No Refuge for Refugees


On an early morning walk with Jessie last week, I ran into a friend. We both stopped to catch up for a few minutes as she was dashing to work, and I was heading home to my writing haven. Coincidentally, we had both visited Greece recently, and our trips overlapped. While my family was hiking gorges, swimming in the turquoise Libyan sea, and visiting ancient ruins, Catherine was working in a refugee camp.

Catherine Bruce is a refugee lawyer, and she spent two weeks working with a group of international volunteer lawyers and interpreters. This post is an account of her experiences. I’ve never had (or wanted) a guest contributor on this blog before, but I’m stepping aside this week to let Catherine share her chilling first-hand account of the Syrian crisis. It is brutally depressing, but written in the most captivating and beautiful way.

Please consider sharing this post with your own circle of friends and family – many of us know far too little about the Syrian crisis. And, if you want to reach out to Catherine (perhaps just to let her know that the world needs more people like her) here’s her email:

What is it like in the refugee camps in Greece? It’s difficult to know where to start…
Perhaps I should start by saying that after my first day working in the camps, I dreamed that I saw an airplane circle around and around in the sky. In my dream I was lying on the beach. And I was thinking to myself in my dream: why is that plane circling and what is the pilot in that plane watching? And then I saw that the pilot was watching a helicopter and the helicopter was coming to the ground. And as it landed, people jumped out of it, and suddenly on the ground next to me everyone was screaming and shouting, “run, they are shooting”. And I got up and ran, and then I woke up.

On the second night that I was here I dreamed that I was in a car, and then the person in the back seat suddenly covered my head with a hood and I was abducted. Suffice it to say that in the fifteen years that I have represented refugee claimants, I have never seen trauma like I am seeing here in my life before, nor has it ever invaded my dreams in the way that is has here.

There are three camps on Chios, one of the three Greek islands off the coast of Turkey where refugees are being held and where I am working. Two are close to the waterfront. One of these, just outside the wall of an ancient castle, consists of tents and plastic tarps crammed between a corridor on the streets, the other of a mixture of UNHCR tents and containers. The third, located about 20 minutes by taxi inland, consists of metal container upon metal container surrounded by a barbed wire fence in appearance a prison, not a shelter for the desperate and the desperately traumatized. It is here that refugees wait, many for six months and counting, in situations of desperation and danger (yes, the camps are dangerous) for their claims to be processed by a Greek asylum system bursting at the seams with the sudden influx of men, women and children; the persecuted, the tortured and the dispossessed.

There are many unaccompanied desperately traumatized minors here. If they are from “non refugee-producing countries” like Algeria and Nigeria (yes, Algeria and Nigeria) and cannot prove their age, they are detained. Early this week a minor said he would kill himself if he was kept in prison one more day, while a baby-faced15 year-old boy slashed himself 20 times, because he was so desperate to get an answer to his asylum claim and to get out of the camps.

There is the story after story of Syrians who witnessed beheadings, or who watched as bombs fell on their houses, who tell of how they ran back to find their mother and father and siblings dead in the rubble, and not only dead, but the bodies of their loved ones dismembered and in pieces; a disembodied head here, a severed limb there. People told me how they would collect the severed limbs of the injured and put them in the ambulances with the dead, dying and injured without knowing whose leg or arm it was, hoping that the doctors at the hospital might find out to whom the limb belonged and re-attached it. They told me of kids who watched from their balconies as snipers picked off people in the streets below, murdered for no other reason than that they happened to be on the street below.

Should I tell you of the twenty year old Syrian who says he doesn’t trouble himself with thinking about whether God exists or not because whether you believe in God or whether you do not, God metes out the same brutality to everyone? Or of the conscript who shook violently as he told the tale and relived the carnage of a truck packed with explosives which detonated with such force that the blast threw one person through a wall, another up into a tree where he was impaled by the branches, and his best friend so hard against the floor that his spine was blown through his back? Or of the man whose eyes told the story, later confirmed in a harrowing six-hour interview, of tanks that crushed innocent men, women and children, of desecrated bodies with their fingers cut off, of witnessed rape, and mass pillaging?

Despite the clear and desperate need for it, there seems to be virtually no psychiatric assistance here for the many thousands of people – men, women, children – who are so deeply traumatized by what they have witnessed, endured, or been forced to take part in. Yesterday, volunteers witnessed a man, in desperation, stabbing himself in the throat in an attempt to kill himself. This was one of several suicide attempts that have taken place over the last few weeks and months in the camps.

Should I tell you of the agreement that Europe signed with Turkey, pursuant to which Syrians who made, and make it, to Greece after March 20, 2016 are supposed to be returned to Turkey, because Turkey has agreed to allow Syrians to remain in Turkey (but not other refugees) and because Europe therefore considers Turkey to be a “safe” third country for Syrians? “Safe”, despite the fact that we are hearing story after credible story of how Turkish gendarmes shoot at Syrians trying to cross the border into Turkey, sometimes killing those fleeing in desperation, frequently returning them across the border back into Syria, and sometimes actually delivering them directly back into the hands of ISIS fighters in Syria. “Safe” despite the fact that Turkey has suffered a recent coup attempt, is responsible for massive human rights abuses, and is at war with its Kurdish population. The only “good” thing I can report is that, despite this agreement, Turkey is currently not actually accepting Syrians returned from Greece, because Europe has not held up its part of the deal to let Turks travel visa free through Europe, and until it does, Turkey is refusing to accept the asylum claimants back. It’s difficult to conclude anything other than that realpolik matters, and that basic humanity does not.

Should I write of a Europe and a world that for the most part cares only about its own individual boundaries? Of a Britain that in 2015 accepted only 60 refugees per 100,000 of the population while Sweden in the same period and in contrast accepted 1,667 refugees per 100,000 of the population? Or of a Canada that prides itself on accepting just over 30,000 Syrian refugees in the past twelve months when Germany received 476,000 asylum applications in 2015 alone? Should I tell you of the closed borders in Europe that prevent any of the asylum claimants trapped in Greece from moving on, unless they employ human smugglers, at great risk and at a cost which most no longer have the means to meet, to get them out of Greece illegally? That some are considering selling a kidney as a way to get out? That the passageways of the smuggled are littered with the bodies of the men, women and children who died, or who were killed, in the attempt to reach safety? Should I speak of the traumatized nuclear families separated from one another by the Greek asylum system, one family member told they must return to Turkey, another that they will be permitted to stay in Greece, despite their obvious mutual dependence? Or of the fact that hundreds of refugees who arrived in Greece on March 19th before the agreement went into effect were registered as arriving on March 20th, so the Greek authorities could wipe their hands of responsibility for them?

How much greater will the wall of shame grow, and what will be the international consequences in terms of world stability and peace?

There is so much trauma, so much anger here, that inevitably, some of the traumatized and the oppressed carry their anger and their hatred with them and victimize both others and “the other” in the camps. Also inevitably, given the pressure-cooker environment in which people are living, the basic circumstances of their existence, the trauma which they have endured, the lengthy delays they have faced, the uncertainty of their futures, anger sometimes explodes. During my first week in Greece there was a demonstration in the inland camp. I was on the phone speaking with one of the US lawyers; when suddenly I could hear gunfire in the background. The camp was locked down, the volunteers in the guarded section in the middle. Everyone was safe, no-one harmed. But no-one could get out or in to the camp for the rest of the day either until security was assured.

As for what we do on a day-to-day basis, some of us work with unaccompanied-minor cases; others are assisting local Greek lawyers with appealing individualized Turkey safe third-country decisions. The former involves representing unaccompanied minors at refugee hearings conducted in English, trying to get minors released from detention and trying to discover if they have “Dublin” claims (which would allow them to be reunited with family members elsewhere in Europe). With respect to the appeal work, refugees typically appear before the tribunal of first instance determining individualized safe third country claims without legal representation. We are therefore interviewing clients from scratch to document their asylum claims, and to highlight situations of individual vulnerability (though who among the persecuted is not vulnerable?) and to document their personalized experiences to show that they are not safe in Turkey. Once complete, our interview notes then go to the Greek lawyers who draft the appeals based on the facts we have collected.

To deal with the vicarious trauma we inevitably suffer, the team of volunteers meets for breakfast every morning before our work in the camps begins, and supper every night after the day is over. This helps quite a bit; we have a great group of volunteers. The island itself is beautiful and since the camps are now open we can interview where we want. I often choose to do my interviews in a chilled out Café, in the warm and beautiful sunshine, rather than in the grim environment of the camps.

The experience is surreal: sharing a coffee in a beautiful setting, with people recounting stories of the most horrendous brutality in the context of a world torn between countries willing to do a limited something but not enough, and countries wanting to wash their hands entirely of the crushing problem of lives ripped apart by dictatorship, war and bloodshed.

Meanwhile on Friday there was a new development on the islands: a Syrian whose appeal of a safe third country decision was denied was imprisoned to prevent him from fleeing the island and to safeguard his eventual return from Greece to Turkey. The denial of his appeal came in the aftermath of changes made to the composition of the three member panel Appeal Board. Initially composed of two Greek lawyers with human rights expertise and a lawyer from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Appeal Board overturned many first level safe third country decisions. The response of the Greek government was to replace the human rights lawyers on the Appeal Board with corporate lawyers, a change that can only be interpreted as intended to produce the appeal denials that subsequently ensued. Word of this and the detention of the denied appellate spread like wildfire through the camp; panic ensued among the Syrian refugees. That same night, seven Syrian refugees, petrified of being returned from Greece to Turkey, and from Turkey back into the land of their persecution and into the hands of their persecutors, tried to flee the islands. Crushed together in the refrigerator of a ferry leaving the islands all seven suffocated to death, an outcome so common in an indifferent world that the major newspapers did not even bother to report the tragedy.

As for me, I listen to tale after tale of horrendous brutality, each account different from the last, each account as harrowing as the next. Observing the world’s indifference to humanity’s cry, I have never been in a situation where saying the words, “I hear you” or “I am so sorry” sounds quite so hollow or quite so useless.

Photo credit: Flickr/CAFOD Photo Library

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