As you may have noticed my blog has been sadly neglected over the past week or so and I’ve gone the longest period without writing since I began. I’m sorry for this, because I’m enormously grateful that you, readers, take time to read it. I like to keep you updated and I feel a duty to do so. But my heart just hasn’t been in it. Nothing positive jumps out for me to report on. My energy is all spent up, even if there haven’t been many guests (refugees) and there hasn’t been too much work to do. It is time for a break, and thankfully, in one week’s time, I will be back in Scotland, inshallah. But it isn’t just the prolonged nature of my stay that has tired me out. It is politics.
Two events have scunnered me, although I know I shouldn’t really be surprised. The effects of the EU’s deal with Turkey are already being seen here. In exchange for a 3 billion aid package from the EU (intended to help improve lives for refugees currently in Turkey, but will that happen?), Turkey is supposed to be stepping up border controls and reducing the numbers of refugees and migrants entering Europe. So let’s get this straight. The European Union is negotiating with a country with an appalling human rights record, a country which they don’t want to let into the EU for that reason amongst many others, a country with horrific living conditions for refugees… to keep the refugees there and out of Europe? What do you expect, I hear you say. Well, I expect better, but I no don’t know how to go about demanding this change.
And let’s be realistic… when people are desperate, and they’ve already committed their life savings and set their minds to seek a better life, or a life of safety in Europe, can they really be stopped? The refugee flow will only change places. People are already being forced to take more dangerous journeys. What we have seen here is definitely a reduction in the number of arrivals during the day, but running parallel to this we see a change in the pattern of the boats that arrive. The 15km stretch of coastline in the north which was so busy before is quiet during the day now, but more boats arrive at night. More boats are arriving to the south of the airport in Mytilini, under cover of darkness. So the EU, in all its human rights wisdom, is forcing people to make a longer and much more dangerous journey to try and get there. Keep them out. If they die on the way, that’s better.
Anger doesn’t come close to it. Deep shame that in 2015, people fleeing wars and poverty in search of a safe or better life have to risk their lives to do so is bad enough. That the EU then implements deals that put lives even more at risk is beyond comprehension. This has also highlighted the difficulties of working in this ever transient situation: the north end of the island is now excellently equipped with volunteers, tents, lifeguards, rescue operations and supplies as a result of the high numbers previously arriving there. The south has nothing like this in place as very few boats landed there until recently, so we are unable to provide a proper reception for the refugees although efforts are now being transferred.
The second event was the UK’s almost immediate bombing of targets in Syria following the overwhelming parliamentary majority in favour of military intervention. As we are surrounded on a daily basis by desperate people fleeing death and destruction from countries where the UK has previously meddled militarily, it was all the more difficult for me to swallow. I see only a government of egotistical idiots, hell bent on leaving a political legacy for themselves and for whom this military intervention seems only to be about keeping our (British) streets safe, and not about Syrian lives at all. I would have hoped that there would at least be a mention of more Syrian refugees being offered resettlement in Britain in the light of this action, but I have heard nothing. If anyone knows otherwise, then please let me know. If anyone would like to join me in petitioning the government to demand this, then contact me. I enjoyed reading this article from Commonspace on the matter, where they recognise that there is an argument for intervention, but not in the way it has been presented and justified.
In the midst of all this policy and decisions taken at the expense of human lives by people who will probably never see the direct impact on those lives, we have continued to serve chai to the good people who have had the misfortune to end up in Moria on their way to Europe in search of a better life.
The majority of our guests have almost consistently been Afghans. But recently there has been a strong presence of men from Pakistan and in the past few days, men from Morocco. They’re not refugees, I hear you say. Wait a second.
The Pakistani men are desperately poor. They have absolutely nothing with them. No money. No belongings. No food. Nothing and no one to fall back on, except us, as long as they are in Moria. Marked all over their faces is hardship. Desperation. Suffering. In their eyes, no hope. Just a vacant look. They think that if they get to Germany they will be allowed to stay, because they heard that Germany is letting people stay. Yes, but not you, my friends. They have spent everything they have, or have borrowed what is an absolute fortune at home, at huge interest rates, to be able to get this far. And now they are realising that it is not what they had heard. They wish they hadn’t come. There is no way they will be able to stay in Europe legally and they will almost certainly be deported very soon. We are working with some dear friends, fellow volunteers who are members of the British-Pakistani community, to see about mounting a media campaign in Pakistan to discourage men like those we see from making this futile journey, in the nicest and kindest way so that they do not end up in a worse situation than before. It is very hard to see this human suffering on a daily basis, but I am grateful because it has given me new perspectives.
I suppose the point I wish to make here is this: whether a person is fleeing immediate threat to their life as a result of war or danger, or whether they are seeking to escape a long and slow death from poverty and corruption, are they not searching for the same thing, a better life?
There has been a lot of pussy-footing around the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’. Even I fell into the trap of making differences in the beginning. I think it is dangerous to do so. It further dehumanises. Whatever a person’s motives for leaving their home, let’s remember that no one takes such a decision lightly, and no one does it if the life they wish to live is available to them at home. I know I’m preaching to the converted but please remember to put a face and a life to the terms and let’s not fall into the trap of further dehumanisation. We really are all the same, just people, looking to live our lives in safety and dignity, some of us able to do so freely, others are forced to risk their lives to do so.
Tonight I take the 8pm ferry to Athens, along with hundreds or thousands of people who have landed on the shores of Lesvos over the past few days and who, clutching their Greek registration papers, tentatively step out on the next step of their journey. I’m nervous. I don’t know what lies ahead either, but I do have the security of a plane ticket to Edinburgh and friends and family waiting for me.
I will travel with friends to the Greek-Macedonian border to get a better understanding of the situation there. I will spend some time in Athens to see how the situation is there. After almost 7 weeks on Lesvos, I only know one step of their journey and if I am to be of any use to anyone, I think I need to understand a little more.
I will try to continue posting once on the road but it may not be possible on this blog. Like the Facebook page “A Safe Place to Call Home” as I will certainly be able to update there.
Thank you all for your continued encouragement and support.