Escaping the Prison Island: Forgotten Refugees of Chios

The refugees trying to escape Chios shows the world’s failure to protect victims of one of the worst humanitarian disasters.

September 24, 2016

The refugees trying to escape Chios shows the world’s failure to protect victims of one of the worst humanitarian disasters.

One late afternoon in August, the rescue team saved a young man struggling to stay afloat in the choppy waters of the Aegean Sea near the Souda refugee camp on the Greek Island of Chios.

For the bystanders anxiously watching the man, this was a reminder of the day they arrived on this Island on dinghies from Turkey. This time, however, the man was swimming the opposite direction. He was a Syrian refugee escaping Chios to Turkey.

One year ago, the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy lying motionless on a Turkish beach caught the imagination of the world. Aylan Kurdi’s death created a sense of urgency in seeking a solution to the refugee crisis.

More than one million refugees who entered Europe before the EU-Turkey deal on March 18th temporarily halted the new arrivals from Turkey.

Sympathy for the refugees dissipated and the cameras moved elsewhere to other crises. The refugee crisis, however, remained, but now away from the public eyes.

The young Syrian escaping Chios is a new face of the crisis. He is a symbol of the world’s failure to protect the victims of one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time.

I spent the final weeks of August interviewing men, women, and children waiting for rescue on Chios Island. The refugees call Chios the Prison Island. They can swim in its shore, move from one place to another, but they cannot leave it.

Growing desperation

After the signing of the EU-Turkey deal, leaving the Islands and going forward requires an official permit to travel to Athens to continue the asylum process.

Moving backward to Turkey requires official deportation orders. There is a long wait even for deportation. Turkey must accept a list of prospective deportees submitted by the EU.

That can take months or longer. Some escape the long wait by using the last part of their savings and paying human smugglers for return to Turkey. The young Syrian refugee hoped to swim to freedom in Turkey. He was returned to the Prison Island, joining others waiting in anguish.

Violence is a common response by many refugees to their indeterminate waiting in Chios and other frontier Islands. On September 19th, a group of refugees torched the Moria camp on the Island of Lesbos.

The authorities had to evacuate 4000 men, women, and children. Three months earlier, refugees set fire on tents and storage facilities in the Souda camp in Chios.

Prioritizing asylum cases

Self-harm and attempted suicides are an epidemic among refugees. Young Syrians and Afghans cut their wrists in acts of suicide or protest. Putting a noose around their neck, some have tried hanging themselves. Meanwhile, others take out their rage and frustration on other refugees.

The EU-Turkey deal prioritized the review of the asylum case for Syrians. Unless suffering from visible vulnerabilities, the Iraqis, Afghans, Sudanese, and Pakistanis and others have to wait their turn at the end of the long line of asylum seekers.

This has increased tension and rivalry between different nationalities. Inter-group fight has been a common scene in Chios. Afghans attack Syrians. Syrians ambush Afghans. They fight with knife and metal bar, brake heads and slash faces.

With the increase in new arrivals in recent weeks refugees are bracing themselves for even more violence. Currently, more than 50,000 Syrians and other refugees are waiting for a decision on their asylum cases across Greece.

The number has been steadily increasing since the beginning of August. An increasing number of refugees are, once again, arriving on boats from Turkey.

Some 1,052 Syrians, Afghans and others crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece between August 29th and September 4th; almost double the number of arrivals the week before.

Violence on the rise

August 2016 saw 3,437 new arrivals, slightly lower than the 3,650 that came in April before the signing of the EU/Turkey Deal. With each new Syrian arrival, the non-Syrians are pushed further back on the long line of people anxiously awaiting an interview or a decision on their asylum cases.

The situation on the Islands is reaching a boiling point. Worse yet, there are alarming indications that the waiting is forcing many to the brink, potentially radicalizing some who once escaped the violence of radical Islam.

“Why do the Syrians get papers to go to Athens and not me? OK, I am from Iraq. But I am from Mosul. There is Daesh (ISIS) in Mosul. OK, you don’t send me to Athens. I go to Mosul to Daesh,” an unaccompanied minor from the ISIS-ruled city of Mosul in Northern Iraq told me in Souda.

He has been regularly bullied and assaulted by Syrians since he arrived in Souda in early August. Yet, there is little chance that his asylum hearing will be expedited.

A smuggler asked him for 500 euros for a dinghy transport back to Turkey. Penniless, he is waiting for a miracle to be saved from the Island.

Act before it’s too late

“When I decided to leave Syria I thought that was good for my children. I didn’t want my children to grow up between Daesh (ISIS) and other terrorists. I didn’t want them to become future terrorists,” a Syrian father of three told me after his asylum application was rejected.

He and his family are awaiting deportation to Turkey. “Now my children have seen Europe. Sending them back to Turkey makes them lose respect for Europe,” he said.

For humanitarian reasons, and for national security concerns, it is imperative that the world community acts swiftly to find a solution to the refugee crisis. Tomorrow may be too late.

Takeaways

The refugees call Chios the Prison Island. They can swim in its shore, move from one place to another, but they cannot leave it.

Violence is a common response by many refugees to their indeterminate waiting in Chios and other frontier Islands.

The EU-Turkey deal that prioritized asylum cases has increased tension and rivalry between different nationalities.