Aegean chronicles: A reporter’s confrontation with Europe’s failures and moral imperative

A 6-year-old boy from Afghanistan drowned in November 2020 off the coast of Samos. Ηe was with his father and other asylum seekers onboard a dinghy that was shipwrecked. The tragic loss of a child’s life hardly made an impression on the international media or public discourse in Greece. Not only that, but the drowned boy's father was arrested for exposing a minor to risk and faces trial. When I interviewed the father’s lawyer, he described a man devastated, who had to be carried by a Coast Guard officer to avoid collapse after identifying his dead son in the morgue.

Refugee camp

Compare the reactions and media coverage of this tragedy with the case of another migrant boy, Alan Kudi, who had drowned in September 2015, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. That event, and the iconic photo capturing the lifeless child, had made international headlines. It prompted a worldwide outpouring of compassion for the plight of the thousands of asylum seekers trying to make it to Europe. High-profile visits by international personalities like Pope Francis and Angelina Jolie in Lesvos followed. They were highly publicized. But accomplished very little.

From compassion to hostility

The contrast in how a child’s death was treated in 2015 and 2020 is indicative of how Europe's attitude has dramatically changed over the years towards the so-called “refugee” (or “migration” as it is increasingly called) crisis.

The issue is of course still debated in heated exchanges everywhere, from parliaments to Greek tavernas, is preoccupying policy makers at national and EU level, is still considered a maker or breaker of governments, it keeps provoking ferocious Twitter wars, is featured in public discourse, and of course is a favorite catchphrase of the media.

But there are two major differences: First, the crisis now preoccupying Europeans no longer exists in the real world. At least not in the sense that most people associate the concept with - as a massive, irregular arrival of migrants in Europe. The last time one could argue a "refugee crisis" did exist in that sense was in 2015-2016, when thousands of asylum seekers arrived in flimsy dinghies from Turkey daily. But this massive movement has long stopped, for reasons briefly explained later in this text.

Herein lies the paradox: when Europe was in fact facing a massive arrival of asylum seekers, its response was mostly one based on humanitarianism, expressed in the media, at the political level and among civil society: asylum seekers were perceived -correctly- as people displaced by wars and violence, most notably by the conflict in Syria. They had good reason to flee and the right to asylum. And Europe had a responsibility to take care of them.

Back then, after reaching a Greek island, they were offered help by local islanders, then quickly transferred to the mainland, and allowed to continue their travel North, their intended destination. That a conscious decision by Greece’s then government, the inability of Greece’s asylum system to cope with such a huge influx and of course  German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stance, encapsulated in her now famous phrase “wir schaffen das”.

Then the political climate in Germany and much of Europe gradually soured. Walls and fences were erected. The Balkan route was closed. And the EU made an agreement with Turkey, in March 2016, that can be summarized as European money and benefits to Turkey in exchange for keeping the more than 4 million refugees on Turkish soil. Very few provisions of that agreement, which is by now all but dead, were implemented, for reasons going beyond the scope of this text. Except for the rapid drop of arrivals.

Since then, migration is increasingly seen in Europe not as a humanitarian, but as a security issue that should be kept in check, lest it wreak havoc to Europe’s economic prosperity, political stability, and demographic composition. The dwindling arrivals made many in Europe feel vindicated for their policy. If our only measure of success is numerical, they are right.

Let’s take Greece, my country of birth and expertise: There’s currently less than 18.000 asylum seekers in Greece’s five so-called “hotspot” islands. These are the five Aegean Islands close to Anatolia that receive most asylum seekers arriving from Turkey. To put this number into some perspective, it is less than 0,18% of Greece’s population. It also roughly corresponds to 0,05% of the number of tourists who visited Greece in 2019 (34 million). You could take all the asylum seekers from all five islands and move them to a medium-sized football stadium without reaching capacity.

The real crisis: EU laws and values

But a crisis still exists. It just has nothing to do with numbers. It is a crisis of European laws, rules, and values. All are being systematically trampled, in a thinly veiled attempt to thwart a “second 2015” that would threaten the continent.

This crisis is best known but far from isolated in Greece. It has multiple aspects. The most obvious one: Even as arrivals of asylum seekers have dwindled, a country that is part of the most affluent block on Earth still operates under crisis mode. It still often fails to provide even rudimentary health services and legal and humanitarian safeguards toasylum seekers.

A question many reasonable people have asked over the years is this: How can it be that a country that is able to host tourists more than three times its population every year cannot offer more than rudimentary camps, some with no heating, running water or sanitation, retraumatizing people who have fled conflict, poverty, and war? How is it that five years after the peak of the crisis, still there is no effective asylum system in place?

Such questions have preoccupied my reporting for years. One obvious answer I received repeatedly, always in off the record discussions: lamentable conditions at reception centers act as a deterrent. Other attempts to figure out an answer have usually led me to an incessant process of buck passing. When I asked the camp manager in Moria camp - for years, Europe’s largest and most infamous camp before it was burned to the ground - how can conditions be so horrid, he gave me what sounded a reasonable answer: Moria was meant as a temporary reception center for much fewer people. He couldn’t provide for the needs of multiple times the population. It was out of his hands. Then you would confront the government, and officials would tell you yes, conditions are not ideal, but when flows are large, the camps will be overcrowded, and conditions cannot be but be suboptimal. So why not move the people on the mainland? Because the EU-Turkey does not allow it, because Europe is allergic to resettlements, because EU countries take forever to approve family reunifications.

So, then you ask Europe. Why are Greek facilities and asylum systems still in such a mess? EU officials are full of horror stories about Greek bureaucracy, inefficient spending of the hundreds of millions made available to the country. This is again true to some degree but fails to mention that Greece had emerged from a devastating financial crisis or that it faced severe restrictions in hiring permanent staff at its Asylum Service (or anywhere else for that matter).

Greek officials asked what they did with all this European cash would often respond: “money can’t solve everything”. Like finding enough interpreters speaking English, Farsi, and Greek to conduct a proper asylum interview, or persuading doctors to leave lucrative practices to move to the islands and offer much needed medical assistance to asylum seekers. And so on and so forth, an endless loop of passing responsibility, whose only victims are of course asylum seekers themselves.

Another monumental failure in Greece has been integration. To cut a long story short, there is almost none. A couple of years ago, my son, then 11, came home one day to announce a new student had joined his class. He was from Iraq, a year older from the rest of the other pupils. Did he follow a preparatory class? Nope. Was he learning the language? Nope again. “So, what does he do all day?” I asked my son. “He just sits there and stares blankly at the teacher”.

Considering this lack of proper schooling, the formidable barrier of the Greek language, the inexistent job prospects, and the lack of appropriate facilities for minors, I presume no one should be surprised by why so many youths just want to escape Greece. Or that some, mostly 16–18-year-old teenagers, resort even to prostituting themselves in the open in Athens and other urban centers, as one investigation we conducted with photographer Olga Stefatou for Der Spiegel has documented.

The problem is exacerbated by an astounding degree of ignorance among large parts of the Greek public. To many Greeks, so compassionate at first, so willing to give aid, migration is lately presented and accepted as a weapon in the hands of Turkish president R. T. Erdogan: a weapon he can use any time he likes, threatening to flood Greece and Europe with refugees.

This fear is not totally unfounded. Turkey did declare an “open gate” policy in February and tens of thousands of migrants gathered – or driven to by Turkish authorities - to the land border in Evros thinking they could cross to the EU. They were effectively prevented by Greek police and Frontex forces, teargas from both sides, intimidating fire shots. According to our investigation in Der Spiegel - at least one dead migrant was mortally wounded by Greek fire. The failure of the breach was celebrated as a national triumph in Greece, but the threat of Erdogan and his unashamed use of the “migrant unleashing threat” to win concessions from Europe still lingers heavy among Greek policymakers of all colors and the Greek public, fueling resentment.

Then there are the myths. Many Greeks blame migrants for taking their jobs; others accuse them for even attempting to leave Turkey, “a safe country, ignoring that Turkey only gives Syrians international protection status and Greece’s own asylum service accepts asylum requests by the thousands every year. Others ask: “why don’t they just go the embassy” to ask for asylum, ignoring they can’t do that, because the EU wants to prevent “asylum shopping”. There is increasingly talk in Greek public discourse of “economic migrants” who are not “genuine refugees” (as if that were something for the public, newspaper columnists, ministers or TV talking heads to decide, and not for the competent authorities after reviewing each case on an individual basis). Others are convinced that serious  crime has increased exponentially (no statistics prove that, unless you count the thousands of migrants imprisoned in Greece for simply steering the boat that brought them here). Then there’s always talk about dangerous jihadists hiding in the camps (even though very few out of the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers have been arrested for ties with organizations like ISIS and the islands are teeming with Greek anti-terror, secret service, and Europol officials). Much of this is coming from Greeks who have probably never encountered or had a meaningful conversation with a refugee or asylum seeker.

Fortress Greece

But most importantly, the refugee crisis exists today mostly in the total disregard of human rights, international, EU and national law, especially after the current Greek government adopted a zero arrivals policy around March.

This was prompted by the events of February, when Erdogan opened the gates and the events in Evros. The policy is popular in Greece, where, per-corona, migration was considered the No1 problem facing the country. It is also popular in Europe, where Greece was described as Europe’s “shield” by Commission President Von der Leyen. Aggressive border surveillance by Greeks, combined with Turkish interceptions and corona restrictions that make it for asylum seekers to reach the Aegean shore anyway, the policy has proven effective. According to Greek government data, from March, when the new policy was adopted, until November 2020 only 4.344 asylum seekers had arrived at the five so-called hotspot islands in Greece - a 92% drop compared to the same period last year.

But at what cost? A series of investigations by Der Spiegel, ARD, Bellingcat, Lighthouse Reports and other publications like the NYT, the WSJ, DW, and the Guardian, presented solid evidence about pushbacks of migrants at sea. Der Spiegel further reported the indirect or direct involvement of Frontex assets in several incidents based on testimonies, verified audiovisual material, internal documents and whistleblower accounts.

In the most benign of cases, Greek coast guard assets will prevent migrant boats from reaching Greek land by disabling their boats or using dangerous evasive maneuvers to create waves and turn them back to Turkey.

In the worst ones, even asylum seekers who do make it to Greek soil are picked up, transported in secret to ports, and after being denied any access to asylum, are placed in life rafts, without any motor, drifting at sea, until someone picks them up. Consider that many of them are women, children and people who can't even swim. I was once in the Aegean on a state-of-the art rescue boat, equipped with full gear, captained by two experienced rescuers, our movements monitored from military outposts under broad daylight, and still I was spooked by the experience.

In a recent case we reported in Der Spiegel, a group of asylum seekers from Africa made the crossing from Turkey to Lesbos on the 28th of November. The next night, they were illegally deported to Turkey, after being arrested, mistreated, placed on a boa and left adrift at sea in a liferaft, before eventually being picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard.

The misadventures of this group of asylum seekers would have probably gone unreported, no one being the wiser, had it not been for three things: the migrants’ foresight to take and send photos and geolocation data and share them with an NGO; the fact that two members of the group managed to hide their phones while being brought to the North of the island for deportation; and, most crucially perhaps, their fortuitous encounter with a Greek citizen, a university professor willing to speak on the record under his name, about his meeting with two women. We located one of the women in Izmir and he identified beyond doubt she was the same one he had seen and photographs in Lesbos days before.

How does Greece react to this meticulous reporting? By always denouncing it as Turkish propaganda and serving the interests of smugglers and - incredibly - NGOs. Never mind the avalanche of revelations that several pushback cases were reported for example by Danish policemen or recorded by Frontex air surveillance.

Targeting NGOs

Another Greek response: Tightening the noose around solidarity. In September, four NGOs - including Mare Liberum, Alarm Phone and Josoor - were accused by Greek police as a criminal ring and could face espionage and smuggling charges. Three months later, no one has been charged, but this did not prevent authorities from leaking their names or newspapers calling them spies and smugglers. Even without an indictment or conviction, the purpose of the crackdown is clearly visible: keep helpers them quiet, make people scared, criminalize sea rescues.

I know one of the accused in this spy saga quite well personally. Her name is Natalie Gruber, an Austrian. The NGO she founded, Josoor, is not even active in Greece. They support refugees in Turkey. Apparently, her mortal sin is that Josoor and the watchdog organizations it is part of (Border Violence Monitoring Network) record human rights violations across the Balkan route, including in the Aegean. Natalie works 24/7 to help people. I once asked her if she knew someone who could help an asylum seeker I knew in Crete, she did so without hesitation. She makes no money out of it - if anything, she pays out of her own pocket. Seeing her implicated in an Kafkaesque adventure with the Greek justice system in a case that could drag on for years is infuriating.

Reporting on refugees: the toll...

On a more personal note. Many critics of my reporting over the years, mostly fellow Greeks, accuse me that my work is the result of lack of patriotism and a perverse inclination to expose my motherland to foreigners - and, the horror, Germans for that matter.

This argument is so laughable that I would not have given it a second thought  if it wasn't so widespread. These critics fail to realize that this is what reporters (are supposed) to do. Bring to light stories authorities would rather keep hidden. As for “patriotism,” I love my country and have served it for two years at the Turkish-Bulgarian border as an officer. I know the complexities of the region; I am not a “no borders” advocate. But loving your country, believing in borders, and protecting them does not mean you are willing to condone any violation of human rights or tolerate blatant violations of the law. Quite the opposite.

The second group of critics accuse me and fellow reporters and NGOs dealing with the issue of migration and human rights as hypocrites, doing a job that puts bread on our table. For me, the second part is of course true. If I were a reporter in an ideal society, it is highly likely I would not be employed in the media or writing this article for that matter. "No doctor takes pleasure in the health even of his friends", Michel de Montaigne wrote in his essays, quoting a Greek comic writer. But this attack, labelled against reporters, NGOs, international organizations, and helpers is perverse: as if the existence of people reporting on the problem is the main issue, not the existence of the problem itself.

This kind of criticism also obscures the heavy toll this kind of reporting has on journalists. Seeing miserable children without proper food, schooling, or prospect, is a heartbreaking experience. So is spending time with vulnerable, decent people living in camps without running water or proper sanitation, sometimes for years. Talking to shipwreck survivors who lost their families takes a toll on your soul. Spending nights in tents with refugees, who have next to nothing but will always share what they got (especially tea, usually with a lot of sugar) makes you feel both guilty for your own privileged status and admiring of the human capacity to overcome adversity. Meeting unaccompanied minors who have nothing and no one can leave you sleepless for nights, if your skin is not thick enough - and mine isn’t.

Getting hundreds of messages every week from refugees you met along the years, asking for your advice and help - “my friend, I need a lawyer”; “my son is injured and there is no doctor at the camp;” “I was sexually harassed, what can I do?” - is also a non-stop source of anxiety, especially when you realize that despite your best intentions you can’t help everyone.

One day, after getting home from the field in Samos and one of the worst migrant camps in Greece, to my middle-class family of four, the first thing my elder son told me was he had a problem with his PS4 console. It wasn’t his fault of course, but I felt angry. I poured myself a drink. I have never been drinking in my life, but now find myself often reverting to alcohol to take some of the pain and anxiety away.

Receiving threats and bullying physically, online or by email is no fun experience either. One of the most remarkable incidents happened at the port of Thermi in Lesvos. A small boat of asylum seekers was prevented from reaching the shore by an angry mob, who then took control over the streets and hunted down anyone they believed was a journalist or NGO worker. I was not seriously wounded but felt scared - though less than the rental company I had gotten my car from.

So, I can assure my critics I would be more than happy to get back to a normal life, reporting on less soul-drenching issues. I have caught myself more than once pondering how it would be to turn back the clock, and return to my previous, less eventful journalistic life -even if it meant my professional life would suddenly be impoverished– literally and metaphorically.

… and the rewards

Despite the pain, frustration, attacks, and threats, however, I do not regret those experiences, painful and anxiety fueled as they often are. How else would I have met people like M., an orphan minor from Afghanistan, who lost everything at home, then lost even his clothes in the Moria fire, is now waiting in Thessaloniki to be relocated to Europe as his younger brother is under the "employ" of a smuggler trying to pay up for M.'s escape. He has no parents (killed), no friends, no money, nothing to do. But he is always positive, a joy to talk to. He wants to study in Europe, be a nurse and return to refugee camps to help others like him. He is resilient and strong. And determined to make something of his life. He is not resentful, does not accuse anyone.

Some good news do exist. The EU Commission created a task force to help Greeks build a new model reception center in Lesbos, that should be up and running by the end of the summer or in the autumn. Commissioner Ylva Johansson, MEPs and some member-states are putting Greece and Frontex under scrutiny, demanding a thorough investigation of human rights violations at the EU’s external border and pressing for efficient monitoring. A new asylum pact is being debated.

What’s to be done?

I am no legal expert and have no easy answers. But I believe the more important than anything is to humanize migration. Understand that people who flee their homes and risk their lives and those of their loved ones to reach Europe must have a serious reason for doing so beyond exploiting the German welfare system or buying a BMW.

Europe also needs to overcome its internal divisions, display solidarity among its members and establish a fair burden sharing mechanism that will relieve frontline countries like Greece and islands like Lesbos, Samos, Kos, Chios and Leros.

It needs to make sure that its vastly empowered border agency Frontex monitors human rights compliance effectively. An independent monitoring mechanism would be a welcome step forward.

Europe also needs to establish legal pathways to effectively combat smuggling networks and play a constructive role in ending the conditions that make people flee their homes in the first place.

Europe also needs a robust and effective returns mechanism, that will allow people in no need of international protection to safely return to their homes.

Migration will never stop. It cannot be stopped either. One more reason why Europe’s moral integrity and role in the world as a beacon of human rights, dignity and rule of law must be restored. Protecting the rights of asylum seekers and migrants is not only a legal obligation - it is a moral imperative.