In a small refugee camp at the foot of the old Venetian walls of the island of Chios, Ahmed, a 16-year old unaccompanied minor from Mosul, anxiously faces an uncertain future. This is Souda, a makeshift camp on the shore of the Aegean. It is a short walk from the port, the bustling cafes and restaurants, and the shopping district. There is no hunger in Souda. Children spend their days playing, and swimming in the sea. An army of humanitarians and foreign volunteers take care of the refugees’ every need. But escaping Souda, and Chios, is all that Ahmed dreams of.
The refugees call Chios the ‘prison island’. They can swim along its shore, move from one place to another, but they cannot leave. After the signing of the EU-Turkey deal on 18 March, they need an official permit to travel to Athens to continue the asylum process. Moving back to Turkey requires official deportation orders under the EU-Turkey deal, or €700 to pay human smugglers for a clandestine return. Some brave the turbulent waters and try to swim their way to freedom in Turkey. Penniless, and not so daring, Ahmed and many others I met in Chios have no choice but to wait.
ISIS captured Ahmed’s hometown in northern Iraq soon after his fourteenth birthday. Two years later, Ahmed’s parents paid $3,000 to human smugglers to save their son from ISIS and send him on his way to a new home in Europe. He’s now in Europe, but stranded on Chios. He is thinking of returning to ISIS-held territory.
More than 27,000 children and 2,250 unaccompanied minors are currently waiting in Greece. Like Ahmed, they are the new faces of the refugee crisis in Europe.
I first met Ahmed outside his tent on a hot August afternoon in Souda. I was there to chronicle the life experiences of refugee children trapped in Chios after the EU-Turkey deal. I soon became his friend and his confidant. He would greet me with a big smile and a hug, and we would talk about life in Europe and places far away from Souda. ‘There is no Daesh [ISIS] in Europe. You’re a Muslim, you’re a Jew, no problem in Europe,’ he told me. ‘Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria are no good. Europe is good,’ he said the first time we met.
The young Spanish women volunteering in the camp fascinated Ahmed. Unlike the Muslims he knew, they were happy and playful, and smiled all the time. ‘Look at the Muslims. They’re always sad,’ Ahmed said, making a sad face. He left his family to escape the ‘anger and violence’ of Muslims. But the violence he wished to escape followed him to Souda.
Ahmed, skinny and of medium height, wears a tank top with a large blue Nike sign. Like most boys his age in the camp, he shaves the sides of his head and wears a Nike cap backwards. Two silver necklaces given to him by his sister and a neighbourhood sweetheart stand out on his hairless chest. The sparse facial hair and a few pimples, with his almost constantly smiling face, give him a boyish look. And that caused him trouble from the day he arrived in Souda. He lost his cell phone and the last $50 in his possession while he was asleep in a tent with 40 or so older men, soon after he arrived in Souda. Two young Syrians from his tent were responsible for the theft, Ahmed told me.
Syrians regularly bullied Ahmed in the queue for showers and the bathrooms. ‘Go to hell. Get out of my way,’ they would say and push him away. At first, he brushed off the bullying. But soon he was irritated and restless. The bullying happened too often.
The smile disappeared from Ahmed’s face. He complained a lot. ‘I want to leave. Why am I still here? I want to go to Athens.’ But there was little prospect of escaping the island. Ahmed was just one more name on the long backlog of people waiting to be contacted for an interview about their status.
The EU-Turkey deal prioritised the review of asylum cases of Syrians in Greece. Unless suffering from visible vulnerabilities, the Iraqis, Afghans, Iraqis, Algerians and others have to wait their turn at the end of the long line of asylum seekers. And more asylum seekers keep arriving every day.
The deal temporarily halted the boat arrivals in Greece. An increasing number of refugees and migrants are, however, arriving on boats once again. Some 1,052 Syrians, Afghans and others crossed the sea to Greece between 29 August and 4 September; almost double the number of arrivals the week before according to statistics by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). August 2016 saw 3,437 new arrivals, slightly fewer than the 3,650 that came in April before the signing of the EU/Turkey deal. Nearly 40% of all arrivals are children. Ahmed’s chance of a speedy asylum process declines with every new child and minor arriving in Greece.
‘This place is not good. The UN here is not good. They don’t do anything,’ Ahmed said angrily outside the UNHCR trailer in Souda one evening. He felt betrayed by the UN, Europe, and even the happy and smiling European women. ‘They go and sleep in their homes. I sleep here worried about being attacked. I don’t sleep well.’
‘Why do the Syrians get papers to go to Athens and not me? OK, I’m from Iraq. But I am from Mosul. There is Daesh in Mosul. OK, you don’t send me to Athens. I will go to Mosul to Daesh,’ he said, holding an imaginary rifle in his hands and shooting. ‘Go to America and tell everyone about this. You write about this,’ he said before leaning on the UN trailer, covering his face and crying.
I did not see much of Ahmed after that evening. But then on my last day in Souda, he got a bad beating from a Syrian, much bigger than him. The Syrian had cut in front of him on the food line. Ahmed objected. The Syrian threw him on the ground, kicking and punching him on the face and stomach. The beating continued while others watched. Ahmed was badly roughed up by the time bystanders calmed the Syrian. Reza, a 14-year old Afghan, witnessed the assault.
When I met Reza, he had been in Souda with his extended family for more than four months. Arriving in Chios on a dinghy from Turkey, Reza and family were registered, fingerprinted and sent off to Souda. That was their last contact with the Greek authorities. The family has since been waiting for someone to contact them for an interview or a word about their asylum status.
Reza, a bit round and always wearing a light blue T-shirt and slippers, looks three years younger than his age. He spends his days playing football and swimming in the sea. Unlike Ahmed, he sleeps in a trailer, protected by his family. Syrians never bullied him. But Reza says that in Souda he has witnessed widespread violence, attempted suicides and even the aftermath of a murder, things that he ‘will never forget. Many young men in Souda and the other big camp on the island tried to end their own lives before you arrived here,’ Reza told me. Frustrated with the indeterminate waiting, young Syrians and Afghans cut their wrists in acts of suicide or protest. Reza said he had seen ambulances taking away young men with bleeding wrists; a few hours later, the men would return with white gauze wrapped around their wrist. Others tried hanging themselves. ‘Look at their arms and chests. You will see long scars from the cuts.’
While some harmed themselves, others took out their rage and frustration on other refugees. Afghans attached Syrians. Syrians ambushed Afghans; they fought with knives and metal bars, they broke heads and slashed faces. Watching the adults fight, children cheered; others copied their elders, kicking and punching friends after the slightest disagreement, and hurling rocks at their playmates for fun. Reza felt bewildered by the violence. ‘A war between the Afghans and the Syrians is a very bad war. Children and women also get affected. Let’s say the Afghans come to Souda to kill a Syrian. That Syrian is not alone. He has a wife and children. Don’t you think the children of the man get hurt? What would they do without him?’ he said.
‘What do you want the most in your life?’ I asked Reza one afternoon. ‘Arameh, peace of mind,’ he said. But he knew only too well he could not have a peace of mind any time soon. Maybe never.
Reza has been a refugee all his life. He is the oldest child of an Afghan refugee family in Iran. Leyla, Reza’s mother, has lived in Iran since she was two. She is now 36. Similarly, Reza’s father, Hamid, lived in Iran from the age of eight. Nobody in Reza’s family had a permanent residence permit. After more than three decades, the family lived in constant fear of being deported to Afghanistan.
Worse still, Hamid had worked without a permit for a couple of years. If caught by the authorities, he risked being returned to Afghanistan or asked to fight for Assad’s army in Syria, an alternative to deportation. ‘I don’t know anything about Afghanistan and don’t want to fight in any war,’ Hamid told me. Worried about the future of their children, Hamid and Leyla sold all they had and left Iran in the hope of a secure home in Europe.
For now, Reza is trapped in Souda with his family. ‘Our life has turned upside down. Who knows, we may be here another year. They may send us somewhere else for some time, Reza told me. That ‘somewhere’ may be Afghanistan if Reza and family are denied asylum in Greece. Iran will not accept them. And under the new deal with the EU, Turkey only has the obligation to accept deported Syrian refugees.
With the growing number of people displaced by the Syrian war, Reza’s family has little chance of being granted asylum anywhere in Europe. In a new agreement between the EU and Afghanistan in early October, the Afghan government has agreed to accept an unlimited number of Afghans deported from Europe in the coming months and years. The deportees will include women and children and unaccompanied minors. Afghanistan is seen as a safe country, and Afghans must return home to rebuild their country, according to the new motto in the EU and much of the world.
I left Souda at the end of August. I searched everywhere for Ahmed before leaving the camp; he was nowhere to be found. Days later, I received a Facebook message from him. ‘I’m really unhappy here. No one helps me get out of here really. I got to know one person who could get me out but he wants €500. But I don’t have the money. I don’t know what to do.’ That was the last time I heard from him. I have tried reaching him many times, without success.
Reza and his family are now coming up to their seventh month on the island. No one has yet contacted them after their initial registration — they have joined the population of forgotten refugees on Europe’s periphery.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.