By Naomi Westland, Press Officer at Amnesty International UK who has joined Amnesty’s researchers in Greece investigating what happens to refugees and migrants trying to get to Europe
There is a rustic charm about Mytilene, the ramshackle port capital of the Greek island of Lesvos. But behind the romance of the tumbledown buildings, winding cobbled alleyways and lively pavement cafés on the edge of the Aegean, something ugly is going on.
On the first floor of the island’s police station, behind a barred and bolted door, five dark, dirty cells hold refugees and migrants who have traveled to the edge of Europe seeking sanctuary, or simply a better life than the poverty and hunger they thought they’d left behind. What they find in Greece is anything but.
“In Turkey they told me that in Greece I would be free, able to do anything, but when I got here I was put in jail,” Ahmed, a young refugee fleeing Syria, told Amnesty’s researchers Giorgos Kosmopoulos and Irem Arf.
Ahmed is one of tens of thousands of people who try to get to Europe via Greece each year in search of safety. Last year many of those arriving by boat on islands like Lesbos and Chios were fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia.
No one knows exactly how many people are taking the perilous route across the sea from Turkey to Greece, says Irem, but police figures show an increase since land border crossings along the river Evros have been tightened – with a 10.5km fence and an increased police presence – over the last year.
“People fleeing war and poverty are now taking even bigger risks to get to Europe, and as the routes are increasingly dangerous, people are losing their lives on the way,” she says.
Last month six Syrians drowned when their boat got into difficulties, among them a pregnant 17-year-old and a mother with her young child. In December last year a boat capsized and 27 refugees, mostly Afghans, drowned close to the shore at Mytilene. Only a 16-year-old boy survived.
Those who do arrive safely face shocking treatment in Greece. They are detained in cells not fit for humans, says Efi Latsoudi, coordinator of medical NGO Médecins du Monde, which recently started working on Lesvos. Many have health problems that go untreated and are exacerbated by the substandard conditions, she says.
“Pregnant women should not be detained but that’s what happening here. There was also recently a man with a congenital heart problem, and we see quite a lot of psychological problems. Even children are being detained. These are not conditions humans should be kept in,” Latsoudi says.
Behind the bars of the police cells many of the detainees are clearly distressed. Some have a haunted look about them. They are scared and struggling to understand why the sanctuary they are seeking is proving so elusive. It’s not what they were expecting when they set out from their home countries.
Many have similar stories about terrifying night crossings. One woman told us how she fell into the sea. She couldn’t swim and kept drifting away from the boat. One of her fellow migrants risked his own life to save her. She is so grateful she now considers him family.
This week we saw new arrivals – scared, exhausted and hungry – packed into in a minibus while their details were taken. It wasn’t the first time the bus had come up – others they had spoken to described how when they arrived on the island they were held for days in the same bus, only being allowed off to go to the toilet.
Some tell of not getting enough to eat and everyone we talked to expressed frustration with a system that treats them so badly. Many struggle to hold back tears as they tell their stories, but say how grateful they are to volunteers providing them with food and shelter. One refugee described a volunteer as “his angel”.
For those held in the dungeon-like cells, sometimes for weeks, there is nothing to do but wait until the authorities issue papers giving them 30 days to leave the country and allowing them to continue their journey to Athens – the aim of most of the migrants who arrive on the islands.
When we ask how Ahmed has felt since arriving in Greece, he is unable to speak. He simply presses an open hand to his chest, just under his neck, a gesture that seems to mean the stress has been too much, and his eyes fill with tears again. He takes a deep breath. “Why don’t they just send me back to Syria to die there? It would be better than this,” he says.
We’ll be heading to Athens in a couple of days to look at the situation there. Stay tuned.
Disclaimer: Some names have been changed.