I don’t know what I am supposed to do,” Allam, a 37 year old Iraqi tells me, after narrating a story involving death threats from the so-called Islamic State and a subsequent forced escape from his home town, “I’m just going to wait.” The truth is, I do not know either. It is 2 pm in a squalid stone warehouse in Piraeus port, Athens, and we both lack any information about the procedure by which Allam can exercise his rights. In my week in Piraeus, I have seen no officials from the Greek Asylum Office, nor any UNHCR officers. I am told that they are present in the port, a few teams for over 5,000 migrants: finding them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Sure, I can give him a new set of clothing from our makeshift distribution center, but you know what he needs so much more? Rights. To be able to claim asylum, to live in a safe environment. Yet I can’t do anything about that. I can’t even direct him to someone who can.
As Greece carries out deportations under the EU-Turkey deal, Allam is one of 52,000 who remain literally trapped on mainland Greece. Europe’s attention has turned to the post-March 20th migrants, but those who remain mustn’t be forgotten. Their stories – those I collected during my two-weeks volunteering in Lesvos and Athens – haunt me as I watch the latest developments in this ‘refugee crisis’.
Their backgrounds make up a great diversity which citizens of Europe often fail to recognise: rich and poor, educated and not, large families and single men. They had jobs, all kinds of jobs. From our warm beds at home, our desks and daily lives, it is easy to look down on these men and women as less human somehow – so unlike us. Not entitled to the same privileges we enjoy.
Yet, those I meet are coming to Europe not in search of a handout, but because they have little choice: they are fleeing war, violence and death. These people all long for the freedom our generation seems to take for granted. Staying back and fighting for it is not an option, as regimes and extremists overwhelmingly have monopoly over violence, making any attempts to fight back a death warrant. So they flee.
I heard innumerable accounts of lives being reduced to nothing by extremists. Whether it was that of Allam, who was deemed not to be religious enough, or of Rahib, a Yazidi from Northern Iraq whose family had to escape after IS launched a barbaric attack on his minority in August 2014. In broken English, he painfully recounted how he was stranded on Mount Sinjar for one week, facing starvation and dehydration. The horror he felt as 5,000 Yazidis were slaughtered that month. The sleepless nights fearing for the lives of his wife and children as over 4,000 women and children were abducted by IS.
Coming to Europe is no safe journey either, and even once they arrive, their hopes and dreams of a better life are often shattered as they discover that they are deeply unwelcome in so many parts of Europe.
As Greece continues to implement this new deal, it is time to examine the roots of the current European mind-set. Is it the fear of an inflow of people impeding upon our living standards? Those living in poverty enable the West to live in relative opulence; reports have shown that seven planets would be needed to satisfy demands if Western living standards were enjoyed worldwide. Or is it that of losing our European ‘identity’, with its shared values and institutions? The EU was built based on this construction, on a perception of a common culture which these migrants are not thought to fit into. I have yet to find the answer, and I don’t think many of our politicians have found one either.
But this doesn’t mean that we can’t treat migrants with dignity, even if they are economic migrants who will most likely be sent back. These people are human beings, not some kind of plague that can be reduced to mere numbers. They deserve adequate asylum-processing structures, not the mere three hours per week Greek Regional Asylum offices allocate per language for all asylum-seekers’ mandatory Skype interview. They deserve more than ‘limbo’: nothing to do but wait for something to happen, for the police to come and send them off to the next camp, as I witnessed in Piraeus. Powerlessness and hopelessness, as I felt for the majority of my trip, should not be the prevailing sentiment among refugees and volunteers alike.
Refugees don’t have a choice. But we do. We, citizens of Europe, have the choice of doing something positive in this crisis by demanding dignity and respect for migrants’ fundamental rights, and questioning the roots of our fear. Only then will we be able to say we are on the right side of history.