the case of Wasim, this led to him and his family being dropped on a rugged and isolated part of Samos which trapped him and his young family. They couldn’t get out. This needs to change.
Much of Wasim’s experience in Samos and Athens was framed by the demonisation of undocumented refugees and migrants both here in Greece and sadly throughout much of Europe. As soon as Wasim and his family took the small boat from Turkey to Samos, this context of hostility kicked in as they evaded the patrols of the border police (Frontex) and the Greek coastguard. Samos is not just another Greek holiday island. It is on the very frontier between Europe and Asia. Its waters are not simply full of bathing tourists but the more sinister para-military patrol boats that daily motor around its shores. It is as if we were at war. The refugees need to be repulsed. They are the enemy. These ideas have to be changed. They are abhorrent.
The consequences, as Wasim discovered, are deadly. In his case it meant instant incarceration, handcuffed in a police cell when he eventually made it out of the forest seeking help for his family. It led to his pleas being ignored by the authorities for days before a small effort was launched by the police to find his wife and children. Cruelly, it led to him being abandoned by the emergency services after he had made contact by his mobile phone when he realised that his family were stuck and in a desperate situation as their water ran out. During their first night on the island, a patrol boat had located them on the shore but it never returned. Had it been a family of young European tourists in such a position, there can be no doubt that the response would have been completely different. This should not be tolerated.
The police and other state agencies have much to answer for, but this is not enough. From the highest levels, both in Greece and throughout Europe, a policy and ideology has been created which presents a warped construction of undocumented refugees as a danger and a threat. There is no element of humanity. The response of the state is that of arrest, imprisonment and removal. The facilities provided which are regularly and routinely condemned by NGOs and intergovernmental refugee agencies as unfit for human life illustrate this all too well. Even if some of those working in these facilities are deeply moved by the suffering they encounter, the system remorselessly grinds on. This needs to change.
What has caused so many here on Samos to feel shame about what happened to Wasim and his family is the way in which these ideas and practices have spread. When Wasim left his trapped family to seek help he went back into the sea and swam around the coast until he could see a way out to a small house. Whilst in the sea he shouted for help to the small fishing boats that passed by. Some responded and came over to him but then turned away when they saw he was a refugee. As one young friend asked, “what has happened to us that we could do such a thing?”
The answer sadly is that the Greek state has made many (but not all) too afraid to help anyone who is a refugee. It is more than probable that the fishermen who failed to rescue Wasim were fearful that their boats would be confiscated if they helped. One of our friends had his car confiscated and then sold by the state when it was found that he was carrying undocumented refugees. Another friend, an older woman who runs a small guest house was terrified when four Iranian refugees turned up wanting a room to shelter in prior to catching the ferry to Athens. She feared that she would lose her guest house if the authorities discovered her helping them, although she did.
Earlier this summer, two Pakistani refugees — with papers — were prosecuted on Samos for “illegal hospitality” as they had offered room to two undocumented refugees. Making people fearful, scaring them into losing their humanity, is a terrible thing to do to someone. This is happening here. It cannot and should not be tolerated.
In the meantime, Wasim is overwhelmed by grief. He only wanted to bring his family to safety, he says. Instead he brought them to their death. For his sake, and all those other thousands of refugees, who without papers are invariably poor, we have to find ways to change these policies, practices and ideologies which kill and wound and which distort the humanity of us all.
Sofiane Ait Chalalet is Algerian and came to Samos 7 years ago as a refugee. Chris Jones is British and came to live in Samos 6 years ago after 30 years as a social science teacher in English higher education. They now report here on the impact of the unfolding humanitarian crisis on daily life in Samos and the cruel fate of refugees trapped in Greece.