On the Refugee Trail to Europe
Chios: Pina Coladas and Razor Wire
As I step off a ferry into the port of
Chios island in Greece, I'm struck by an immediate military presence. Soldiers disembark a military truck in front of me, the sound of their boots appearing to be in sync with the low frequency drumming of helicopters blades dicing the
cool spring air above. A camp in the port has just been closed, as refugees carry
their belongings down the road, leaving behind a pile of used life jackets.
There is a giant Blue Star Cruise ship backed up against the harbour, looking
as though any horizontal bowel movement might wrench the island apart with it. Sprawled along the dock are women nursing crying babies, children eating bread and bored looking men and boys. On the higher levels, refugees hang over the railings, shouting to
others below, with their wet clothes draped over the side to dry. On one side of
the main street along the port, locals and tourists sit in fancy cafes and
hotel lobbies, while on the other, refugees sit in the dust with their belongings,
waiting for another instruction from the authorities. Such a contrast is sharp on
Chios, as tourists, foreigners and locals socialise to smooth Mediterranean music, sipping cocktails among the madness of all that entails a
I reach Vial, the registration site on
Chios as a busload of new arrivals pulls up. As they filter out I begin to see
their faces; mothers with weary expressions carrying children asleep on their
shoulders, young boys sleepless and slumped. They are filed into the camp
through a cracked open, barbed razor wire topped gate. I’m entirely convinced
the refugees who just hopped off the bus have no idea they are being led to
their detention, as the EU-Turkey deal ordering the immediate detention of
refugees arriving on the Greek islands was supposedly implemented from midnight
last night. There are reports of refugees pleading with authorities to state
that they arrived a day earlier to avoid being detained in the new deal,
telling them they would rather die than go back to Turkey. Others describe people
reaching the shore of Chios and asking volunteers, ‘Is this Germany?’ Most of
the shelters display maps of Europe with Arabic translation of country names,
as many uninformed refugees are lied to by smugglers who tell them they will
land on the shore of their destination of choice.
Chios: Search and Rescue
The next morning I receive an email from a
Dutch journalist called Maral, who I met after arriving at Chios port. She
tells me there’s a boatload of refugees that has been intercepted and arriving at the port shortly, so I leave my lavish,
carefully arranged Greek breakfast half ingested and catch a Taxi, pronto. When
I reach the port the boat has already arrived, and I meet Maral who is talking
in Farsi to some of the Afghan refugees. I’m able to take some shots of a few
of the new arrivals, and talk with a couple of Afghan boys who speak English.
One of them has a harrowing story. He tells me that he served four years in the
Afghan army, completing training by the U.S. marines for bomb deactivation.
After recovering from a bullet through his leg in combat with Islamic State,
he was caught in an explosion while trying to defuse a bomb. Despite wearing a bomb
suit and a heavy protective helmet, he suffered a broken arm, where his bone is
now misaligned, and lost the bottom half of his two front teeth in the blast
impact. He smiles nonetheless, proudly presenting me with his certificate of
bomb squad training from the U.S. government on his mobile phone.
That afternoon, a couple of Dutch volunteers called Hilda and
Evon invite Maral and I to accompany them in scouting boats from shore. We
drive to four different locations and scan the Aegean channel with a pair of binoculars.
White caps sweep the cobalt blue surface to the faded outline of the adjacent
Turkish coast. Search and rescue rubber duckies occasionally bounce around a
headland and the shape of frigates hide among the hazy horizon, but this
morning there are no incoming boats to report. Hilda and Evon inform me that yesterday
in the early hours of the morning a boat carrying forty to fifty refugees
arrived. The boats they disembark on have a capacity of roughly twenty-five, so
they sit visibly low in water due the overloading. When the boat reached the
rocky shore, the refugees panicked in thinking that the volunteers waiting to
assist them were police, and when the smuggler on board began to force everyone off a four-month-old baby was dropped onto the rocks and died in the frenzy. In a
separate boat arrival the same morning, a twenty-year-old boy slipped on the rocks and
also died from head injuries.
Lesbos: Detained and Confused
An impeding sense of confusion has rained
down on Lesbos, like a storm front had just rolled off the coast of Turkey and
enveloped the island in a ghastly haze. The new EU-Turkey deal came into
affect midnight Sunday, and upon my arrival early Tuesday morning on one of the
large cruise ships used to ferry refugees to and from Athens, no one seems to
have any idea what is going on. "Is it really happening? Are they
sending back refugees to Turkey? Is this place a detention centre now?" These
familiar phrases reoccur throughout my first day on the island, and it soon
becomes apparent that the practical implementation of the EU-Turkey deal was
already tearing apart the bureaucratic forces in place on the island.
The refugees on Lesbos no longer have
freedom of movement, and are now detainees in detention centres. Because the
NGOs have either been kicked out or refuse to work under such circumstances,
the refugees no longer have access to humanitarian services and support. Since
an inadequate Greek military has been given the responsibility of categorically
sorting everyone’s shit out, anyone who wants a bottle of water, a tampon,
paracetamol or a hug will just have to quit complaining. But the biggest issue
seems to be not what the authorities aren’t handing out, but what they aren’t
saying. The absence of information for refugees is causing confusion, anxiety
and panic among the camps. They aren’t being told where they are going, when
they are going, if they are going and for what reason.
Lesbos: Lifejacket Mountain
That afternoon I drive to Skala Sikaminias,
the northern point of the island where the majority of boats from Turkey wash
ashore. Parts of the coast are hazardously jagged, and many lives have been
lost in the waves that pound against its sharp cliffs. The sun has now dipped below
the horizon and the last glow of daylight is receding along the ocean. As we turn
the bend on a dirt, hilly track a mountainous pile of florescent orange and slick black confronts us.
Thousands of lifejackets, floatation rings, deflated rubber boats, and clothing
items form mounds over my head, spilling down the valley and
over an area the size of a hotel resort.
Tracks from bobcats and diggers used to
transport the discarded lifejackets leaves deep, waterlogged scars in the mud.
The floatation devices are presumably made by the same manufacturer and bought
at the same shops, as the colour and design of each life jacket and life ring
bears no difference to the next. The scale of the lifejacket mound on Lesbos
is overwhelming, and with a faint fluorescent orange glow in the dusky
moonlight it emits a haunting ambience. It seems to stand as a symbol of the
entire human tragedy of the refugee crisis, summarising the fragility of life
of the men, women and children who nervously placed theirs in the
hands of people smugglers to cross the Aegean Sea in search for a better
Idomeni: Bottleneck at the Border
In the distance, barbed wire fence built by
Macedonia to keep the refugees out glimmers from east to west along Idomeni.
The reflective, fresh razors contort in the shape of infinity loops, a
reminder that refugees are no longer welcome in Macedonia. Idomeni is a world
so far from my typical life that it seems surreal at times. I takes me fifteen
minutes to walk from one end of the site to the other, trying to absorb the
things that I see: thousands of tents and makeshift shelters on dirt fields,
mothers sat on milk crates in fields feeding their babies, tents protruding
from muddy moats with limbs of sleeping bodies poking out the entrances, a
group of men playing cards on the railway tracks, old abandoned
train carriages covered in graffiti with heads visible through the scuffed
windows, young boys sat atop an abandoned steamroller and waves of clothes hanging
from barbed wire fencing. The squalid mud pits and waterlogged fields from the
previous weeks have now dried out, and with the morning haze yielding to blue
skies the dusty camp is filled with aromas of wood fire, sweat and shit.
Idomeni: Height of a Humanitarian Crisis
By the afternoon, a few people taking
refuge in the shade of the only tree in the centre of the camp now squint
against the light. Shadows have warped themselves useless for relief from the
unrelenting sun, and the tension from the rising heat and dust are boiling
over. A crowd of young men has formed on the railway tracks opposite a barricade
of police buses separating the refugees from the Macedonian border. They
chant in Arabic, vigorously calling for others to leave their tents and join
them, beckoning with frantic, raised hand movements.
Journalists and cameramen remain on idle at
this area of the camp, waiting for such a moment. Technicians laze about in
their vans with satellite dishes on the roof, and a reporter with bleached
blonde hair casually strolls about in tight, black, spandex pants, Dior
sunglasses and high cut boots. But now they are in a state of panic, priming
their equipment and getting into position for the perfect angle. A stream of
refugees flock to the scene, where a large crowd of protesters chant in
unity. Suddenly, the mounting presence of heavily armoured Greek riot police
surge forward at the protesters, forcefully pushing them out of their tent
where they protest peacefully and hold up banners to the media.
I’m not sure at which point the police realised
they had escalate the scene, but having annexed the refugees prized position
providing their only means of hope, they responded with flexed muscles.
Stones from the railway tracks and metal bars are hurled at the line of police
in retaliation. The cops retreat in formation with shields raised, backing up
to a car positioned in front of their bus blockade. There is a sense of
rebellion in the air as a mass of refugees form a ring around the police, some
with cloth masks concealing their face, pushing over metal bins and standing
atop with arms raised. Stones are being thrown by the dozens, bouncing off
wobbly police shields and smashing the car windscreen. I’m on the edge of the
ring of refugees, shooting away at each moment with the heightened awareness of
an adrenaline kick, when a kid nearby gets hit in the back with a rock. He
pirouettes as his legs buckle in pain, crying out.
The violent scene flares uncontrollably in
confrontations at the police line, as cops lash out with their batons at
unarmed refugees pushing against their shields. The refugees seem to be
reaching through the police line to the car door, and suddenly a woman emerges
in their grasp. They cheer as they pull her back in the crowd. The woman
was seized earlier by police and pushed into the car, only to be removed and ‘rescued’
by the crowd. With no regard to their own safety, a couple of brave refugees
opposed to the unfolding violence jumped in front of the police, hands
outstretched to the unruly crowd pleading for peace. Ducking rocks that fly
over their heads, their persistence pays off and they seem to single-handedly
tame the crowd to a state of fragile cooperation. The tension of the event
gradually reduces back to a simmer, bubbling to a brew of failed policy,
xenophobia and human desperation.
The following afternoon there is calm at
the campsite, for the time being. I’m able to get in some drawing, wandering
around the railway tracks with my large sketchbook. I’m sat down for only a
minute, beginning to sketch a scene of tents lining the railway and station
platform, before I’m rushed by a group of intrigued kids. They tug at my
sketchbook and point to the lengths of charcoal by my hand, repeating, ‘please,
my friend!’, until I share it around. I give one of the boys a piece of
charcoal and he works on my drawing, marking over my lines and smudging the
paper with his fingers. I let him draw on it while I sketch his portrait. Further
down the railway I find a family squatting in a mound of dirt, with their
belongings in bags. They are relocating tents, and I stop to draw them in the
brief moment. One of the women watches me with a smirk, as I look up at her
face. The other wears a sanitary face mask, staring into the distance while a
baby plays with a piece of bread in the middle of their huddle.
Just before I get up to leave, a couple of young
men cooking dinner nearby gesture me over and ask me to draw them. I sit in the
dirt around their small log fire sketching their figures as they hold their
posture with pride. They stir a tomato based stew in a frying pan before
peeking at the drawing and asking me to come and join them for dinner in their
tent. Inside their large round tent is the rest of the family, sitting on blankets
around a small makeshift eating area. They must be a relatively well off Syrian
family as compared to the rest of the camp their tent is cushy and spacious.
The men show the drawing to their wives and grandmother, who after analysing it
for a few seconds break out in laughter, pointing to their distorted features
in the picture. It seemed the picture had granted me a traditional Syrian meal,
consisting of tomato and onion stew with bread and a raw shallot to dip into
the reddish mixture.
Idomeni: Accidental Publicity Stunt
Reaching the central tent hot spot as the
sun is setting on another weary day at Idomeni, a few of the usual faces at the
tent notice my sketchbook under my arm. They ask to see the drawings, and one
man takes the book and sits on the railway to study the drawings. The others
form a huddle around him, and while I point out what each of the drawings are
from the places I have been along the refugee trail, they seem to already know
the answers. I get distracted talking, and within a few minutes the
men have all bus disappeared with my sketchbook.
Suddenly, the drawings reappear
in the hands of six of the refugees after been distributed among them.
Before I can figure out what is going on through the stir in the crowd they
emerge at the front of the tent site, standing silently in a line with the drawings
held proudly at their chest. This is the spot where refugees make and hold
banners for the media to capture and relay to news channels. A crowd of
refugees, journalists, photographers and cameramen grows opposite the unplanned
presentation of my drawings, which seems to have resulted in some kind of
accidental publicity stunt.