Souda, credit: Kimberly Curtis

“We are losing our lives sitting here.” Two Thousand Refugees Are Trapped on a Tiny Greek Island

To many, they are considered the lucky ones. By arriving on Greek shores before March 20, they are not subject to the automatic deportation back to Turkey mandated in the EU-Turkey migration deal.

But very few of the estimated 2,000 refugees on the Greek island of Chios feel lucky. Instead, out of the international spotlight and with no information on what their future may hold, they feel forgotten and left behind.

Now three months after most of these refugees arrived and the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, the uncertainty is starting to take its toll. Last month on the shores of Chios town at the Souda refugee camp, 40 refugees started a hunger strike to protest conditions in the camp and the lack of information on when they can expect their interviews for asylum from the Greek government. Tensions rose even further when a small fire broke out in June, burning down several tents and bringing angry locals to the area who violently squared off against refugees while local police mainly watched.

After the fire, the hunger strikers decided to call off the strike after reassurances by local officials to address their concerns. But those concerns remain. Wassim Omar, one of the original leaders of the hunger strike who came to Chios with his wife and three young children from Ein al-Fijeh, talked to UN Dispatch why so many of the refugees at Souda were moved to take such desperate measures.

“We did not leave Syria just to become lost in Greece,” he said while sitting under a corrugated plastic canopy near the gate to the camp. Like many here, he spent most of his family’s savings just to make it to Greek shores. Now they find themselves stuck in Chios with no money, no international support, and no opportunity to work. The lack of options is leading to a lot of stress and growing desperation among those who find themselves fighting to survive in Europe.

With an estimated 57,000 refugees currently stuck in Greece, the country’s asylum system has long passed its breaking point. The frustrations of the refugees, along with the inability of the Greek government to cope with the responsibilities it now has and the burden such camps pose on the communities that host them is just one sign that the current situation is unsustainable for everyone involved.

The hunger strikers vent their grievances. Credit: Kimberly Curtis
The hunger strikers vent their grievances. Credit: Kimberly Curtis

Greece is not alone in this predicament. As global refugee numbers continue to climb – now estimated to be 16.1 million by the end of 2015 – so do the number of asylum applications around the world. (A third of the pending applications are in Europe, but new data released by UNHCR shows that Africa still leads the backlog with nearly 1.4 million applications still to be processed.)

But it is places like Greece where thousands of refugees live in limbo that are facing the biggest problems. After the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, several international aid organizations pulled out of the Greek camps, refusing to play any role in what they see as an illegal attempt to reject refugees. That leaves the care and provision of basic services for refugees up to local organizations, who often operate on a volunteer basis and on shoestring budgets.

“We appreciate all they do,” said Mohammed Osman, a former English teacher from Aleppo who lives in Souda camp with his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. “They do what they can, and that is all we can ask for,” he said, gesturing to the evening food line where people queued for a cup of soup and some bread from a local volunteer kitchen. “But the food is not adequate, the sleep here is not adequate… life here is like a prison.”

The location of Chios, just off the coast of Turkey
The location of Chios, just off the coast of Turkey

With no indication of when the refugees might be relocated, local Greeks are also growing weary of the situation. The economies of Greek islands like Chios rely heavily on tourism, and despite upbeat predictions made by the Greek government this spring, many in Chios town expressed fears of further tourism declines.

“It was easier before, when refugees would come for a day or two, and then leave for other places in Europe,” said Jenny Kali, a member of the local Chios solidarity movement. “We had lots of community support back then, but now that people know they are not going anywhere, the attitude is changing. You can see the bias against the refugees growing.”

That leads to fears that the local municipal government will try to relocate Souda camp further inland, similar to the notorious Vial detention center that sits high in the hills in the center of the island. While relocating the inhabitants of Souda would put them out of sight, it would also make it much harder for the local aid organizations who currently serve the camp to continue doing so.

For its part, the EU plans to step up deportations to Turkey and still insists it will resettle many of the refugees currently stuck in Greece and other border states like Italy and Malta. But despite promises to speed up relocation scheme, as of April only 1 per cent of the planned 160,000 relocations had occurred.

So for refugees on Chios, all that is left to do is wait to see what happens to them next. “I thought once we made it to Greece, I would be at peace,” said Omar. “But I am not. We are losing our lives sitting here. This is no way for people to live.”