Thursday, 17 June 2021

Refugees forced to uproot again as Greece closes 'safe' camp

This article was published by Al Jazeera

MYTILENE, Lesbos – Anis Alizai is a refugee success story against all odds. 

The 17 year-old Afghan arrived in Lesbos with her parents and four siblings in December 2018. After roughing it for seven months in the olive groves around Moria camp, the island’s reception centre at the time, the Alizais were granted a coveted ISO box at Kara Tepe, a municipal camp that has been an exemplar of humanity and solidarity since it was created in 2016. 

Anise’s dream is to study mathematics at the University of Patra, one of the country’s most competitive technical universities, and she was determined to succeed. 

“I went to the vocational high school for my foundation year. They told me I was very good at maths, and I said I would try for the general high school the next year,” she tells Al Jazeera. “They said it was much more difficult there, and I said, ‘I don’t mind.’ They said, ‘at least try to repeat the 10th grade,’ and I said, ‘no, I want to go on to 11th because I will soon be 18 and I want to go to university.’” 

Anis not only went on to succed in Greek high school. She sat an exam for the First Experimental High School of Mytilene, the island’s top school. It admits just 13 students a year and prepares them rigorously for university entrance exams. With just a year of Greek schooling Anis got 80% on the exam, and along with an Iranian refugee won seats in the class. 

If all had gone well, Anis would be sitting her university entrance exams in the summer of 2022. Now that future is up in the air, because the government abruptly shut down Kara Tepe camp this month, and moved most of its 1,000 residents to a tent city down the road called Mavrovounio. 

One of the ingredients to Anise’s success was her stable environment. At Kara Tepe her younger siblings could attend daycare and language classes offered by aid groups. The camp itself, a promontory jutting out top sea, feels more like a village community than a refugee camp. It is gated and families felt safe ro leave their children to run around unsupervised. Even though the Alizais have not yet been granted asylum, they survived on food and medicine provided by the municipality and volunteers. 

Mavrovounio is a different story. “A tent that doesn’t have a door you can close isn’t safe,” says Anis. “You could go from [Kara Tepe] to public schools in town… in the new camp I don’t know if we’ll be able to attend school.” 

Greece opened up its public schools to asylum-seekers in September 2016, but not on the islands. That’s because they were considered halfway houses where new arrivals would either be granted international protection or deported back to Turkey. The process was supposed to take a few weeks, but in many cases, like the Alizais’, has taken almost two years. Anis’ ability to attend high school was an exception, and one that may not continue once her family is put back in the general refugee population. 

Mavrovounio was hastily built on an artillery range after Moria burned down last September, police say due to arson. 

“It’s not clean, the accommodations aren’t properly waterproofed, they’re not on flat ground, in the rubholes there are no mattresses, it’s not a suitable place for people to stay,” says Imogen, a volunteer with an aid group that works in Mavrovounio. 

“We are waiting our fate and we are waiting how to die,” Raed Alobeid, a Syrian community leader, tells Al Jazeera. “It’s better to transfer [people] from this jail to the mainland. It is like a jail. I do not say this. All the people say this. You’re allowed out two, maximum three hours and then you must return.”

Thousands of refugees have been transferred to the mainland this year, after the government realised that overcrowding was causing unrest among refugees and political problems among Greek voters. Some 7,500 asylum-seekers remain at Mavrovounio, down from twice that number when Moria was burned.  

But the government hasn’t solved the problem of overcrowding, says Karolien Janssens, a doctor with MSF. 

“Today in our clinic we had a pregnant woman who has moved [from Kara Tepe], who is totally freaking out. She and her family are now in a huge tent full of single men, with her four little children. So it’s totally out of place. It’s totally absurd.” 

Janssens says some of MSF’s female patients have reported being raped at the new camp, despite government assurances that it’s safe. 

“In the nighttime you feel to scared to go out of your tent, certainly if you’re a woman you cannot go to the toilet. You stop drinking at two in the afternoon to avoid going to the toilet. If you have to go, you pee in a bottle,” she says. 

The danger that Anis and her siblings may become destabilised is real. “There’s a child who was already in our treatment for mental health problems and he’s been having very severe panic attacks, fainting episodes, symptoms we had stabilised him on. These are all coming back because as a child already before being moved he knew he was going back,” says Janssens. 

All this suffering is happening because Lesbos’ mayor promised to close Kara Tepe when he was elected in 2019, and the government promised to decongest the islands of the east Aegean. The Kara Tepe promontory will most likely revert to being a driving practice ground. 

There is a glimmer of hope for Anis. She and her family may end up being shipped to the mainland instead of Mavrovounio – the hope of most refugees on Lesbos. 

“All the people are angry they are very upset about asylum. Some have been waiting a year, a year and a half,” says Alobeid. “What we need from the European countries is help the people, help the children here inside this camp.” 

The European Union has pledged to spend 267mn euros building a new generation of better-quality camps on Greece’s five east Aegean islands with refugee reception centres. And Greece has now speeded up the adjudication of new asylum cases to about two months, the government says. 

But none of this addresses the problems of older residents like the Alizais, whose cases have if anything suffered delays because resources were diverted to new cases.  

Anis remains resilient. “I don’t know if we will be allowed to stay in Greece,” she says. “But I learned in mathematics that to every problem there is a solution.” 

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