Up to 8,400 refugees and migrants are stuck on Greek islands during the slow asylum process.
Refugees in Dipethe camp on Chios[Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera] by Patrick Strickland originally published at Al Jazeera
Chios island, Greece – The graves of an Afghan child and a Syrian man are tucked away in the back corner of a local cemetery. Large mounds of red dirt sit next to six empty holes in the earth.
The ground’s open wounds lie in wait for those who have fallen victim to the refugee crisis gripping Europe, as people continue to flee war and poverty with the hopes of finding security.
“Our beloved Ali Reza, we love you and we carry you in our hearts,” reads a handwritten letter propped up against a bouquet of flowers on the grave of the young Afghan boy, who died after falling out of the dinghy and hitting his head on the island’s rocky shore.
A little white teddy bear lies face down on the dirt next to a couple toys.
Located only 15 minutes north of Chios town, the cemetery is a haunting reminder of the risks displaced people take in order to escape war and hunger.
Ahmad Hamdan, a 46-year-old Syrian lawyer, lives with nine of his relatives in Dipethe, an impromptu refugee camp in a deserted theatre five minutes down the road from the Chios port.
Sitting under a makeshift home of tarpaulins on a sweltering June afternoon, he explains that they fled the bloodshed in Syria only to find themselves fearing right-wing locals and internal violence in the island’s camps.
When violent clashes broke out between Afghans and Syrians in the Vial refugee camp in April, Ahmad’s family joined hundreds of people – mostly Syrians and Iraqis – who made the seven kilometre walk to the town’s port.
The family slept in the port for four days until locals attacked them with bottles and fireworks.
‘We are stuck here’
Police subsequently moved them to the Dipethe camp, where some 300 people live in tents in and around the theatre.
Because they arrived on March 20, the day when an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to control the flow of refugees and migrants, Ahmad and his relatives are barred from leaving the island without the Greek government’s permission.
Their only options are to request asylum in Greece or return to Turkey.
Deportations have taken place at a snail’s pace, however, since the deal was struck, and the vast majority of refugees and migrants on the Greek islands are stuck in limbo as they wait to find out their fates.Rather than being confined to camps in Chios, Ahmad argues that they should be returned to Turkey immediately or allowed to continue their journey to Western Europe.
“We are stuck here now,” Ahmad tells Al Jazeera, adding that right-wing protesters, which reportedly included supporters of ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party, have held anti-refugee demonstrations outside the camp in recent weeks.
Right-wing locals “tried to attack us [last week], and police stopped them. We didn’t sleep that night”, he says. “If it weren’t for the police, the Nazis would have attacked here.”
Ahmed’s 32-year-old brother Muhammad, who was a teacher in Syria, says “there was a very strong fear” in the Dipethe camp following the attack, particularly among children.
Because most of their money ran out during the past three months, the vast majority of the estimated 3,000 residents in the island’s three camps are fully dependent on the United Nations and aid organisations for food, water, medicine and medical treatment.
Ahmad and Muhammad first met Antonis Vorrias, a 49-year-old local who volunteers with refugees, when he helped them disembark from their dinghy boat upon arriving in Chios.
The small but vocal group of right-wing activists in Chios haven’t spared the volunteers, aid workers and government employees who work in the camps.
Sitting at a cafe in the town centre, Antonis and Yannis Koutsodonotis, a 50-year-old Greek Ministry of Health employee, explain that the situation has grown steadily more tense since the EU-Turkey deal was struck in March.
On the afternoon of June 6, Yannis went to the local Souda refugee camp after a fire broke out during clashes between Syrians and Afghans.
“I was there to coordinate the ambulance and to let the hospital know if there were many injured people,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“There was a guy, a fascist, who was shouting [at the refugees],” he remembers, saying that the man suddenly punched a 15-year-old unaccompanied Syrian boy in the head.
Antonis Vorrias has gained a reputation in Chios as a strong supporter of refugees [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
When police didn’t step in, the assailant turned and attacked Antonis. As Yannis attempted to intervene, he was also attacked and tackled to the ground. The incident was caught on tape and broadcast on the local news.
Despite his repeated attempts to press charges, the police let the attacker go and he has yet to be arrested, Yannis says.
Antonis later received encrypted death threats. While walking in town one day, a man stopped him and asked if he was still volunteering with refugees. “He told me I’m on ‘the list’ and that I’d get what’s coming to me sometime soon,” he tells Al Jazeera.
More than a million refugees and migrants took dinghies across the Mediterranean Sea to European shores in 2015, according to the UN’s refugee agency. More than 215,000 have made the trek so far this year.
More than 57,000 of them have been bottlenecked in Greece since Macedonia and other Balkan nations sealed their borders in March.
‘Brothers in humanity’
George Kiritsis, the Greek government’s spokesman on refugee affairs, says that “practically everyone” among the estimated 8,400 refugees and migrants spread across the Greek islands will apply for asylum or has already submitted asylum requests.
Defending the government’s policy of restricting asylum seekers’ movement, Kiritsis says: “We hope that [expediting the process] will help calm the tensions in the islands. We understand that being in a place with uncertainty about the future makes people feel desperation and despair.”
Seraphim Seferiades, a political science professor at the Panteion University in Athens, argues that the anti-refugee sentiment in places such as Chios are confined to “small pockets” of hardline rightists, pointing to the Golden Dawn’s failure to exploit the refugee crisis.
A Syrian family breaks the fast during Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims, in the Dipethe camp on Chios [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
Against the background of increasing austerity policies and new taxes, the government’s refusal to clearly explain its refugee plan to the Greek public and to adequately manage the situation could prove dangerous, he tells Al Jazeera.
“It’s inevitable that if you sit on the problem without doing anything, people are going to develop these Islamophobic and xenophobic reactions,” says Seferiades.
“The government should explain to people that the EU has sealed the borders and there is nothing we can do about that, but that it would be a betrayal to turn our backs on the refugees.”
Back in Dipethe, children play tag amid the maze of tents.
A man cups his hands like a megaphone and sings the call to prayer as the sun disappears behind nearby buildings. Families rush to their areas to break the fast for Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims.
Ahmad says that he and other refugees have tried to present a positive image, despite the growing tensions in Chios.
On Easter, they visited a nearby church to express their gratitude to the local Greek community. “We wanted to say, in the name of Syrian people here, ‘Happy Easter’. We are brothers in humanity.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_
Source: Al Jazeera