As darkness came each night, sleepy Greek island coast roads morphed into scenes of dystopia. Freezing, sometimes worryingly silent children were pulled from the sea into cars with the heating on full and endless layers of thoughtfully applied clothing were tugged from their freezing bodies. On the roadside sat elderly people, their shaking hands trying to pull on socks and plastic sandwich bags over the top so they could again wear their sopping shoes. Then the sounds of shouting or a Whatsapp message would signal another boat.
On Chios, this could be repeated up to thirty times over during the busiest nights which began in August 2016. The island received the second largest influx of refugees at the crisis’ peak, after Lesvos, that recorded days of over 5000 arrivals in 24 hours.
This continued for months, thousands drowned and European politicians and the international community did little to aid those braving the sea and swiftly moving onwards through the freezing Balkans.
The world reacts
Then, two years ago today, in September 2016, the body of a Kurdish 3-year-old wearing a small red t-shirt and denim shorts washed up on Turkish shoresafter the boat carrying him and other refugees to Greece sank.
His image was splashed across every newspaper and all over the internet. International outrage ensued. The coming weeks saw fundraisers, appeals and volunteers from all over the world descend on the Greek islands he had died trying to reach, joining locals rescuing thousands of refugees from the water and offering emergency aid. I was one of them.
For me, individual identities were found clearing their lifejackets and forgotten possessions; kids toys lovingly wrapped in plastic bags and bits of clothing or photographs that had been selofaned several times over. I often wondered if they remembered, if they cried for their lost keepsakes or if they were numb to loss by now, as I picked through the pockets of jeans we recycled to use as dry clothes for the next arrivals.
But then, in March 2016, everything changed, the Balkan borders had been closed and the EU and Turkey signed ‘The EU/Turkey deal’. Those who arrived here became part of a system that meant they would be subjected to torturously long procedures to decide whether they would be allowed to file for asylum in Europe (the majority in Greece) or returned to Turkey.
The EU/Turkey deal is signed in March 2016
‘’They have guns,’’ one volunteer said simply when we first saw Frontex officers on the shore who were assigned to ‘guarding’ European borders between Chios and Turkey.
A Syrian friend of mine arrived six hours before the deal took effect but they told him (and others on his boat) that the computers had crashed and he would have to wait until tomorrow.
And so the chapter of braised cruelty began, reshaping that of murderous negligence — the failure to open safe routes into Europe — which has resulted in thousands of deaths like that of little Alan.
I am yet to see a transcript from an ‘admissibility’ interview which doesn’t detail violence or shootings by Turkish authorities on the border between Syria and Turkey and/or Turkey and Greece, human rights organisations have gathered evidence which supports these claims. But the end an asylum ‘expert’ usually scrawls that the person in question doesn’t face any threat in Turkey.
In actuality, the pillars of the deal are not upheld — returns to Turkey (of Syrians) are not taking place and boats continue to cross the sea despite Turkish police and coastguard operations. So a dark cloud of misery hangs over these places — intendedly transient tent towns that have become homes to some for over a year.
Many of those who came here with hopes of a future have disintegrated before my eyes. One day, a little girl wearing a red party dress told me her mother had died in Syria, she started crying, we played with the dirty stones next to pop up tents; a few days later I saw her in the hospital after she had been injured in violence in the camp — her father’s blank, despairing face perfectly reflected his and others seemingly never-ending suffering that has continued in limbo.
A few months after the deal, in August, the image of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old, appeared after he was injured allegedly due to a Russian missile in Aleppo; like that of Kurdi, the world shared the image but ignored the fact thousands of children were waiting in camps in Greece to be offered the opportunity of an education or a future. Though Germany opened the borders, accepting over a million Syrians, they have now closed and family reunification entrants have been limited to seventy a month.
For those who arrived to Greece in more recent months and reached another country, returns from other EU countries have also been resumed.
From the ground, two years after Alan’s death, we are assured an even darker period of this crisis is beginning. On Chios refugees are being crowded into camp Vial, an EU ‘hostpot’, in the mountains where volunteers aren’t allowed and NGO’s access is restricted to what lies behind the barbed wire fences. Decisions known as ‘second rejections’ have increased steadily, too, which mean individuals can be imprisoned until an answer regarding their asylum.
Fear and uncertainty in limbo
Now, many of the arms of young men are covered in a lattice of bloody cuts varying in severity and conversation rarely falters from the awful situation here. For those who queue for everything they need to exist, individuality has been stolen, trauma ignored and left to fester and hopes of a future seem just as distant as what was left behind.
‘’Just one day; happy, happy,’’ two young Syrian guys told me on different days, in exactly the same words.
‘’That’s all we want.’’
Here, entire lives have been condensed into papers. Defining characteristics and histories shaped into ‘vulnerabilities’ that are morphed into a way out of here, a score that determines the chances of a future, rather than an identity.
One boy who had just turned eighteen approached me asking for advice of how best to describe his trauma before he went to a hospital appointment — he has lived through years of war, many others have been imprisoned and tortured — but it turned out he had been given the wrong date. Weeks later he secured a psychologist and turned up again asking me what he should say, waving his arms that he had shredded to pieces for the occasion.
Two weeks ago, a one-year-old girl was imprisoned in Chios with her family, after they received a ‘second rejection’; she was later released due to efforts of volunteers who brought her stuffed toys like the ones Mr. Kurdi keeps in the cabinet.
She could have been Omran or Alan but the world doesn’t seem interested. Maybe it is because she is asking for more than sympathy — instead, to make her home in Europe.
‘’My son’s death changed nothing,’’ said Alan’s father, as the death toll in the Mediterranean has once again broken records and refugees still drown making the Aegean crossing.
The governments didn’t open safe passages, they blocked them. Neither did they offer acceptable living conditions let alone future prospects for refugees who reach Europe. In Chios, authorities decided some months ago that the municipality run camp in the town centre should be closed and those who didn’t find a space in the hotspot slept outside. For a week some weren’t allowed cards entitling them to food, effectively the orders were that they should have nothing to eat.
A malicious cocktail of prejudice, fear and greed has determined the horrific fate of those that came here to seek safety. One in which our view of refugees seems limited to that of objects deserving only of occasional outpourings of our grief but is skewed by a collective decision that they are not really wanted here, that we won’t share with those that lost everything.
As the bleak days continue on Chios — where teenagers slice their arms in hopes of escaping reality, because for some this truly is the only remaining hope they say they possess — it’s arguable refugees had more opportunities when European powers effectively turned a blind eye to the thousands boarding rubber boats rather than writing policy that perpetuated their suffering. That Alan Kurdi’s death has tragically taught us nothing other than the true extent of the world’s blinkered image of those that ‘suffer’; whose histories, resilience and triumphs we rarely acknowledge.
Prior to the deal many lost their lives, but many rebuilt them too; a dead child doesn’t represent the torture victims who escaped prisons and started anew, the young people who began college in another language or the single mothers who carried their kids across borders. Just we are conveniently less likely to indulge such images.
If we were moved by such stories, rather than fatalities, maybe we would pave the way for our governments to stop creating them.
An opportunity to embrace those who were lucky, who survived and risked everything seeking refuge, hoping to join the European community that has been completely rejected is representative of something much more frightening than an image of a dead child. It indicates a population not just indifferent but vindictive – for those stranded on the outskirts of Europe may never move on. The police brutality, the cold winters and the hate they endure could still be for nothing. No more is their gamble simply against the sea and an inflatable, overcrowded dinghy. They are no longer ignored by politicians, (just the general public) and have been shaped into pawns of one of the biggest political games of the 21st century, if they will be moved forward or backwards is something that has been snatched entirely from their hands.
‘’In my mind I am dead,’’ a Kurdish man told me and it seems now that in the mind of the world, if not in actuality, he is too.