This article is based on a speech delivered by activist Philippa Kempson from the Hope Project in Lesbos, Greece. She was speaking at a meeting of the Medì conference organised by the community of Sant’Egidio in Livorno in May.
More than 2 years have passed since the yearly Medì series was forced to cancel a gathering planned for 2020. These 2 years have brought so much hardship to everyone and sadly the loss of many that were taken from us too soon. We remember those that we have lost.
My name is Philippa Kempson and I represent the Hope Project of Lesvos. We have been working with refugees arriving and detained on the island of Lesvos, Greece, since 2014.
A long story short.
In late 2014 our quiet life was turned upside down because of the escalating war in Syria and the failure of the world and dedicated agencies to step in to help. Although refugees arriving on the shores of Lesvos was not new, the dynamics of the people arriving changed dramatically.
We had been aware of boats arriving for some years, but they usually arrived at night, mainly contained young men and we only really witnessed the debris left behind.
In late 2014, we had a family day trip to Turkey. This would be the beginning of our awakening to the inhumanity that greest refugees when they arrive in our “civilised” countries.
On arriving in the port to board our safe boat to Turkey we were greeted with the most horrendous sight. Men, women, and children kept like animals in the open air, behind fences, with no facilities and nowhere to hide from the elements.
As a family we were stunned that this could be happening, we talked all day about our horror and the question that we have never had answered: why?
A few days later when driving our daughter to school, we came upon a boat that had just landed close to our house.Standing apart from the crowd was a little girl, aged maybe about 5, dressed in a bright red coat.
Her face has stayed with me all these years. Her expression was totally blank, her distant stare has haunted me to this day.
We stopped to help. How could we not? I don’t even remember any conversation between the three of us, it was just instinct. To drive past and continue with our lives was not possible. That was the day our lives changed. That was the day we realised that the system of Europe, that we naively believed in, had failed in our eyes.
Over the next weeks and months, the boats increased. From a few a week, to a few a day, to the peak in October 2015 where 12,000 people arrived in 24 hours just in our 15km of shoreline.
Until June of that year there were no volunteers, no medics arrived until September, basically there was no help, we were alone. Driving refugees was illegal, aiding refugees was illegal and yet there were no authorities there, no one came.
I think in our civilised countries we are used to the support network that is there in an emergency. If someone is sick you can take them to a doctor, if someone is seriously injured you can call an ambulance, if someone needs transport, they can call a taxi or take a bus.
This was not the case for refugees. For the sick we gave water, shade, and rest. For the seriously injured we patched them up and hoped for the best. This was not always successful. No one came to help. We were alone. For those who were trying to get to the camp they faced a walk of three days or more in the hot sun carrying their belongings and their children. They were alone because people were afraid to help because helping is illegal.
We witnessed horrific scenes that will haunt me forever. At dawn one morning a young man injured himself jumping out of a boat. He suffered a deep laceration to his leg. The blood was pumping out. With help from another refugee in the boat we worked together to administer first aid and stop the bleeding. With such a serious injury he needed a hospital urgently. A local man approached on his bike while we were in the road trying to stop the bleeding. I called to him to please help, or this man may die. He took a detour around us and continued to head down the road to feed his cats. That’s when I realised that refugees are not considered human in the eyes of the majority. That’s when I realised that their lives have no value in the eyes of many. Lower than cats.
For months we still thought that help would come. After all we are in Europe, this can’t happen without the authorities coming to save these people. That was the end of our belief in the system and structure of Europe. That was when we finally realised that these people are not viewed as human. That the aid agencies supposedly set up to protect the rights of refugees are at best ineffective and at worst criminal.
It was also the start of our lives being viewed as criminals. The police became regular visitors at our house, and we were regularly summoned to the police station to answer accusations levelled by the local community. This has taken a huge toll on us personally. We faced constant daily threats to our lives. Targeted threats aimed at our daughter saying that they would slit her throat and rape her. She was 16 years old
The cost has been great. We had to send our daughter out of the country for her safety aged just 17. We lost our home, our business, and have spent 6 years fighting invented charges against us. In the almost 8 years since we began this journey our focus has always been on dignity, safety, and empowerment of refugees
Our aim is not to see these people as just refugees. After all this is simply what they have been forced to become.They are people with the same hopes and dreams as us.
Our projects continue in Lesvos. Projects aimed at not only providing humanitarian aid that includes clothing, hygiene items, blankets, and diapers to everyone in the camp, but also to focus on the mental health of those that could spend years in limbo, forgotten and rejected by the very countries that they thought would be safe.
We also provide an art project where people of all abilities can express themselves and learn, painting, music, theatre, and safe spaces for women. There is also a beauty salon and barbers’ shop, a hot shower, ladies’ gymnasium, and dance area.
All of these projects are run by the refugees themselves. Who better to know the needs and the challenges faced than those who also face them? Our aim is to lift people up, not to give charity but to give dignity. To recognise abilities and to nurture those.
What we have witnessed over the years will never leave us, as civilised countries. We are happy to profit from war, are happy to interfere in other countries but are not happy with the by-products of said wars. Wars create refugees.
Our faith in the system and the rule of law continues to be eroded. Laws set up in dark times to protect refugees are now being blatantly violated. From the EU-Turkey deal to the agreement between Italy and Libya to move an international border and support the so-called Libyan coast guard.
The EU funded prisons are now coming into operation on the Greek islands. Prisons for women, for new-borns, for children who have no access to school and who spend years in detention, for fathers and young men who just want to be safe, who just want to go back to school. Razor wire, locked gates, drones, and armed guards. Sometimes walls so high that there is no view of the outside world. A place for the non-humans, a place they say ensures the “security” of our Europe.
The refugees have been in lockdown for more than 2 years, restricted and often with no permission to leave the camps. If they do get to leave, they face security checks at the gates and searches. On walking to the supermarket or the city they face a policy of stop and search at regular intervals along the road. People seen talking to refugees in the street are questioned. Regular fines for €300 are issued to refugees for “covid infringements”, masks not worn properly when they are walking alone, or simply being out of the camp when it is not the day for them to leave. Meanwhile we see residents and police walking around without masks and nothing is said, nothing is done. Some people have the privilege of being outside of the law.
The only upside of this is that we have had minimal cases of covid in the camp and the refugees have been able to protect themselves from the outbreaks that have been rampant in the less careful general population. I thought that concentration camps were part of our history, where Europe committed atrocities that we said would never happen again.
There are daily and blatant violent pushbacks that are happening on our borders by governments that we elected.Every day we are horrified. Every day we seem to be further along the road to the dark times in Europe that we said would never happen again.
The current population of refugees on Lesvos has decreased and conditions of those that make it are improved. But this gives a false picture. People have not stopped fleeing. The so-called refugee crisis has not ended. Those that attempt the journey are not safe even if they make it to Europe.
Countless testimonies of refugees are being collected by human rights groups. Testimonies that speak of landing in Greece, being picked up by the police and then being dumped on a life raft in the middle of the ocean waiting for the Turkish coast guard to come to “rescue” them. Children, men, and women thrown into the hands of the sea like garbage, robbed, raped, separated from family.
This is what the EU stands for. This is what we have become. Our oceans washing up bodies of the unwanted, of the non-humans. Our borders have become military zones. This is not what the EU was founded for, this is not the vision of the free fair European union that was promised. The “migrant” crisis has become a political weapon and those that try to assist have become criminals and enemies of the state.
We are no longer able to assist those landing on the shores. We are no longer even allowed to witness the treatment of arrivals. To do so would be instant arrest. In Greece humanitarians are considered criminals, charged as spies, accused of espionage.
The authorities in Greece are continually arresting those who try to bear witness to what is going on. Volunteers are arrested and detained, often without charges. Several female volunteers detained have been subjected to intimate searches by male police officers that are nothing more than sexual assault. Electronic devices ceased, followed by long years of waiting for their day in court.
In Greece, refugees accused of driving a boat have been given a sentence of 50 years each in prison, they have waited three years in detention waiting to appeal those charges, the system that just keeps delaying any final verdict and keeps kicking the cases further along the road.
A Greek committing murder may get 10 years, while police charged with crimes are acquitted. Basically, there is no rule of law, no protection, authorities can do what they like, and nothing will happen. Lawyers are charged with trafficking because they have stood up for the fundamental rights of refugees. Journalists charged with spying and espionage simply for doing their job. Their equipment seized and not returned for years, if ever. Greece has sunk to the bottom of the table for press freedom in Europe.
The situation in Ukraine has made these discriminations of Europe clear. For years we have heard the justifications for the violent abuses of refugees. That countries are full and we simply cannot take more refugees. We have to have border security.
The war in Ukraine has shown that for what it is. Countries that are welcoming Ukrainian refugees are at the same time using extreme force to violently pushback “other” refugees. Countries that are praising solidarity of their people who have done an incredible job to help those fleeing Ukraine are at the same time prosecuting humanitarians for helping “other” refugees.
Don’t get me wrong. The treatment and help given to those fleeing the war in Ukraine is amazing and really is an example of how refugees should be treated. What this situation has done however is to highlight the fact that Europe considers these real refugees, and others as some kind of pest that needs to be stopped.
What is the difference between those fleeing Ukraine and those fleeing Syria for example?
The simple answer is that Europe is racist. People may find that offensive, but it is a simple truth. The simple answer is that people from Ukraine are white.
Our governments, even if they are left-leaning, are afraid of the far right among our populations so they have tried to appease both sides. Far right governments have then been left to do whatever they please, regardless of the rule of law.
In early 2020, we lived through a very violent show of force from the far right on our island. Armed roadblocks were set up to check the nationalities of those in the cars. If you were Greek you could pass, if you were not Greek,however, you were violently attacked. Volunteers, medics, visitors were in fear for their lives. Cars were destroyed with bats and chains, people were beaten in the street. Journalists were beaten and their equipment thrown into the sea.
These incidents stood as a beacon for far-right fascists groups from around the world. They began flying into the island to support the fascist uprising. All foreigners were living in fear and also many Greeks that work with refugees. A mass evacuation took place, people fleeing to the mainland for safety. The ferries were full of volunteers running in fear for their lives. It was not safe for refugees to be on the streets either, many were attacked and beaten.
We had Greek friends call us pleading with us to leave for our own safety as our address was published on far-right forums. We did not leave. I will not be forced from my home by fascists.
We have to stand our ground. We cannot run away in fear. We are stronger than them. We are greater in numbers. I will not be intimidated. Yes, we have lived with this fear for a long time, but if we run, if we leave, who will stay, who will stand up?
You may ask where the Greek police were at this time. They were there, watching. They did not intervene, the reasons are known only to themselves. Are they afraid? Do they sympathise with the fascists? Do they support them? Only they know.
The EU Parliament has become impotent. The EU Commission wants refugees, who are not white, stopped, no matter the cost, even if this violates international law. Governments of Europe can basically do whatever they like and then investigate themselves. The same with Frontex.
The UNHCR, whose only remit is to protect the rights of refugees, work with the authorities. They have failed totally and are worse than useless.
As Humans we have an obligation to stand up for those more vulnerable than us. So, who will stand up for what is right? Who will stand for the rule of law?
Strangely we still have hope. Without hope we are defeated. We are inspired by the people of Europe who stand up against their government’s abusive stance. That’s what gives us the strength to keep fighting. We have to have hope because we are better than this. We have to have hope because without it we will sink rapidly back into the darkness and hate of fascism.
We are not naive, but we have to have hope. And we have to spread that hope, and strength to others. Solidarity is our weapon.