‘I wish we had died in the war, instead’

Stuck in unsanitary camps and a bureaucratic nightmare, asylum-seekers live in limbo on the Greek island of Lesbos, say Yanis Varoufakis and George Tyrikos-Ergas.

IN 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees landed on Greece’s island shores. Today, the international public has been lulled into believing that Greece’s refugee crisis has abated. But it has become a permanent scourge, blighting Europe’s soul and brewing
future trouble. The island of Lesbos is its epicentre.

The story of one refugee, Shabbir, who is 40, demonstrates how starkly reality clashes with Europe’s official storyline. Shabbir lived with his wife and two young children in a midsize town in Pakistan, where he ran a car-rental business.

One night in December, 2015, Islamist extremists petrol-bombed Shabbir’s neighbour’s home, and waited outside for the fleeing family. Shabbir’s neighbours were Christian, and the extremists wanted to evict them and convert their home into a madrasa (religious school).

Shabbir rushed to his neighbours’ defence. Designated an apostate, his business was burned down, his brother was murdered, his wife and children fled to nearby villages, and Shabbir, together with his elderly father, took the long, cruel road via Iran and Turkey to imagined safety in civilised Europe.

Along the way, Shabbir’s father died of exhaustion on some snow-covered Turkish mountain. Months later, after boarding a trafficker’s flimsy vessel on Turkey’s Aegean coast, Shabbir found himself shipwrecked, surrounded by dozens of drowned fellow refugees. Picked up off the coast of Lesbos, he was brought to the Moria camp. That is when his next ordeal began.

No Westerner who saw Moria during the winter of 2016/2017 could do so
without feeling dehumanised. Mud, refuse, and human excrement formed a magma of misery, a hellscape surrounded by barbed wire, the official indifference reflected in the puny resources provided by the European Union and Greek authorities.

Refugees like Shabbir faced a minimum of nine months before meeting any official who would receive their asylum application. Within the camp, a small makeshift office, surrounded by more barbed wire and hundreds of despairing refugees, would admit one or two per hour for their first interview.

“If you are a little ill, Afghani, or Pakistani, it may take 12 months before you speak to an official,” one refugee told us. “We are ghosts roaming around without anyone noticing,” he remarked: “I wish we had died in the war, instead.”

Wandering around the camp, segregation was in plain sight. Some families were afforded the luxury of containers, guarded behind tall fences. Despite the absence of running water, heating, or any facilities, they were the privileged ones.

Walking northwest up the hill was like experiencing the ascent of inhumanity. First, there was the Afghanis’ shantytown, enveloped in mud and an unbearable stench. On the hilltop were Pakistanis in the same dire conditions, burning anything they could find in order to cook.

Next to them were Algerians, feared by all the others and caged behind a triple row of barbed wire. At the foot of the slope, just next to the appalling semi-open-air toilets, were the Africans, amidst whose tents ran filth from up the slope.

A year after Shabbir arrived on Lesbos, and three months after his first interview, his asylum application was refused and a deportation order was issued. His appeal was unceremoniously rejected and, when he tried to seek refuge with supporters in a nearby village, the police mounted a manhunt.

Eventually, he surrendered, before being taken back to Turkey. For weeks, we heard nothing of his fate. Then we learned he had been returned to Pakistan, where he had been located by the Taliban and shot. He is apparently alive though we do not know his condition.

Shabbir had imagined, he told one of us, that, “despite being Muslim,” Europe would give him asylum, “not least because I thought that defending Christians at my family’s expense would mean something here.”

But Europe had other ideas. The EU deal with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, negotiated in 2016 by German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had a single purpose: To stop the flood of refugees from Turkey to Greece at all cost. If that meant that the EU would bribe Erdogan with several billion euro to violate international legislation protecting refugees like Shabbir, so be it.

In September alone, another 2,238 refugees arrived in Lesbos, despite Turkey’s attempts to cut the flow. A camp designed for 2,000 people now houses three times that number. In early October, the first autumnal storms turned the Moria camp into a mud field again.

Europe pretends that this crime against humanity is nobody’s fault. The Greek authorities blame the EU for not providing funds, the EU blames Greece for not doing enough with available funds, and large NGOs are preoccupied with maintaining their own lines of command and funding.

The only survivors in this moral shipwreck are the local grassroots teams — comprising volunteers from all over the world and smaller NGOs — that have been keeping the spirit of humanity alive.

Meanwhile, the West, in general, and the EU, in particular, perpetuates the economic, environmental, and military factors which are driving the unfolding humanitarian disaster.

Galrim, another Pakistani refugee in Lesbos, explained to us Europe’s blunder: “The Islamist extremists have a plan. By spreading fear and loathing,” he says, “they wish to ghettoise refugees in Europe, to cut them off from European societies, to make them victims of European xenophobia. It is their recruitment strategy, by which to stoke the fires of East-West hatred and render them significant players.”

Galrim should know. A democrat, who opposed ballot-rigging in his town, his body was broken by mafia networks in ‘safe’ Turkey, in a succession of torture sessions for ransom. On one occasion, he was dragged behind a speeding truck. Galrim’s asylum application was also turned down, placing him on the deportation list.

Some 2,500 years ago, Sappho of Lesbos wrote:

Their heart grew cold

they let their wings down

To prevent that from happening to humanists across Europe, we need a new movement to campaign for refugees’ release from odious conditions and a swift asylum process. Beyond that, we need to end the policies that are contributing to their desperate flight.

Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece, is professor of economics at the University of Athens. George Tyrikos-Ergas is a folklorist living on Lesbos, where he co-founded AGKALIA, an internationally acclaimed, grassroots team working with refugees. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

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