asylum, australia, discrimination, EU, followtherefugees, greece, human rights, humanitarianism, immigration, middle east, openeuborders, refugees, refugeesgr, refugeeswelcome, safepassage, syria, united nations, war
Nationality is not something you think about that much when you have a ‘good one’. The whole concept of being a refugee revolves around a lack of protection from the state, something that people in the west generally don’t have to worry about. Nationality can be a source of pride and a source of shame, for me it has definitely been both. The only other Australian I met on Lesbos was a woman who emigrated there twenty years ago. And volunteers and aid workers alike were all very surprised to learn where I was from. We really do have the most atrocious international reputation concerning this issue, and I would like to see Dutton or Turnbull try and justify it to the mayor of Sykemia or Molyvos, or the mayor of Lesbos who has consistently reiterated that it makes no difference where these people come from, we are all human. These people haven’t done anything wrong, and one day, that could be us.
Nationality also plays a role amongst the refugees. I was ignorant of the tension between Syrians and those who come from further east. Because they are more likely to be wealthy, the Syrians can pay for private taxis and buses rather than wait for the state supplied transport, thus they reach the processing centres and eventually their final destination more quickly. The Afghans have capitalised on this and sell Syrians who arrive after them their fingerprint documentation. I was surprised to learn of such entrepreneurship. Being in less of a rush allows people from Afghanistan the time to go through the processing, and after they no longer need the paper work (to board ferries), they sell it to Syrians who want to speed up crossing the orders. This gives the Afghans money and buys the Syrians time. The Afghans then have to line up at the next border while the Syrians pass through. Every time the authorities think they have come up with a full proof way to control the situation, within days the refugees have outsmarted them and found a way around it. You just can’t control population movements on this scale.
I speak to an aid worker from Swiss organisation Medecine du Monde who tells me about his PHD in post-2011 migration from Libya. When the conflict began tens of thousands of Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Pakistani workers, mostly domestic and labour, were left stranded with no help from their governments. On the contrary, China hired a Greek ferry, a Malta airport and evacuated 32 000 of its citizens within a week. The difference between a government that cares and a government that doesn’t is a matter of life and death.
From the Greek Islands and Athens the refugees head north by bus to the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The camp on the Greek side where I am now is north of Thessaloniki and called Idomeni. Depending on numbers refugees can spend anywhere from 20 minutes to 6 hours waiting to cross. It is a separate border to the official crossing, and I have been told I won’t be allowed to cross over with them tomorrow but will have to travel further along to the regulated border. So determined are the authorities to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that we can’t even cross the same frontier in the same place. Police ensure that people cross in groups of 50, and the refugees walk along the rail line into FYROM. Here the authorities are pragmatic and everything is very regulated. As far as FYROM is concerned, these people do not really exist and it is just about creating a corridor to get them out as quickly as possible. After crossing they are charged 25 EU for a train to the Serbian border. There is one train every 3 hours and the largest holds 1500 people. As long as the borders further north stay open everything is calm. But aid workers fear what will happen if Austria, Slovenia, Croatia or Serbia decide to close their borders. Earlier this year Hungary made just that decision and panic made the system unmanageable. Another factor out of everyone’s control is the weather. The last week has seen temperatures above 20C and sunny days, but when it rains and the temperature drops people get sick. They may have to walk in the cold for hours and will often present with hypothermia and other health problems that make an otherwise composed situation tense.
The overall atmosphere is always one of onward movement. Stopping is not an option- these people do not want to stop, and nobody wants them to stop ‘here’. Its fine if they decide to stop in Serbia or Germany or Sweden, or if they had stopped in Turkey. But no one wants them to be their problem. My Medecine du Monde guide is another open border advocate; I’ve been surprised by how many I’ve met. He makes a lot of sense. Whenever there is an announcement about one of the countries along the route closing the borders, panic is rampant and there is a spike in numbers. It is this sense of urgency induced by governments flexing their muscles that potentially renders the situation out of control. He maintains that this is not a humanitarian crisis, it’s a political crisis. A statement validated by EU paralysis in coming to an agreement on how to deal with the situation. The humanitarian disaster could be solved by very quick decisions; more permanent infrastructure, better facilities, correct information on processing and procedures. But governments don’t want that. Governments want to maintain the allure and facade of border protection and a temporary problem, which is rubbish given the fact that many of these people are running from protracted situations. Above all people here advocate for a ‘ferry first’ approach. A large boat crosses from Turkey to Lesbos every day, but the refugees cannot get on it despite the fact that it is almost empty. There is no understanding such a prohibition when people then chose to get on rickety boats and risk their lives anyway. Until the government and the EU do something about that it is hard to imagine anyone taking their attempts at compassionate rhetoric seriously.
This idea of thinking beyond the nation state challenges usual perceptions of refugees vs economic migrants, though the line between these two is often so blurred it is hard to make judgments that one is more deserving than the other. Economic migrants by definition have something to offer our societies. Although they may be seen as less worthy, in practice they are less of a drain on countries’ economies, particularly countries within the EU, Australia, Japan, Korea, which all have aging populations and will depend upon migration for their future survival. The 1951 Convention that determines status and who is entitled to refugee protection was drafted in response to a very particular context after WW2, that resembles nothing like the current global situation. The drafters had in mind Jewish elite academics forced to flee the holocaust, not Syrian families running from war. But valid fears exist that any attempts at redrafting the Convention will result in more rather than less restrictions on who is offered protection. Categorising people who need to flee just seems so pointless. The world is shaking just as much as it was in 1945, it’s just that it’s not shaking in our backyard anymore.
While nationality may divide us still, it is heart-warming to see the number of refugees who have formed groups in their travels, showing the natural human desire to always be part of a collective. No man is an island, and none of us want to journey alone. And the biggest collective of all is humanity. Jamal, the man who quit his job to live a life of volunteering told me how he was walking up to a camp one day when he was called into the bushes by three cheeky young unaccompanied Afghan boys who were eating food distributed by emergency staff around a fire they had lit to keep warm. They motioned for him to join them and shared their sandwiches, without knowing when their next meal would be. They also then tried to give him their lighter as a present. The gift of food and the gift of warmth, from three boys who had consistently not had access to either. I’m going to use Jamal’s words because I can’t put it any better. “This is why we survive; this is why humanity will endure whatever evil has to throw at it. It’s because of our capacity to share in the most extreme of circumstances.” Regardless of what symbol we have on the front of our passports.