Everyone, including the police, started singing


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IMG_2348I take the official and ordered crossing from FYROM into Serbia at Miratovac and reach the processing centre at Presevo. This camp is the most chaotic that I’ve witnessed. There are people everywhere yelling, and a heavier police and military presence than I’ve seen before. As this is an entry point, people here are registered and fingerprinted and this takes time. On an average day- 8 hours, on a bad day- 24. After arriving from the border groups are barricaded and held back behind metal rails in numbers of 50 or so. It really looks like something out of a war film. From here they move up the line group by group until they enter the UNHCR tents where they are processed, finger printed, and then board a train or bus to Sid at the Croatian border.

Adis from the United Presevo Volunteers comes out to meet me at the entrance where I’ve had another encounter with a displeased policeman. I’m not going to be allowed into the official tents. I hopefully and helpfully tell the cop that I’m Australian, but this one doesn’t seem to care.
Adis has been in Presevo for a month now. There are about 25 volunteers living in a house, literally crammed into the rafters sleeping on top of each other. These people are phenomenal. Unlike on Lesbos, there is no glamour and prestige in Presevo, there are no pretty beaches and waterside restaurants, and these guys are doing it tough. They work 18 hours days, and from what I can tell, they’re the only reason the situation hasn’t completely spiraled out of control. Before entering the camp it is this group who are handing out water and food and clothes and basic medical care to the refugees who may be here for hours and hours before they are processed. MSF also have a tent to deal with the most serious cases, but policemen often refuse to let people out of the line, even to use the toilet. As a result children defecate in their pants. When groups move forward to be registered people are anxious, and there’s a high risk of babies and children being trampled. I see for myself Adis throw himself into one such movement and act as a human shield to stop a little girl being flattened. The Presevo volunteers work entirely off donations and are desperately in need, with funding left for only a few more days, so if you can spare it- $50 goes a very long way in Serbia.


Volunteers also provide essential information to people who often have no idea what’s going on. Some refugees think that they are in Slovenia and not far from ‘Mama Merkel’. Others arrive having no idea which country they’re in. Something that makes a huge difference is basic communication, so the volunteers have made info sheets explaining where they are and what happens next. It seems incredulous that this hasn’t been done by the state or large NGOs. It’s such a basic and obvious thing to keep people informed, and the times I’ve seen refugees stress is when they don’t understand what’s going on. It would be a simple gesture, as well as an act of basic decency and a sign of respect to acknowledge these people as humans who deserve the courtesy of knowing what’s going to happen to them. It’s also pragmatic and would make everyone’s lives a lot easier.

IMG_2350The volunteers are all young, I don’t see anyone who looks over 40, many are in-between studies or jobs, some have left work to come here. All of them look exhausted and stressed. I ask them about their biggest problems, which seems a stupid question when the whole place is chaos. They tell me how the medic tent is only able to handle priorities, and there are so many problems that priority has come to mean being 8.5 months pregnant and having contractions. If you don’t fit that description, you’re waiting a while. Young men show up with injuries sustained from the boat trip from Turkey, having walked through Greece with serious wounds, but single males are never the priority.

Another huge issue is psychological care. Children often have panic attacks, particularly when they are separated from their parents. I hear one story of a 16 year old diabetic who was refusing to take insulin and effectively killing herself slowly. Another of two teenage girls who fled Syria and had all their belongings stolen in Hungary, one had started cutting herself. A woman died in a hotel room because they switched off the water and she couldn’t take her heart medication. They found her reaching for the pills. A bottle of water is all that would have made the difference. When stocks are low, water is only distributed to ‘special cases’- drinking water– a decision actually has to be made for who stays dehydrated.

IMG_2352The volunteer house is set less than 50m back from the street where the refugees are barricaded. The background noise of people in distress is loud and constant, and I don’t understand how they are getting any sleep at all. One tells me that she sleeps with a walkie talkie next to her ear in case of an emergency, meaning she never sleeps at all. Everyone has nightmares about the screams that sometimes come from the street and mean that something is really very wrong. I am so humbled by these people and their dedication. I could not live how they are living and the difference that they are making is enormous. Recently, Adis started cooking for everyone, but some days there is only enough money for them to have one hot meal. Because they want to be clear that general donations go to the refugees, you can donate specifically to their kitchen.

Something I’ve heard consistently since leaving Greece is stories of the authority’s brutality. While the military generally have a better understanding, policemen are not trained to deal with these kinds of situations. There is no understanding of cross-cultural communication, and it shows. People are shouted at like animals and pointed at like criminals. I see one man pushed to the ground and others dealt with very roughly for daring to take a step forward. But I’m also told stories of compassion, that the cops here are protective of the volunteers, and very, very concerned about the babies. But still there is no order in Presevo. Attempts to separate women and children from men to protect them in the crowds don’t work because wives obviously want to stay with their husbands. And when the crowd surges it’s the most vulnerable who are at risk of being trampled. The power of a group of people of this size heaving with exasperation and aggravation is quite frightening.


As with everything I’ve seen in the last week, there are many stories of humanity at its best. Some of the refugees have helped with crowd control, a Syrian social worker intervened in one tense situation and told Adis, ‘I got your back’. At one particularly busy point a group of kids aged 7-10 helped with running the food distribution tent, excited to be given a role and responsibility, and just something to do other than wait. A Spanish NGO called Clowns Without Borders showed up one day and started entertaining the children, but it ended up having just as positive an effect on the state of mind of the police. One story that gives me chills is of a day where supplies ran out and there was nothing left to give. People were getting anxious when Adis, feeling powerless, started playing music on a whim, and almost immediately the situation calmed. Everyone, including the police, started singing. A moment of normalcy in an otherwise appalling situation prevented disaster. On another occasion when they were linking arms to try and hold a crowd back, a group of Moroccan guys started singing ‘We are the world’. Sometimes all it takes is a song, an act that reminds everyone we are all the same, and a part of something bigger than ourselves.


We do what we can


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IMG_2319-1I was warned that getting into the Macedonian camps would be impossible, but I managed to walk into Tabanovste with no problems. A dirty train has just pulled up and people empty off it for the usual routine of collecting clothes and food before they walk along the tracks to cross. Eventually, despite my best efforts, some genius figures out that I am not a real refugee and I’m quickly ushered out. The camp director is not impressed that I have infiltrated his kingdom. They are terrified of journalists getting in and don’t believe that I’m not with an organisation. Arbnor asks for my passport, and as soon as he sees the coat of arms his attitude does a complete 180, ‘Kangaroo!’. Suddenly it’s very important that we become Facebook friends because he wants to come to Australia, and it’s very hard to get in he tells me. Oh what sweet irony.

IMG_2322-0I’m offered tea and an interview. ‘I’m so sorry, I thought you were British or American.’ he chuckles, as if this explains everything. It’s not the first time that my nationality has worked in my favor like this and I take full advantage, though I’m not sure what I’m going to do when he finds me on facebook and asks for an Australian visa. The camp is calm he says because the refugees do not stay very long. FYROM has managed to implement systems to funnel people through the country as quickly as possible and refugees rarely stop. Serbia is only 500 metres away, and 3-5000 people cross here daily. Maximum capacity for overnight is 1000, though it is very difficult to imagine that many people in this space and in reality they end up sleeping outside in the dirt. Arbnor seems proud of his camp, as if it is a competition with others to see who can provide the best service. But he admits that if something happens and people were to stay longer, they would be in trouble.

Everything is fine as long as the borders stay open and people can move on. It is easy to see how quickly this could turn into a full sale disaster if that changes though; basic infrastructure is lacking, and the only thing that allows the system to do anything resembling work is the constant onward movement. Many commentators have predicted that border closures further north could have catastrophic effects on the region which already suffers from its own ethnic and religious tensions.

IMG_2304The taxi drivers of Macedonia seem like a bit of a mafia, and it’s amazing how much money is being made. Refugees have injected millions into the economy through transport, small goods, and even accommodation for the wealthier ones. Crossing the state is at least 100 euro per car, and drivers make the trip three times a day, in a country where the average income is not much more than 300Eu a month. All the drivers I interact with are incredibly sympathetic. ‘We do what we can’ I see them buy water and coffee for the refugees. They hide children in their cars from the police and get angry when discussing how the authorities are corrupt and take money from these poor people. As Vladmir who drove me into Skopje and used to serve In the Yugoslav army points out, Europe’s last refuge crisis was a result of war in the Balkans, and people genuinely seem to want to help. ‘You are 18, 19, still really a child, and you wake up and your life is gone… things you can see, you can never unsee.’ They set up their phones as hot spots so the refugees can contact home, and they provide hugely important information on where they are going and what to expect that I haven’t seen given anywhere else so far. Perhaps most significantly, they treat the refugees as equals and talk to them about their families and their stories. There is no class structure in these cars.

Until June this year Macedonian law actually imprisoned taxis for taking irregular entrants to the Serbian border. Several are currently serving gaol terms for this offence. I hear one story of a driver who picked up a German girl and her black boyfriend, and felt sick about it but asked to see their papers. Vladmir looks ashamed to be telling me this, but says he couldn’t risk a gaol sentence and felt he didn’t have any choice. Understandably the couple were furious and walked away.

He encourages one group to seek asylum in Macedonia. Proving that a huge problem in this situation is a lack of communication, the refugees reveal that they don’t know about procedures here and are heading to countries where they believe they will get papers easily. They are also concerned with being in large countries where there are Arab-speaking communities. A fact that would have the far right screaming with cries of ghetto, it is really just a desire to feel a part of a community. To speak your mother tongue, to laugh and talk with those who share your history. It is no different from Chinatown or Little Italy. It is no different from me being drawn to an Aussie in Paris. None of them want to accept charity. When those who are used to money find out how much people in Macedonia earn they are quickly turned off, and encourage the taxi driver to come with them to Germany.

IMG_2327-0It is true that a small number of these people are not only running from bombs, one group crossed through the other day from Puerto Rico, another from the Dominican Republic, which seems amazing to me because surely there is an easier way to get to Europe from the Americas than via Greece by Turkish smugglers. My Yugoslav army friend says that there are those taking advantage of the situation. He doesn’t hold it against them though, and seems very wise in his comments that it is human nature to always search for a better life. As long as the refuges keep moving and injecting millions into the FYROM economy I really don’t think that anyone here minds. However, I am given the distinct impression though that benevolence would quickly disappear if all these people stopped moving and decided to settle in Skopje.

I could not stay just sitting any longer


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IMG_2304I ignored the policeman’s advice about buses for normal people and tried to find a car full of refugees who spoke perfect English. When that failed I settled on one where between two of the four we could manage a pretty decent conversation. When refugees cross into Macedonia they are given the option of a taxi or a train to the Serbian border, for the same price per person. Problems arise because children under seven ride for free so no taxi driver wants to take more than one kid per car. A very large Afghan family will have to wait until the next train which is 10 hours away. In my car are four guys in their twenties who insist that I sit in the front despite the fact that I’m smaller than any of them. They are curious about what I’m doing, but find it less strange than most of the non-refugees I’ve spoken to. We each pay 25 euro, no one asks me to put in more. Before we leave I ask the driver if I have time to buy some water, and three of the four thrust unopened bottles at me.

Mahmoud, 27 and his brother Annas, 25 are from Palestine, Nasa, 29 and Nabin, 20 are from Morocco. For the next two hours we skirt across Macedonia to Tabanovtse. Nasa speaks French perfectly and English well enough so between the two we get by. I point out to him that Morocco is not at war, and he openly agrees and says he had no fear there, but no life. He left three years ago and has been floating around the Middle East ever since. Finally he decided to try his luck and wants to get to Norway because he likes the cold. ‘I could not stay just sitting any longer, I want to change my life. No war, but no future.’ A qualified mechanic, he could not get a job anywhere and wants to start a family. For a year and a half he’s had a Russian girlfriend he met in Egypt, ‘I was not like this when we met’ he assures me, ‘I was clean and had fresh dressing and nice face’. His girlfriend, who he has just left in Dubai, wants to live in Russia. He tells me they’ve just had an argument, ‘I love her, but she drive me so crazy- I had to delete what’s ap.’ The idea from what I can gather is that once he’s established himself as a millionaire mechanic in Oslo the girlfriend will forget about St Petersburg and follow. She paid for his flight to Istanbul and this is a source of great shame for him. He averts my eyes as he says it, and you can tell this man is crippled by how powerless he feels to control his own future. ‘I don’t have anything, sometimes this country, sometimes that country.  All I do is food, sleep, smoke.’  He is also very upset by having to accept charity in general. He had two large packs but they were stolen in Turkey and his belongings have been reduced to a plastic bag. ‘For 9 days now I have no shower, no wash. These clothes, they are not mine. I had to take them’

His friend Nabin is sporting an injury he sustained days ago on the boat journey to Greece. But they have not stopped to see a doctor. The 20 year old is incredibly pale and I tell them that once we get to the camp they should speak to a medic. But they are determined not to waste time and want to keep moving. ‘We cannot sleep, we need to move, we don’t like sitting’. The taxi driver later tells me that 10 000 people crossed over yesterday and in reality they will have to sit for a while on the Serbian side to be processed.

Mahmoud is 27 but easily looks ten years older than me. He speaks Hebrew, Swedish, Arabic and some English. He shows me the scars on his head and arms from where the Israeli soldiers shot at him in Hebron. He intervened to help a relative they were trying to take after an argument, and they turned on him. He tells me the situation has become so bad you cannot leave your home without being harassed. ‘We go to sleep, and the next morning there are new houses on our land.’ He feels that there is no hope for him in Palestine and things are getting worse, he acts out how soldiers in Gaza point guns at children. Mahmoud left the occupied West Bank a month ago and travelled to Turkey before crossing the Med. He made the decision to leave his wife and child behind and bring them over later rather than risk putting them on a boat. He shows me photos of his little girl who is 2 and has a huge bow on her head. The next photo is of him clutching someone else’s baby on a boat, less than 6 months old. He tells me the Turkish smugglers were even rough with the children. ‘The babies were very scared on the trip, we all had to help.’

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I ask them if they would ever go back to their countries. Nasa says maybe in ten years, to show his children. Mahmoud shakes his head, thinks about it, and then says ‘maybe in twenty’. He then shows me photos of the Al-Aqsa mosque and starts raving about its beauty. When I tell him I’ve been there he grows very excited. I tell Nasa I have also been to Casablanca and travelled in Morocco. Mahmoud’s face clouds over and he says, ‘international travel, that is so nice for you’ and I wish I had kept my mouth shut. While Moroccans can visit 56 countries visa free, it’s harder for Palestinians, and Mahmoud snuck out on a false passport. None of them have any papers, the Palestinians to start with and the Moroccans since Turkey where the smugglers put a gun to their head and took their documentation, claiming they would be turned back otherwise. They are all amazed by how nice people in Europe are, and I am too much of a coward to tell them this will not always be the case.

I mention ISIS. The Palestinians don’t know much about it, but rage visibly flashes through Nasa. ‘These people have no religion’ he tells me, ‘they are not Muslim, they are not human’. He goes on to explain how what they do is harem, and Islam forbids it. As a way of making me understand, he talks about how to be a Muslim it is very important to be clean, inside and out, and no one from ISIS can be clean. When I ask why he thinks people are going to fight with them, his explanation is surprisingly economic. ‘C’est fou, but they think it’s the only way to get a house and money… People like me, who want a better life, but they are crazy.’ He is not worried about any of them coming to Europe this way and laughs when I ask, ‘they take the planes… It is the people running from them who take the boats’.

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They ask me about my plans once we get to the camp, and I explain I can’t cross with them but will return to visit that night with a contact in Skopje. Mahmoud immediately grows concerned and tells me this is not a good idea and I need to be careful. ‘I am afraid for you’. After a couple of hours in the car this man is sincerely concerned for my well being and starts quizzing me on how I know this person. His almost brotherly worry is so genuine I’m taken aback.

When we get to the crossing I’m suddenly overcome with I don’t know what. I’ve heard many people describe the situation here as a form of apartheid, and every time I’ve dismissed such a label as excessive and exaggerated. But now that I’m here and I’m living it, now that I go one way and they go another, that’s exactly what it feels like. While I will walk across a border and flash my passport, these kind, generous, funny and smart men who I’ve spent the last two hours talking and joking with, who have shared with me, have to spend hours in a dirty camp being pushed from here to there not knowing what’s going on. These are my friends now and it just doesn’t seem fair. Before I even realise what’s happening I’m blubbering, and the poor, hungry refugees who haven’t slept in days and have been walking for hours try to comfort the privileged, well fed Australian girl who will sleep in a hotel room tonight and can’t keep her shit together. It would have been hilarious in its ludicrousness, but I am so ashamed by my own good fortune that I can’t see the humour in it at all.

That kill that and that kill that and they kill me


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IMG_2291Last night under the cloak of my Medecine du Monde contingent I visited the Idomeni camp on the Greek-FYROM border. It’s purely a transit camp, and on any given day 10 000 people pass through. The camp is confronting in its sadness and its normalcy. The doctors tent has a waiting room that short of a few copies of Women’s Weekly could be the same as any other medical centre. People sit in line to see the medic, parents try to calm their crying kids and control the naughty ones, and everyone looks bored and restless. Outside there is a group of teenage boys seeing who can clear a railing the most easily by leap frogging. One doesn’t make it and is teased mercilessly. People are trying to connect to the wifi and find somewhere to charge their phones. Other than the overarching sense of waiting and expectation, other than the dirt and the tents and the smell, this could be anywhere. Every now and then a volunteer yells out ‘Farsi and English!’ or ‘Urdu!’ and without fail someone puts up their hand and comes forward to translate.

IMG_2294The only thing that really makes this scene different is the sense of anxiety and nervousness about when it will be their turn to cross. Groups arrive in large buses and are given a ticket, and when their number is called they are allowed to walk into FYROM. The timing depends on the authorities at the other side letting them through. Every 5 mins someone asks me what number they are up to, people are frantic they will miss their turn and be stuck. The really bizarre thing is that there’s no check or control on the numbers, and yet nobody pushes in. Everyone is waiting their turn. The refugees are anxious and frustrated, but incredibly polite; every time I tell them that I don’t know and they just have to wait they thank me profusely.

IMG_2301UNHCR is trying desperately to make sure groups stick together. A problem has been families becoming separated and it is easy to see why. The camp is dark and there are hundreds of people everywhere. People are curled up in corners and fall asleep in the dirt. I chat to a logistics officer from MSF, Antonis, who is very proud with how much his English has improved in the past month since he started working at the camp. Like all of Greece he has family in Melbourne and is excited that I’m Australian. He tells me how his grandparents were refugees and we have to help these people. The kindness in his voice when he responds to the same questions over and over again shows much more patience then I could muster. I think of the video footage of Australian staff at detention centres that was leaked and I cringe. Maybe part of our problem is that we’ve always just had it so good people really believe hardship is not being able to afford a second car. Australians can say things like send them back and ‘stop the boats’ while Antonis can say ‘we know what they have seen’.

Fatima and Ahmoud are a young Kurdish couple who left Syria a month ago. When I ask if they were afraid of the government or ISIS or the rebels Ahmoud waves his hand dismissively and says ‘that kill that and that kill that and they kill me’. So many threats exist that discussing who is responsible has become irrelevant. They have a two month old baby, and for this reason Ahmoud paid 2300 pp to travel to Greece in a new boat. He responds to many of my questions with ‘because I have a baby’, and tells me he saved money for two years and sold his house and all their jewellery to afford the ticket. They spent 20 days in Turkey where they were harassed by the police and the army. Ahmoud tells me that he didn’t sleep for almost three weeks because he had to stay awake and guard their family to make sure his wife and daughter were safe. Eventually a smuggler picked them up from Istanbul and they drove for 9 hours in the dark to Izmir. Crying, terrified, they were put on the boat for Greece. They are heading to Sweden where Ahmoud’s older brother is. His hopes for the future are simple, he wants his daughter to be able to go to school, and he wants to have a life.

I ask them about their wedding and Ahmoud tells me that they couldn’t have a real party because of the war. He seems incredibly protective of Fatima and doesn’t let go of her the whole time we talk. He grows bashful as he explains he wanted to marry her when they first met, but it took him two years to work up the courage. Fatima doesn’t speak any English, but seems to understand this as she looks at me and rolls her eyes. Ahmoud was a chef in a French restaurant in Syria, but he is nervous about finding a job in Europe because he cannot work with pork and is worried this will stop someone from hiring him. I ask if they want to have more kids and he says yes, but only one, he is firm that two is enough. I ask if they would ever go back to Syria and his face contorts into a pained expression. He says that he wants his daughter to see his home, ‘but right now it is too empty’.

Being white the refugees think I am working there and assume that I know what is going on. One man comes up and asks for my help connecting to the wifi. He is trying to reach his family in Afghanistan to tell them that he has arrived safely with his son. This is like the blind leading the blind and all I manage to do is run his battery down while trying to find the setting on his phone. A little girl has no socks or shoes and here I am slightly more helpful in finding something for her feet. People are consistently asking for blankets and tonight for some reason there aren’t any, but they are offered extra warm clothing before they cross over. One woman from Nigeria asks me for a carton, she has three babies with her and doesn’t want to put them on the cold floor.

The scene is incredibly multicultural. I meet people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea. My new friend Antonis tells me that yesterday they had a group from the Dominican Republic pass through. I walk with one group to the border and it is the strangest feeling. I’ve crossed many borders on foot, but this crossing, in the dark and with authorities herding everyone through like cattle, feels like something out of an apocalypse film.

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Crossing on the FYROM side of the border

Despite suggestions that I disguise myself as a refugee and sneak across the border illegally I choose not to do that, although an interesting idea I’m not quite keen on spending a night in a Macedonian jail. So this morning I went to the official crossing and then travelled back to the unofficial one on the FYROM side. My Greek taxi driver and the hotel owner were quite concerned that I did not have a visa. I assured them that I am Australian and this is no problem. They asked me if I checked and I lie and tell them of course I have, only a stupid idiot who has never travelled before wouldn’t check if they needed a visa to go into a new country. Luckily I turned out to be right, but for a few seconds I had a slight fear of being turned back to where I came from. It’s not a nice feeling even if in my situation it only would have been a minor inconvenience.

The border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

The border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

At the train station in Gevgelja there are buses and taxis everywhere. The refugees cross and those without lots of children take a taxi while large families wait for a train. Drivers don’t charge for young children, but this means they are reluctant to take more than one in a car load. And the police will fine them if they are caught with too many people. I manage to walk past the first line of security without being noticed and cross the tracks trying to look as not-blonde and fair as possible, but have to turn around. My choice to do things officially turned out to be a wise one because almost immediately I was racially profiled by the police and had my passport checked. Macedonia has been doing everything to stop people accessing the camps and they are not impressed with my presence. Without official accreditation, which I don’t have, or official permission from the police, which I couldn’t get, you are not supposed to be there. I explain that I am just trying to get a taxi and want to go to Serbia and they calm down once they see my passport is stamped. But my place is clear, ‘these buses are not for you, here is Syrian people, normal peoples bus is over there’.

This is why we survive; this is why humanity will endure whatever evil has to throw at it.


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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.

IMG_2134Nationality 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.

IMG_2135The 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.

IMG_2117While 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.

Some of them are in Turkey, some in Europe, some are still in Syria, and some are dead


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IMG_2251I meet 16 year old Akilah in one of the transit camps with her friend and three siblings. They arrived this morning from Syria and are waiting for the bus to the processing centre. Three years ago a bomb was dropped on their family home in Damascus and the house burnt to the ground. None of the children were inside, but Akilah tells me, ‘my father and my mother, they are dead’. She says this so casually that for an instant I think I must have misheard her. But she goes on to explain that the fire truck showed up too late and she came home to find both her parents had been burned alive. The shock on my face is clearly visible and she elaborates for my benefit, ‘plane war- you understand, the government drops bombs and now all the houses are in the ground’. I dumbly nod that of course I understand, because my early teenage years were obviously characterised by having a bomb dropped on my house and losing my parents rather than thinking about who would drive me to netball training.

Following her parents’ death the family moved to Douma, a town outside of Damascus which fell to rebels, lost all government protection and is basically a never ending battleground. She describes the daily bombings and explosions, the curfews and barricading of neighborhoods, and the men with guns. But the less violent details are just as shocking. A government blockade on supplies meant almost no fresh food got through, so for weeks her family ate only pet food. When food did get through it was so expensive that they couldn’t afford vegetables, rice or bread. They could not attend school or leave the house, and when they heard the planes they had to run down to the building’s basement. She acts out how her younger sister would cover her ears and rock back and forth crying as the bombs were dropped. She looks too small for an 11 year old, possibly because she hasn’t had a proper meal in 3 years.

They left Syria 5 days ago and paid a smuggler 800 Euro per person. They have an aunt in Sweden who is waiting for them, but Akilah tells me she would prefer Germany because the weather is better. It’s all relative I suppose. It was fear of conscription that finally forced them to flee Syria. The government ‘maybe take my brother to fight’ she says. Her brother is five years older than her, but seems withdrawn and lacking in the confidence of his younger sister. He smiles hello, but Akilah does all the talking. I ask her who they were afraid of, she tells me Assad, Daesh, the rebels, everyone. This is a common thing I’m hearing from Syrians, they almost can’t identify what was the final threat that made them run, so many forces they’ve been targeted by. One refugee told me that he had been detained by everyone except the Kurds.

IMG_2249-0I ask her why they didn’t stay in Turkey where they were no longer being bombed; she says they were afraid of the Turkish government ‘catching them’. They do not speak Turkish and have heard that they could have no life in Turkey without the language. She acts out the rocking in the boat and says they all had to be very still because the water came up to their waist. When I ask Akilah about her friends she is again oblivious to the power of her words. ‘Some are in Europe, some are in Turkey, some are still in Syria, and some are dead’ she says. She is hoping to get wifi so they can call the 94 year old grandma they left behind. ‘When we said goodbye, it was so sad, we cry, because she will die and we will never see her again’. I think of the scenes on the beach. When a boat lands and people get out, the first thing you see them do is grab the people they know in a giant bear hug, the kind you get from whoever’s picked you up from the airport after a long trip. The second thing they do is pull out their phones and call whoever they’ve left behind. I don’t know the words they use, but it’s easy to understand what they’re saying from the emotion on their faces.

Akilah breaks into a huge smile and tells me she wants to go back to school. Her English is remarkable for someone who hasn’t been in a classroom for years and she often corrects herself. ‘I like study so much’ she says, ‘I want to be a doctor’. Her 24 year old sister is shyer but tells me she was in the middle of studying surgical dentistry when they lost their parents. She too wants to pick up her studies. ‘I just want to be happy she says, I want to go back to life’. They are all grinning from ear to ear because they believe they will get an education and food and work in Sweden or Germany, but also because they are outside. For three years they have been under a blockade and afraid to leave their home. She tells me how amazing it was to come from the boat to the camp because they could walk without worrying about bombs.

IMG_2254Like any 16 year old, Akilah is obsessed with her mobile. She takes a selfie of the two of us and then proceeds to show me the other photos in her phone. The content is a bit different from the average 16 year old Australians. First I see a short clip of their house after the fire. It is charred, but you can make out a kitchen that looks like any other, a washing machine that looks like mine at home, blackened picture frames, a melted clothes rack. Her sister shows me photos of their mum and dad, they are eager to tell me what wonderful parents they were and how beautiful their mum was. And then they show me photos of Damascus. Both of them are bragging the way I do about Sydney, almost conceitedly about its beauty; at night the light is amazing they tell me, and the mosque is magic. ‘I wish the war is finished so we could go back to our country’. While they are ecstatic to be in a place where they can walk on the street without fear, there is still no place like home. ‘We liked it because we have always lived there’

IMG_2267-0This evening several boats arrived in the space of an hour. On the walk back from a fishing village I see a group of teenage boys dripping wet stop to help a Greek local and his son carry their boat into their garage. These young men stopped, possibly losing a spot on an earlier bus out, put down their sad-looking belongings and picked up the other end of the raft as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. As if they hadn’t just got off a rubber dingy and didn’t have weeks of arduous travel ahead of them. As if they had all the time in the world to help a stranger.

IMG_2257-0Before I head back to town another boat comes in. It is very dark now, I am on the side of the road doing what has become my usual contribution, taking off life jackets and trying to get people to remember to breath. A woman who must be younger than me is shaking in a very strange way, but physically seems to be alright. After I get her out of the vest a medic appears by her side holding what looks like a bundle and turns out to be a screaming 10 month old baby. It is so, so small, and if this is what a ten month old baby looks like I can’t image how tiny the several day old ones were that have arrived. The baby’s clothes are wet and we can’t find any dry ones so it is wrapped in someone’s jacket while the medic tries to calm it. The woman is still shaking and a camera man who I could throttle actually sticks a microphone in her face until the doctor tells him to piss off. Eventually the baby stops screaming and they get them into a car and drive them to the camp. The medic then gives an interview where she does her best not to break down and slams governments for allowing this to happen and tries to appeal to a common humanity. ‘People don’t risk their children unless they have to’ she says. She is crying, I am crying, the arsehole camera man is crying. Everyone here is crying but it seems that no one who can stop it is listening.

Tonight I met with representatives from UNHCR who told me that 93% of people who have passed through Greece come from the top ten refugee-producing countries. Yet some people will still label them economic migrants. UNHCR has begun a brilliant initiative where children are put through a simulated asylum journey. From playing with their friends on the beach, to having to flee, crossing a border and being separated from their buddy. Although Greece is not a paradise for asylum seekers, genuine effort is being made to improve the situation and increase peoples understanding, starting with children. So that when kids see and meet refugees, they have an idea of what they’ve been through. So that when kids grow up they become more compassionate individuals than the governments running the show today. I can think of several adults I’d like to put through the same passages program.

I don’t want to have to tell them that it’s because they are Syrian


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IMG_2149Being on Lesbos without a car makes life interesting, but with so many volunteers running all over the place hitch hiking has been pretty easy. This morning though I was picked up by two locals who didn’t speak a word of English. That didn’t stop them however from conveying their anger about how life jackets have just been left everywhere. As we drive along the dirt road there are bulldozers collecting the brightly coloured vests, and the elderly Greek men look genuinely pained as they wave their arms about and gesture widely. I do understand their irritation, this is a gorgeous island and it has been turned into a dump, but at the same time I didn’t think about where I tossed vests as I peeled them off screaming wet children yesterday. And I don’t think one could be expected to.

beachburnA story that stirs up more empathy is one of a policeman losing it at a group of refugees who broke branches off olive trees to burn. Olives mean more to the Greeks than just economics, and I get the policeman’s fury. But his claims that they are savages miss the point, what would you do if you were walking through a foreign country and it was dark and cold and you had nothing to keep you warm? Certain businesses have capitalised on the situation and charge refugees as much as $30 for a thin blanket. UNHCR is handing out one blanket per three children. It’s not surprising that left out in the open they reach for the nearest branch. Do you question what is growing on the tree when your body is at risk of hypothermia? Do you freeze to death in a ditch or do you light a fire?

IMG_2222-0After the refugees arrive they are sent to one of two ‘bus stops’ depending on which part of the coast they land. Although these are supposed to be transit points, in reality there are not enough buses to the main camps and people end up spending the night. Emmanuel is 23 and through Euro Relief runs the stage 2 bus stop outside of Skala. At its maximum occupancy it had 2500 people at once, 1200 overnight. It’s tidy and controlled, and I’m told nothing like the two main processing camps near the capital. ‘Oxy’, the other bus stop, is the opposite. There are no functioning toilets or clean running water, so refugees relieve themselves in the hills and when it rains human waste runs down into the makeshift camp. There is no order and there doesn’t seem to be any control. One person tells me it’s a biological nightmare waiting to happen and it’s only a matter of time before disease is rampant.

12189897_10156320495615691_4323813710355367176_nThe Greek government doesn’t want to do anything to give the situation an element of permanency, and as a result infrastructure is severely lacking. A representative of Samaritans Purse, a US organisation that deals with water management and hygiene, tells me he has a trailer with four sparkling toilets waiting to be brought in, and they can’t get government approval. The authorities are essentially unnecessarily keeping people in this squalor. Denying that this situation is not at the least going to be prolonged is absolute madness. An outbreak of cholera or dysentery is going to leave a much bigger stain on the community than a couple of portaloos.

In complete contrast to this chaos is the Lighthouse Refugee Relief camp that has popped up off the main road. A Swedish-run organisation, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in a camping ground. If you want to give money directly to people working on Lesbos, without question- give it to them. To avoid tension with the community, Lighthouse have had the sense to rent the land and buy all supplies from local businesses. It seems so obvious and logical, but as far as I’ve seen no one else is doing it as well. I’m very attracted to the anarchists who have set up shop next door on public land with their anti-capitalist slogans, but the reality is that they’re not as effective or organised. Sometimes you just want Scandinavians to come in and do a job well.

Anna from Lighthouse tells me some of the stories of people who have passed though. One man’s wife jumped off the boat as it was leaving Turkey, so terrified she became of the sea, and the boat wouldn’t go back to pick her up. He arrived with their two children, terrified about what the smugglers may have done to her, and waited until she thankfully arrived a few days later. Lighthouse asks the people who stay with them to help with maintaining the camp, and two young Syrian guys actually stuck around for several days to help with cleaning and translating. Literally, fresh off the boat volunteer refugees. I don’t think I’ll ever have a good excuse not to do anything ever again. I ask Anna if she’s ever felt uncomfortable, a pretty blonde girl often surrounded by young, single Afghan and Arab men. She tells me she feels more comfortable here than back home. There was one incident where a man hit his wife, and she very loudly scolded him, but other than that the thousands of people passing through has been incident free. Like the emergency centre on Athens, the camp is full of charging iphones and other electronics. Nothing has ever gone missing.

IMG_2224-1I ask her how she feels about recent anti-immigrant sentiment in Sweden and she says that she’d rather be here. It is so tough going home and hearing people who have so much complain about so little. Her respect for the people that she’s met is clear, some get off the boats and rather than wait for the buses will start walking the two day hike to the capital. She is resolute that they should all be helped, ‘if they make this journey, they have a reason’. Often they arrive and the first thing they ask is how they can get a taxi or where can they book a hotel room. Imagine going somewhere and upon arrival finding out that there’s no room in any inn because of your nationality? As Anna said, no matter how much she tries, she will never really understand, she has a Swedish passport and can go anywhere. I agree. Though I consistently bitch and moan about my lack of an EU passport, the first thing I did when I got here was check into my hotel. I didn’t have to prove anything. ‘That is really difficult’ she admits, ‘saying that they can’t get in that car or stay in that room… I don’t want to have to tell them that it’s because they are Syrian’.

IMG_2226-1A common story I’m hearing is of the lies told by the smugglers on the other side of the water. There are wild stories around ‘what they tell them’. People show up in Greece expecting that once they get to Germany or Sweden they’ll be given a house. Some people believe that after the boat journey everything else on out will be smooth sailing. Others are acutely aware they have weeks of travel in front of them, often on foot. None of them seemed to realise just how dangerous the boat trip could be. Smugglers tell the refugees to knife the inflated dingys once they are close to shore or else they may be turned around. But people who have never known the sea don’t know what a safe distance is, and many end up in the water.

IMG_2237On Oct 28 a boat sank and despite the best efforts of Frontex and the Proactiva Spanish lifeguards several people drowned. Lack of coordination meant that the rescue ship was swamped and for some time couldn’t move to assist. The captain and crew saw children drown from the deck and couldn’t do anything. It is not only the refugees here who are traumatised, and there is definitely some resentment towards parents for getting on these boats with such young children. I hear words like selfish and irresponsible. Pregnant women arrive daily and a 2 day old baby has been on a boat in the last week. Rescuers are here to patrol the waters and help boats in distress, they are not supposed to have a political opinion, but there doesn’t seem to be a great understanding that choosing not to leave could be as irresponsible a decision for their children as risking the short boat journey. Most do make it in without incident. If you’ve lived for years without being able to take your children to school or leave the house, maybe at some point waiting for your luck to change becomes more unbearable than taking fate into your own hands.

Even among refugees there are first and economy class tickets


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IMG_2165-1The first thing that you notice about the north coast of Lesbos, after the life vests and the shipwrecks, is how incredibly close Turkey is. I reckon on a good day your ocean-trained Aussie could swim it, and a Syrian man has successfully done so, but for the people I met today the sea is anything but welcoming. I spend most of my time travelling along the beaches with an Israeli organisation called Israid. They spot the boats from kilometres out and drive to where they land. From here women and children are bused to the camps by the IRC, and able bodied men and youth walk.

IMG_2157The first landing point I come across has seen three boats that morning. People queue to receive a ticket that notes if they are in a family. The presumption is that they are Syrian, signs everywhere are in Arabic and volunteers know basic words. But at least 15-20% are Afghan. When the weather was bad last week smugglers dropped prices and there was a surge in Somali and Libyan arrivals. One of the most harrowing things I’m told is that a certain type of life jacket (blue) is stuffed with paper. Almost without fail the wearers are from Afghanistan or Somalia- fake life vests for the poorest. Even amongst refugees there are first and economy class tickets.

IMG_2219The morning has been relatively quiet, the president was supposed to be in town and there are rumours that the coast guards on both sides of the Aegean were told to slow the boats until after he left. There is huge suspicion here towards the authorities, whom people are convinced don’t want to help. Whenever VIPs show up they block traffic on the already poor road and slow down rescue efforts. The first boat I see come in has little trouble. It is a packed rubber dingy, but the people seem relatively calm and even clap as they are escorted in by fishermen. It appears as though there are as many volunteers as refugees on the beach, and the whole process is relatively ordered. Babies and children are handed over first, one little boy hops off and starts walking up to everyone holding his hand out to shake. A pretty Syrian teenager who is one uniform away from looking like she belongs in a private Sydney high school asks me in perfect English what time the first bus will arrive, tells me my shirt is dirty, and then flounces away leaving me very confused. These people are clearly middle class. They unwrap phones that are much more high tech than mine from plastic bags and start taking photos. They are well prepared and seem to know what’s in store for them.

IMG_2202This boat was clearly an exception. That afternoon I see about five more, and the sound that characterises them all is of children screaming. One is stuck 200m or so from shore and is waving for help. They are not sinking, but cannot go anywhere, so Frontex (the EU border agency) sends a ship to push them to where the lifeguards are waiting. They have landed at an awkward spot and have to climb up the steep, muddy hill to get to the road.
Smugglers in Turkey herd the people onto the boats, start the engine, and point in the direction of Greece. This is what 500+Euro gets you. If your engine dies or your boat leaks, or you go the wrong way, or the sea is rough, tough shit. Last week several larger wooden boats arrived. The tickets for these are more expensive because the smugglers brand them as safer, but when refugees show up to board they find they have been packed beyond capacity, and in reality these are the boats that most often sink. There are stories of people having guns put to their head and told that they are now the captain. As astonishing as the number of people on Lesbos is, the refugees consistently say that it is nothing compared to the masses waiting to make the journey on the other side. This problem is not going anywhere. The Mediterranean is clearly not deterring anyone, and people are dying because there is no safe passage.

imageThe coastline from Molyvos to Skala is crawling with people. Some look relieved and some look shell-shocked, all look shattered. The thing that is impossible to ignore is just how much these people are like us. Little girls are dressed head to toe in Disney princess get up, parents are trying to get their children to listen to them, a middle aged woman reaches over to give her husband a kiss, an elderly couple wring out their clothes and then grip each other’s hands for the entire walk into town. I see a young girl walking down the street holding her little brothers hand, while their parents trail after them with their belongings in plastic bags, squabbling about the best way to hold their luggage and telling the kids not to go too far ahead. It’s a surreal scene. Anyone who thinks these people are somehow intrinsically different is so wrong. The things that make us human; fear for our children, concern for the people we love, gratitude towards a stranger that helps, curiosity for something new and someone different- these commonalities are so much stronger than the choice to wear a head scarf, praying by putting your head to the ground, or not eating pork.

IMG_2212The last boat I saw today was the most harrowing. It was getting dark, the wind was strong, the water starting to get rough, and I was freezing with three layers on. I stay out of the way and leave the rescuing to the people who know what they’re doing. But once people are out of the water there are traumatised individuals everywhere. I start taking off soaking life jackets and try to comfort people who are in distress, but I really didn’t know what to do. One woman is wailing and shaking, I grab her by the arms and try to steady her and sit her down. But as soon as I touch her she bursts into tears and falls to the ground. Another is sobbing uncontrollably and convulsing with shivers. I rub her arms and wrap her in one of those foil blankets you see on TV that feel as light and useless as they look. But it is only when I manage to sustain eye contact with her that she seems to register she’s no longer in the ocean and stops hyperventilating and starts saying thank you over and over again. It’s a very short moment, but it’s the closest I come to tears all day.

A Canadian who quit his job and with his girlfriend now lives off less than 8K a year so they can be full time volunteers tells me that last week he was helping a Libyan man with a broken leg and a severed arm, when he suddenly started bashing his head against the wall. There are so many traumatised people and so few volunteers here with the relevant training. They do the best they can, but with so few resources and basic supplies, what they can do is often limited to my contribution today, human touch and empathy. It matters, but these people need so much more than that.

IMG_2209The final story for today is of a volunteer who was driving a young woman and her daughter from the beach up to one of the camps when he heard pained screaming. He pulled over to find a little boy wailing next to the body of his father, whose eyes had rolled into the back of his head and was having an epileptic fit in a ditch. The volunteer had to unload the mother and child and ask them to watch the little boy while the man was put in the back seat and hurried to the camp. He then drove back to pick up the son, who hadn’t stopped sobbing and screaming out for his dad. The man survived, but only because someone drove by at the right time. This frustration is something I hear time and time again, why aren’t the camps on the beach, why aren’t there enough buses, why should people who have just been through hell have to walk two kilometres uphill? The guy telling me this story sounds pretty traumatised himself, and his face is etched with exasperation. We were able to save that man’s life he says, but why should his life be entirely up to chance?

How do you choose who gets to stay warm?


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IMG_2114Before you even touch down at Mytilene airport evidence of the catastrophe on the Greek Island of Lesbos can be seen from the air. Thousands of orange and red life vests of all sizes litter the beaches. On the taxi ride into town groups of refugees line the streets with backpacks, some are still wet and have evidently just arrived. By law local taxis are forbidden from driving the refugees, but in reality many bend the rules. I share one with a Greek contractor, and after guiltily checking left and right our taxi driver ushers an Afghan man into the back seat.

The generosity of the Greek people has floored me. While they are clearly angry at a lack of European solidarity, not one has shown a hint of animosity towards the refugees themselves. They are frustrated by the economic situation and by the lack of response from authorities, but no one has uttered anything even remotely close to a call to turn people back. Instead what I consistently hear is a call for safe passage.

IMG_2142The travel agent at Mytilini bus station tells me that this is because Greeks are all too familiar with having to leave their homes. Many of them were displaced themselves during the civil war. “We have lived the same thing” she says. A fisherman points out that a child drowning looks the same whether he is Greek or Syrian. It is only distance that allows people to dehumanise. Australians are able to advocate sending people back to where they came from because these people are kept far away from them, on remote pacific islands, and only exist so far as they are part of a mass. When you see a sodden family walking through your town, carrying all their belongings on their back, no one considers physically turning them around and pushing them back out to the ocean. But in effect this is what we do. People need to realise that in practice the result is the same, geography just allows you to look away more easily.

The travel agent expresses annoyance at how the refugees treat the environment, and admits certain parts of the island no longer feel like her home. But she is quick to say that there have not been any problems between them and the local population. Lesbos has not seen an increase in crime, despite the thousands who have passed through. Her frustrations are practical; the economic situation, long term prospects for the tourism industry, and how Greece is going to cope with accommodating the thousands more who are inevitably going to continue arriving. In response to demand the agency has started selling package tickets that include the ferry ride, assistance on the mainland and then a bus directly to the Macedonian border. She acknowledges that for now the refugees and influx of volunteers and journalists are keeping the economy going. But she is fearful that the tourism industry has suffered irreparable damage and the island will never regain its reputation. 4 cruise ships diverted to different islands this summer.

IMG_2126Instead of holiday makers the port is cluttered with refugees, and I admit that it felt uncomfortable. But it wasn’t so much that I felt threatened as that I felt spooked, as if it were a ghost town. These weren’t people so much as they were bodies. Empty vessels of shell shocked individuals who had breath in them but no life. They lay everywhere, some had tents and sleeping bags and napped, but none of them were present, they were just waiting.

The difference in how certain groups of refugees are perceived is astonishing. From the moment the boats wash ashore people are categorised based on their nationality. Syrians are immediately distinguished from other groups and sent to their own camp. And local empathy towards them seems greater. From what I can gather this is because they tend to have more money, which in turn gets put back into the economy and means they can move on more quickly. While the Afghans are poor and will wait around for a week until they receive Western Union transfers, I see several Syrians withdrawing cash from ATMs and eating in restaurants. Some will even pay for hotels if they can find an owner who will break the rules. They are also better educated and speak more English so can communicate with the Greeks.

The bus to the north of the island where I am now was full of volunteers, and there are accents from every corner of the globe. It is the volunteers who spot the boats coming and rescue people in distress. Other than the Greek coastguard, there does not appear to be government help. NGO workers line the beach at night with lights and binoculars and are the only look outs that may pick up a boat before it crashes into rocks. The entire island has two ambulances responding to the crisis, so volunteers end up driving pregnant women and injured children to hospitals. A few days ago Tsipras was here and I’m told that almost overnight the island was spotless for his arrival. The locals want to know why such effort can’t be directed towards saving lives and organising the situation more effectively.

Unlike the emergency centre I was in yesterday, these camps are not well resourced. There are not enough of them and they have nowhere near enough essential supplies. Other than categorising refugees based on where they are coming from and issuing documentation, there seems to be zero organisation. On a busy day this results in absolute chaos as aid workers are inundated with more people than they can handle. A Canadian volunteer paints a dire picture, ‘Last week we had 600 blankets and 3000 people in one day, how do you choose who gets to stay warm?’

IMG_2139Everyone advocates for opening the land border. The sea is clearly not deterring anyone and hundreds of lives are being lost as a result. These people know where they are going, I hear a story of a little Afghan girl who was plucked out of the ocean and tried speaking to her rescuer in broken German. The Greeks are angry with Germany for imposing austerity measures on them over the summer, and there is a keen sense that Germany owes them and is not paying its own debt. But the government and the EU are determined to maintain the appearance of Fortress Europe, despite the fact that its walls are crumbling all around.

I saw they needed help…so I helped them


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athensIt’s been three and half years since I was last in Athens and the city is still incredibly rundown. Greece has generally not been a final destination country for asylum seekers.  Although the Dublin Accord states that refugees entering the EU should be processed in the country in which they enter, the European Court has found member countries in breach of the ECHR for sending asylum seekers back to Greece due to the risk they face of cruel treatment. While Greece and Italy act as a ‘frontline’, refugees tend to move on very quickly. In reality, most of the people I meet will spend very little time in Greece.

Nowhere is this more evident than the 2004 Olympic Galatsi Stadium. galatsi
Last month it was repurposed as a holding centre for refugees coming off the island ferries before they head further north.  The centre is organised by the municipality, run by the vice-mayor and supported entirely by donations. Since October 1st 15 000 people have passed through the emergency centre.

It didn’t take long for me to be confronted. On the bus to the stadium I encountered a group of young Afghans and their kids. In an effort to break the ice I made it my mission to get a laugh out of the little girl propped up next to me. After pulling numerous faces and bribing her with nuts to no avail I looked at her more closely and was haunted by the emptiness in her expression. Despite her dad’s best efforts to get her to react, she had no spirit left in her. And it hit me; this child was nothing like the poor kids in Africa I’d known, who had so little but still so much life in them that a funny noise or a lolly could fill them with glee. This little girl was completely traumatised. It wouldn’t have made a difference if I morphed into Dora the Explorer and produced a truck full of candy, at the age of 3 or 4, she had no smile left in her eyes.

The adults travelling with her were not faring much better. One of them, Taaban, spoke impeccable English and told me their story. He had left Afghanistan about a month earlier and had travelled through Iran, Pakistan and Turkey before arriving in Greece the previous day. Tabaan fixed cell phones in a city 200kms outside of Kabul. It was his dream to open the first Apple store in Afghanistan. At the age of 14 he needed to get a job to support his family, so he taught himself English, first from a book and then by speaking to US soldiers stationed in the country. He is now 22 and tells me that his father decided someone had to get out. The family sold everything they had, including Tabaan’s small market, and he left with a grand total of 3000Eu. When I ask him if he would ever want to return to Afghanistan he looks me straight in the eye and says without blinking; ‘Of course, everyone would like to be where they are from’. But the Taliban were returning to his village, ISIS is an increasing threat, and as the male of the household the responsibility fell on him to go. All he is focused on now is finding work to send money home to his family.

It seems like a heavy burden for a 22 year old. When I ask him how long he plans to spend at the stadium he says he hopes to move on that night. This all seems a bit much to someone who feels like she needs a nap from getting up at 5am once. Tabaan lost his birth certificate when one of his backpacks disappeared somewhere between Pakistan and Turkey. After paying a smuggler 500Euro to cross the Mediterranean in an 8m boat with 40 people, he only has 900 of the 3000Eu left. But he is surprisingly calm, and tells me he still wants to get to San Francisco so he can pitch his idea about an Apple store in Kabul. Other than talking about his family, the only time his voice falters is when he mentions how they were treated like animals by soldiers in Iran and the boat journey from Turkey. I make the dumb observation that it must have been terrifying for the kids. ‘None of us had seen the ocean’ he replies, ‘It was terrifying for me.’

How long do you stay in a situation when there is no future? The war in Afghanistan has lasted longer than both world wars combined. At what point does it stop being about not wanting to die, and become a question of wanting to live? This man speaks three languages, was profusely apologetic for having to ask me my name a second time, and before sitting down to eat his first hot meal in three days was asking the volunteers what he could do to help. Not once did he even hint at asking me for anything.

refugees-piraeusWhen we arrive at the camp a security guard checks their papers and I see firsthand the overwhelming panic in one of their eyes when he realises his documents are missing. It’s that feeling you get when you go to pay for something and can’t find your wallet for an instant, multiplied by a million. He will have to go back into town and reregister with the police that night. The camp atmosphere is overwhelmingly welcoming. The first things we see as we walk through the gates are kids playing soccer and giant finger paintings on the walls. The vice-mayor, Manos Elefthariou, comes out to give me a tour. At its fullest the stadium housed more than a thousand, but due to a strike and a bottle neck on the islands, today there are less than 100 people here. All that is about to change however as the staff are preparing for a mass influx tonight.

Manos is incredibly proud of the place, and rightfully so. It is impeccably clean. The former badminton and table tennis halls are now sleeping rooms full of blankets and toys. There is a fully equipped medical centre, and more clothes than a St Vinnies. It is absolutely astonishing that all this has come from donations. When I ask Manos about initial reactions he says the community was at first fearful, but it didn’t take long for such fears to be quelled when the locals interacted with the refugees. The stadium now has more supplies than it needs and has stopped accepting donations. Refugees typically spend 2 days here to recuperate before they move north.  Of the 15 000 who have passed through, not one has sought asylum in Greece, acutely aware that there is no future for them here.  Manos tells me that they are well informed and very well organised, that they are risking everything to have a shot at a proper life and don’t want to be dependent on charity. While you can see the relief on their faces that they are now in Europe, offers of free temporary lodging in Greece have even been refused, as they want some kind of end to their plight- a job, a life, an education, a future for their children. While I marvel at what he’s done in meeting these peoples survival needs, he is forceful in his belief that it is nothing but what is required. He struggles for the words to describe what he wants to express in his native tongue, ‘They are our fellow human beings, they are our colleagues.’ I try to play devil’s advocate and point out the age old arguments about how they were not persecuted in Turkey. He doesn’t engage with pointing out the flaws in that thesis, but just poses the question, ‘What would you do?’ It is telling that the people who are the most open and accepting of refugees are the ones who spend the most time with them.

Before I leave I say goodbye to Taaban and ask him how he knows the people he is travelling with. One is a friend from Afghanistan, but the family with the frozen little girl he met in Iran, and they have been together ever since. ‘It is not easy with three young children…’ he explains to me earnestly, ‘I saw they needed help…so I helped them’.