2018 has brought some alarming new developments to the situation for refugees and displaced people on Chios. After the failure of a recent injunction meant to halt Vial’s expansion, a group of frustrated locals set up camp on the road leading into Vial, forcing refugees to walk through crowds of hostile people in order to access the camp. The locals’ everyday presence is objectively intimidating; at times it has crossed the line into outright bigotry and violence. We’ve witnessed xenophobic language first-hand, and one woman at our Athena Centre for Women reported being kicked by a local woman in the crowd as she attempted to walk back to her caravan with her child in her arms – a completely unacceptable act of hate.
Citing “mounting pressure” from local opponents, the director of Vial resigned on January 23. Adding fuel to the fire, a contingent from the Golden Dawn, Greek’s notorious neo-nazi political party, visited the island on January 31. Amidst this uncertainty, Action from Switzerland conducted our first quarterly focus group of the year on a quiet Saturday morning at the centre. The following is a summary of our conversation with the group of Iraqi and Syrian women who were there that morning.
Our women-only bus continues to function well and allow many new women, as well as “regulars,” to access our services. Women reported feeling safe and comfortable on the bus.
Our previous focus group took place in October, right in the first month of the women’s centre bus. In response to the closure of the Souda camp in town and the transfer of all refugees on the island to Vial, 20 minutes inland, AfS was able to launch an emergency campaign raise the funds to sponsor a women’s-only bus between Vial and the centre for six months. Since then, our bus has continued to provide women living in Vial an essential alternative to the UNHCR bus – especially given the outsized demand in Vial, and widespread and well-documented harassment and abuse of women who tried to access the bus.
In the past three months, we have welcomed 243 new women to the centre, and had over 1,500 other visits for language lessons, medical and legal assistance, fitness and wellness sessions, and psychosocial support. We have identified and signed up over 70 women for one-on-one psych sessions and pre-interview legal counsel with other women – two crucial forms of support that are frequently denied elsewhere – and provided countless others a space for relaxation, intercultural dialogue, and the chance to take a safe, warm shower.
Living Conditions in Vial:
- Safety: From what we’ve heard both in the focus group and in everyday conversation, women feel unsafe showering or even going to the toilet in Vial. Women feel especially unsafe in Vial after dark.
- Access to information: There has been a noted lack of translators in Vial recently, which means that other services (medical, informational) cease to function as well.
- Dignity: Women reported that the food in Vial continues to be quasi-inedible, and the systems for food and clothing distribution are deeply flawed.
- New programs: we held a two-week winter clothing distribution over the holidays, and have partnered with Chios People Kitchen to serve a hot lunch in the centre every day.
In 2015, the European Union conceived the hotspot model as the solution to the region’s growing “migration crisis,” testing its first examples in Italy and Greece. Hotspots are meant to be a new model for refugee management, an example of the EU’s humane and efficient approach to the complex global problem of forced migration. In reality, they are little more than detention centres – inhumane, unsanitary, dangerous, and far from temporary. “In Syria it was better,” one woman told us when we asked about her experience in Vial. “Here it’s like dying a new death every single day.”
Though hotspots were created to “swiftly identify, register, and process migrants,” people fleeing war and persecution often find themselves stuck there for months on end. Vial is no exception. Though new arrivals to the island have slowed in January due to the low temperatures and rough seas between Turkey and Chios, the camp remains overcrowded – women reported being forced to share their caravan with two other families, and many new arrivals are still sleeping outside or in makeshift tents.
“They say it’s temporary,” one woman told us, “ but then it’s five months, six months…”
As we’ve mentioned before, one particularly troubling aspect of Vial is its toilet facilities. Women reported that the water is never hot, facilities are unsanitary despite being cleaned several times per day, and they are forced to do their washing entirely by hand.
What’s more, any number of women have told us that they feel unsafe showering or even going to the toilet due to gendered harassment and abuse. Women are forced to ask male relatives to accompany them, or avoid showering together. Night is worst: “We don’t dare go alone,” one woman told us.
During the focus group, women said that they feel especially threatened by men’s behavior in camp after dark, when many are drinking, using drugs, and playing with knives.
Access to information:
A huge complaint that emerged from the focus group concerned the total lack of translators currently available in Vial, which means not only little access to information but also suspended psychological and medical services. This feedback is consistent with information we’ve heard from women since the holidays – over and over, people are being turned away from the doctors’ facilities in Vial because there is no one to interpret for them. One woman with a chronic medical condition said, “I go to the doctor and I have to stand for three or four hours, waiting.” Still, another woman said, “Even if there were translators, I don’t think we would get the information we need.”
The Reception and Identification Service (RIS), the Greek governmental agency in charge of the Vial hotspot, is formally responsible for the distribution of non-food items, including clothes, to the refugee population on Chios. In reality, women reported that RIS hands out some basic items at landings, then doles out appointments for people to come get clothes – with appointment dates for months in the future. Other distributions, they said, were chaotic and didn’t even attempt to meet their needs.
“They would give us clothes that don’t fit without even letting us try them on,” one woman told us.
Food is another key area in which the Greek government continues to fail to fulfill its obligation to the refugee population on Chios. The meals in Vial are notoriously inedible – women have told us that they never receive salad or fresh vegetables, and the distribution system “doesn’t make any sense.”
It’s important to remember that Vial and hotspots on other Aegean islands are not only a violation of refugees’ human rights – they’re also a failure of imagination. It has always been our mission to provide a more dignified, creative alternative to hosting and meeting the needs of refugee women through our work at the Athena Centre for Women. In this vein, during the last week of 2017, we ran a winter clothing distribution in the Centre. In an attempt to avoid standard distribution procedure, where people queue for hours to receive knotted plastic bags full of supplies, we transformed our classroom space into a makeshift fitting room. During the focus group, women told us that they’d had the time and space to find clothes that actually fit them – one girl said that the only jacket she’d been able to find was from the centre.
In the past month, a Chios-based organization called People’s Street Kitchen has also been delivering a hot meal for the women in the centre to share. It’s become a tradition, with the delivery and unveiling of the day’s food serving as a moment of pause and communion – in addition to likely being the only fresh and nutritious meal that women living in Vial will have all day. We received very positive feedback about the food, and we will continue this solidarity for as long as we can.
We were heartened to hear from the women we spoke to that the centre continues to function as an important, if temporary respite from the indignities of Vial. As one woman mentioned,
“It’s the only place we can come and breathe and relax.”
The main feedback we heard was the desire for another shower, which could double the amount of women who can come and shower each day – a change we also feel would deeply benefit the centre’s ability to provide safe, hot showers to as many women as we can. We are constantly on the lookout for a new building with expanded shower facilities, and will continue to explore other options.
In 2018, Chios is finding itself caught in the crosshairs of much larger political tensions – between local and national authorities, fascists and solidarians, models of inclusion and models of xenophobia. Still, besides mounting hostility, has anything really changed for the refugees themselves?
According to recent data from the Greek Ministry of Migration, over 1,800 displaced people are currently in limbo on the island of Chios. After advocacy from a variety of organizations, including AfS, expedited transfers by the Greek government during the month of December relieved some of the pressure that has been mounting in Vial since our last focus group in October. More people are housed in containers now instead of on the streets, and many of the most vulnerable women and families have been moved to hotel rooms or apartments elsewhere on the island. Still, living conditions in Vial remain essentially the same, and these transfers are only marginal improvements. They do not change the fact that the Greek islands have been artificially severed from the rest of Europe by virtue of their physical remove, leaving refugees and displaced people stranded, forced to wait for a decision that might take six months or a year to come. We frequently hear from women who are desperate for news about their asylum cases, only to receive word that the decision is still “pending,” with no further information or explanation.
When we mentioned to the women in our focus group that we thought Vial was an inhumane solution to a man-made crisis, one Iraqi woman who’s spent the last four months in the camp nodded her head. She spoke with restraint, but her exhaustion was evident. “Yes,” she said, “we’ve been here for a long time and we hope for another solution.”
Piper French recently graduated from Brown University with a degree in Comparative Literature. She has worked with displaced people in various contexts, from officially designated refugees in the U.S. to men and boys living in the illegal “Jungle” camp in Calais, France. Her time working at the Athena Centre for Women on Chios has only strengthened her conviction that the entire concept of hierarchies of displaced people is inherently flawed and should be replaced by freedom of movement for everyone.