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On the Greek island of Lesbos, people look at the European asylum pact in perplexity. Meanwhile, a cemetery becomes a symbol of humanity.

An article by Christian Jacob

Out of Lesbos, April 24, 2024, 11:51 Am Clock

The last grave, number 197, is still fresh, a pile of brown earth in the grass. An old woman from Syria is buried here; she fled with her family and died a week ago. Soon Sohrab Shirzad will turn it into a real grave: light concrete, white gravel, a tombstone. As with the other 196 graves. And with those who are still to come.

Shirzad fled here from Afghanistan , a young man with black curls and a broad smile. On this spring day at the end of April he brought his child with him, he carries him on his shoulders, walks around between the graves and shows pictures on his cell phone of what it's like here looked like just recently. “We had to bulldoze everything, that was the hardest part,” says Shirzad. He worked on this cemetery for a year, bringing other refugees from the camp on the island here. They mowed, cleared rubble, built a fence, laid paths, and poured a slab over each grave.

For years, the dead migrants on Lesbos have been brought to this clearing in the vast olive groves near the island's capital Mytilini. It wasn't long ago that they were buried rather than buried, mostly anonymously, among garbage and rubble. After a short time, the grass overgrown everything, and instead of gravestones, there was sometimes just a board written on with a felt-tip pen.

The cemetery should be a “monument for humanity,” writes the Earth Medicine association, which is behind the redesign. It opens on this Wednesday in April, it is warm but the sky is gray and it smells of thyme. Birds of prey are circling over the olive trees, around 50 people have come: helpers, refugees, journalists. There are dozens of red plastic roses in a box; the guests take them, walk around, and place them on the graves. “They come for a new life, for a new opportunity,” Shirzad told reporters. It hurts him that the refugees are drowning in the sea.

Being able to grieve with dignity is an “essential part of being human,” says one speaker. Anyone who deprives others of this opportunity “first dehumanizes others and then themselves.” The new cemetery, says Shirzad, makes him happy: “It’s much better this way.”

No Greek island is closer to the Turkish mainland than Lesbos, and none receives more refugees. It's been like this for years, and people have been dying on the way here for years; last year it was an average of two per day. Many drown, others die in the camp.

In 2017, the Mainz doctor Gerhard Trabert visited the burial ground for the first time. At that time, 87 people were “buried in the middle of nowhere,” as Trabert wrote. Since then, he has worked with local groups to give them a final resting place. In 2022, Trabert was an independent candidate for the Left in the election of the Federal President, and he is now on the Left list for the EU elections in June. Health, dignity for the poor, the marginalized, that is his theme. Trabert traveled to the island again and again and over 20,000 euros in donations flowed into the cemetery project. They negotiated with the municipality for two and a half years before the association was allowed to redesign it. In November, the Süddeutsche Zeitung devoted an entire page to the difficulties the local administration was encountering.

But now, on a desk set up in the burial ground, there are boxes made of blue velvet: small presents, one for the city representative who also came. Trabert is wearing black trousers and a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “The municipality often has no records of who is buried here,” he says. His club now wants to do its own research and clarify as many of the identities as possible.

A place for mourning: The left-wing politician Gerhard Trabert and the refugee Sohrab Shirzad in the cemetery near MytiliniPhoto: Christof Mattes

Trabert invited a trombonist from Germany, picked him up at the airport in the morning, and now they are standing next to each other. The trombonist blows and the guests stand for a minute's silence.

Trabert then says that it is a duty to protect people fleeing war, environmental disasters and existentially threatening poverty. “But it is also our duty to provide deceased refugees with a respectful and dignified burial.” A few days ago, recalls Trabert, the European Parliament passed the Geas Asylum Pact. With today's commemoration he wanted to “set an example against this inhumane asylum policy in Europe”.

The main aim of the Geas is to change the way people are treated at the external borders. It should make migration to the EU much more difficult. Many arrivals are to be interned and deported immediately after a quick procedure, without even having officially entered the country.

Anyone who speaks to helpers and doctors on the island hears bleak predictions: longer detention, poorer access to help, traumatizing conditions for children. What will change on this island, which due to its location is one of the most important gateways for people to Europe?

“I have no idea,” says Dimitrios Kantemnidis. He has been running the Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos for two years, an ex-naval commander who was born on the island. “I asked the EU Commission and our legal advisors to explain to us what will change as a result of the Geas,” he says. But so far nothing has changed.

Mourning with dignity is an “essential part of being human,” says a speaker at the cemetery. Anyone who deprives others of this opportunity “first dehumanizes others and then themselves.”

When he started, journalists or politicians were there every few days, but now he hasn't had such a visit for over three months. An advisor to the Interior Minister sits in the container office during the interview.

Today, 6,500 people live in the gray containers on an old military training area on the southern edge of the island, right on the water. 85 percent of them come from just three countries: Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria. “We manage 300 arrivals per day, and in times of crisis we can increase this to 500,” says Kantemnidis. There was an “extreme increase” last summer, but hardly any people are currently arriving.

Is it because of the coast guard pushbacks that NGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and many others have long denounced?

“I can’t comment on that, I speak for the state, not for MSF,” says Kantemnidis. Are the refugees being pushed out to sea more often in order to prevent the camp from becoming full again? “I can’t talk about something so hypothetical,” he says.

The Turkish government is a little more open-hearted. On the Turkish Coast Guard's website you can read how many boats heading to Greece are stopped - broken down by day. There were 410 boats in the first three weeks of April alone. The tensions between Turkey and Greece, which last came to a head at the end of 2022 in the conflict over gas fields between Libya and Crete, have calmed down again. And as we can hear, Germany played a central role in the mediation. In any case, Ankara is now at least cooperating on migration issues and stopping many refugee boats.

NGOs such as the Border Violence Monitoring Network report physical violence during pushbacks, but primarily by the Greek coast guard. Refugees reported that all of their belongings were stolen or that they were even abandoned on floats at sea and that the coast guards then created waves so that they were in danger of capsizing.

Security services and police guard the camp in Kara Tepe, and two dozen NGOs are allowed to run projects inside. “They are really a big help,” says Kantemnidis, the camp manager. Psychological and pregnancy care, accommodation, water, showers, private helpers also take care of all these things in Kara Tepe. “The only thing we would need is an NGO for LGBTIQ support,” says Kantemnidis. But many of the helpers are already finding that they have to fill gaps that the state is actually responsible for.

Major European construction site: the future Vastra internment camp on LesbosPhoto: Christof Mattes

Kantemnidis talks about how he wants to ensure that the children in the camp get more lessons. He reports on job fairs that he organizes in the warehouse. Asylum seekers are allowed to work two months after arriving in Greece. “There is huge demand in hotels and among olive growers,” says Kantemnidis. One hotel manager alone was looking for 400 workers. “We need a lot more qualifications here,” he says.

But it could soon become much more difficult to recruit refugees to Lesbos. The Kara Tepe camp is open, people are allowed out. The European asylum pact should soon change that.

Kara Tepe is a temporary solution. The predecessor was a camp called Moria, opened in 2014 and soon after became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Europe's refugee policy: Moria was overcrowded, chaotic, dangerous, inhumane. There were deaths and repeated fires until the camp burned down in a single night almost four years ago, in September 2020, and the 13,000 inmates had to be relocated to Kara Tepe, to the camp of Dimitrios Kantemnidis.

“Moria is a clear warning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (CDU). A specially appointed task force will “build a pilot project for a reception center” on Lesbos and show that “Europe is managing migration in a humane and effective way”.

A model project for the Geas was to be built on the rubble of Moria. But that hasn't happened yet. Almost an hour's drive away on mogul slopes, the government has been building the new Camp Vastria for years: an internment camp, that is this de facto "reception center", in the middle of the forest. It takes seven hours to walk to Mytilini. The rather provisional Kara Tepe should have been closed long ago and replaced by the new high-security camp Vastria in order to implement Geas as soon as possible after the decision in the EU Parliament, which finally took place on April 10th.

120,000 prison places across Europe

But the opening of the new warehouse was repeatedly postponed. Water and electricity cause problems, but above all it is probably the reluctance of the island's population. So the people in Kara Tepe stay and everything stays the same. The EU will face this problem more often: large internment camps - 120,000 detention places across the EU are planned for the Geas - almost always meet with local resistance.

And so things continue in Kara Tepe. The asylum interviews usually take place via video call. The Greek state has outsourced the hearings to officials at the EU asylum agency EUAA. They recommend a vote to the Greek asylum authority, which decides based on the files. People used to wait years for these decisions, but today it usually takes months. “Most people want to go north from here. When they get papers, they travel directly from the island to their relatives by plane,” says Kantemnidis. “It used to take years, but now they are often finished in 40 days.”

But this is by no means true for everyone. Anyone who comes to Greece via Turkey - and that is almost everyone - will in many cases have their asylum application rejected. Turkey is considered “safe” and one could seek protection there, so the reasoning goes. This is also how the Geas envisages it. In fact, Turkey is deporting people in large numbers to Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict regions.

Anyone who is rejected in Greece can appeal. But after a short time he loses his rights to food, water, pocket money of 75 euros a month and health care. Those rejected are completely left to their own devices; the Greek government wants to pressure them to leave the country. The EU Commission tolerates this complete withdrawal of social benefits. Those rejected actually have to give up their sleeping place in the camp, but some of them are still tolerated there.

One of them is Mohamut, a young Somali. He is tall, he speaks good English, and in Mogadishu he helped his mother sell milk on the street. In 2020, at the age of 18, he fled with his wife Kifah. Their families did not approve of their relationship. From Turkey they tried to get to Greece. Border guards towed their boat back four times. “We had to swim and lost everything, including our passports,” says Mohamut.

They finally arrived on Lesbos in February 2021, and just a few months later their asylum applications were rejected together. Kifah was pregnant with her first child at the time. In December 2021 they lost their rights to care. They were allowed to continue sleeping in the camp, but were no longer given any money, food or water.

An Austrian aid organization distributes food rations to people like her once a week: one kilo of tomatoes, onions, two kilos of rice, two kilos of pasta. Another organization distributes food for babies, “sometimes they pack something in for adults,” says Mohamut. But that's not enough.

Mohamut therefore walks an hour every day to a social center called Paréa, which is run by the Germany-based association Europe Cares near Mytilini. There is lunch here, Mohamut eats and has the portions packed for his wife and children. The family was able to move out of the camp in December. The Welcome Office, a local NGO, rented an apartment for the family.

They don't have passports, so Greece can't deport them. The authorities have advised them to let the UN migration agency IOM fly them to Turkey or back to Somalia. But they fear the long arm of the family. “We can’t go back, it’s too dangerous,” says Mohamut.

Hasan W. and Sayed M. don't want to go back either. They are part of a group of six young Afghans whom the authorities accuse of setting fires in Moria. In June 2021, you were sentenced in the first instance to ten years in prison for arson endangering human life, even though the alleged key witness could not be found. Documents that proved she was a minor at the time of the crime were not taken into account. It was only in an appeal process that the judiciary recently acknowledged the relevance of this circumstance. A new trial in the juvenile court is now to follow.

And so Hasan W. and Sayed M. are now sitting in a small room in the Welcome Office, a street away from the port of Mytilini, and reporting on their lives. They speak Dari and belong to the Afghan Hazara minority. Both categorically deny the accusation of setting fires.

Hasan W. came to Lesbos alone in September 2019, when he was 16 years old. He lived in the camp for a year, alone in a tent, like thousands outside the actual camp area at the time. “On the evening of the fire I spoke to my sister in Afghanistan on the phone until around midnight,” he says. Then he heard shouts: “Come out”. He saw the fire, gathered his things and helped a neighboring family.

He was then in Paréa for six days; thousands of the camp residents fled there to escape the flames. On the sixth day, police officers took him to the station. “I was there in a room with four or five officers plus an interpreter. They said: 'There is a witness who saw you setting the fire,'" says Hasan W.

He asked: “Where is he?” I want to know who that is.” But he has never seen the witness to this day. The police threatened him: “Give us five or six names. Then you get a lesser penalty. Otherwise you will have to go to prison for 40 years if you give us names, only 20 years.”

Hasan W. signed the paper at the police station

The whole thing lasted about half an hour, the police beat him and he had to sign a paper in Greek, says Hasan W. He didn't know what it said. “In the end everything hurt.” Hasan W. signed. To this day he has never heard of the paper again.

His friend, Sayed M., reports exactly the same thing: Days after the fire on the island, he too was picked up by the police and asked at the station to accuse other camp residents. He was beaten and ultimately forced to sign a paper whose contents he did not know.

Both were taken to the prison in Avlona in northern Athens, along with four other defendants. In total they were in a shared cell with 25 prisoners.

His lawyer once came to visit, reports Hasan W. The family sent an ID card proving that he was a minor at the time of the crime. But the court did not recognize the document. The verdict was handed down in June 2021: ten years in prison.

Hasan W. was transferred to a prison near Thessaloniki. He had to work, in a bakery, in the kitchen. “For every day of work my sentence was reduced by 3 days.”

The court heard them four times in total. “Ultimately, our objection was accepted by the court,” says W. “Our prison sentence was overturned, it was recognized that we were minors at the time.”

In March 2024 he was released and came to Lesbos with Sayed M. “We have to report to the police station once a week and are not allowed to leave the island,” he says. Now they are waiting for a new court date.

Before Dimitrios Kantemnidis, the commander, took over the camp on the island, he received his doctorate from the European Security and Defense College in Brussels, an EU military academy. How climate change leads to crises and waves of refugees – that was his topic. “We discuss it as if we don’t yet understand how climate change will change our lives,” says Kantemnidis today. He believes that migration cannot be stopped. The best thing you can do is to provide as much help as possible locally, in the countries of origin. “When they say 'bye bye' at home and set off, they don't care what the Greek state, the EU Commission or a parliament have decided or whether we put up fences. They just want to survive.”

This research was supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

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