REFUGEES: WINTER IS COMING

 

LUCY WILLIAMS finds people desperately trying to find their way to Europe via Greece and Turkey. As winter nears their problems can only get worse…

Our ferry docked in the Greek island of Chios at 4.30 in the morning and, in the dark, we chose a café for the wait for our next ferry to Turkey via Çeşme.

Warm and dry we watched some other recent arrivals, wrapped in grey UNHCR blankets, wander along the quayside looking for a sheltered place to rest.

Earlier that morning we had woken when the engines of our ferry from Athens slowed.

The ferry was taking part in a rescue and there, just off our port side, was a coastguard boat helping refugees off an inflatable dinghy.

The coastal patrol boat rolled uncomfortably in the heavy swell and its bright masthead light illuminated the refugees’ fluorescent lifejackets.

Alongside was the refugees’ rubber RIB [rigid inflatable boat] and, as the coastguards let it go, the rescue was completed and we got underway.

At daybreak on Chios we ambled about the town.

Sea spray was coming over the sea wall and, in a small yard 30 or so refugees had lit a fire to warm themselves and dry their clothes.

This must have been some sort of official welcome centre but there was little evidence of hospitality that morning other than the ubiquitous UNHCR blankets.

Close to the now moored coastguard boat, lifejackets were strewn about and clusters of refugees sat keeping out of the wind in patches of weak sun.

Dismal though the scene was, it meant success: these refugees had made it to the EU.

Refugees on Chios, mostly likely from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq but from African countries too, will be moved on to Lesvos – one of Greece’s “hot-spots” – or to Athens.

But we were going on, against the flow, to Turkey.

Çeşme, our destination, is a pleasant enough place with an end-of-season feel that accentuated the hurry of the small groups of people we saw carrying bags and children – people on the wrong side of the crossing and the wrong side of the summer.

On we went to Izmir, a city of over 3 million with a history of migration and transformed from Smyrna to Izmir in 1923 when its Greek population was “exchanged” for ethnic Turks from Greece.

In Izmir refugees arrive from the east to negotiate onward passage, perhaps by boat from Ayvalık, Çeşme or elsewhere.

According to the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) many stay only days, or even hours, while others stop and try to find a living in the city.

Turkey, maintains the 1951 Geneva Convention’s original geographical limitation so only Europeans can be recognised as refugees.

Asylum seekers can apply for “temporary protection” but the status offers little except restrictions, and registered asylum seekers cannot work legally or claim welfare support.

ASAM is internationally funded and has 24 offices across Turkey. In Izmir it offers medical screenings, counselling, legal support and other services to Syrians but by their estimate of 150,000 Syrians in the town, their services can never be enough.

Like the refugees, ASAM is watching the seasons change and with winter, they anticipate transit migration will slow and more people will stay living hand to mouth in the crowded city.

Halkların Köprüsü, the “bridge between people”, is an activist, solidarity association which provides practical help and support. They try to improve housing conditions, advocate and document where and how refugees are living in Izmir.

Halkların Köprüsü took us to visit a Syrian family living in what our guide referred to as a “ghetto”.

The Agora district is an ant heap of houses, narrow lanes and steep stairs where the family of six were living in a shelter of bare walls without a roof until the activists supplied one.

Of Turkoman ethnicity, they spoke Turkish but still the older children were not in school and finding work was hard.

For Halkların Köprüsü, the coming winter means an increased demand for building materials, clothing and manpower to ameliorate the situation of refugees without livelihoods and secure places to stay.

On again to Istanbul, where we met Afghans hustling to support themselves and their families at home or en route.

Some planned to stay in Istanbul but for others, Istanbul, like Izmir, is just a staging post – a place to raise money, find information, support, an agent perhaps – before pushing on to Europe.

Night crossings to Greek islands can be arranged from Istanbul and in migrant districts like Kumkapı and Zeytinburnu life jackets, the leitmotif of the dash to the islands, were on sale.

These Afghans, unlike the Syrians, were old hands at the border crossing game. They had already tried and failed but saw no alternative to pressing on.

One reminisced about his time in Barbès, Paris, and described the trauma of his deportation from Denmark.

Another described beatings by police after making it across the border at Edirne.

Winter for these refugees looms large but only as another variable to consider before committing their bodies and savings to the border.

Aware of their families’ dire situation back home they will continue. The winter just adds a further dimension to the physical and technological barriers between them and Europe.

Wahid [not his real name] is 18 and supporting his parents, five sisters, four brothers and the family of his uncle who lost his legs in a bomb blast in Jalalabad three months ago.

Wahid had crossed the border four times already but each time had been caught and returned and sometimes beaten. Since his family told him to invest everything he could earn in crossing again Wahid had stopped sending money home and was saving hard.

Everyone we spoke to told us “winter is coming” and that migration patterns will change.

Transit migration may slow but refugees fear their window of opportunity in Europe will close as the fences grow higher.

The border control business may become more efficient and pervasive but people like Wahid have everything to gain and will always find a way whatever the price.

The cold of the northern militarised border or the stormy sea crossing ahead are as nothing compared to what lies behind.

  • “Refugees In The Jungle” – Read Aram Rawf’s account of his visit to the refugees in Calais in the new issue of Thanet Watch magazine in the shops now.
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