Monday, 12 November 2007

Flee for your life

The Greek weather has been awful these last few days: storms, rain, thunderstorms and some earthquakes (although these aren't caused by the weather). In the 5 years we've lived here we've never seen such a wet and stormy autumn. It's like the January and February days when the sea produces angry white foamed waves. That's why we often say these days: today it's no refugee weather.

Although I do ask myself if there aren't bold people smugglers, who even though the foam is flying around your head, they just put the refugees in the rubber boats, cut the bottom and shout: "Flee for your life, to Greece!".

Because even after a stormy night it's common to see refugees sitting at the bus stop or near the Olive Press in Molyvos. Then you ask yourself what journey they must have been through. The same question that the English film director Michael Winterbottom has been asking himself.

A few years ago Winterbottom was struck by the news that some 58 Chinese were found in a container on a boat. They had suffocated to death by trying to reach England illegally. After an investigation amongst refugees in England, however, Winterbottom chose to film the escape route from Pakistan to England. This film 'In This World' was awarded the Golden Bear at the 2003 film festival in Berlin.

For the main characters Winterbottom found in Pakistan two boys from Afghanistan: Jamal, a refugee and Enayat, a son of Afghan parents. With a small film crew and a light camera they followed the escape route from Pakistan, through Iraq, Turkey, Italy to France, from where the way finally led to England.

The boys were at the mercy of several people traffickers. They travelled in small pick-ups, by bus, they crossed snowy borders on foot, they travelled in a container by ship and Jamal travelled by train and for his last journey he found a hiding place between the wheels of a truck.

The film gives a heart-rending idea of what the refugees that arrive in Lesvos must have been through. And then still Lesvos is not the promised land. First they have to go to Athens and from there the journey takes them further into western Europe. That's if they're not caught. When you see how many of them get caught here on Lesvos, because they entered Greece illegally, how many of them know to slip through the grasp of the police?

In 'In This World' the escape route went from Istanbul straight to Italy. But for a few years now the escape route also goes more and more over the northern mainland of Greece or through the Greek islands. Greece now complains a lot about the increased number of refugees that come from Turkey. They accuse Turkey of not fighting the people traffickers. On the other hand it's Turkey that accuses the Greek coastguard of sending refugees back to Turkey by making their boats unfit to go further. International refugee organizations say that Greece mistreats the refugees and the German magazine Der Spiegel even accused Greek coastguards of torturing refugees.

Well, I'm wondering if all these accusations about Greece are true. It's common knowledge that it's the smugglers who cut the rubber boats in order that the refugees go as quickly as possible to the Greek coast (and some of them drown). And for myself I do believe that the Turkish smugglers are not fought against much. How else can you explain the huge number of refugees that arrive on Lesvos? (Or do I now sound like a real Greek?). Anyhow, I see the refugees nearly every day, marching by on their way to Molyvos, to Athens, to a land of milk and honey. Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, with just a plastic bag in their hands, trying as much as possible to be invisible on the now completely empty Eftalou Boulevard.

In the summer they were also easy to spot. Although they did their utmost to be looking at their Sunday best, in the heat it was easy to spot them, with their long trousers and the plastic bag in their hand, amongst all the international tourists who were cruising along by the sea.

It's a fact that the asylum centre on Samos, which was hot news a few months ago, was too small. But how can you know that in a few months time the number of refugees will triple? If today on Lesvos a boat with 275 refugees were to arrive, like happened in the Peloponessos last weekend (the Turkish boat was on its way to Italy when it ran into problems due to the bad weather), they certainly won't know how to handle so many people.

Anyhow it's sad that such a migration of nations takes place so close to us. You feel powerless, what can you do? If you watch the film 'In This World' you understand that the refugee business has become very big business, because especially in Greece the numbers of refugees is rocketing. And big business means that the cargo isn't always treated well. But even if you arrested all the people traffickers, the refugees would still keep on coming. They will keep on finding illegal transportation, they will keep on asking for help in order to reach the rich western countries.

In Molyvos they're not often bothered by the police too much, because there are simply not that many police here in the North of the island. The refugees walk, take the bus or a taxi to Mytilini and from there they try to get a ticket for a boat or a plane to Athens. These refugees show how leaky the European frontiers are. How else can you explain that you see more and more of these refugees on planes to Amsterdam?

After the film was made Jamal, one of the main characters in 'In This World', went back to Pakistan. But not for long. Soon he went back on the route he once travelled as a movie star, although this time he did it as a real refugee, to reach England in a few months and there ask for asylum.

The world is adrift and there's nothing we can do to stop the refugees. Big families are raising a lot of money to put the life of one of their members in danger, in order to give them a better future. Lesvos, or any other Greek island will be just a stopover on their long and dangerous journey. That doesn't mean that there are no immigrants on the island. Lesvos, like the rest of Greece, has a large number of legal and illegal Albanians, Rumanians, Russians and Bulgarians. They come in through the North of Greece, which is quite a different journey and quite a different story.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

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