Posts Tagged 'refugees'

Covering the refugee crisis: Rules of engagement

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By Harry van Versendaal

As soaked asylum seekers in the mud-choked tent city at Idomeni marched through the sprawling camp to protest the border shutdown by authorities in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a rain-drenched Giorgos Moutafis followed them with his camera. Reports the following day said three Afghans were found dead, believed to have drowned when a group of about 20 refugees attempted to cross the Suha Reka river on the other side of the border.

Three days later, sitting inside a cozy and dry theater in the port city of Thessaloniki, about a one-and-a-half hour drive from the makeshift camp, Moutafis discussed the journalistic, moral but also psychological challenges of documenting the ongoing crisis.

“I often take photos and cry at the same time. It is impossible to remain uninvolved emotionally,” he said during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which this year returned with a tribute to migration. Having repeatedly highlighted the subject in previous years, one got the impression that the 2016 TDF was saying, “Told you so.”

As the refugee crisis deepens and the death toll rises, professional reporters often find themselves putting the stringent non-engagement code of principle on the back burner. A photo published by AFP in November showed Moutafis assisting an injured woman lying on the seashore after arriving on Lesvos island.

“You have to tell the story. But you can only go as far as your limits. You have to live with your conscience,” he said.

Since entering the field in 2007, the 38-year-old photographer has covered several conflicts and humanitarian disasters in more than 20 countries for a number of respected international publications including Newsweek, Time, The Guardian and The New Yorker. Recent developments sent him closer to home. He has spent the past year shunting between Idomeni, Lesvos and Kos, the latter two being the eastern Aegean islands on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis.

Moutafis has taken thousands of photos and shot many hours of video footage which he plans to use for a future documentary project. His pictures include dozens of bodies of drowned people that were found on Greek shores, often by him first. He is not apologetic about these images. Instead, he believes that disturbing shots can have a consciousness-shifting potential, or what is commonly called “shock value.”

“I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action,” he said, adding that pictures can and should be taken in a way that shows respect for the subject as well as the audience.

Since January 2014, some 1,161 people have died on the Aegean crossing, according to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“We must not allow ourselves to get used to the idea of people dying, we must not allow ourselves to grow immune to this spectacle,” he said.

The debate on the use of graphic images gained fresh intensity last year following the publication of a photograph depicting the tiny body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, face down in the waves. Most newspapers chose to publish the image, although in some cases pixelated. The impact, at least in the short term, was evident as charities supporting migrants and refugees reported a significant increase in donations in the following days.

The iconic photograph was last month recreated by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who lay face down on a pebbled beach on Lesvos. Several critics found the gesture to be in bad taste. In another controversial stunt staged at Idomeni last week, the famous artist set up a white piano in the middle of a muddy field before inviting an aspiring Syrian pianist to play for the first time in years. A tent filled with an actual refugee family and a small campfire was set up next to the piano. Ai said that the act was more than a performance. It was “life itself” and showed that “art will overcome the war.” The artist held a plastic tarp over the pianist to protect her from the pouring rain as she played a rather basic melody. A small group of refugees watched in wonder. One witness criticized the stunt as “cheap and superficial.”

Although art can serve a very real purpose using its own idiosyncratic vocabulary, it is rarely held accountable for its effectiveness or historical accuracy. The media, on the other hand, have an obligation to stick to a more literal language.

“Pompous as it may sound, this is history in the making. As photographers we have a responsibility toward the historians of the future,” Moutafis said.

Dozens of journalists working for the world’s leading news agencies, including Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Al Jazeera, have in recent weeks flocked to the frontier to cover developments with the help of computers, satellite vans and the latest trend in refugee coverage: drones. When not on duty, you will usually find the pack drying their feet and cleaning their equipment at Asimenia’s, a taverna-turned-media-hub – complete with brand-new Wi-Fi and plug extensions – in the nearby village of Plagia.

Back in the camp, refugees dogged by a shortage of food, medicine and drinking water await the outcome of a key European Union summit with Turkey in Brussels on Thursday. This is unlikely to go in their favor, at least in terms of lifting border restrictions for the more than 45,000 people now stranded in Greece.

In a desperate attempt earlier this week, about 2,000 refugees tried to find a way around the border fence in order to cross into FYROM. Up to 80 reporters, aid workers and volunteers were arrested by FYROM police during the attempt.

As he continues to document their fate, Moutafis remains sober about his part in all of this.

“Let’s not overestimate the photographers’ role here,” he said. “We are not doing anything special. The real heroes are the people living in the mud-bogged tents.”

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Home and away: Andreas Koefoed talks about his film on plight of displaced children

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By Harry van Versendaal

Big shocks change perceptions, and Denmark’s decision earlier this year to confiscate valuables from asylum seekers hoping to find refuge on Danish territory caused some serious damage to the nation’s benevolent image.

However, as Andreas Koefoed’s latest documentary demonstrates, any absolute, black-and-white narrative must be treated with suspicion. “At Home in the World,” to be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which opened Friday, tells a heartwarming, encouraging story from the same Nordic country.

Relying on an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall style, the 36-year-old director follows five non-native children attending a Red Cross school in Lynge while Danish authorities consider their families’ asylum claims. Denmark last year received 10,434 asylum applications.

Initial impressions can be deceiving. Unbending introversion or sudden outbursts of violent behavior suggest that the reasons that made these children and their families flee, the often treacherous journeys to safe territory and uncertainty about the future have resulted in profound psychological trauma.

Connecting these stories, which are documented over the course of a single school year, is Dorte, a committed and compassionate teacher whose presence and demeanor deconstructs another stereotype: that of the self-centered, robotic Northern European.

Born in Copenhagen, Koefoed graduated in documentary direction from the National Film School of Denmark in 2009. He holds a sociology degree from Copenhagen University too, where he also studied anthropology and political science. “At Home in the World” won the award for best mid-length film at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2015.

Koefoed spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his movie, Europe’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis and mainstream media coverage of the situation.

What was your motive in making this film?

I wanted to understand what it’s like to be a child and a refugee. What it’s like to lose a home and be on the run and having to search for a place where you can feel safe – a possible new home. How do you face the challenges of everyday life, a new language, new people, new friends? And how do you deal with a troubled past and an uncertain future?

How conscious were the children of the situation they were in, in your view?

My understanding is that they know their present situation pretty well, the status of their case and so on. However, many of the children did not know why they had to flee, because their parents never told them. Not knowing your own story is difficult. You need it to create meaning in your life and to be able to engage in the present, to establish a new home.

How difficult was it to gain access and make this documentary? How difficult was it to become “invisible” and escape the attention of little kids?

It was not that difficult. The Red Cross in general and the head of the school in particular were very helpful and open. They normally do not allow journalists in because they have to protect the children. But they had confidence in my project and they felt they could benefit from the film in the sense that people could get an understanding of what they are doing there. The kids were very aware of the camera in the beginning, but slowly I became a part of the classroom and the kids lost interest and all the natural scenes would simply pop up.

Are you hoping the film will challenge mainstream Western perceptions of migrants and refugees?

Yes. I want to show that these kids are like other kids, but in a difficult situation. It seems to be such an obvious point, but because of the mainstream media’s and politicians’ representations of refugees they have become a stereotype with no personality and no face. You hear many refugee stories, but they are mostly presented by others, and as a result they are usually portrayed in a cliche manner. I also tell the kids’ story, but I try to take a step back and let the children come forward and let us into their lives.

Are you happy with the way Europe has responded to the ongoing refugee crisis?

I am not at all happy. I am disappointed that many countries, including my own, do not assume the responsibility that is needed, and that Europe as a whole hasn’t been able so far to solve it together.

What is your opinion of Denmark’s recent decision to allow authorities to confiscate valuables from refugees?

I think it is awful and completely unnecessary. I understand the point that if a refugee is wealthy then he can cover his own expenses, but I guess only a very small number of the refugees belong to this category. Taking a person’s valuables gives them the worst possible start for a new life in Denmark.

Do you agree with criticism of the so-called multicultural model adopted by Western European states? Is traditional Islam, in your view, compatible with Western, secular values?

I believe that there is room for all cultures within our societies. We have to make sure that young Muslims don’t get attracted to the radical groups by including them in society and letting them practice their beliefs and giving them an opportunity for a good life and a good career. If people feel accepted, respected and appreciated, they will also feel as a part of society.

Thessaloniki doc fest tunes in to refugee crisis

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By Harry van Versendaal

It’s all in perfect tune with the darkish zeitgeist. Greece’s biggest documentary festival kicks off next month in the northern port city of Thessaloniki with a tribute to the plight of refugees streaming into Europe.

Syria’s five-year civil war has displaced millions of people, many of whom have sought to reach the safe and more prosperous nations of the European Union. The influx has opened cracks in Europe’s migration policy and triggered political wrangling between national governments. More importantly, the death toll is rising. More than 400 people have died so far this year trying to cross the sea to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). And nearly 10 times as many migrants crossed in the first six weeks of 2016 than the same period last year.

Between March 11 and 20, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Images of the 21st Century (TDF) will showcase several films documenting the personal stories often lost behind the devastating statistics.

Filmed by Emmy-award-winning director Mani Yassir Benchelah, “This Is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees” tells the story of Syrian children forced to flee to next-door Lebanon. It’s a beautifully crafted film, based on the exiled youngsters’ testimonies about loss, hardship and hope.

In “At Home in the World,” filmmaker Andreas Koefoed follows five refugee children attending a Red Cross school in his native Denmark as they try to overcome traumas and build a new life. The movie received the 2015 Award for Best Mid-Length Documentary at Europe’s most prestigious documentary festival, the IDFA in Amsterdam.

The same Nordic country, which recently enacted controversial legislation allowing police to seize refugees’ assets, is the setting of Michael Graversen’s “Dreaming of Denmark” as he follows Wasiullah, an Afghan minor stuck in the EU country’s asylum process.

TDF organizers have also planned a panel discussion titled “Documenting the Refugee Crisis: Methods, Objectives, Challenges and Ethics.” The dates, speakers and venues for the event will be announced in the coming days.

Double tribute

Among this year’s highlights are tributes to contemporary Danish cinematographer Jon Bang Carlsen and Northern Irish filmmaker, writer and curator Mark Cousins.

Known for his radical, cross-genre style, which he lays out in his “How to Invent Reality,” Carlsen, 65, has since the 1970s made more than two dozen films that draw heavily on personal experience. As he puts it: “My films are not the truth, they just express the way I feel the world. That’s all.”

Born in 1965, Scotland-based Cousins is best known for his epic 15-hour 2011 documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” an adaptation of his 2004 book “The Story of Film.”

Both directors will be at the festival to discuss their work.

Oscar-nominated works

Also screening this year are two Oscar-nominated films.

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” is a short documentary film that recounts the making of the landmark 613-minute Holocaust documentary “Shoah.” The film was written, directed and produced by British filmmaker and journalist Adam Benzine.

Courtney Marsh’s “Chau, Beyond the Lines” is a movie about a teenager disabled by the effects of Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant sprayed by the US military onto Vietnam’s jungle during the conflict to expose northern communist troops.

Bow out

Now in its 18th year, this will be the last documentary festival directed by Dimitris Eipidis since his appointment in 1992.

“When we started out I didn’t expect that this project would last for so long. However, I persisted because I love documentary films,” Eipidis said in a previous interview.

“I believe that having alternative sources of information is a cornerstone of modern civilization.”

An island between tragedy and hope on the refugee trail

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By Nick Malkoutzis and Harry van Versendaal

More than 90,000 refugees and migrants have arrived on Samos this year as they flee war and destitution. It is three times as many people as those who live on this sleepy eastern Aegean island, which has been thrust into the frontline of global events. An informal network of local officials, volunteers and NGO workers has been created to support the arrivals, who often have a tragic story to tell but are always hoping that Samos represents the start of a better life.

The beach

A small empty bottle of children’s medicine, an open bottle of ayran (a Turkish yogurt drink), a colorful Ben 10 school bag, a pristine Iranian passport and dozens of fake orange life vests. These are among the items strewn across Kedros beach on the eastern Aegean island of Samos on a rainy November day. This is the detritus of the largest influx of refugees and migrants from the nearby Turkish coast that this island of less than 33,000 inhabitants has seen since the Asia Minor Greeks fled the onslaught of Turkish troops almost a century earlier.

More than 90,000 people, mostly Syrian refugees, have arrived on Samos by sea this year. This is much lower than the main Aegean gateway of Lesvos, which almost half a million people out more than 800,000 have reached in 2015, but is still several times higher than last year’s arrivals and makes Samos the third most popular of some 15 islands that have become stepping stones for refugees and migrants on their way to Central and Northern Europe, where they hope to find security and prosperity. Until they can make that onward journey, Samos will provide their first taste of the European Union for thousands of desperate people. It is here that they will be at the mercy of overburdened authorities, the vagaries of the asylum process and the kindness of strangers.

The storm the night before means that there have been no new arrivals at Kedros or elsewhere on Samos’s coastline. Instead, there is a reverential calm. The only sounds are the crunching of the large stones beneath our feet and the pitter-patter of the rain on the dozens of plastic life jackets strewn across the beach. And then, a striking sight: In a grassy clearing used to set out sun loungers for visiting tourists in the summer a large mound of fluorescent orange life jackets. An impromptu monument to the lives that the brief owners of these useless floating devices have left behind on their journey to Europe.

“There are some beaches on Samos that are completely orange – they are inaccessible by car but you can see them from the sea,” says Lieutenant Antonis Karakontis of the Hellenic Coast Guard at the port of Vathy later the same day on board the patrol boat he captains.

There are many heroes in Samos’s efforts to care for the people that head for its shores and Karakontis, clean-cut and with a gentle demeanor, is a certified one. In 2014, he and his crew received an award for rescuing a record number of people in the Aegean. They were credited with pulling 1,322 to safety during the year. Looking back at it after the unprecedented events of this year, 2014 seems a pretty routine year. “There was a steady flow of people over the last few years but it was manageable,” says Karakontis. “Suddenly, though, we had this explosion. We have responded to the situation but it caught us by surprise.”

The crossing

Karakontis says there were days during the peak of the influx in the summer and early autumn that he and his crew were rescuing around 200 people a day. The coast guard on Samos has just two patrol boats and a third, smaller special operations vessel as well as a staff of less than 70 people. Less than 20 of these serve on the boats, meaning that they have had to work around the clock in recent months.

“There have been times when we were in constant motion,” says the patrol boat skipper.

Karakontis’s work is not made tougher just by the sheer increase in numbers that he and his colleagues have to deal with but also the perilous conditions in which many of the refugees and migrants are forced to cross by the traffickers they pay to get them to what they hope will be safety.

At the closest point, Samos is less than two kilometers from Turkey – close enough for some migrants to try to swim across, according to the coast guard officer. But the Dilek Peninsula-Buyuk Menderes Delta National Park lies on the Turkish side of the strait separating the two, which means that it is not a popular route for the clandestine crossings organized by smugglers.

Instead, most migrants face a crossing of around 12 nautical miles in vessels that are ill-equipped for the journey. Kedros beach, like many others on Samos, is littered with the remnants of cheap rubber dinghies that are now manufactured specially for ferrying groups of desperate people across the Aegean. Powered by engines with a small capacity and steered by one of the migrants on board following cursory instructions by a trafficker, it takes these dinghies up to six hours to reach Samos, an agonizing experience for those on board.

“These vessels should carry no more than 10 people for safe travel,” says Karakontis. “In actual fact, though, around 60 people are put on board. We have seen up to 80 in some cases.”

To enhance their sense of security, migrants purchase cheap life jackets to wear during the crossing. Their only use, says Karakontis, is to make the people wearing them more visible as they enter Greek territorial waters or if they fall into the sea. “To put it simply, they are fake,” he says of the accessories, which are filled with sheets of water-absorbing foam. “Genuine life jackets can cost around 150 euros but these are sold for around 20 euros in Turkish shops. They are useless.”

The rescue

An unpredictable sea, overcrowded boats and terrified passengers can create a fatal mix. As his boat rocks gently in Vathy’s harbor, Karakontis takes out a mobile device and plays a recording of a rescue on August 19 east of Samos, one of several this year in which he and his crew encountered tragedy. They approached a dinghy carrying more than 50 people and started to help them onto the patrol vessel. In the confusion and panic, as people of all ages scrambled onto the coast guard boat, nobody paid much attention to a pale child nestled in the arms of an adult.

However, once on board, someone asks about the whereabouts of a child. “The baby, where is the baby?” says Karakontis as he spins around the deck of his boat, which is now full of bewildered migrants. A man brings forward the child in his arms. It is now clear why the little girl is pale and listless. “The baby died,” someone says.

Seeing her lifeless body, Karakontis shouts to his fellow coast guard at the wheel to set off for Samos immediately. “Get going quickly,” he shouts. “Leave now!” But it is already too late. The coast guard officers try to revive the child but they cannot help her. A few minutes later, when they reach land, they hand over her dead body.

The coast guard officer explains that often because the dinghies are so overcrowded and the situation on board is so confused, small children become separated from their parents and are shoved to the bottom of the dinghies, where they can drown, suffocate or be trampled to death. This is how the young girl in the video died, according to Karakontis. She lost her life in the middle of the Aegean without ever having been into the sea.

The lieutenant has been a picture of composure but viewing the rescue again, there is a sense this has slipped a little. His brow furrows for the first time and there are traces of perspiration even though night has fallen and there is a chill in the air.

He admits that his crew has seen some traumatic sights over the last few months and that psychologists come in from time to time to speak to the coast guard officers and help them deal with the fallout from their jobs.

“I try to leave it behind when I leave work,” says Karakontis. “If I carry it home with me, it will definitely wear me down.” He underlines, though, that he would be no use to the people he is tasked with saving if he could not shut out the emotionally gnawing effects of what he experiences in the Aegean.

“You have to be strong at that moment and not let emotions take over,” he says. “Those people, who are already in a confused state, are relying on me to keep it together. A life’s been lost but more will die if you are not focused.”

The drowning

To avoid detection, traffickers often send boats across from Turkey at night, creating the most difficult conditions for rescuers and the most horrifying for the migrants.

“They are frightened,” says Karakontis, describing what state he usually finds the migrants in. “Often it is night and they don’t know where they are going or how to steer the boats. As soon as they see us, the first thing that they do is lift their babies over their heads to show that they need help.”

It was on such a night crossing on October 29 that Kamiran Issa, a 38-year-old father of three from Al-Qamishli, a city of some 200,000 people located in northeastern Syria on the border with Turkey, tried to get his family to Greece.

After spending 10 years working in Damascus because of a lack of jobs in Al-Qamishli, the Syrian Kurd returned to his home city and gathered his family.

“I couldn’t find work so I needed to leave because I had three children to look after,” he says, speaking through an interpreter, as he sits on the edge of a bed in the Samos hospital where his wife, Sanna, is being treated.

“Also, the presence of Daesh (ISIS) and the daily explosions made it dangerous,” he adds. “We wanted to save ourselves, to get away from these problems.” The five-member family traveled to Turkey and then followed the well-worn route to one of its coastal cities from where traffickers arrange to send people across the Aegean. Issa, a gaunt man, aged beyond his years, says he did not know much about Greece, the country that he hoped would be his springboard to safety, or about where he was crossing to.

“I had a look at the map but couldn’t understand much,” he says. “The traffickers just told us we would reach a Greek island and then go to Athens, like everyone else.”

The construction worker was offered spots on a wooden tourist boat that had been appropriated for the clandestine transfer of refugees and migrants. This appeared a safer option to him than being crammed on a rubber dinghy.

The family felt so comfortable about the prospect that the day before they were due to sail, Issa took photos of his children on board the boat with his mobile phone. He scrolls through the pictures as the sunlight streams in through the large hospital room window. There is a picture of his sons behind the wheel of the rusty brown-colored vessel, then of his youngest child – 5-year-old Shiban – sitting on a stool at a hotel bar. The photos have the relaxed look of holiday snaps. Then Issa’s finger slides across his phone screen and, holding it gingerly, he shows us the next picture. It is of Shiban’s grave on the Greek island of Kos.

His wife, dressed all in black and wracked by grief, begins to sob softly. His two surviving sons, 11-year-old Khoshyar and 9-year-old Hamber, lean in toward their father and look down at the blue linoleum floor.

Issa explains that more than 200 people were packed onto the tourist boat. “If there weren’t so many of us on board, this wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “The traffickers don’t care about human life. These people don’t think of anyone, not even little children.”

According to the 38-year-old, a Turkish Coast Guard vessel approached the migrant boat and circled it several times in an apparent attempt to force the trafficker captaining the vessel to turn back. However, this caused waves that threatened to capsize the tourist boat.

Issa says the Turkish Coast Guard only backed off when a Greek patrol boat appeared on the scene as the vessel carrying the migrants had apparently entered Greek waters. The migrant boat only managed to progress around 200 meters before it capsized, said the Syrian Kurd.

According to the Hellenic Coast Guard, the boat sank off Kalymnos, south of Samos, at around 11 p.m. on October 29. Apart from several Hellenic Coast Guard boats and a Super Puma helicopter, the EU border agency Frontex also contributed vessels and aircraft to the rescue operation. They recovered 19 bodies from the shipwreck.

In the sheer terror of events, Issa lost his family. He only found one of his sons the day after the rescue before later discovering that Shiban had died. His name was added to those of some 600 people that have died trying to reach Greece this year.

“We have suffered one injustice after the other,” says the tearful father of the tragedy that has blighted his attempt to haul his family away from an ever more dangerous situation in his homeland.

The mood is lifted when a nurse comes to check on Sanna. The young boys’ eyes light up as they see her. She says that they have struck up an affinity while their mother has been undergoing treatment. The nurse, who did not wish to be named, pulls out a marker from her pocket and draws a heart on the back of one of the boys’ hands, eliciting a broad smile from the youngster.

“Those eyes,” she says, looking at the two boys, whose good manners have impressed staff at the hotel where the UNHCR has put up Issa and his sons while his wife recovers. “Ah, those eyes.”

The asylum process

The laborer hopes that his journey will soon continue to Germany, where his sister already lives. He has had to abandon plans for the family to join his wife’s sister in Switzerland because it is not part of the European Union relocation scheme for refugees.

Once his wife is discharged from hospital, the family will be able to travel to Athens, where they will wait to be relocated. The family reunion scheme, allowing refugees to be granted asylum in countries where they already have family, is usually reserved only for the closest relatives. However, the criteria have been relaxed as a result of the war in Syria. Also, the loss of one of their children may give the Issa family a higher probability of being able to join their relatives in Germany.

The vast majority of people who have arrived in Greece by sea this year are Syrians (57 percent of around 825,000 arrivals). The Greek government has instructed authorities since 2013 that Syrians should not be sent back to their country. In fact, most have traveled on to Central and Northern Europe after being registered in Greece. In November, though, the EU agreed to transfer over the next two years 66,400 refugees from Greece under a new relocation scheme.

This means that in comparison to Afghans, who make up 24 percent of arrivals but are not all eligible for refugee status, and others who are deemed to be economic migrants rather than asylum seekers, the process for Syrians is slightly more straightforward.

“The asylum process can be much quicker for Syrians,” says Alkistis Mavraki, a senior protection assistant for the UNHCR, who points out that Afghans are not eligible for the EU’s relocation program.

Mavraki says Syrians can typically get the paperwork they need to leave the island within a couple of days, whereas others can wait up to two weeks.

Syrians are not only greater in number but usually more affluent than other migrants and some local businesses, mainly hotels and restaurants, have benefited from their presence. A number of tavernas along the promenade in Vathy now sport menus in Arabic, while one establishment known for making a tripe-based Greek soup known as patsas, has been transformed into the alcohol-free Syrian Resort, serving Arabic food.

However, there is a physical, as well as notional, separation between Syrians and the others who arrive on the island. Syrians are taken to the camp that has been created at the port of Malagari which is on the opposite side of the bay to Vathy, where a number of aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have set up facilities, while the non-Syrians are assigned to a camp that sits on the tree-lined hillside above Vathy, further away from amenities and island life.

Until recently, the camp for non-Syrians had operated as a detention center but when authorities found they were unable to guarantee daily meals for the migrants, the decision was taken to make it an open facility. As a result, it is common to see young Afghans and other groups of migrants wind their way down the hill to Vathy in search of a meal or a way to pass the time while they wait for the paperwork that will allow them to move on. They can be seen gathering in the small squares, whiling away time perched on wooden benches, or sitting on the wall of the recently revamped promenade gazing at the sea.

One place offering them assistance is the Allilegii (Solidarity) charity, which is run by volunteers. Their base is a small building, or “spitaki” (little house) as they call it, in front of the town hall in Vathy. There, they serve a hot meal to all-comers and collect food and other goods for distribution to the migrants on the island.

Afghans can also find a friendly face there in the form of Yones Rahimi, who is from Afghanistan but has been living on Samos for 11 years. Rahimi leaves his job as a construction worker each afternoon and goes by the communal house to help out before going home to rest.

He was 18 when fled his homeland to escape the Taliban and can recognize the trepidation felt by many of his young countrymen passing through Samos. “They are coming in search of a better life,” he says soon after helping serve homemade bean soup to a number of Afghans on a cold Friday night. “They want to escape death in Afghanistan.”

Rahimi says that Germany and Sweden are the most popular destinations for the Afghans he speaks to even though both countries have started to adopt stricter policies and, in Germany’s case, started to repatriate Afghans. Rahimi says Afghans tell him they fail to understand why Syrians appear to be dealt with more swiftly, allowing them to leave Samos sooner.

“They ask why the Syrians are getting such help when Afghans have been experiencing war for 40 years,” says Rahimi.

The camps

Bismillah, Aasif and Jalil, three young friends from the city of Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, have a very clear idea of where they want to go. Bismillah has relatives in Norway and he and his friends will attempt to reach them as soon as they can.

“We know the way,” says the cheerful 18-year-old, who explains the trio are spending their time wandering around Vathy and going online at Internet cafes until they get their registration papers.

They ask if banks are open on weekends because Bismillah’s relatives in Norway are wiring them money to help them pay for their journey. They estimate they will have to spend a couple of weeks on Samos before being able to continue making their way to Norway on their own.

The teenager and his friends say they are fleeing fighting in the Ghazni province, whose capital of some 150,000 inhabitants came under attack from Taliban insurgents in mid-October, soon after they had occupied the city of Kunduz, scoring their biggest military victory in more than a decade.

Bismillah hopes to be able to study at university when he reaches Norway. The idea brings a smile to his face. He jokes with his friends, and they show none of the fatigue or concern that is visible on the faces of so many other refugees and migrants. The three do not seem concerned about the possibility that, as Afghans, they might not be granted asylum or allowed to stay in the country of their choice.

For the time being, they can just look down from the – now open – facility on the hillside and watch the passenger ferries from Piraeus arrive and leave, usually with dozens of Syrians on board. Bismillah says the situation in the camp, a former army firing range, is “not bad” but that there are fights between migrants sometimes.

On this rainy Saturday morning, though, there are no signs of tension. People’s only goal is to get some breakfast, which is being handed out by volunteers from Allilegii. Policemen look on from their office as the volunteers, a mixture of locals and Germans and Dutch who live on the island, unpack their cars and set out the items for breakfast: Milk, cereal, prepackaged croissants, mandarins and bananas.

The tables are placed under an awning with an aluminum roof to stop them from getting wet. For the migrants, though, there is no cover. They start to queue in the rain, some wearing white anoraks handed out by aid organizations but others with no protection at all, some even wearing flip-flops. Dozens join the line, which starts to snake around the prefabricated buildings that make up the camp and a basketball court, in which some migrants have pitched tents.

Despite the conditions and the long wait, the mood is calm. Children are allowed to collect their breakfast first. A few adults try to push their way to the front but are sent back by fellow migrants or one of the volunteers, local man Nikitas Kyparissis, who keeps one eye on those lining up and another on his fellow helpers, whom he encourages to be methodical and quick in their work.

They are men and women who came to Samos to retire or for a more relaxed way of life. Instead, they find themselves at the forefront of the greatest refugee crisis Europe has seen since the Second World War, filling plastic cups with pasteurized milk and cereal and handing out fruit.

Kyparissis says he has seen a change in the attitude of many people on Samos with regard to helping refugees and migrants. “I’ve noticed that the more difficult, the more terrible the situation, the more people grit their teeth and rush to help.”

Most migrants walk away satisfied, throwing out a “thank you” or a “merci” and brandishing a smile as they embrace the items they have been given and look for shelter from the rain so they can have their breakfast. But maintaining a good pace and fairness, as some of the migrants ask for a second helping, proves a challenge. It is difficult for volunteers to deny the wishes of people who have abandoned all their possessions and now stand before them wet, cold and hungry. But showing extra kindness to one person means another may be denied breakfast or have to wait longer in inclement conditions.

The team of volunteers manages to just about hold things together to feed several hundred of the camp’s temporary residents. But as they carry the leftovers back to their cars, they are crowded by some of the migrants. One man asks for cartons of milk for his baby, others want to take croissants from the black bin liner in which they are being carried. For a moment, the situation threatens to get out of control but the food is quickly bundled into the car and the pleading migrants walk back toward the camp.

It is a situation that the volunteers have not been trained to handle and is an example of why filling that gap that has been left by authorities unable to fulfill this role takes a psychological toll on those who rush to help.

“Sometimes you have to be the bad guy,” says Kyparissis, who runs a small folklore museum on the island. “I don’t like it and that’s why I stopped volunteering for a while. Each person has to take his turn in playing this role.”

The camp is designed for around 250 people but on this November weekend it houses some 650, according to the local police. Numbers have dropped significantly since the peak period for arrivals between the summer and October, when as many as 1,200 people were housed at the facility. Tents of many different colors are dotted around the olive grove outside the camp, a sign of when the facility did not have enough space to house the people arriving on Samos. Even now that the camp is less crowded and the weather has worsened, some migrants prefer the privacy of the tents to the impersonal nature of the camp.

There are no such tents at the camp for Syrians at Malagari port, where the UNHCR has assembled dozens of flat-pack shelters to house refugees as they wait to get their paperwork and board ferries to Piraeus. First trialed in Somalia and Syria in 2013, the so-called Better Shelter provides 17.5 square meters of living space, which can comfortably fit up to six people.

Swedish furniture giant IKEA started producing 10,000 of these shelters for the UNHCR earlier in 2015. They are designed to be assembled within four hours without specialized tools.

On a sunny Sunday morning at Malagari, workmen are putting the finishing touches to some of the shelters. The storm the night before has made it even more imperative that the structures are ready as soon as possible.

For now, though, the mood at the camp is peaceful. Youngsters play in a large Red Cross tent, where Arabic children’s music plays in the background. Kids’ toys are littered around the camp, washed socks are hung out to dry on the perimeter fence and, underlining the relaxed atmosphere, a group of men sit on the ground in a circle, talking in the winter sunshine.

Workers from a plethora of NGOs and charities that have set up tents at the port mingle among the refugees and migrants, ready to provide assistance. A young couple and their child stroll in front of the camp’s medical center, where people can have a checkup and receive donated medicines. The police officers at the camp have no new refugees to register and spend their time sitting in plastic chairs outside their hut and chatting.

The police say there are less than 150 people at the camp at the moment, as dozens left on a ferry a couple of days earlier and there has been a low number of new arrivals in recent days.

The authorities

The fall in the number of arrivals has coincided with authorities increasing their levels of organization. Speaking in a bare office at the precinct in Vathy, police chief Vassilis Reppas says that after being caught unprepared by the magnitude of the influx earlier this year, authorities are now getting to grips with the challenge of managing the situation.

“The influx was massive and sudden, which made it difficult to manage,” he says.

On December 10, the European Commission said it had begun legal action against Greece, as well as Croatia and Italy, for failing to fingerprint asylum seekers and register their details in the EU-wide database within 24 hours. According to Brussels, almost half a million people arrived in Greece between July 20 and November 30 but Greek authorities only fingerprinted about 121,000 of them.

Greek authorities insist that the situation has improved significantly in recent weeks. The Foreign Ministry said on December 11 that in November Greece registered 51,300 refugees out of a total of 54,000 registrations carried out at so-called hot spots throughout Europe.

Reppas says that a shortage of staff made it difficult for authorities to get on top of the situation. He says there are around 180 officers on the island, including some 20 who have been transferred there as reinforcements, but that this is still about 80 short of the numbers the force is meant to have under normal conditions.

“Developments mean we need to have a strong presence,” says Reppas.

“Our focus is on registering people, ensuring we have their biometric data and fingerprints,” says policeman Costas Tsagarakis. “We’re trying our best to ensure that there aren’t delays because, as you can understand, when the migratory flow is so intense you can lose control of the situation if there are delays.”

The arrival of eight officers from the EU border agency Frontex has helped matters and the local police have been working with them since September to electronically fingerprint new arrivals using machines that enter the details into the EU’s Eurodac database.

“They are a great help,” says the police chief.

Tsagarakis underlines the need for authorities to improve their organization further, especially if a lull in arrivals provides an opportunity for some clear thinking before they pick up again.

“It’s an issue of coordinating a lot of actors, not just the police but also local authorities and ferry companies: A lot of people are involved in this,” says the policeman.

However, he also stresses that extra manpower and facilities are needed to deal with the crisis effectively.

“You have to complete the administrative work quickly, which means you need people to do this work, which involves taking fingerprints, registering people and keeping order in the areas where this process is carried out,” says the mild-mannered officer.

“You need somewhere for people to stay while they wait for this process to be completed, you have to ensure that you have enough places on ferries.”

The need for more assistance is also something that Samos Mayor Michalis Angelopoulos wants to stress. He says that his island is fighting an uneven battle against a multi-million-euro trafficking industry on the other side of the Aegean.

“The Municipality of Samos, along with international organizations and volunteers provide around 4,000 free meals a day but right opposite us, across the sea, the revenues from trafficking exceed 3.3 million dollars a day,” he says.

Refugees and migrants can pay up to around 1,000 euros for a place on a dinghy to cross the Aegean. If traffickers pack them with more than 50 people at a time, it is clear that huge profits can be made each day.

Angelopoulos, a lawyer by profession, says that the number of refugees reaching Samos this year has increased by more than 600 percent compared to 2014, putting a severe strain on resources. He gives the example of municipal sanitation teams having to collect seven times as much trash as they did last year.

At the same time, Turkey is not keeping to its commitments under its readmission agreement with the EU, the mayor argues. He quotes Foreign Ministry figures that state Greece made 470 requests to return 9,351 people to Turkey in 2014 but Ankara only ended up accepting six people.

The mayor suggests that although the EU has been slow to respond to the problem, the Greek government also needs to provide more assistance and better coordination.

“The problem is European in the sense that it touches on the Union and its treaties, but it also has a uniquely Greek dimension in terms of the impact,” says Angelopoulos as he sits on the edge of his chair in the 19th-century neoclassical building that houses the town hall in Vathy. “The Portuguese man in Coimbra does not feel the same impact from this issue as the Greek who lives on Samos, Lesvos or Agathonisi.

“I hear the constant argument that Europe must solve this problem. And what happens if Europe doesn’t solve the problem?”

Angelopoulos, who is also leading a campaign for Samos to be named European Capital of Culture for 2021, points out that Athens has failed to set up the managing authorities needed to manage the EU funds available for tackling the refugee crisis. He says that despite the fiscal constraints the government finds itself under due to Greece’s bailout program, money must be found for more staff, such as psychologists, on the island. He also proposes the creation of a body designed to coordinate actions on the islands affected by the migratory flows, which should meet once a month.

However, until European and Greek authorities take decisive action, local officials like Angelopoulos, Reppas, Tsagarakis and even coast guard officer Karakontis will rely on the help of volunteers to make their tasks a little easier. Dozens of volunteer organizations, some based on the work of local people and others who have brought manpower in from abroad, are active on Samos.

The Swedish Sea Rescue Society is one of the recent additions to the range of organizations helping out on the island. The NGO dispatched two 12-meter boats to Samos in October to help with search and rescue operations. They are manned by rotating teams of volunteers from Sweden who each spend two weeks on the Aegean island.

Karakontis says the high-speed boats, which operate under the direction of the local coast guard, have been a significant addition as they are designed to go out in worse conditions than the Greek vessels.

There are so many groups active on the island that the mayor would like to create a registration and permit process to ensure that authorities are aware of who is doing what. However, he says their overall impact has been distinctively positive.

“In small communities, volunteer groups can fill gaps and encourage altruism,” says Angelopoulos. “In my view, however, the help offered by local people is also an existential response in these difficult times: I contribute, therefore I am.”

“Some NGOs and volunteers play a really positive role, especially in feeding people,” says policeman Tsagarakis, who acts as a liaison officer with such groups. “Any actions that can help make people’s stay better is welcome.”

One of the most dynamic volunteer groups on the islands are the Friendly Humans. Two Danish women, Bettina Espersen and Janne Westergaard, who live on Samos, set up the group in July, when the situation on the island was “dire.” Their initial aim was to provide breakfast to refugee children and they started going around Vathy with rucksacks handing out sandwiches they had prepared in their own kitchens.

However, the group grew into something much bigger very quickly. They created a network of some 300 people via Facebook and suddenly members started holding bake sales in Denmark to help raise money. Others came to Samos from various parts of the world to offer their assistance. Some offered money so Friendly Humans could buy the equipment they needed, such as a refrigerator to store donated medicines before they were handed over to the doctor at the refugee camp.

The group also received some of the aid flown over by tour operator Sunvil on its last flight of the season to Samos in early October. The agency gathered 5 tons of donations, including clothing, tents and sleeping bags, and had to split the load over two flights. Friendly Humans helped distribute much of this.

Within weeks of being founded, the group became a vital link between the local community, the NGOs and the volunteers operating on Samos. They started receiving donations of clothes, as well as food, and the local office of the Northern Aegean Regional Authority allowed the group to use a large basement in its building to coordinate its activities.

This area is now a hive of activity and relentless positive energy. On a Friday evening on the island, Espersen and Westergaard coordinate volunteers from a number of different countries. Dolores, a retiree from Switzerland, sweeps up amid the dozens of bags of donated clothes that have piled up in the basement as others from Italy and the USA draw up a schedule of tasks on a whiteboard and sort out the clothes according to type and size so they are ready for distribution. The two Danes stand next to crates of sandwiches that have been prepared for handing out at the refugee camp on Saturday morning.

“We’ve had great help from local people, even if they don’t have much,” says Espersen. “They’ll bring some milk, some ingredients for sandwiches.”

Espersen says that local schools have begun to bring children to see how the group works and to help out. The island’s youngsters have become accustomed over the last few months to the idea of assisting the migrants and refugees that arrive on Samos. “All the kids had something positive to say about their experience of helping people,” says Espersen. “This really made an impression on me.”

The two women have seen a significant increase in the contributions they are receiving from the island and around Greece since they launched their project. “The positive thing is that we’re now receiving things from all over Greece, very often from schools,” says Argyro Kyriazi, a local who volunteers regularly with the group.

The spirited pair admit that they have neglected their own families in order to dedicate themselves to Friendly Humans but say that there is an addictive quality to being able to help people that often arrive on the island in a desperate state. The reward is the gratitude they receive from those they help.

“They tell us that we’ve become brothers and sisters,” says Westergaard. “We must have many brothers now.”

As night falls in Vathy, the women return to making preparations for the next morning’s breakfast handout. The other volunteers working the night shift beneath the bright fluorescent strip lights open bags and boxes of donations to begin sorting items. One battered cardboard box contains a handwritten note from someone called Vassilis.

“Thank you for your humanity and for making us believe in hope again,” he writes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

Share

Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

Ghost ex machina exposes Europe’s wretched migrants

By Harry van Versendaal

Morgan Knibbe did not set out to make an objective documentary about one of the biggest problems facing Europe today: the plight of migrants and refugees on the continent.

“My ambition was to try to understand how these people feel. I wanted to submerge myself in their world and to share this experience with other people. I felt that I was able to achieve this by creating a highly subjective audiovisual form,” the 26-year-old filmmaker from the Netherlands says about his first feature film, “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning,” which will screen at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“Filmmaking is the art of manipulation… Pulling people out of their comfort zone makes them look at existing values in a different way.”

The opening of the film, which made waves at Amsterdam’s prestigious IDFA film festival, where it debuted, is faithful to this credo. A boat carrying immigrant families is seen adrift on rough seas in the black of night. A father tries to calm his anxious daughter as the vessel is tossed about by the waves. A man falls into the water and starts to go down. And then, black.

This re-enactment of a Lampedusa-style boat tragedy, the only staged part of the film, is enough to raise eyebrows among purist documentary filmmakers. However, it is also instrumental in allowing Knibbe to introduce his ghost ex machina, as it were. Stuck in purgatory, a ghost steers viewers through the largely invisible lives of undocumented migrants.

“We wanted to create the perspective of a ghost flying through a dark place between heaven and hell. A metaphor,” he says of his cinematic device which is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’s fiction classic “Wings of Desire.”

It’s a highly immersive feel, achieved through the extensive use of a Steadicam system and drone cameras – combined with some creative editing. Adding to the whole experience is the gripping, if sometimes overly lyrical, voice-over.

Thousands of mainly African and Asian immigrants try to reach Europe’s borders every year. Knibbe has chosen to offer zero figures and statistics. When it comes to engaging people, he says, posting cold facts and numbers does little to help the cause.

“That is what most media do and I think it doesn’t touch people. We also left out specifics about location so that no one could point a finger to a specific country. This is a European problem, in fact a global problem,” he says.

As the ghost floats around the grim cityscape, we get to glimpse at snippets from the lives of migrant families crammed into run-down apartments, men praying in underground makeshift mosques, scrap metal collectors roaming the streets, a drug addict mother taking her heroin shot. The setting remains unidentified, but uncomfortably familiar: Greece, which despite a brutal five-year economic crisis remains the gateway of choice for the vast majority of migrants seeking to make their way into Western Europe.

Commitment

It was not Knibbe’s first time at Europe’s porous external border. As a student, the Dutchman spent time in the western port city of Patra, the site of a now-deserted makeshift migrant settlement, and during that time he actually co-directed the film, “We Go Europe Insha’Allah.” Stuff you won’t see in Holland.

The distance makes his commitment all the more admirable.

“I did this because I feel privileged to have been born in relative wealth. We often take our wealth for granted. I like to see the world and its living creatures, including the human race, as an organism. There is a big imbalance and people tend to think small instead of big. Individual instead of universal. I’d like to make people think about the bigger picture,” Knibbe says.

“People who are in trouble want to move to a place where there seems to be wealth, but the wealthy don’t know how to deal with this. The film is mostly meant to give depth to this subject that is in my eyes generally treated in a shallow, informative and seemingly objective way. I wanted to make people empathize again,” he says.

Access was sensitive and painstaking. Knibbe often had to go to great lengths to approach and win the trust of his vulnerable subjects at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.

“I followed people on the street collecting garbage up to the places where they lived, either in some sort of an apartment, a basement or on the streets. I met a homeless guy in a park. I bought a football to play games with refugees. I cooked meals for and with people. It took time, care and love to build mutual trust. This was the most important thing for the whole film,” he says.

Introspection

Creating the film also had an impact on Knibbe himself – particularly shooting on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the 2013 shipwreck which killed 366 African migrants.

“Lampedusa was heavy stuff,” he says. Footage inserted into the documentary from his award-winning 2014 short “Shipwreck” captures the despair of the victims’ relatives as well as the confusion and grief of Italian officials as the victims’ bodies are taken away from the site. The director’s own presence, amid the crowd of cynical media people, made him ponder his own part in all that. It took some adjustment, shifting down a gear.

“It was an absurd mix: the deep trauma of the survivors and the media circus around them – who, quite frankly, were a parasitic, egoistic phenomenon. All these journalists trying to get their quotes and shots and then leave. I was confronted with myself as a part of this circus and tried to do things drastically different: I took more time and took it slow building mutual trust with the refugees,” he says.

It may be a bit more decent, dignified manner of handling the issue, but can a work like this improve the situation? In fact, what can?

Knibbe remains sober about the prospects.

“I’m not sure what we can do to change this problem. I don’t have answers. What I am trying to do with this film is to plant seeds in the minds of people that could hopefully flourish into more liberal and empathetic ways of dealing with this problem. I think building borders is useless and inhumane. We are wealthy, and we take it for granted. When the poor want a share, we tell them to p*** off and that their culture doesn’t fit ours. That’s f***ed up.”

Pressed by human rights activists, Greece pledges to stop deportations of Syrian refugees

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By Harry van Versendaal

Greece on Wednesday pledged to halt deportations of Syrian refugees, as human rights activists called for measures to ensure that asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle Eastern state have access to Greek territory and safety.

“No Syrian refugees will be detained or returned,” Manolis Katriadakis, who is responsible for migration issues at the Ministry of Public Order, told a conference organized in Athens by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“Deportation decisions on Syrians will be suspended and reviewed every six months,” he said, adding that authorities were trying to improve access to asylum services for them.

Two years since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it is estimated that more than 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have died while tens of thousands of political prisoners remain unaccounted for. The UNHCR reckons that over 1.3 million refugees, 71 percent of whom are women and children, have fled Syria and a further 2 million have been displaced within the country as the Arab Spring-inspired protest movement degenerated into an increasingly sectarian conflict.

“The Syria situation is one of the most complex and dangerous in the world and the largest and most quickly deteriorating humanitarian crisis on the planet,” UNHCR regional refugee coordinator for Syria Panos Moumtzis said.

“The situation is desperate and is becoming explosive,” he said.

Greece, a key transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to sneak into the European Union, has been relatively unaffected by the Syria crisis, figures suggest.

Last year, about 8,000 Syrians were detected entering or residing in Greece illegally. A total 1,623 Syrian nationals were arrested in the first quarter of 2013. There is no official number of the Syrians living in Greece at the moment.

“Greece must remain on standby, but it is by no means faced with a [humanitarian] crisis, said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, adding that the brunt of the refugee exodus has been borne by Syria’s neighbors.

Lebanon has received an estimated 417,827 refugees while 432,263 have fled into Jordan. An estimated 400,000 Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Iraq has provided refuge for 130,379 people.

Strengthened security in the Evros region, including a 10.5-kilometer barbed-wire fence along the Turkish frontier, has led to a spike in arrivals on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands only a few kilometers from the Turkish coast. Would-be immigrants pay smugglers thousands of dollars for space on a packed rubber dinghy. Dozens drown in the sea every year. Those who manage to get a foot on the ground have to deal with messy asylum and immigration systems and the growing menace of far-right thugs.

Like all other immigrants, Syrians are subject to arrest, detention, rejection of asylum, pushbacks and deportations, activists say.

In 2012, the number of Syrians granted asylum in the first instance was just two. Because of Greece’s bad reputation, most don’t even bother to apply for protection status – only 152 applications were submitted last year. Meanwhile, at least 55 have been deported since last year according to Human Rights Watch, although Greek authorities deny the allegations, saying these concerned voluntary repatriations.

“Detention is problematic and conditions are inappropriate,” Tsarbopoulos said of the overcrowded and underserviced migrant camps across the country while stressing the problems caused by the lack of interpreters and qualified interviewers to even establish if the asylum seekers are Syrians or not.

“Clearly, they are not treated the way they should be by the authorities,” he said.

Greece’s much-criticized asylum system is finally set for a revamp. In 2011 the country, which has often complained of unfair burden-sharing to its peers in the 27-member bloc, was found in breach of the Convention on Human Rights over detention conditions at immigrant camps. The new asylum system, which will not involve the police, is to go into effect on June 1, Katriadakis said.

“That will hopefully solve most of the problems,” he added.


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