Explosive news of life on Jupiter’s erupting moon, and in Indonesia

While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.

This column won’t be of much comfort to the thousands displaced by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. Lava flows are reaching as far as five kilometres from Mount Sinabung, which has been erupting since September, and the Indonesian government has said that any settlements within three kilometres of the mountainside will be relocated permanently. But even if there is no human habitation in the area, we know that there will be much new life emerging in the shadow of the volcano.

This is what happened on the Japanese island of Nishinoshima. Created by a volcanic eruption 40 years ago, it is now home to four species of plant and plenty of insects.

Volcanoes are a great boon to biology. According to a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Geology, volcanic eruptions and other side effects of the earth having a hot, molten interior are responsible for the vast range of life on our planet.

The evidence comes from zircons, crystals that are formed only in volcanic eruptions. Geologists have found a glut of zircons in rocks that formed just before the period biologists call the Cambrian Explosion. The Cambrian Explosion occurred 540 million years ago, when a huge number of new animals suddenly appeared. Most of the body forms of today were formed in this ten-million-year evolutionary spurt – after the zircons appeared. The conclusion? Volcanic eruptions are one of the earth’s vital signs: an indication that life is about to get interesting.

That is largely because eruptions throw huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The warming effect this produces affects the climate and provides a change in conditions that favours the emergence of diversity. Put simply, the organisms that were suited to the old earth fall by the wayside, creating space for new life experiments.

That is especially fascinating given observations of one of Jupiter’s moons. The ice-world Europa has long been seen as a good potential home for extraterrestrial life. That candidacy just got much stronger: it was reported last month that astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to keep an eye on Europa have spotted evidence of volcanic activity.

Europa’s ice crust, which is thought to be a few kilometres thick, covers a watery ocean over 100 kilometres deep. Nobody knows whether life exists in that ocean, but if it does it would require a source of energy. As so little sunlight penetrates the ice crust, that would have to come from within. That is why the signs of intermittent plumes of vapour erupting from the ice have so excited hunters of extraterrestrial life: it suggests that some kind of life-giving volcanic energy is at work inside the icy moon.

We won’t find life on Europa any time soon. Though the plumes rise high enough that passing spacecraft could sample the vapour spurting from the ocean – and perhaps detect life within it – the next scheduled flyby of Europa will take place in 2031.

It is sobering to think that, if the astronomers’ conclusion is right, Europa is only the fourth body in the solar system to exhibit volcanism. The other three are its neighbouring moon Io, Saturn’s moon Enceladus and, of course, Planet Earth. These are very special places: volcanoes bring misery and death but they also usher in the possibility of complex biology. While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.
 

More than 25,000 people have fled their homes following a series of eruptions and lava flows from Sinabung volcano in North Sumatra. Photo: AFP/Sutanta Aditya/Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

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The EU-Turkey refugee deal only succeeded in one thing

It swept the humanitarian crisis under the carpet.

The Greek island of Chios is a picturesque holiday resort, and home to some 50,000 Greek residents. The occasional cruise boat moors alongside the fishing boats which populate the main harbour of the island. Tourism and fisheries make up the majority of the island’s economy.  A 7km stretch of sea separates Chios from Turkey. It is so close that you can look across the water and see the lights come on in houses in Çeşme as night falls. This beautiful island is also one of the scene of an unfolding and largely untold humanitarian disaster. It is evidence that the EU-Turkey deal in March, intended to stem the flow of refugees, has failed. 

Chios is home to more than 3,000 asylum seekers. Refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, make the perilous crossing from Turkey every day. Smugglers launch tiny rubber boats in the middle of the night, over capacity to a dangerous level, to attempt the crossing. One Syrian boy told us that the smuggler on the boat counted down from 10 to calculate when the best time was to purposefully puncture the side of the boat in order to escape the Turkish coastguard, but be rescued from drowning by the Greeks.

As a result of these cavalier strategies, this scenic stretch of water has become the grave of thousands. Those who are rescued by the Turkish authorities rather than Greece are often detained. Such high stakes has not deterred the refugees - one family we knew of had tried 17 times to get to Chios from Turkey. 

The main camp on Chios, "Vial", is at the end of a dusty track and is housed in a disused aluminium factory surrounded by barbed wire. G4S, the private security firm, guards the entrance to the European Asylum Support Office compound. It looks more like a prison than a place of refuge. The majority of the refugees live in metal containers. The camp was constructed to hold 1,100 and now holds approximately twice as many.

Most of the migrants and refugees who arrived in Greece before the EU-Turkey deal have been moved to the mainland, nominally in the hope of relocation elsewhere in Europe. More recent arrivals on Chios (and those simply left behind) have been subject to the hastily-adopted Greek Law 4375/2015, which allows for the lengthy detention of asylum seekers on arrival.

While camps on other Greek islands operate as de facto prisons, on Chios, the police allow refugees to travel around (but not leave) the island. A bus service is provided between Vial and the island’s main city, to allow those housed in unofficial camps to come to Vial for appointments. This is a tacit acknowledgement that makeshift camps are needed for those who cannot be accommodated in Vial’s limited facilities. Thus, the entire island is turned into an open prison camp, with asylum seekers unable to leave until their claims are determined, a process taking upwards of six months. During that time refugees, many of whom have fled from unimaginable horror, are left in an endless waiting game.

In May 2016, a Human Rights Watch report called the refugee “hotspots” on the Greek islands, such as Vial, “unsanitary and unsafe” . By September, when we arrived, the situation had not improved. The conditions in the camps around Chios were shocking. Violence was a daily event - both between asylum seekers and from the frustrated local population. Children, at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, would simply disappear. We would spend hours searching the camps, armed with lists of unaccompanied minors, asking everyone we saw if they had seen this or that child. Some had already become desperate enough to risk their lives in the hands of human traffickers, in order to escape from the very place where they initially sought sanctuary. Shortly after we left Chios we heard that seven people had suffocated to death in a fridge trying to reach the mainland. Isis were known to be recruiting in the camps. 

Unaccompanied children were left to live together in overcrowded containers, often without enough beds. They would take it in turns to stay awake on guard. Food was often inedible. Access to medical treatment was limited. In Vial, the medical facilities were located inside the disused aluminium factory. To be able to speak to a doctor, you first had to get the permission of the police officers manning the entrance gate. People were sometimes left waiting there for days in the baking heat of summer.

It is no surprise that most of the refugees we met were self-harming, severely depressed and suicidal. It is also no exaggeration to say that everyone we interviewed said they would rather be dead than live in this limbo on Chios. Many of the refugees who arrive in Greece are already seriously traumatised. Large numbers of them are victims of torture, or bereaved or wounded by the Syrian war. Almost all have been forced to flee their homelands because of incomprehensible suffering. The reception they receive in Europe only reinforces their trauma. “I didn’t expect Europe to be like this," a Kurdish Syrian refugee aged 18 told us. His entire family (26 members) had been killed in one bomb blast and he had been subjected to horrific torture under the Assad regime.

We volunteered in the camps on Chios providing legal aid. Any hopes we had on arrival of facilitating the speedy settlement of refugees in Europe were quickly dispelled. The structures in place on Chios for the processing of asylum applications were at breaking point. A tiny team of under-resourced and overworked staff from the Greek Asylum Service and European Asylum Support Organisation try to work through the mammoth backlog of cases, but with officers only conducting two asylum interviews per day each, the process moved at a glacial pace. Every day of infuriating bureaucracy is another day vulnerable people are left in appalling conditions. During this indeterminate period of delay in an individual’s protection claim being processed, the authorities failed to take any steps to disseminate information or timescales which would have minimised the psychological harm caused by the never-ending uncertainty.

So what can be done? A French legal NGO collected the accounts of 51 residents in the camps and applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to oblige Greece to take interim measures to safeguard the refugees from the risk of serious and irreversible harm. This application was quickly dismissed, with the residents being asked to wait (yet again) and abide by the usual procedures (yet again). The case of Raoufi and others v Greece, brought on behalf of several asylum seekers challenging their detention in camps in Greece, is pending before the ECtHR and doesn’t look likely to change the position for refugees in Europe any time soon. 

Some have placed their hopes in the controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey, signed in March of this year. The heart of the EU-Turkey deal is the return of so-called "irregular migrants" to Turkey. Syrian refugees who reach Turkey are expected to make their asylum claims there and await relocation to Europe. Turkey will then, on a one-for-one basis, take migrants from Europe who have not patiently waited their turn. The supposed lawfulness of such a deal comes from the suggestion that Turkey is a "safe third country" to which to remove refugees. 

The attractiveness of this agreement to the EU, which comes at a cost of several billion euros, is that it may deter refugees from undertaking the dangerous (and politically inconvenient) crossing into Europe. While the European Commission has insisted that the numbers of refugee arrivals has fallen, their assertions are contradicted by aid agencies who point out that the temporary drop in arrivals following the EU-Turkey deal was short-lived. Refugees continue to arrive in large numbers on Chios, to face appalling conditions on reception. Few are returned to Turkey and the promised funding has not yet been provided to Turkey’s satisfaction.

Our experience on Chios was that the EU-Turkey deal is not only not working, it is fundamentally unworkable. Most of the refugees with whom we worked had passed through Turkey on their way to Greece. Almost all had stories of mistreatment in Turkey. In particular, we were told of guards on the Syrian border shooting and wounding at desperate people – including women and small children – attempting to cross into Turkey. Once in Turkey, arbitrary arrest and detention was the norm. Those migrants most likely to be returned to Turkey (because they cannot be returned to their country of origin) are Syrians, for whom Turkey is clearly not a "safe third country". Turkey’s systematic refusal to allow refugees fleeing Syria to cross its border is a clear breach of international law mandating the reception of refugees. Those refugees who manage to slip through into Turkey are left without meaningful protection or support. Kurds are systematically mistreated by the Turkish state while migrants in general face abuse by police, army officials and criminals. Turkey simply is not a safe third country for refugees, as is underlined by the tiny numbers of people found appropriate for return. 

The EU is seeking to resolve its refugee crisis by returning vulnerable people to inhuman conditions in breach of EU member states’ obligations under international law. The assessments as to whether the refugees are returnable to Turkey, are meaningless. Thousands of refugees are waiting for months for these assessments and yet a tiny minority have been found to be appropriate for return. 

In the meantime, a humanitarian disaster unfolds. The physical and mental health of those trapped in the camps deteriorate. Children are left without schooling or proper protection. Violence breaks out. Self-harm rises. Lives are irreparably damaged. Further delay, for political, economic or legal wrangling, is not an option. As long as the European Union fails to act, it remains complicit in these human rights violations. 

Miranda Butler, Maria Moodie, Bryony Poynor and Saoirse Townshend are barristers who recently volunteered in Chios, providing legal aid to refugees.