Begone, financial vampires

AL Kennedy is on the move. Pondering the romantic potential of Stockholm Syndrome, she takes time ou

It was bound to happen – the final twangy bit holding my mental compartments together (or, indeed, apart) was eventually bound to go ping and leave me. I think that happened in Blackpool. Not sure. I have, since we last spoke, been flinging myself into the joys of a writer’s autumn: festivals, festivals and then some touring and more festivals. So Wigtown was followed by Blackpool, by London, by Stockholm, by Cheltenham and by I no longer even care where I am now: wherever it is has food and a bed - I therefore like it. And most evenings I will be up on my hooves doing comedy, or reading, or inconversationing, or perhaps all three. Of course, there is other work to do during the moderately endless hours of travelling. These hours being extended vastly by my plane phobia. For example, I went to Stockholm by train. Or rather, eleven trains and two ferries – my, how I laughed, cried, hallucinated, collected spare change in multiple currencies and drank too much coffee – well, who needs to sleep ? There are things to do.

The things would currently involve rewriting a book of short stories to prevent its shades of misery from being so utterly repetitive that it causes people to die simply from holding it while still in the bookshop. (At this point my publisher would want me to insert some kind of disclaimer to point out that it’s actually a lovely volume full of kittens and sunshine, but you’re hardly going to swallow that, are you? It’s by me.) So my hands are covered in red ink and my loathing for every word is increasing exponentially. I also, for at least two very pressing reasons, have a film I need to hit with a hammer until it works – plus, autumn is the time when writers have to release damp-eyed, gangle-legged young projects into the maze of razor blades and paperwork which is the BBC offers round… off they go, often to fall into the first water hazard, sometimes to trot blithely on towards the next levels of risk, torment and origami. I am sustaining myself with a new CD of music from the Tower Ballroom’s Mighty Wurlitzer – genuinely, the first unremittingly jaunty sound you’ll hear as the demons haul you under to your just deserts

Still, I do quite like the travel – Wigtown had lobsters and cake, Blackpool was Blackpooly and allowed me to learn from various palmists that I am married, divorced, due to have twins and going out with a man who has one bad knee and the letter t, l, a, d, m, n, or c in his name. So that was reassuring. And Stockholm was a treat – always wanted to go there in case they had any Syndrome left. Given my busy schedule and cosmetic disadvantages Stockholm Syndrome represents one of the few ways I would realistically get a gentleman (with or without working knees) to commit himself fully to being fond of me. Four or five weeks in my fundungeon and I feel almost anyone would be able to convert their fear, pain and outrage into sincere and lasting affection.

No. Actually, after more than a month of hostage maintenance – the first aid, the dry cleaning, dealing with the whining and the blood – I don’t know if I wouldn’t be terminally jaded about the whole business. So that’s another option gone.

One benefit of my journeying has been that it keeps me from brooding about the sixteen grand I’ve apparently given to a wunch of bankers for shagging my economy by balancing it on funny money and a house price bubble. I would just mention that their plodding brand of duplicitous charlatanism was exactly what we were told would bring new life to the NHS, our schools, our public transport… Can we just stop pretending we believe that shit now? If we want to know about health care could we, for example, just ask doctors and nurses, maybe focus on keeping people alive in the most convenient and pleasant ways possible? Maybe we could chuck money at the systems which will help us survive when everything topples into the pit we have dug for ourselves and are currently still dancing round pretending that consumer debt and singing lalalalala will sort everything out? And, dear God, could no one else tell me that controlling the actions and bonuses of these weasels would drive them to other countries and that this would be a bad thing. That’s like suggesting the prosecution of burglars should be suspended in case it causes them to use their housebreaking skills on Johnny Foreigner. If our financial vampires want to go and knacker someone else’s banks – let them try. I’d even conjure up a poem to commemorate their departure – I’m busy, but I’d make the time for that.

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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.