Four years ago I had just returned from volunteering at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios. It was a life-changing experience. In past years, like many other people, I’d felt sorrow for those fleeing their countries because of war, famine, poverty, torture, persecution, and was profoundly grateful that this wasn’t me. Like many others I was horrified when the body of the little Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of Turkey in 2015. No doubt, like many others, I noted that the tragedy of his death was reported widely on the media for a day or two – and then silence. Zilch. No more news.
I began to search online for more information about people seeking asylum and discovered that the refugee crisis in 2015 was huge. Millions and millions of people, through no fault of their own, were displaced throughout the world. I wanted to help, but felt helpless. But my quest to do something led me to the refugee camp in Chios in 2017 – and to one of the most profound experiences of my life to date.
Chios is situated very close to the western shores of Turkey. It is geographically ideally placed as an island to cross to, in order to reach the apparent safety of Europe. Those finally reaching its shores had experienced lengthy, arduous, terrifying journeys from many countries. These are Syria, Iraq, Afgahnistan, Yemen, Iran, the Congo, Eritraea, Sudan…the list goes on, extensively.
“What will happen to me now?”
I shall never forget speaking to ‘E’ as I met him off a flimsy boat arriving into Chios, packed with desperate people. He smiled at me, gratefully accepting the food that I offered to him, which the charity I was volunteering with supplied for people arriving. “What will happen to me now?” he asked me nervously. It was difficult to reply. In 2017 the then two camps on the island were vastly over-populated and conditions were awful; people were stranded there for months, even years; papers were slow to be processed; people weren’t able to move to mainland Greece until they were allowed to by the Greek authorities. They became stuck in the unwieldy and slow ‘system.’
Out of sight, out of mind
In 2017 the Greek islands were a convenient place to quite simply forget about people seeking asylum – then, and now. By the EU. By the world. Nicely swept under the proverbial carpet. Out of sight, out of mind. But at least when I was there, the unseaworthy rubber dinghies, dangerously overfull with people seeking safety were allowed to land on the island.
Roll forward to the present day and I read horrific articles via Agean Boat Report of Greek authorities deliberately tampering with these very boats, damaging engines, depositing people onto rafts and abandoning them at sea. Pushbacks. And more. Any people seeking asylum who now make it to Chios, rush into the wooded hillsides and hide for fear of being found by Greek authorities – and dangerously returned from whence they came.
Populism and xenophobia
I write here about just one island – Chios. But people seeking asylum are facing appalling inhumanity on many other islands, and in many other countries, not least our own in the UK; whipped up by mean-minded populist politicians and their compliant mouthpiece media – or is it the other way round? – the great British public is hugely divided about people seeking asylum, many expressing outraged xenophobic hate of anyone other than white brits living within our shores.
With all my heart I wish they could for just one moment stop all the hate-filled noise, and ask themselves; what would I do if me or my family were being persecuted/bombed/tortured? Would I a) just put up with it and stay put, or b) try to escape to safety?
No-one chooses to be a refugee
I know what my answer would be. Theirs too, if they were truthful. I also know, from my experience in Chios, that no-one chooses to be a refugee; no-one chooses to leave all that they have and know and love behind, unless they absolutely have no choice; no mother would choose to put her children at risk – children, babies, pregnant women fled on those dangerous boats to Chios – I know, I was handed tiny babies to hold, whilst parents struggled out of dinghies with their little children in the dead of night.
You flee because you have to. You flee because you have no other choice and, other than face death in your country, there is nothing else left to do. And people of every age are fleeing – from babes in arms to grandparents – and from every walk of life; I met teachers, doctors, farm labourers, students, architects, artists, musicians, sales reps, lorry drivers – people, just like us, in every job and profession you could possible imagine.
It could be you or me
And what many people seem to forget is that old expression, ‘there but for the grace of god, go I.’ And it could be you or me. It might indeed be you or me. Add in the climate and environmental crisis and many other people will be forced to flee their homes. It all just depends on the luck of where you are born, and what happens to your country.
Would those reacting inhumanely to people seeking asylum themselves expect humanity to be shown to them, from fellow human beings, in countries not their own? I think they would. If only they could, for one moment, forget the terminology – asylum seekers, migrant, refugee – and just acknowledge that we are all people. Human beings. People with hopes and dreams and needs, with a shared and common humanity, living together in one fragile world. Is it really too much to ask that we share that world, with each other, with humanity and kindness?