'We are not animals': Thousands of refugee children at risk, stuck in Greek island camps

'We are not animals': Thousands of refugee children at risk, stuck in Greek island camps
Video: A special report from the island of Samos, where winter conditions only add to the misery of thousands trapped by the terms of the EU-Turkey deal. Francesca Mannocchi reports.
12 min read
25 February, 2019
Thousands of refugees live in tents in forests near the official migrant centre [AFP]
​Hikmatullah has headphones on his ears. His gaze is lost in the void. He is nervous, suddenly leaves the room, then returns and hugs his brother, Murtaza.

He tries dialling a number on his phone; someone answers. He gives the mobile to Murtaza, it is their father speaking.

Hikmatullah is sixteen, his brother is ten. A year ago, they ran away from Afghanistan together. Their mother had been killed. Their father, too sick to travel with them, remained in their village in the mountains. In bureaucratic jargon they are two unaccompanied minors, children who have arrived in Europe without parents, without an adult relative, after having crossed countries.

Hikmatullah is worried, Murtaza cries.

They have just found out that Hikmatullah will remain on the hotspot Samos island while Murtaza will packed onto a 3am ferry to Athens, to go to a protected centre in the Greek capital.

He cannot live in a container. It is in the child's interest to move him from the island, the institutions here say. No-one explains how it is in his interest to separate him from the last piece of family he still has.

Hikmatullah and Murtaza should live on level two of the container block for vulnerable children. Eight places per container - at least in theory; some containers house 25 children each.

They are two of the thousands of children on the island of Samos, one of the four Greek islands - together with Kos, Lesbos and Kios - upon which 20,000 people are crammed because of the agreement signed between the EU and Turkey in 2016.

They are two of the thousands of children on the island of Samos, one of the four Greek islands - together with Kos, Lesbos and Kios - upon which 20,000 people are crammed because of the agreement signed between the EU and Turkey in 2016

In March, three years ago, in a bid to reduce the flow of people arriving from the Turkish coasts to the Greek islands, the European Union signed a deal with Ankara: migrants and asylum seekers arriving on the islands are prohibited leave the registration and identification centres to go to the mainland.

They must be registered, then interviewed to assess their degree of vulnerability and possible suitability for international protection. In case of rejection, one can appeal.

At the second refusal, anyone considered unsuitable should be sent back to Turkey, under the terms of the deal. But Turkey only accepts the repatriation of migrants who are on the islands, not those who make it to the mainland.

This means that Greek authorities can not ease the pressure on the islands by sending applicants to Athens - because if they are turned down, they could not be sent back.

Feature continues below video:
Watch now: A glimpse of the conditions on Samos [Francesca Monnocchi]

Getting an answer to an asylum request can easily take a year, even two, in case of an appeal. And if people waiting for a response cannot leave the islands and the flow - though diminished - does not stop, the islands are destined to explode. Like now.

It's the knock-on effect of the closure of the borders: to turn the islands into prisons, islands with two faces - snapshots from souvenir photos next to thousands of people destined to live in miserable conditions without a deadline for its end.

At time of writing, there have been 2,367 repatriations to Turkey in the past three years.

That's nothing compared with the arrivals.

In a single month this winter, according to UNHCR, 3,370 people arrived by sea on the Greek islands.

From the coastal road in Vathy, the capital of Samos, Turkey is a mile away. From the highest point of the island, on the green benches of the Belvedere, the view is beautiful. Behind, towards Samos, ancient monasteries and UNESCO heritage sites, the temple of Hera, the archaeological site of Pythagoreion, the Greek and Roman monuments, the tourist signs that remind you in many languages ​​that the island was home to the mathematician Pythagoras and the philosopher Epicurus.

In front, the view takes in the Turkish coasts, the woods, the rocks, sometimes a pair of Frontex ships shuttling from side to side to check the borders of Europe.

Winters on the tourist islands are all alike: restaurateurs perform maintenance, paint chairs and windows of a strict white and blue postcard, ready for next summer. Sailors repair fishing nets because the wind is too hard to go out in the boat, especially not when the temperature drops below zero every night, it often rains and on the mountain peaks the snow glimmers.

On the promenade next to the fishermen, surrounded by seagulls, a group of Congolese boys sing and dance.

It's early in the morning, their phones are attached to a power generator on the quayside, one chooses a pop song, turns up the volume and they start dancing and smiling.

There are seven in this group, but only two wear winter shoes. The others have slippers, a few have socks.

Some passers stop, curious. Someone mutters something annoyed, someone else just indifferent.

A Syrian woman and her daughter tired from the cold and the wind try to sit outside a bar, on the chairs in front of the window. The owner comes out - while he speaks only Greek, and they only Arabic, there is no need for a translator to understand the code of rejection. An index finger pointing at the road means Go away in a universal language.

The woman takes her daughter by the hand, a small piece of bread in the other. The man returns to his cafe, with just one table occupied by a distracted Greek family.

In cities that are or become border areas, a geography of tolerance or rejection is always determined. There is the restaurateur who complains: "They have destroyed the business, they have to take them away. We are not the hotel of migrants, we have hotels only for tourists."

But then there are the owners of the small market on the waterfront, which without migrants who buy biscuits, bread or water would be closed at this time of year.

They have destroyed the business, they have to take them away. We are not the hotel of migrants, we have hotels only for tourists

The market now is even open on Sundays, and late into the evening. There are migrants here, as well as NGO workers, and business is business. In yet another vignette from this island, there is a foreign owner of a little hotel, who decided to move to Greece from Copenhagen 35 years ago. At the entrance, the carpet bears the logo of the UNHCR.

"Here we are 'refugees-friendly'," she says. "They [other locals] all complain, they say that tourism has decreased because there are migrants, the truth is that tourism goes wrong by ten years because no one has adjusted the sewage system and this town stinks. And nobody goes on vacation in a place that stinks."

And so, she says, "these migrants can become a resource".

Mayor Michalis Angeloupoulos returned to his hometown five years ago. He is a lawyer, a specialist in human rights, and worked for years in the European Commission. He became a candidate for the mayoralty in 2014, before the migration crisis that hit the Balkans.

"It seemed romantic to choose to be a mayor," he said. He dreamed of a serene life, not being tied up in this humanitarian crisis. "The inhabitants blame me for everything, and I understand them, we are few and I am the political reference point," he said. "Unfortunately, however, I do not have power over the [facility]. As mayor I can only bring water to the chemical baths and take out the garbage."

For Mayor Angeloupolos to access the migrant facility is as difficult as it is for journalists. He must ask for permission in Athens, from the Tsipras government.

He has asked twice in the past few months to visit the facility. He's not yet had an answer.

"If a child enters Europe, the day after we have the duty to guarantee him a roof and the possibility of going to school," he said.

"Instead, we have hundreds of children excluded from the educational system on the island. What I see around us is the debasement of ethical values ​​that should form the European Union as it was imagined. At the same time, we have to be honest: we do not cope with the pressure, our hospitals and our infrastructures are not able to meet the needs of everyone.

"This agreement with Turkey is simply unbalanced. [Look at] the numbers, say, on the island for three years - there is a city above the city."

It's true, and not only in a metaphorical sense.

The Samos migrant facility extends over a narrow area of ​​hillside that dominates Vathy, a terracing of containers surrounded by barbed wire.

The site is meant to cater for 650 people; around 5,000 people are dependent upon it [AFP]

At the entrance is a closed gate. The site is officially meant to host 650 people. At the moment there are almost 5,000 migrants on the island.

Thousands who do not have access to the official facility have built tents in the woods that surrounds it. An expanse of plastic: here, curtains reinforced with branches, there, a tarpaulin held down with stones. Someone has a table, a chair outside.

There is no running water in the camp, there is no light, there are no toilets and there is no way to warm up. It rains every night; you cannot even make a fire. And if you can, that carries more risks. If one tent were to catch fire, all of them will go.

At 6pm, as the sun dips behind the horizon, there is only cold and mud.

When you ask someone: When did you have your last shower? The lucky ones reply "one month ago", the less fortunate say "three". And if you ask how long have you been wearing the same clothes? They answer: six months. Or: I cannot change, I only have this jacket, just these pants.

Along the way from the field to the city there is the office of Samos Volunteers, a group of humanitarian workers who have got some rooms to teach English to migrants, support single women, boys. To give a warm place to spend at least an hour or two. They also run a laundry. Because living in a tent, in the cold, on a mattress wet with rain and sweat, sharing two square metres with another person, living without blankets, without hot water, without cough medicine, without clean clothes, is enough to dehumanise a person.

For this reason, the most repeated sentence among the tents of Samos is: We are not animals. We are not animals.

Brice is from Congo. At 6pm, when he leaves the Samos Volunteers' office, he returns "home" to his tent.

He bought it, like everyone else, in the bazaar run by a Chinese family. Greece does not even provide tents; those who live in the woods do so at their own risk and at their own expense.

Brice has put a lock on the curtain and holds the keys in his pocket. In the other pocket, a small torch. Walking on the mud, he takes one careful step after another. He must be careful not to slip on mud or excrement. "That tent is home and these trees the bathroom," he says. Brice is well dressed in green trousers and a blue jacket. He has another change of clothes in the tent. The chance to wash garments for those who have lived in a cold tent for months, is a chance to maintain their dignity. To not feel like an animal.

Those who have been on the island just a few months and might still have some savings in their pocket sometimes spend 30 euros for a night in a motel.

The chance to wash garments for those who have lived in a cold tent for months, is a chance to maintain their dignity. To not feel like an animal

This means sleeping in a properly sheltered place, it means being able to wash with hot water and not with a bottle in the woods. It means being able to wash children.

A few nights ago, this is what Bashir Massoudi did, along with his wife and their two daughters.

The girls had not washed for weeks, and Bashir has spent some of his savings to get them clean. "But then going back to the cold is difficult," he says.

They escaped from Iraq, and now live in a very small tent in the lower part of the woods. "I asked to have a place in the containers, but it's all full," he says. "They say that three families live in a container for one family. To have a meal you have to get in line at three or four in the morning and hope to be lucky, and that there is enough for everyone.

"But above all my little girls cannot go to school; they are seven and nine years old. They ask me: 'Dad, why can I not study, like all children?' And I do not know what to say."

Bashir looks down, a father who suffers and feels ashamed. His eldest daughter lays her head on his shoulder and says: "We tried to play with Greek children in the city, but they always move away. They all go away from us."

His wife Hana cries. "Sorry, we cannot offer you anything," she says. "We have nothing. The hardest thing is not waiting in line for hours for a meal, the hard thing is to feel the little girls are freezing and not know what to do, to know that they are living in cold and have nothing to cover them. How do you can be mothers like that?"

Being a mother in a damp tent, in a muddy forest on the border of Europe means not being able to wash your own children, not being able to warm them, spending each night hearing them coughing and knowing that cough will eventually become bronchitis, and that there is only one doctor for 650 people.

It means not being able to give your children hot milk. Not having a handkerchief to clean their nose. Getting in line and asking for diapers for your children, but knowing that you will need them yourself, because being a woman amid an informal tent city and needing to use a toilet at night means exposing yourself to the danger of sexual harassment.

It means waiting. Waiting for a pair of socks, a pair of shoes. Waiting for the end of the winter.

Francesca Mannocchi is a journalist who previously reported from the front lines of the battle for Mosul and on the refugee crisis in Libya. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mannocchia