Today Reel News stopped in Victoria sq, Athens to speak some of the hundreds of Afghan refugees camped there on their way to Western Europe. Most were physically and mentally exhausted having been deprived of sleep since their perilous journey across the sea from Turkey.
They had left their homeland for a wide range of reasons.
Most were families fleeing a deteriorating security situation. In particular they were from the eastern provinces like Nangarhar which border Pakistan. Where a 3-way war is developing between the government, the Taliban and new insurgent groups whom have declared allegiance to the Islamic State and similar affiliates across the border.
Many were University educated young men from middle class backgrounds who saw no hope of getting a job or starting any kind of career in a country that is fast becoming a failed state.
Also there were a disproportionately high number of families from the minority Hazara tribe whom have long been persecuted in Afghanistan and see the situation getting steadily worse for their people.
The ages of the people ranged from the oldest grand parents to the youngest babies. Most expressed a desire to reach Germany, Sweden or Switzerland. All saw these as countries with strong economies where they could work hard and build a future for their families. Yet again exploding the racist myth that refugees are coming to Europe intent on living off benefits. Most have no clue what a benefits system even is.
We also interviewed Ahmad Abdi who was distributing much needed milk and baby food, which had been bought with money raised by the Athens Somali community. He said: “I was once myself a refugee. I have now have children of my own and could not stand by and do nothing. We are pleased to be helping our brothers and sisters in their time of need. But shouldn’t the UN be doing this?”
For an insight into the sheer scale of the present refugee crisis look no further than the port of Mytilini on the island of Lesvos. It is just one port on the frontline of this unfolding tragedy that spans across all the borders of Europe.
Hours before the ferry was due to leave for Athens hundreds and hundreds of refugees (mostly from Syria and Afghanistan) were camped out waiting for their place in the queue.
The weather was unusually warm and mild for the time of year, a small blessing for people whom have already travelled thousands of miles through appalling conditions. It will change before long as winter begins to bite. Usually this time of year would be characterised by cold winds and torrential downpours.
We interviewed a number of people today. All were from Syria & Afghanistan and telling a similar story. They had grown tired of living in fear in their own countries and waiting for things to improve. In Syria refugees had been patiently waiting in refugee camps for a resolution to the conflict for years and had given up hope of ever seeing peace. In Afghanistan the waiting had begun in 2001 and now things were getting rapidly worse. So they had joined the exodus into Europe looking for something that resembles a future.
As we left news was coming in of another boat capsizing on its way from Turkey with those on board drowning including many children.
Today REEL NEWS visited the small fishing port of Sykamnias on the northern coast of Lesvos which has become a hub for refugee solidarity.
Rubber dinghies arrive, one after the other, along the coast as volunteers nervously line the beach to receive them. To say that they are dangerously overloaded is an understatement. They are CRIMINALLY overloaded and the people traffickers responsible for this are making a fortune from exploiting human misery and desperation. Each boat carries up to 40 people whom have paid several thousand euros each. Each boat & motor costs the trafickers less than 2,000 euros and many are being recycled off the beaches and sent back to Turkey.
Upon arrival, the refugees are greeted by a mixture of local and international volunteers. The boat people are exhausted and also traumatised in some cases. All are aware of the risks and recent tragedies. The volunteers are overworked and there is little coordination between the different groups.
However they are able to offer the refugees food, tea, dry clothes and basic medical attention before they head on to their next destination the port of Mytilini. Transport is arranged in some cases. Many of the refugees are either elderly or young. One arrival today was just 4 days old.
At present the weather is allowing the refugees to make the crossing without too much risk. The sun is shining and the sea is calm. The weather forecasts for this coming weekend are not good and all eyes are on the sea as the long overdue winter is expected to arrive soon.
Today the boats arrived one after the other. The weather reports for this weekend do not bode well and the refugees (aided by the people traffickers) are crossing while they still can. Many are now taking an even greater risk by arriving in the dead of night. The Turkish coastguard end their half hearted attempts at stopping and confiscating the boats at around 9pm. So tonight a boat was stranded on the rocks by a local lighthouse. Fortunately a rescue boat run by volunteers was on the scene to immediately evacuate a hypothermic baby before rescuing the others. All of them Afghans, mostly Hazara people. The baby was treated at the volunteer clinic and is now doing fine.
It is worth remembering that most of the refugees, especially those from land locked countries like Afghanistan have never been on the sea before, ever. Yet they are expected to navigate these dinghies with their unreliable engines across miles of unpredictable sea, which can change from calm to stormy in a matter of minutes. Doing the crossing at night is even more dangerous.
The volunteers on the shore try to guide them in away from the rocks to places where they can land safely. Once ashore the limited transport is reserved for anyone with immediate and urgent medical needs. Today a photographer from the UK ferried a heavily pregnant Afghan woman to one of the medical facilities in his hire care.
On the beach in Eftalou hundreds of refugees waited shivering in soaked clothes for the bus to the ‘Oxi’ camp where they will be registered before heading to Athens by ferry from Mytilini which is around 70km away.
One thing that many of the refugees are not prepared for is the walk of many kilometres to the nearest aid point. The coastline where they are landing is very long and resources are stretched.
Even taking into consideration the recent economic crisis, the response of the Greek government is shameful (don’t get us started on the richer European countries…). Yesterday the government provided transport for thousands of riot police across all of Greece’s islands to confront those marching during the general strike. Yet the most vulnerable people on the planet have to walk miles while suffering from cramp, exhaustion, malnutrition and many other conditions associated with being homeless and on the move.
Today we visited two refugee camps on Lesvos near Mytilini both of them a very different experience. The PIKPA camp was opened by activists a while ago and contains around 140 people who receive quality food and medical care. The disabled and traumatised are cared for with a wide range of activities being organised for the children.
By comparison the Moria camp and registration centre has grown massively in a short space of time and the people there are living in stone age conditions. Yesterday the first water pipes were connected. Just two, for thousands of people. There is still no electricity, health care or sanitation as major NGOs bicker over who should provide what and when?
Most of the people are sleeping out in the open meaning that this will become a proper disaster when winter arrives. The tents that some have are totally inadequate. Most of the people are from Afghanistan with some from African and Asian countries. The Syrians whom make up the biggest group on the island are processed more efficiently in a separate facility elsewhere.
The registration process is chaotic with an enormous backlog which traps people in the camp preventing them from moving on to Athens.
REEL NEWS interviewed some truly amazing doctors and nurses (ALL volunteers, most of them from the UK) who are running a small and under resourced medical facility in the camp. They are treating everything from dehydration of babies & small children to adult victims of sexual violence. We will post details on how to donate to their work as soon as we have them.
Today news is also filtering through that one of the Paris attackers may have been processed as a refugee in Greece. This is already being used by racists and the far right, to stir up anti refugee sentiment.
Firstly the idea that groups like al Quaida or ISIL need to exploit the refugee crisis to sneak into countries that they are targeting is beyond absurd. They already have millions of dollars in resources from oil-rich Gulf States whose complicity in their evil work is ignored by western governments whom are more interested in maintaining those lucrative oil deals with their so-called ‘allies’. Those perpetuating international terrorism are surely going to have many more options at their disposal? Rather than entering government controlled processes (risking arrest if they are recognized) and putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers with a proven track record of sending their clients to the bottom of the sea.
Secondly the mostly Afghan people we encountered in the camp today are victims of exactly the same kind of murderous extremism that was seen in Paris last night. The perpetrators want to sow fear and division to create yet more fertile recruiting ground for their warped ideology. Seeing the innocent victims of war and terrorism as the enemy is playing into the hands of the terrorists. To oppose the madness of Paris is also to stand in solidarity with refugees and build bridges with fellow victims. Rather than walls built on foundations of fear and ignorance that the likes of ISIL rely upon.
Back in Athens and today’s slideshow features four drawings made by Afghan children whom are presently residing in a squat that has been opened by activists for refugees in an abandoned office complex. Just take a look at these images drawn by children less than ten years old and then decide for yourselves if these people deserve our protection?
The squat in question has a twitter account here: Notara 26
There will be a benefit event in London for this space next Friday, please support it by sharing this post. Details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1569472236661238/
We are also pleased that our film Into The Fire is being screened at this event. When we made it three years ago it was an account of how vulnerable people, who were running for their lives, were being treated upon entering Europe. We remain proud of that film but stress that the issues it raised now pale in comparison to the refugee crisis that is being experienced in Greece now. We urge everyone in London to attend and support this event in whatever way they can.