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interviews

Living on the Border

by Chloe Haralambous
April 2, 2020

This interview with Chloe Haralambous was conducted and condensed by Chiara Towne for frank news.

Chloe Haralambous is an activist who has spent the past five years working on Lesvos, Greece. Chloe co-founded Mosaik, a support center for refugees and locals. Mosaik caters to the population of Moria, the largest refugee camp in Europe. Chloe walks us through Moria’s exponential growth, and what Greece is bracing for as COV-19 hits the islands.

Chiara Towne | Hi Chloe. How are you?

I'm good, Chiara. 

I'm glad to hear you're doing all right. Could you start by introducing yourself and telling frank a little bit about your history with Lesvos before we get into the current situation there?

Yeah, absolutely. My name is Chloe Haralambous. I'm originally from Lesvos, my parents are from Lesvos. 

I first became involved in refugee activism on the Island in 2015, which was when the so-called refugee crisis started – and Lesvos ended up being one of the main entry points for refugees crossing into Europe from Turkey. In 2015, in what's known as the long summer of migration, hundreds of thousands of refugees came through the Island, and I joined a small human rights observatory called Borderline Europe. One of the first things we set up was a transit camp in the Northeast of the Island, to cater to the arriving influx and mostly providing people with first aid to transport food and clean clothes. 

Later, after the EU / Turkey deal, which I will get into later, we set up something called MOSAIK Support Center for Refugees and Locals, which is what it sounds like. It focuses on education, legal aid, psychosocial aid, arts and crafts. One of the really significant things about it was that it tried to integrate a response to two crises in Greece at the time. One was the fiscal crisis, austerity, and the other one was the migration crisis. Those two had largely been treated separately. Austerity was a political issue whereas refugees, a humanitarian issue. And one of the purposes of Mosaik was to try to bring those two aspects of the crisis together largely by creating structures that were run by locals and refugees and for locals and refugees.

Can you contextualize Mosaik for me in the EU / Turkey deal? Can you explain why there are so many people still on the Island?

Yeah, absolutely.  So as I said, 2015 was the year at the center of the migration crises. It was a strange situation because it was a period with really heightened political antagonizm between Greece, that felt like it itself had been colonized by the EU, and Greece’s creditors, the Troika. The left had just come to power in Greece and was trying to envision what social justice looks like in the context of austerity and fiscal dependency. 

At the same time the refugee crisis started. People started arriving in the thousands and Europe didn't know how to respond. There were too many people. It was too quick. No one had a plan. 

There exists a provision in EU migration policy, which is called the Dublin Protocols. It stipulates that refugees can only seek asylum at their first port of entry into Europe. In almost all cases that's the poor countries of the European South – Italy, Spain and Greece, who have been most affected by austerity.

That is one way the EU externalizes its border. It basically becomes increasingly reliant on either third party states or on peripheral states to do the work of border control. 

In 2015 the Dublin Protocol was lifted. So people could arrive in Greece, but end up in Germany a week later. Which was ultimately their goal, there are hardly any opportunities for Greeks. Asylum seekers want to go to Germany, Sweden, or the rich countries in the North. For a period that was possible. 

Then around the beginning of 2016 this started to become increasingly untenable. Partly because Angela Merkel, who had been kind of the pioneer of “Europe with a Friendly Face”, came under a lot of pressure from her party as the right wing started gaining ground. And partly because other nations, Hungary, Austria, started to become increasingly disgruntled with the fact that more and more refugees were showing up. It’s a domino system. If one country closes its borders, everyone else has to close their borders because they're afraid they're going to get stuck with the influx. Greece obviously can't close its borders. So it was the last place standing, it was the last place where people could arrive.

Greece can’t close its borders due to its geographical location?

Yeah, exactly. It's not landlocked. In order for Greece to close its sea border, first of all, it would require incredible logistics. Secondly, it would be in really quite brazen violation of international law. It would require people being essentially pushed back at the sea, which is quite tough, you know, unless you want to sink their boats. For practical reasons as well as legal ones, it's essentially impossible. Basically what happened is then the EU is stuck. On the one hand, we can't really send these people back because they're refugees and under the Geneva convention, and have the right to seek asylum. But they also don't want them coming into Europe. So what do they do? 

This is where the EU / Turkey deal comes into play.

Right. In 2016 they broker a deal with Turkey with Erdoğan which essentially states that refugees who were arriving in Greece would be kept on the islands while their asylum claims were being processed. Basically, in theory, they should all be more or less deported to Turkey. It was another way of outsourcing the work of border control onto third party states. Turkey agreed to mitigate the migration from its borders in exchange for money from the EU. 

The result is that many people come to the island with credible asylum claims. Once they've applied for asylum, you can't deport them until their asylum claim is in process. And then they have the right to appeal it. That meant that refugees were basically stuck. Over the past few years, the conditions of asylum seekers on the islands have become increasingly inhumane because the infrastructure needed just doesn't exist. People end up spending a year, a year and a half, living in complete squalor. 

But the authorities refuse to give up on it because that would mean having to open borders and relocate the refugees elsewhere in Europe, which is something they categorically refuse to do. One of the ways that Greek government has tried to deal with that is to make asylum procedures increasingly difficult in order to speed up the rate of rejection so that people can be deported. The right to asylum has become watered down more and more and more in order to enable governments to say, we've processed this person's asylum request, but essentially expedite their deportation. 

LesvosProtest05 2020.02.0Douglas F Herman @dfherman / ReFOCUS Media Labs Cofounder

So you're saying that the asylum request processing system is intentionally dysfunctional?

Yes. Previously people had a good amount of time to prepare for their asylum interview, because people are not in a position to do that interview a day or two after they've got off a boat. They were able to consult with a lawyer, which they have a right to. Now they're given one day and then they're thrown into this interview, which doesn't go very well because they don't know what the purpose of the line of questioning is. 

The other thing that the Greek government did was it made it much harder to appeal your case partly by making it much more expensive to appeal your case. That means that first of all, you're almost guaranteed to be rejected at the first instance because you couldn't prepare. And then if you want to pursue your case further, it's going to cost you a lot and you may be rejected anyway.

Got it. So to summarize what you're saying – the bottleneck that's been created first by the EU Turkey deal, and then by the asylum process has left a huge number of people on Lesvos and other islands around Greece who are currently unable to move backwards or forwards.

Exactly. And there is an incredible vulnerability built into the EU / Turkey deal.

The EU becomes completely reliant on a third party state to manage their borders, which means that the EU is always exposed to extortion.

There is nothing really that stops Erdoğan if he does not want to honor his side of the bargain from letting people through. And that's partly what has happened recently. Because Erdoğan wanted to leverage support for his position in Syria, he stopped policing the borders. The refugees heard about that, and they rushed to the borders in order to cross them. 

In Greece, it again becomes very difficult to deal with this influx, because either you're going to push them back at the sea, which is very difficult, or you have to accept them. And so the most recent development was that on March 1st, Greece decided to suspend the right to seek asylum. Largely because they couldn't handle the influx.

Is it legal for Greece to suspend the right to seek asylum?

No, no, it is not legal for Greece to suspend the right to seek asylum. To my knowledge, it has never happened before. Hungary did something similar recently because of the threat of Coronavirus. In theory, those rights that are inalienable. Under no condition should it be suspended. There are certain provisions and the European convention that would allow you after consulting with the European commission to provisionally suspend it for matters of national security, but Greece did not follow that procedure. They just declared that they were suspending the right to seek asylum. 

And most of European states have not condemned the move, because it would be very difficult for them to condemn Greece if they themselves are not willing to take any of the refugees who are arriving. And secondly, because someone needs to be there to perform the human rights violations that secure the European borders. Previously Turkey was paid by the EU to do that work, to pull refugees back so that you have to not have to push them back, which would be in violation of the Geneva convention. Now that Turkey is not cooperating, the EU requires someone to do that work.

Essentially, in order for the European border to be securitized, someone needs to be committing some illegality.

And if it's not Turkey, then it has to be Greece.  Now, new arrivals to the islands are kept separate from the rest and are not allowed to ask for asylum. Until last week, 650 people who had arrived after March 1 were crammed onto a warship with no bedding or hygiene facilities, and left to wallow there until the ship took them to a makeshift camp in the middle of nowhere in the mainland. They will likely be deported from there.

So without counting the people who have just been let through to the Greek border by Turkey, how many people are in camps around Greece right now?

The total number in Greece, I would have to check. On the islands it's 42,000.

How many people on Lesvos, specifically in Moria, do you know about?

In Lesvos, there are 22,000 people in Moria. Which is a camp built for 3,000 people.

I want to talk a bit about how the recent developments with Coronavirus have changed the management of Moria. Can you tell me about what healthcare was like there before the Coronavirus outbreak?

Well, you know, it's a little bit strange because one of the things that people have been protesting for a long time since the EU Turkey deal is the abject conditions in Moria. People used to be completely scandalized when there were 5,000 people in Moria.

Resources were scarce for 5,000 people, you can imagine what that means for 22,000 people.

There is essentially no health care for refugees. In theory, the Greek system and a few NGOs provide a couple of doctors. But it's laughably inadequate. You have two doctors for a population of 20,000 people. 

And every single refugee has some kind of condition, either because they arrived with a condition, but more likely they've picked it up in the camps because the living standards are so unhygienic. If you are living in a tent that's sunk in mud and you haven't been dry for three months, you are not going to be especially healthy even if you arrived in full form.

So the conditions were horrific before, but now partly because there were tensions recently between the locals and the NGOs, the locals and the refugees, the local authorities and the government of the country, they are worse. A lot of volunteers left because they were scared. They were scared of being attacked, they were scared of getting coronavirus, or they were scared of being stuck.

LesvosProtests.Still033Douglas F Herman @dfherman / ReFOCUS Media Labs Cofounder

They were afraid of being attacked, by who?

Because of the conditions in which the refugees are kept, and now they are 22,000 people, which means that they almost outnumber the local population of the city. When people are kept on in such horrible conditions, they are not themselves that great. 

I think that this is very much the exception, but there are incidents of people cutting down olive groves, which are the villagers' livelihood, in order to build a fire to stay warm because they're cold. Or of slaughtering livestock so that they can eat because they're hungry. And all of that means that a population that is already made incredibly vulnerable and precarious, has no other recourse, but to essentially gather whatever resources it has from their environment. 

But the local population is also very poor and precarious, because they're Greek villagers who have been deeply impoverished by austerity, for instance, and dispossessed by the state.

Both populations have been somehow abandoned by the central government.

Eventually the situation became so exasperating that the local population started to turn against the refugees, but more than the refugees, the central government. As well as the NGOs, who are sometimes perceived as  wealthy Northern Europeans who are coming to these islands and helping the refugees with no regard for the local population.

So a couple of things happened. One was that the government tried to address the problem in Moria by planning to build  another detention center at another spot in the Island. The villagers there revolted because it's their claim to local sovereignty, which makes sense because they feel as though they've been taken advantage of for the past five years. The central government sent in riot police, which was coded as an occupying force, but the locals chased the riot police away with shotguns. After that, the government decided that they were not going to intervene anymore and that they were going to leave the island to its fate. In the meantime, some of the locals started to harass the volunteers and the NGOs and the NGOs and volunteers became justifiably quite scared.

So they left, they left as though they were fleeing a war zone basically a couple of weeks ago. 

So to return back to the health standards, there are hardly any volunteer or NGO humanitarian actors in Moria. There are local doctors, but those local doctors are obviously under incredible strain. Where do you begin if there's three of you and there're 20,000 people who need care. And now, with the spread of coronavirus it's clear that the local health system is going to be under such incredible strain,

Has the Greek government responded in any way to the threat that the camps pose to local populations health wise?

Yeah, they closed the camps; not in sense that they got rid of them, but people cannot go in or out. They made it essentially a detention center. 

They tried to divide the local population from the refugee population. That's all they did and then they quarantined the whole island. It's almost impossible for anyone to get to the island because they're trying to prevent the virus from arriving on the Island in the first place, which you know is a very serious gamble. I mean, it's everywhere else in the world. The chances of it not arriving there are really ridiculously low.

How does the local population stand at risk if all of the refugees and migrants are left in Moria for the duration of the crisis?

I mean everyone is at risk if there is a case in Moria. It will spread like wildfire because it's the ideal environment for the virus.

There is no hygiene There is one tap for every 1,300 people. There is no soap. Now they've tried to distribute soap, but, I mean, how many times are you going to go to the tap to wash your hands with that one bar of soap? No one showers because there are no showers. You can’t self isolate because everyone is crammed into these facilities that are made for a fraction of the number of people there. You have to send in a food line for eight hours a day. How are you going to maintain the two meter rule in a food line of 20,000 people for eight hours? It's a tinderbox. 

And then the local population is a rural population for the most part and there are lots of old people in the village. So you have basically two at risk populations. One the local elderly population and then there are the refugees who are immunocompromised because of the conditions in the camps. 

Greece has socialized medicine and I think that I can still say that people would not make distinctions between refugees and locals.

But it's a health system that has been completely decimated by austerity; a big part of where the budget was slashed was the healthcare system.

There's no toilet paper in Greek hospitals, the health system cannot possibly respond to cases in Greece. That's why Greece has been so draconian and closing its borders and enforcing lockdown is because these countries know that if there's a massive outbreak, they're not going to be able to do anything about it.

For example, in Lesvos, there is a hospital with six ICU beds. We are talking about a population of 20,000 refugees and 86,000 locals. 

And six beds. 

Right. Six beds. In the event of an outbreak, I mean refugees, I think that they will just be fighting over the same ventilators. Like it'll be actually like carnage. it'll really be a case in which kind of, you know, if you survive, you survive. But chances of getting support, if it looks like you're not going to survive are very minimal

I had read that there's a couple of confirmed cases as of a few days ago. Have you heard anything since then?

There was a case two weeks ago, maybe a little bit more than two weeks ago of a woman in Plomari. By some miracle she didn't infect anyone else. There's a phenomenon that's happening here, as well as in the US, where people who know that they're going to be under lockdown have basically fled to rural areas. A couple of people who came from Athens also had it, but it looks like they were isolated in time. And then there's the fact that there's still a lot of refugees arriving from Turkey.

And how are they being handled by the local and federal Greek government?

I know there's like a complete, so like a municipality, if the North is belligerent towards the municipality in the South, so they're not allowing. And Moria is full, so they are not allowing anyone in. There are refugees who arrived two weeks ago and are still living on the beach, waiting for someone to come pick them up.  They are there with nothing; they are living under an overturned boat.

So that brings us up to date on the, on the day to day of the Island. How do you see the current crisis impacting the border debate in the coming months in Greece and in Europe?

Well we're in this strange situation in which for matters of public health we are allowing and encouraging States to pass emergency measures that ordinarily you would absolutely not want to. Consider the United States for example. Who would have told you in 2019 that you would be begging Trump's declare a state of exception and lock everyone down. It’s really dystopian. 

And of course, the thing we know about states of exception is that they're often used as the premise for all kinds of exceptional measures that then become permanent.

The rights of citizens are being suspended as a response to coronavirus, like the right to assembly for instance. There is no reason not to think that that would be much, much worse for refugees, who can never contest that anyway. 

It's also very difficult because it's very difficult to organize if you're atomized. I mean not everyone is at home with zoom. It kind of impoverished the field of response. I'm not saying that it's impossible, you can still do a lot of things digitally. But  if you're not in a space with people, if no one sees what is going on, if there are no witnesses, because everyone is at home self isolating, that makes a difference. A few days ago, Greece suspended the cash assistance program for refugees. Among many horrible things, this means that refugees will not be able to top up their phones, which are often their greatest comfort and only lifeline to the outside world. So refugees have been locked up now with no contact with the outside. And activists and NGOs will not have access to the information they need regarding what's happening in there.

Also aside from the refugees who are in camps, the other big issue is that a big part of the agrarian sector in Europe is migrants.

So for instance, in the South of Italy, lots of the produce that comes into European markets that isn't imported, (it's hard to import right now because there's so many border restrictions) is cultivated by undocumented migrant labor in Italy (or by seasonal laborers from Romania, Poland, et cetera, will also come.) 

Right now, the seasonal workers are not going to be coming because they're scared of coronavirus and they're at home. Which means that it falls on the illegalized migrant laborers, who live under incredibly horrific conditions, to basically keep feeding the rest of Europe. 

Migrant labor in South Italy is basically slave labor. They earn a pittance. They live in what are called "ghetti," ghettos. They are these informal camps with no running water and no light. 

Those are the people who pick our tomatoes, who basically provide Europe with all its food, and now you have a situation where those people are very likely going to get sick because the conditions in which they live are so horrific. That is also an interesting moment. On the one hand it's horrific because if they catch it, they'll probably die. But it also means that certain people amongst the marginalized are in a unique position to make claims. In the same way that all of Europe, actually all of the world has suddenly become hyper aware of their dependence on cleaning ladies, postal workers, logistics workers, and others. We are dependent on these people who normally have no social visibility. It is weird to say it but it is an opportunity for the left, and for people who are in solidarity projects, to try to articulate what can be done with that new visibility and with that kind of platform. There are movements that are picking up in Italy right now calling for migrant labor to be legalized and to move people out of the camps out of the ghettos into confiscated houses of the mafia the South of Italy. You can get creative with this stuff. 

The general trend of coronavirus is that on the one hand it's horrific and it will be horrific for millions and millions of people. But it's also making certain conversations about politics and social policy that otherwise would not be possible. So everyone who's tweeting about the food they made while they were in quarantine at home, probably got their tomatoes or some other thing that was harvested in Italy from illegalized migrant labor and that's becoming visible in ways that it never was before.