The Greek island of Chios lies only 4.3 miles from Turkey. Its strategic geographic location (as a gateway to Europe) means that it has become an increasingly important route for refugee flows. At present, Chios is home to over 3,000 refugees, men, women and children of all ages, roughly 60% of which are Syrians, 20% Iraqis, 10% North Africans and 10% from other countries including, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, and Lebanon.
There are two refugee camps on the island, Souda and Vial, both of which are filled with tents and storage containers that serve as homes for refugees and bases for the various NGOs, advocacy groups and food and medical services in the camp. All of those in the refugee camps on the island of Chios have undertaken boat journeys from Turkey to Greece, primarily in inflatable rafts, arriving illegally on European shores. These people have fled persecution in their home countries yet face constant and worsening difficulties upon reaching Europe.
Niamh Keady Tabbal, a Senior Sophister student of Middle Eastern Studies, volunteered twice with an emergency aid response group in Souda refugee camp on Chios. Niamh was struck by the extent of her responsibility in the camp which went beyond providing immediate support in the form of clothing and food parcels, as well as regular clothing distributions and English classes in Souda camp. Given that the emergency aid response group that she worked with did not subscribe to the traditional bureaucratic formalities of NGOS, which would typically create a distance between aid workers and refugees, Niamh had the opportunity to spend time to getting to know many refugees in the camp, developing strong and lasting friendships with them.
Now that Niamh has returned to Ireland, she described how intertwined her life now is with the ongoing difficulties that the people in Chios are facing. She explained that she still receives numerous daily, messages, calls and video calls from refugees in UNHCR containers in Souda, from the barred cells of detention centres, and from those who have successfully made it to Western Europe.
Shocked by the lack of reaction towards recent attacks on Souda camp by right-wing extremists, and outraged that someone could have the audacity to attack a human being in such a violent manner, Niamh came to Trinity News with the aim of shedding light on the reality of life for refugees in Chios.
Golden Dawn Attacks
“The police descended on the camp, dragging people out of their containers, and arresting volunteers for no reason”
On the night of November 16, Souda refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios came under attack from the extreme right-wing party Golden Dawn. Referred to as “the fascists” by refugees in the Greek camp, Golden Dawn had been attending a conference on the island called, “The Solution to Refugees”. What had started off as angry comments from Golden Dawn “activists” towards refugees during the day, descended into chaos when police and rioters stormed the camp later that night. Niamh, having returned to Ireland by this point, received many alarmed messages about the ongoing attacks from the refugees and volunteers at the camp.
The police descended on the camp, dragging people out of their containers, and arresting volunteers for completely no reason. The police blocked off the exits to the camp, and chaos ensued as police and rioters wreaked havoc in the camp. Over 50 refugees were beaten, including women and children. Boulders were dropped from the castle walls at the perimeter of the camp, smashing through the thin roofs of the UNHCR containers.
Niamh highlighted the negligence of the fire brigade who arrived over one and a half hours after they had been called by camp volunteers. The fires had been put out by refugees by that time. One man was struck in the head by a boulder and is now in a critical condition, his skull fractured. A young girl, pregnant with twins had a miscarriage from the shock and stress of the attacks.
She explained that one volunteer was dragged from his group of friends by the police who asked him where he was from. When he replied that he was a foreign volunteer and a nurse, he was beaten, hauled from the camp and detained in the police station overnight. This case is but one of many. Both of the camp nurse volunteers were arrested, beaten and strip searched and were therefore unable to provide immediate medical assistance to injured refugees.
The attacks erupted once again the following evening and Molotov cocktails destroyed tents and containers causing widespread fire throughout the camp. On this occasion, the fire brigade simply refused to come to the aid of those in the camp. Those who had been living in the camp are now too afraid to return to their destroyed tents and containers and have since been forced to sleep in a carpark without any shelter.
Only the tip of the iceberg
“There are these symbols of support, but there isn’t actually that much support”
The Golden Dawn attacks crystallise the malevolent attitude of Greek citizens, including members of the police and doctors, towards refugees. Niamh was shocked during her time on the island by how openly hostile the Greek population were towards refugees. When asked about the Greek attitude towards volunteers on the island, she explained that Greek hostility extends to the volunteers, many arguing that their presence on the island encourages refugees to make the journey to Europe.
Niamh proceeded to highlight a number of incidents wherein the police deliberately interfered with the work of advocacy groups. She gave the example of a period of two days where six boats arrived on Chios, of which three were not reported to her emergency aid response group or the medical team. It is understood that there is an increasing desire to keep medics away from new boat arrivals so they have been given false information, such as incorrect times of arrivals and false locations thus limiting their ability to provide food, water, dry clothing and medical assistance to boat arrivals.
“Human rights are not relevant in this discussion”
Niamh explained that police activity on the island was marked by an evident disregard for the rights of refugees. One morning, a boat arrival of refugees came in rather late compared to other boat arrivals at roughly 6.30am. The police subsequently refused to allow volunteers to distribute food, clothing or even water to the refugees and made them wait in a carpark for hours. Among the crowd was a diabetic woman, yet the police prohibited medics from attending her.
“It’s like a prison”
Niamh also witnessed a number of arbitrary police arrests while she was volunteering in Souda. In fact, an Algerian refugee that she befriended got arrested in October because he was in the queue for the ferry to go to mainland Greece. She explained that normally, if people try to leave illegally and are doing so in an overt manner by queueing for the ferry without papers, they are simply told to leave. However, this time for some reason everyone in the queue got arrested. “They were kept for six days in the Chios police station, for the first day they didn’t get any food at all… the treatment was terrible”. Her friend was then transported to a detention centre in Korinthos where he is being kept in a room with thirteen other people, in which the lights are constantly on, he is constantly hungry and he has no access to additional clothing. “It is like a prison… they are only allowed to leave the room for two hours per day”.
While her friend told her that he has not been beaten by police in the detention camp, he described being beaten a lot by the police in Chios. “He didn’t know why he was there”. He has now hired a lawyer in an attempt to get out of the detention camp, yet the lawyer stated that there is only a 50/50 percent chance that he will be released within the next 6 to 18 months.
Limited medical services in the camp no longer exist as the medical clinic was completely closed down. A fellow volunteer informed Niamh of a meeting that he attended with the UN and municipality in which a member of the UN stated, “They will have to get used to not having medical services”. When seeking medical assistance, refugees are now forced to go to the hospital on the island where they are blatantly ignored, jeered at and denied medical attention by doctors and nurses.
Niamh explained that on one occasion she was in hospital with a woman whose two kids had already been admitted. Feeling sick herself, Niamh brought the woman to A&E seeking medical attention. She described how doctors ignored them and would not even acknowledge the sick woman for over an hour as they waited in the quiet hospital. Finally she was seen to, the woman was “treated like dirt” by a rude doctor who prodded and poked at her and shouted verbal abuse at both Niamh and the sick woman. Niamh witnessed this kind of hostility from Greek doctors each time she accompanied refugees to hospital.
When asked about the mental health of refugees in Souda camp, Niamh replied that refugees are deeply affected by their situation. “They have been through so much already, these people who were already traumatised from past experiences are now traumatised by their experiences in Chios”. She described how despondent the refugees have become in the camp, some turning to anger thus sparking rivalries, fights and fires. They are constantly coming up against harrowing, sometimes violent experiences as part of their daily lives on the island. For instance, when she asked a refugee to write what he did the previous day on the board during English class he wrote, “I go with my friend to watch movies, after that the police he throw bomb sound and we have a running 2km”.
“The media only looked when Golden Dawn attacked, they didn’t look when people were really suffering in other ways”
Niamh stressed the fact that the crisis is no longer simply humanitarian, but political. She explained that on her second visit to the camp, one of the refugees asked her why she was there. He then added, “You know we don’t want your t-shirts or your clothes, we don’t want anything. We just want to leave. You know that you’re keeping us here by giving us things”. Upon further reflection Niamh realised the merit in his point. “It’s not a humanitarian problem anymore. It’s a political problem”.
Of course, she highlighted the importance of frontline advocacy groups in providing immediate humanitarian aid however, she pointed out that, in this case, this aid may in some ways enable the stagnation of the entire refugee crisis, as refugees are left waiting for months in substandard camps, surviving on aid, yet not really living. For this reason, she found it very difficult to come to terms with this harsh reality for the first two weeks of her second visit. While she was able to help them in small ways, she came to understand that there is a fundamental need for change to make a difference.
As a result, a media outreach group on Facebook called “Shoufu- Stories from Chios” was recently launched to raise awareness about the realities of life on Chios, and people have begun to channel their efforts into educating the public about the treatment of refugees in the camp and to lobby politicians to bring about change.