One of the reason, I offered to volunteer with the Boat Refugee Foundation was because I wanted to help. Like many others, I heard bad things on the news – and I wanted to help. But as well as helping – I wanted to understand. Understand what the issues were and what we can do about them. After two weeks in Lesbos – I think I have a better understanding of what’s happening but more than ever I am confused and conflicted about what happens next.
The Boat Refugee Foundations holds ‘cultural awareness’ sessions for all the volunteers. I was grateful for this. I probably should have got a grasp of the ‘Sunni and the ‘Shiites’ before I set off – but it seemed a bit complicated. It is. Syria is complicated. Afghanistan is really complicated – and that’s before we start trying to understand the issues in Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Eritrea, DRC, Algeria, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Uganda and all the other nationalities that end up in Moria.
One of the people I met has fled his homeland from the Taliban. It simply wasn’t safe for him there – and he was forced to run. He has already spent time in a Turkish jail. He has already paid a smuggler and taken his chances on dangerous little boat – in order to get to the safety of Europe. He is lucky. He escaped the Taliban, he survived the boat. He is in a refugee camp in Europe.
He doesn’t feel lucky. He’s been here for eleven months. He tells me that he feels like he has wasted a year of his life. He has no idea when his asylum application will be processed. The Immigration ACT states that asylum application should be assessed within six months. It isn’t. He has no faith in the asylum process – but he cannot escape it. His hope is that he will be granted asylum in Greece. His friends in Athens tell him that conditions there are bad – and his hope is that once on the mainland- he can again flee the border – to try and find a life and a job in mainland Europe.
I asked him if he thought it would be better to wait in Athens for a legal opportunity to come to mainland Europe. He laughs. ‘That will never happen’ he chuckles. I think he is right.
We compare Facebook pages. Mine are full of pictures of English weddings, talk of Brexit and videos of cats falling over. His are full of Arabian weddings, talk of Taliban attacks and videos of cats falling over. I suspect I don’t know how frequent the Taliban attacks are. I also suspect that he doesn’t know how welcoming the Europeans will be.
I’m not sure I know what ‘Populism’ is. I think it’s something to do with tighter immigration laws and clamping down on illegal immigration. I don’t think its good news for the Moria men. I’m not sure how to explain to my new refugee friends that Europe has a rising hostility towards refugees and that they are likely to find some people who will see them as criminals and terrorists. I’m guessing this is still preferable to the Taliban.
I have learnt several things whilst in Lesbos with the Boat Refugee Foundation:
1. There is a difference between refugees seeking asylum and economic migration
2. It can be difficult to tell the difference
3. The problem isn’t going away
Globally, there are approximately 1.2 million refugees. 3000 of them (90% men) are in Moria. They nearly all have phones and Facebook – and they know what life is like in Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan, Holland and the UK.
The authorities at Moria (UNHCR) have a difficult job. I’m no expert in this – but it seems that they have been tasked with:
1. Making Moria a safe, warm and healthy environment for 3000 young single men.
2. Processing thousands of asylum application quickly (< 6 months) – but slowly (as long as possible) – as they really have no-where else for them to go (In the UK – we call this Exit-Block)
3. Making Moria sufficiently shit – that people would rather stay in a Turkish jail than come here.
So what can I do:
I don’t know. I have overwhelming sympathy for my new found Middle Eastern friends – but I also understand that Europe can’t cope with 1.2 million refugees. I really don’t know.
What I do know is that the Boat Refugee Foundation provides basic medical care for a small number of them. They also provide psychological support for some damaged and vulnerable individuals. I’m quietly proud that I was able to be a small part of that. Either as a donor, a volunteer or simply a well-wisher– I hope you would like to be a part of that too.
For me – My time is done and I can return home to my family. For the refugees the wait continues.
Text: Dave Clark
Photo: Bas Bakkenes