by Cristina Orsini 

Turkey is just there. Gazing at the sea from Mytilini, the capital of the island of Lesbos, that thought often crossed my mind. The coast of Turkey delineates at the horizon: a blue piece of land in the mist; seemingly an extension of the same island on clear days. At its narrowest the strait that separates Lesvos from Turkey is slightly more than 5km wide: a small fragment of sea that separates Greece from Turkey; Europe from Asia; passports that open the world to their holders, and passports that limit it. I think of those who gaze at the sea from the other side, as I did during a visit to Turkey, thinking that Europe is just there, invitingly close. The arbitrariness imbued in this mass of water must be felt most by them.

On the island of Lesbos, the narrow Mytilini strait is not the only delimitation to feel so arbitrary for migrants, asylum seekers, or refugees.

The 20th of March 2016 is a temporal demarcation that defines the fate of those who hoped that Europe would mean safety and opportunities. In fact, according to an agreement between the European Union (EU) and Turkey, “all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as of 20th March 2016 will be returned to Turkey”.

In practice, this means that all migrants and asylum seekers who arrive on Lesbos from Turkey after the 20th March cannot legally leave the island until their fate has been decided by the Greek authorities – and this can take a minimum of several months. Essentially Lesbos and other Greek Aegean islands have been transformed from places of transit into places of detention. The agreement has transformed Lesbos into a space where the foundations of Europe as a place of human rights are being eroded day by day.

To begin with, the EU-Turkey deal shreds some of the most basic principles of refugee protection, enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was created after the Second World War to protect Europe’s own refugees. The deal was signed on the assumption that Turkey can be a safe third country for asylum seekers, despite Turkey being the only country in the world to maintain geographical limitations to its ratification of the Refugee Convention (ensuring asylum only for Europeans). It was signed even though, well before March, major human rights organisations had been reporting for months that people fleeing Syria and Iraq were being sent back to their respective war zones (which is prohibited in international law as a violation of the principle of non-refoulement).

Once asylum seekers are sent back to Turkey, they are kept in arcane detention centres without access to legal representation, meaning there is no possibility to track what happens to them – in fact, the EU seems to have little interest to even attempt to do so.

In the words of Demba*, an asylum seeker from Western Africa, “nobody cares to know what happens to [deportees] after their deportation […]all they care is to let them go out of the borders of Europe”.

In fact, the deal continues to apply even though the Turkish government seems to have abandoned all efforts to even pretend to be protecting human rights by imprisoning its own lawyers and journalists. More than a delusional assumption then, the idea that Turkey is a safe third country for refugees is plain farcical.

Yet those who are within the borders of Europe, on the island of Lesbos, are not spared dreadful treatment. The first place new arrivals are taken is Moria. Officially designated as a “reception and identification centre”, Moria is called a “detention centre” by most observers, and a “jail” by those who have inhabited it. Surrounded by high fences and barbed wire, it hosts a number of refugees much higher than its capacity, in conditions much poorer than any humane standard could possibly be. People live in overcrowded tents for months, with little protection from the cold in winter, and poor hygienic conditions.

But one of the most lamented aspects of life in Moria is the lack of diversity of the meals distributed in the camp. This is not only because of the effect that a dearth of crucial nutrients may have on the body, but also because of the effect that the reiteration of the same meal has on the mind: many denounce that they feel treated “like animals”.

In the complete absence of any kind of recreational activity, Moria’s daily routine is made of repeatedly queuing for hours to ensure their food handout. Indeed, people’s existence is reduced to bare survival, and it is this feeling of dehumanisation that affects Moria’s inhabitants the most. An empty diet, an empty day, an empty human.

What is more, people endure these conditions while waiting for their future to be determined, without understanding the procedures they have to go through and without knowing how long these procedures will take. What am I waiting for? What’s next? How long am I going to wait? As these questions replay in their minds unanswered, people fall into a labyrinth of misinformation and uncertainty.

“People can stay in prison for years and they will not go mad because they know the crime they committed and they are counting the duration they are staying in the prison. But in Moria is different. Nobody will tell you your crime; and nobody will tell you when you are leaving – that is the most frustrating thing,” says Demba.

The fear that inevitably goes hand in hand with such uncertainty is coupled with fear of violence in the camp. Indeed, it is in the endless food line that fights between the inhabitants of Moria often break out. Rather than easily dismissed as “inter-ethnic fights” as in many news reports, these eruptions of violence are closely linked with the conditions people are forced to live in. In an overcrowded, dehumanising place, fights are only natural, and they are often the only channel for people to release anger and debilitating boredom. What is worse, fights are easily left to escalate as the normally omnipresent authorities and police force seem to vanish until the violence has subsided.

Fights are not the only instance in which authorities cannot be counted upon to do their job – as long as issues occur among refugees themselves. Reporting a crime is simple for a Greek citizen, but it becomes almost impossible for an asylum seeker. And while most asylum seekers suffer from structural discrimination, some do so more than others.

Firstly, the processing of asylum applications seems to be based on nationality rather than the date of arrival or vulnerability. This means that some groups, such as Afghans and Pakistanis find themselves waiting for much longer than others – often to see their claims rejected.

Secondly, numerous reports of detention on the basis of nationality have emerged. People coming from North Africa and some south Asian countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, are kept in detention for an undefined period of time (and for the whole duration of their asylum process) as their claim to asylum is considered unlikely to be accepted by authorities. Freedom of movement; the fact that every asylum claim needs to be studied individually; and the basic principle of non-discrimination are all being dishonoured in Moria.

The aimless waiting with few, if any, distractions in dehumanising conditions is literally driving people mad. Existence is reduced to subsistence, deprived of aims and dreams of any future. The same people who survived war, poverty or persecution and had the courage to undertake the most dangerous trips are psychologically crumbling within Europe’s own borders; not only because of what they have seen in their past, but also because of the very experiences they are living in Lesvos.

Suicides are becoming more common; and individuals consider risking a trip back to Turkey to find other routes to protection. It seems that the EU and the Greek government decided to “fight” the “refugee crisis” in Lesbos by trying to deprive people of their humanity, steal their hopes, and rob them of their desire to live.

The official aim of the EU-Turkey deal was to tackle smuggling and to “offer migrants an alternative from putting their life at risk”. This has undoubtedly failed. While arrivals dropped in Greece, they only increased in Sicily, a route that is inevitably more dangerous. And arrivals may skyrocket again as Turkish president Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to reopen the Turkish border as blackmail against the EU.

The main result of the agreement, then, was to transform Lesbos into a place where fortress Europe is trying to erect its tallest walls at the expense of human rights. Tensions are growing. Lesbos and other Aegean islands have recently seen violent episodes of camp fires and clashes with police forces and right-wing extremists, all worsened by freezing temperatures. If these tensions were to make the headlines, they can only really be understood in the tragic context of continuous violations.

As a proud European, I thought that if a “European identity” exists, it is the respect of human rights (at least within Europe’s own borders). Witnessing the situation in Lesbos made me wonder whether the Europe that I identified with really exists. If Europe is ready to violate its own laws and people’s human rights on its own soil, it does not matter where these people come from. Human rights, by definition, do not depend on nationality. To me, if Europe violates a migrant’s human rights, then, it is ready to violate mine.

Despite such grim realisations, in Lesbos, I also found hope. Hope lies in the resilience of some refugees, who endure the violation of their dignity and still manage to dream. It lies in the great solidarity shown by many in Lesbos and beyond, who continue to expose abuses, to work to improve the situation, and to firmly believe that our dreams should not be limited by which side of the strait we come from.

*The interviewee’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

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