Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Report From the Borderlines: Where Tourists and Refugees Share an Island

by Nomad

The Greek island of Chios lies at the far east edge of Europe. Beyond that is Turkey and the rest of Asia and the Middle East. This island is also one of the corridors through which thousands of refugees and migrants are risking their lives in a bid for a new life in Europe.

The reaction to the viral- indeed iconic- photo of a dead child on the beach in Bodrum in Western Turkey has ignited a worldwide discussion about the plight of the refugees and migrants attempting to enter into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. A collective conscience has apparently awoken from its slumber.

It's been a long time in coming. This sudden reaction to the death of one child seems a little hypocritical. Especially when refugee families and their children have been dying in the wine-dark sea for months now.

Although the struggles of refugees to cross into Europe has been going on for years now, the wave of illegal migration from Turkey really cranked up at the beginning of summer.

This tragedy didn't begin in Turkey, however. The roots go back years and a lot of children and families have suffered and have died without much notice.
Before this present crisis, it was Syrian children and entire families huddled in tents during the dead of winter on the border of Syria and Turkey. At that time, European leaders paid the minimal amount of lip service.
Before that, dead children at school being shelled by mortars in Damascus.
All of these children too were innocent casualties of a needlessly prolonged war.  

The Crossing
Last week I made a similar crossing from Turkey to Greece. Similar perhaps, but certainly not the same.  I came as a welcomed tourist with Euros in my pocket, not a desperate refugee in shabby clothes.  
Actually, every summer for the past few years, my Turkish friend, Inan and I have made the journey to the quiet relief of Chios. to escape the overcrowded, noisy and generally insufferable tourist "hotspots" back in Turkey.  

As our ferry crossed the narrow strait, the weather dramatically changed from the moist oven-like heat to a sea wind chill. At this point in the crossing, sweaters are removed from bags and people decide the inside was, after all, a better spot. 
The waves gently lifted the boat as it met the resistance like fist punching against the sea. Progressing, staggering and progressing. The water slammed against the side of the ship and sprayed the tourists with a salty mist. 

While the sea may look as flat as an ironing board from either shore, once out at sea, it's an entirely different story. 
The distance too is deceptive. The opposite coast actually seems to recede away as you plod on. 

I have seen the illusion dozens of times. From the Turkish shore, Greece appears practically within swimming distance. That's true of all of the crossing points, like Ayvalik to Lesbos, or Bodrum to Kos. The islands seem tantalizingly close. They are is not. They are far enough away to make rescue nearly impossible and the sea is deep enough to swallow entire families.

The throbbing bass of discos from Turkish nightclubs can be heard from Greece at night. It's that close but the sounds of women and children crying or calling for help do not carry as far.
*   *   *
It's a crossing I've made many times. I have seen the sea far worse than this. In winter, the waves roll the small ferry from side to side or force it to climb hills of sea and slide down the other side. The day we crossed was calm by comparison.

Still I couldn't imagine what it must be like to try to make this crossing in an overloaded inflatable raft. And at night? I wouldn't even swim in the sea at night.

"Can you imagine that? Imagine crossing this at night?" I asked my Turkish friend. His patience with Middle Easterners is limited in the best of times.  
"Irresponsible!" he shouted back over the roar of the wind and the drone of the ship engine. 
His idea is that Syria would never have gotten so bad if those people hadn't run away if only they had stayed and fought. It's a common line of thinking in Turkey. 
But then how can you fight a three-way crossfire that includes nerve agents and barrel bombs?  Where everything and everyone, including babies are part of some collateral damage calculation. 

A Question of Responsibility
I stared down at the churning foam of our ship's wake.  I thought, but yes, it was irresponsible to risk the lives of children. What would make a parent put his/her family in such danger? How could anybody be that desperate? 

Regardless of the risk, the impetus for these people is to keep moving west. They are not wanted wherever they go. It's really that simple. There is a big difference between being tolerated and being welcomed. 
And Turkey- despite its initial hospitality- has reached its limit of tolerance. The situation there has become more and more unsustainable. Turkey, like Jordan or Lebanon, simply can no longer deal with the refugee problem alone.

For one thing, the Turkish economy is in terrible shape and the last thing the country needs is another burden. The Turkish lira plunged to record lows against the dollar. Unemployment has long been a major problem. Refugee families are not allowed to work (legally) and food and shelter are often based only on the kindness of faraway strangers. 

Earlier this summer, the refugees began appearing in Turkey's third largest city, Izmir on the West coast. All over town, they camped out in the parks and on the sidewalks. That was very bad news for a city that makes quite a bit from tourism in the summer.

There was an incident in Izmir last July which a restaurant manager slapped around a refugee child who was begging from tourists. The man continued to beat him even when people intervened to stop the assault at the minor. Photos were taken then too. For proud Turks, it was an embarrassment. For the rest of the world, it merely confirmed the stereotypic image of the barbaric Turk.
It was uncharacteristic and brought howls of condemnation from Turks. At least on social media. But it was in some ways a gauge of how the tensions are rising.

How they arrived and kept arriving was never very clear. Turkey is a much larger than area than the maps suggest and however they came, the journey must have been a long and tiring one. The trip also must surely have involved layers of poaching and the slow stripping away of whatever financial resources the refugees have managed to hold onto. 

They have to keep moving for practical reasons. It is clear that this method of slipping into Europe -from the back door- cannot last forever. Eventually, the loophole will be sealed so there is no time to waste.

Where there is the sweat of desperation, there is somebody out there who will find a way to exploit it. People-smuggling, with the Turkish economy in free fall, is clearly a flourishing industry. 

And not just in Turkey but all along the refugee trail from Turkey and all the way through Europe. It has taken on the appearance of a gauntlet. The longer these people stay in one place the longer the victimization continues.

The Island of Asylum

Within sight of the Turkish shore at Cesme, there sits the Greek island of Chios, a temptation to the desperate and an asylum to the wanderers seeking refuge.

Since human history began, Chios has been a "place of imperfect security." As one traveler in the 19th century noted, Chios has suffered from repeated invasions and it might seem humble today, but in former ages, it was "a strenuous advocate of liberty and vigorous defender of her own rights." 
For this, it has historically paid a heavy price.

In modern times, this has been especially true. It was the site of one of the worst calamities of the 19th century when the Ottoman Turks invaded the island which had dared to try to break free from the Sultan's rule. That invasion led to the deaths of twenty thousand islanders and the forced deportation of most of the population.  
In 1922, as the Turks marched into Smyrna (present-day Izmir) to drive out the Greek armies, the local Greek and Armenian population were caught up in the crossfire and the settling of scores. An echo of what's going on now in Syria.
Much of the population fled for their lives and many ended up in Chios. (For surprising economic reasons, the Turks and the Greeks islanders now have the best relationship they've had in decades.)
The details of this present situation may be different and the distance might be wider but history is repeating itself with the Syrian families today. It boils down to a search for a refuge from war.
A safe place to raise children, to earn a living and to prosper.

It is a rare thing when you actually see history being made before your eyes. But that's what this the constant flow of migrants and refugees from the Turkish coast is.
Exact numbers are impossible to pin down but in July of this year, it was estimated that nearly 50,000, mainly on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, and Kos. Another source estimates that around 2,000 refugees a day are landing in dinghies that set sail from Turkey. That number wouldn't surprise me.
It is nothing short of an invasion.

Irony and Bureaucracy

Our ferry boat trudged into the harbor of Chios town and there was the usual mad scramble to be the first to get off the ship, through passport control. 
Being one of the first in line, (YEAH, baby!) I presented my passport to the Greek official who sat in his cramped glass booth and clicked at his computer all day. With a bored expression, he stamped the visa and waved me through. I then sat outside waiting for my Turkish friend. Inan. At that moment, the same passport clerk ran outside.
"Sir. Sir. Can you come back here a moment?" 
That's not a good sign.
"There's a problem with hyour passport," he said, giving me a very steady, slightly accusatory look. That is definitely not the thing any traveler wants to hear. Still more worrying, he refused to elaborate.
Keeping calm and respectable is that much harder when you know that trying to look calm and respectable is a tell-tale sign of guilt. It is hard not to look like a criminal when it is already assumed you are one. I imagined a night at a dimly-lit police station, with sweaty interrogators coming and going, chattering away in Greek about me.

A rabbit-faced woman in line stared closely at me, fully convinced I was guilty of some kind of crime. There was a problem with his passport, I thought I heard them say in the line. A long sigh. About a minute later, the passport guy slapped my passport down and literally waved me off. No explanation. No apologies. The heart palpitations subsided eventually. 

It was all so absurd too. Within a quarter of a mile, in the same harbor, there were no less than perhaps 500 or more refugees and migrants, all of them without any official paperwork, passports or visas. The majority of them are technically illegal. And yet, here I am with my seriously-blue American passport, under suspicion for an unspecified crime. Or something. 

Even as the once-solid borders dissolve right under their noses, the fussy bureaucrats will carry on, asserting their cross-eyed authority, stamping their permissions and clacking away at keyboards. 

Subtle Signs of a Crisis

The passport control office is situated at the far end of the long breakwater of the harbor.

As soon as we left the building and began to walk around to the seafront, Chios' problem was plain to see. And yet, most tourists coming to this humble Greek island seem to pass by without registering any reaction.
It's a case of willing blindness. Who, after all, wants to see such abject despair on vacation? What with the food, the sweet Chios wine and "the nights so fine and crystal and the sky like old lace" it is not difficult to forget that our world is generally a confused and unhappy place.

As I walked along the seafront, to the right, I could see a holding area with half a dozen young men milling about. Last year, it was full. This year it is largely empty. Why? you might ask. The reason is pretty simple. It could no longer hold the crowds that began washing up on shore early this summer.
To the left, we passed a long line of men, women and children sitting, squatting and laying  in the parking lot in the afternoon sun. No shade whatsoever.  They appeared to be melting like wax figures into the pavement.
Why were they there and why in the sun? Were they leaving or were they arriving? Were they criminals, illegal migrants, victims of smugglers or a combination of all of these? 
In the blazing noonday sun, they seemed to be extraordinarily patient. If that's even the right word for people who have lost everything and cling to one hope- escape to a better place than this.

A less-observant tourist on vacation could perhaps never see what's actually going on. From airport to hotel, to beach to carefully-guided tour and back to the airport, these Nordic holidaymakers could easily come and go and never realize that this island, like all of the coastal islands in the Aegean, has a serious problem. The attempt to deal with this problem is largely a matter of keeping the most distressing aspects hidden from tourists.  

Once you understand that a crisis is happening then your eyes suddenly seem to adjust to the light, so to speak.  A stroll around the harbor and you encounter groups of ragged looking young men a shade darker than the darkest Greek.
Up until recently, it was hardly possible to hear anybody speaking Arabic in Chios. Today it is a whispered language among the refugees.
Contrary to news reports, these are not all Syrians. They are, in fact, a diverse lot, coming mostly from Syria, but also Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

In Chios, these people generally seem rather shy and do not speak to the locals. They do not mingle with or beg change from the tourists. They might be desperate but somehow they don't look especially threatening. With all of the women in colorful scarves, Greece hasn't looked this Islamic since the days of the Ottomans.   
On some of the faces, there is a look of utter exhaustion. Or is it boredom? Or it is anticipation? They are ready to move on and Europe doesn't really begin until they reach the mainland which- by looking at the map- seems so close. 
*   *   *
The signs of the crisis are subtle. walking from the harbor, I watched a father and mother washing their crying baby with a hose on the side of the road. Right outside the passport control area, there was a tent pitched for the long term, where a family lives.
A drive out of the town and it's hard to overlook all of the abandoned fluorescent life jackets in many of the dumpsters. A tourist might never notice these things unless they were paying attention.
That's exactly how the Greeks authorities- so dependent on tourism- would prefer it.  As the Greek Minister of Tourism, Elena Kountoura,  said in Parliament recently:
"Tourism is ... our heavy industry, it is the main economic source of income today and also the main source of jobs for many Greeks."
So the stakes are high and priorities have to be maintained. 

To the north of the island of Lesbos, the situation is very different. Last Saturday, Greek riot police armed with shields and batons used force against hundreds of angry refugees. The saturation point has long been exceeded there with an estimated 17,000 refugees and migrants trapped on the island. One young man told reporters: 
“I’ve been here for seven days. We have no water, no food and no toilets,”

Greek Pastry in the Midst of Despair

There's far less chaos in Chios.
You can breakfast on bougatsa (cream-filled phyllo pastry covered in cinnamon and powdered sugar) and as you sip your slightly bitter, slightly sweet frappe at an outdoor cafe, all around you, the old Greek men and women chatter together as they always have. The residents of the island don't seem to notice the refugees at all. It's like they are invisible.

It's not a question of indifference or a lack of compassion. It's just typical Greek pragmatism. Once you notice a problem, you must then, as a moral imperative, act to resolve it or take responsibility for not doing something.
Besides that, many in Greece, like many in Turkey, are in no position to give aide. The easiest type of charity comes in a time of plenty. That's not the situation in either country at the moment.

Though you will never hear it said, the locals must be saying amongst themselves that the sooner these people go, the happier everybody will be.
If nothing else, the Greeks are perhaps even more patient than the refugees.

I can't blame the Greeks for their attitude, but it does seem a little surreal at times. Within 50 feet of that same square, in the public park, entire families are camped out, sleeping on cardboard and making do on nothing per day. How many weeks they've been there, it's impossible to say.
The grass in the park is dust and dirt now. Their laundry is strung up from the metal gates or between the trees, or draped over the bushes. The park offers them one vital utility- a place to stay clean. The public toilets are also used to sponge bath and to wash their clothes.
Meanwhile, their children are slowly but surely going feral.

Blame and Responsibility

It is a rare thing when you actually see history being made. But that's what is happening in the Aegean at the moment. Exact numbers are impossible to pin down but in July of this year, it was estimated that nearly 50,000, mainly on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Kos.
Another source estimates that around 2,000 refugees a day are landing in dinghies that set sail from Turkey. 

For months, the Turks have turned a blind eye to the exodus.The beaches near Bodrum from where hundreds of dinghies have departed are by no means remote or unobserved – they sit right in front of luxury villa developments and next to marinas. The few roads that lead to the beaches could easily be controlled by the Turkish authorities, had they chosen to do so.
In turn, the Turkish president Recep Erdogan threw the blame back at the Europeans.  He reminded them that Turkey has taken in somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million refugees since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. It has, he claimed, been left to shoulder the burden while other Western states stand by. Promises of help were made by agencies that were never delivered. It wasn't a matter of urgency while the crisis remained on Turkish soil.
So we are back to the question of responsibility.

For people in the US and elsewhere, it is Kosova all over again. Europe once again dithers while a problem that needed concerted and resolute action immediately is allowed to spin out of control.
As it blossoms into a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, European leaders begin the usual finger-pointing games.

That failure brings up yet another painful existential question. If these leaders cannot come together and work out some kind of compromise (in terms of shared burdens posed by the migration) then what is the exact purpose of the EU?
As a union of nations, they cannot even manage to come together to defend its borders.

The Trail of Tears and Hope

On the third day, Inan and I decided to explore the island by local bus. We asked about the marvelous black beach in the south part of the island.
"Not today. That's only on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays." The woman behind the counter told us.
It was Wednesday. 
"What about this place?" Inan said, pointing at the photocopied map.
"No. Not today. Only on Saturdays and Tuesdays." She added. "And you have to stay overnight."
"Well. where can we go?"
She paused and then drew out an extensive itinerary for us, involved various stops at unpronounceable villages, complicated with phrases like "Then you can catch the last bus to... here...and you can take a taxi back in the evening."
"How much will that cost.. around?"
She guessed about 20 Euros. (Later another local estimated 30 Euros.)  

Still, the northern part of the island was an area I had not seen before so we bought our tickets for the green bus line.
The green buses serve the outlying parts of the island. The drivers must have nerves of steel to negotiate the tight turns in village roads made for donkeys. Where village windows slide by so close you can practically smell what's cooking in the kitchen.
The buses are, however, in a sorry state. They have been for a long time now. What was once quaint is now just depressing. With dingy curtains and dusty windows and duct tape covering rips in the seats, the green bus line is an example of neglect. It is hard to remember this is EU country and not the Third world.

At the bus station, everywhere you look are small clusters of sullen or bored young men. Clearly, these refugees were waiting waiting.. but waiting for what? I may not be a genius in geography but taking a bus to the Greek mainland seemed to be a lousy idea.

I later learned that the local authorities are quietly bussing them to the other side of the island, presumably to camps, and far away from any curious tourists. From there, presumably, they will be taken by ferry boat to Athens, then to Thessaloniki in the north. From there, like a refugee conveyor belt, they will be dropped off at the border to Serbia. 
That's when the trail of tears and hope really begins.

Might as Well be Alpha Centauri

Faced with the prospect of sitting in the ratty bus station for an hour, we eventually decided to wander in Chios town. It's a pretty town with a seafront of restaurants and bars and shops. Grandmothers zip past on Vepas, perilously close to you on the narrow streets. "Sleepy" is a word you find in guide books describing Chios town but that's not how I would describe it.

We somehow ended up in a supermarket. There, I spied a pair of young Middle-Eastern men- student types- walking from aisle to aisle. One of them was carrying two loaves of factory-made bread. Perhaps he hadn't seen bread so square, so uniform and sealed in plastic.

I notice that he was studying a plastic tub from the refrigeration section. He traces the Greek letters with his finger. Then he scans the French words. None of it made sense. He works up the courage to ask a local shopper. They struggle to communicate.  The Greek tries to remember the right word in English- once the common language of Europe. He thinks for a second. and then he says loudly "Cheese!"
The pair whispers a translation back and forth and put the tub back.
How these poor people will ever be capable of adapting in Europe- if they make it that far- is anybody's guess.

The bus station is a big draw for the old Greek men for some reason. They play backgammon and hobnob all day. Slap goes the plastic tiles and a round of laughter.
We sit and wait and wait. I hear the voice of an old man- The geezer (with a big white mustache and a cap) sits at a table next to a dark long legged refugee.

The Greek asks him where he is going ( in English). The mood of the young guy suddenly changes. He is like a different person. It is probably the first conversation he has had with a local. It is made clear to him to all of them that they are nonentities.
The refugee smiles. "Sweden"  he tells the old man. 
"Sweden?" The old man blinks and I know what he is probably thinking. 
As far as the young guy has traveled and all of the problems he has so far faced all of that is only the beginning. Sweden might as well be Alpha Centauri.

A Haven of Civilization and Comfort

Fast forward, about two or three hours. 
By the time we get to where we want to go, the day is shot. Around sunset, after walking for hours along the roads and highway, I suddenly find myself sitting in the back of a red pickup, speeding down the twisting road that borders the sea. The vast expanse of the cobalt sea is on one side and the sheer rock face on the other.

Lawrence Durrell in his book on the Greek islands describes the scene:
...You never forget the presence of the mainland- the grim promontory of Karaburna- a name like a drum beat-which faces you across the blue water. In ancient times, Chios must have seem a haven of civilization and comfort lying just within the shoulder of the shaggy bear of Anatolia.
*    *    *
Balking at the idea of paying a small fortune for the taxi cab ride back to the town, we had made the extremely foolish decision to walk/hitchhike back to town. (On the map it seemed like a short distance.)
By a stroke of luck or charity, an old man in a beat-up truck took pity on us and screeched to a stop.
And off we flew.
In the back, I am holding on for dear life in the back as the truck banks and careens like a marlin on the line. For a glorious, exuberant moment, with the mountains leaning over me, the wind lashing at my face, the flame-like sound in my ears, I forget about every misery that every person ever endured.
It's all gone.
It seems as close to Mediterranean paradise as I can imagine. But it's a harsh kind of paradise, nice to visit but hard to survive and thrive in. 

The narrow road crests a hill and dives through a cool pine forest. Through the trees, I glimpse a small beach down below. 
And then unexpectedly, there they are. A crowd of refugees is huddled on the shoulder of the road. Others are trudging up the steep gravel road from the beach. For a second, we stare at one another. The driver gives a short honk of his horn. 

As we pass, I wave at them on impulse. To my surprise they all begin to smile and wave back. After their dangerous crossing, this welcoming gesture proved that they have actually arrived. But that is a lie. 
They hadn't arrived. They had only survived.

And then the road turns and they disappear. The question lingers though : Where will they be a month from now?

Search for A Safe Place  

Now that the wave of refugees has finally reached the heart of Europe, the problem can no longer be ignored. 

For the moment, the Europeans can have their moment of angst over drowned toddlers. Perhaps now that the problem has finally come home to roost, there will be long-term solutions. 
However, that's not going to be easy. It was reported today that the EU authorities are planning to go after the smugglers which they reckon to be around a staggering 30,000 people
This has also become a high-tech enterprise with traffickers often advertising their services on social media. Putting an end to this billion-dollar industry is not, however, putting an end to the problem.

For the moment, the only solution left is to abandon any semblance of control over the EU internal and external borders.  If the Greek crisis was a test of the financial soundness of European Union, then this present refugee crisis is even more decisive. It has become a test of the territorial sovereignty of the Union itself. 
It is unspoken at the moment but there is a larger concern. What's next for Europe? What kind of precedent does this set for all migrations into the EU?

In a rush to offer aid to these people, what about the costs to European social fabric? Those costs include housing and feeding, free medical care, job training, language skills and the long process integration into European culture.
Will all that even be possible? 

There is one other fear, greater than all the others: How many of these people are really refugees and how many are simply undesirables back in their own country? 

Shades of the 1980 Mariel boatlift in which Castro allegedly used to empty a Cuban jails and mental health facilities.  
That's a very real threat to EU security. As the number of refugees grows by thousands every day, Europe leaders with have to give up any idea of a tight screening process. Time will reveal all things and the reverberations of what is happening at this moment will continue for the next decade.

Sabotage of the European Union wasn't what the refugees had in mind. Quite the opposite. They were looking for a home, a place free of unending conflict. A safe place to raise children is getting harder and harder to find.

Ironically, for the refugees crossing from Turkey into Greece,  the search for that safe place to raise your children includes the very real risk of losing your entire family to the sea.