“Touch them, help them, feed them, give them water and you’ll be arrested.” This is the latest instruction to refugee volunteers, who in their humanity are trying to save lives. Europe has sunk that low. Today, all across the barbed wire fences that seal off Fortress Europe, refugees are being shunned as if they are lepers. In a week’s time thousands of refugee supporters will head to the Idomeni border crossing to show solidarity: their ultimate objective is to smash the borders. Meanwhile the Greek Government, in hock (literally) to the EU, is merely obeying orders, transporting thousands of refugees from the Greek islands to the ‘hotspot’ detention centres on the mainland for ‘processing’ (returns to Turkey). And starting from today (Sunday) any new arrivals will be returned to Turkey too – in many cases, back to the war zones from which they fled. This is called European ‘efficiency’: Herr Hitler would have been proud.
— Theurgia_Goetia (@Theurgia_Goetia) March 19, 2016
In 1943 Adolf Hitler ordered the deportation of all Jews in Denmark to Nazi concentration camps. More than 99 percent of them were saved, however, because thousands of people risked imprisonment to smuggle over 7,500 men, women and children to safety in Sweden in a matter of days.
Before the outbreak of World II, one man, Nicholas Winton, took it upon himself to save hundreds of Jewish children from the concentration camps: he secretly organised a train – the famous KinderTransport – and brought them all to Britain. Some, though,were left behind: they perished in Auschwitz.
A. Volunteers arrested, threatened
Today, scores of volunteers are simply trying to assist refugees, too, to flee war and persecution, but in doing so risk arrest. Indeed, volunteers have had their accommodation stormed by riot police and have been submitted to full-body searches. Frontex guards began throwing volunteers in jail several weeks back: it was a sign of things to come.
The first five arrested—two Danes from Team Humanity and three Proem-Aid lifeguards—were locked up on smuggling charges after they rescued 51 people from a stranded dinghy that the coastguard would not look for. ‘They treated us like terrorists,’ one of the Proem-Aid volunteers told the Spanish newspaper El País when they were released on bail for €5-10,000 per head. The custodial sentence is five to ten years.
‘We do feel as if we are in the resistance in World War Two,’ said Lara, a young Dutch volunteer on Chios. ‘We were “randomly” checked for papers and passports and told not to feed the hungry. Every move we make is being watched now.’
So far this year, 12 international volunteers have been arrested in Lesvos: seven were arrested on suspicion of stealing used lifejackets from a municipality rubbish dump. A further five – two Danish citizens and three Spanish lifeguards – were arrested and accused of attempted people smuggling and possession of arms (knives), after they responded to distress calls of a refugee boat.
‘The Spanish lifeguards were saving lives. And we know that without them the number of deaths would have doubled or even tripled,’ says Efi Latsoudi from Pikpa. This self-organized group in Lesvos has supported the accused, demanded an end to the criminalization of people who conduct rescue operations on the beaches, and paid for the legal defence of the Spanish lifeguards. ‘They were treated like criminals – they spent 60 hours in a police cell that wasn’t even fit for animals – they couldn’t sleep, eat or go to the toilet. They came to Greece to save lives, to save children. It was obvious in recent days that there has been an attack on solidarity groups. They aren’t just criminalizing them, they are also saying these people are dangerous to the security of the state. I think they have become annoyed by all these rescue operations. They want to take control of the beaches and for Frontex to operate without people seeing what they are doing.’
But despite the threats volunteers continue to do what they are doing: they are the true moral force in Europe, putting to shame the bureaucrats and rule-makers that permeate the continent.
The above tweet is from a man who has been living on the Greek islands for some years and has witnessed attack after attack on refugee boats by the Turkish coastguard. Now, though, it’s all about to get far worse.
B. EU-Turkey refugee plan about to commence
As of today arrangements will be place to force undocumented refugees or those whose asylum applications are rejected to be returned to Turkey via vessels or charter flights.
From 21 March the ‘hotspots’ on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samors, Leros and Kos are to be emptied (so that they can be turned into detention centres for the new arrivals of refugees). Those refugees already on the islands are to be transported to the ports of Skaramangas (western Attica), Volos (Central Greece) and Kavala (North-Eastern Greece). Note: it is unclear if the EU-Turkey deal applies to the thousands of refugees currently stranded in mainland Greece (or the Balkans).
(There are also signs of hope… In Athens, for example, anarchists have set up refugee centres, run not on NGO lines but on the basis of mutual aid.)
C. Tales from the Idomeni camp
In the meantime the Moving Europe team has gathered testimonies of people who crossed into Macedonian/FYROM territory after having taken part in a march of several hundred refugees from Idomeni camp in Greece. Near the village of Moin, Macedonia/FYROM, independent observers were separated from the refugees by Macedonian military. The statements below describe the events that took place after this separation. These are testimonies from people the Moving Europe team marched with and visited again today. These people have all been pushed back illegally from Macedonia/FYROM to Greece, without having been given the possibility to ask for international protection.
The first testimony is of a family of five; two adults and three children one of which is a three-month old baby… When they crossed through to Macedonia/FYROM, the crowd they were in was separated into groups of about 50 people and were made to sit on the ground. Guarded by the military, they were made to sit for 10 hours outside. They were not given any food and when they asked for water the military refused their request, even when it was to mix the water with powder for the baby’s milk. They witnessed both women and men being beaten by the army. After the long wait, they were brought to a hole in the border fence and pushed through it back to Greece. They could see the hotel close to the official car and truck border crossing in the distance so they started walking towards it because they knew it was close to the camp. The walk back to Idomeni camp lasted 1 hour.
The second statement comes from an elderly couple, a man and a woman, who both have a heart condition… They crossed the border to Macedonia/FYROM and were stopped by the army. They were kept in the village close to where they were stopped for several hours together with a group of about 100 people. At first, they were outside in the cold and wet. Then they say they were taken to some kind of shelter, where it was still very cold. Here, police and military were drinking alcohol, laughing a lot and making fun of them. The army would beat whoever spoke up against them in this setting. All the people were then loaded into an old truck and brought to the fence. Here, the couple saw the soliders cut a hole in the fence. Whilst they were being pushed back to Greece, the soldiers insulted them with animal names such as cow, dog and donkey. They also told them they were “Muslim dogs”. The walk back to the camp took them around one hour.
D, a young man told us that he crossed the river, walked some more and ended up in a village where there was Macedonian military. The military divided him and the other he was with into big groups. There were no NGOs nor the UN where they were made to wait. Eventually, the military brought them to a car and the car brought them back to the border. From the border D walked back to the camp in Idomeni. When he came back to his friends in the camp, they told him they were beaten up by the police on the Macedonian side and were told never to come back to Macedonia/FYROM. He was back at the camp at 6 o’clock in the evening but he said that many kept coming all through the night, until around 2AM.
After having crossed into Macedonia/FYROM, M was separated from the journalists and the activists he was with. The group he was a part of was made to sit for seven hours on the ground in the village. Whilst they were waiting in the cold, he said the group tried several times to start a fire. At first the military did not allow them to, but in the end they succeeded. “Either they would have killed us or we would have just died of the cold” he declared, “so we managed to make the fire, despite the military not wanting us to”. After seven hours waiting outside, M’s group was transported in old trucks “like the ones I saw in the films of the second war”, to a location in the mountains. M estimated that the drive lasted 30 minutes. Then the army cut a hole in the fence and pushed the people back onto Greek territory. He then had to walk for about 15 kilometres, a 4 hour walk in total, back to Idomeni camp. He ended his statement by saying “whether we make it to Europe with the relocation program or by another way, I am sure we will find our way to Europe because we are smart. The life of a refugee is very dangerous and adventurous”. M would like to write a book about his “miserable adventures” someday.
Wake up! This is Europe now (not WWII).
The following is a breakdown of all 47,536 refugees, location by location, currently in Greece (source: Keep Talking Greece)