Blood Moon Escape

Here is the next chapter of my story and I'll start it by saying that I now regret not having written it all down immediately because the situation seems to change with every passing moment!

Last night when I got to the beach I was anxiously scanning the sky for a shooting star in order to make a very calculated wish. I arrived late, having rushed down to Moria in the evening when the news finally reached me: "the refugees have taken over Moria!" The daily fights which break out in the 400 meter-long food line were exceptionally bloody and riots had started later in the day when police allegedly beat children as they were trying to break out of their safe play-zone. The police fled the camp to regroup and one registration office was burnt to the ground as all out war broke out between rival groups. Nationalism is rife even in this grey zone where everyone waits to know if they are inside or outside of Europe's legal prerogative. By the time I arrived, the access roads were blocked by riot police and my presence felt awkward at this morbid hidden spectacle. Four of us drove 45 minutes home in silence, confused and sad on our way to take up our posts on the night watch.

On an abandoned beach amid suffocating darkness my phone started ringing with a call from a friend on the inside. Her distressed voice told me that a group of men holding rocks and other crude weapons were outside their tent threatening to kill everyone inside and burn the tent to the ground because they hadn't joined the fight against the police, who were now nowhere to be seen. They had all of their possessions in hand and were frozen in fear until the rocks started flying. Then there was a lot of screaming on the other end of the phone and it went dead.

Glowing with pathetic fallacy, as I was making my way down to Moria to figure out what happened, the waning gibbous moon rose red along the horizon before me and I feared for the worst. I got hold of another friend inside Moria who told me some had fled, and riot police had filled the camp shortly after and subdued this second uprising. The ones who left Moria weren't answering, the car was out of gas, and my phone was blinking low battery so I made a short logistical pitstop in Mantamados and waited for a sign. Finally it came: "Scott we're in Mytilini, next to the two little boats!" This made no sense to me but I kept driving down the coast and the blood moon kept hanging ominously on the horizon over the water and we called back and forth trying to figure out where the meeting point was. 

The plan was to find them wherever they were and bring them up to one of the transit camps where we normally bring people after the boat landings so they could wait out the unrest and hopefully stay within the confines of the delicate legal process which they are entangled in. Technically, that would have made me a human trafficker with very good intentions and luckily it didn't come to that. I found them with a volunteer for another NGO part way between Moria and Kara Tepe and another NGO with a big van stopped, too. I thought I was coming to pick up a couple people but it turned out there were 16 of them, very traumatized by the violence they had witnessed and fled from and very confused about where to go next. Anywhere but Moria, anywhere they would not be found by the police and taken back to Moria or deported for having escaped, anywhere with food, anywhere they could sleep through the night in peace. As a group, we did our best to go over the options and decided to head up the road and try our luck with the man in charge at Kara Tepe. 

When he saw our party arrive he had this funny look on his face and told me, "You never sleep!" as I tried to go over the details, which were relatively uninteresting to him - he just wanted to meet his new visitors. He told them in English that his camp was for vulnerable people, which has a legal definition that includes single women and families. He asked if any of them were families and we translated and everyone was pretty confused. Some of them took off further up the road toward Mytilini immediately. He elaborated on the concept of family and demonstrated by taking the hand of one woman and placing it in the hand of one man and making a gesture of welcome. We explained the ruse in French and it caused quite a lot of confusion and everyone kind of scattered up the road. I felt really lucky to have already had a musical bond with all these people because we had this level of trust and when I ran off after them to explain what was going on they were willing to listen. 

A lot of them have quite reasonably given up hope on the justice system which is meant to be protecting them and they felt they might be better off trying their luck with smugglers who could get them to Athens where they would not be held in places like Moria. I honestly don't know enough about the situation there or their legal status as asylum applicants who have arrived after the 20th of March and even though 'smuggler' is a scary word, it is hard to believe that these black market entrepreneurs could do worse than the Greek interior ministry at safeguarding the very basic principle of human dignity. At the same time, they would be stepping outside the horrific legal battle they are meant to be waging for international protection with the hope of re-entering somewhere further down the road. This would either be in Athens with Greek authorities who might not sympathize with the plight of everyone in Moria, or further on in another European country which means finding more smuggler routes through the Balkans or across the Mediterranean and thereby placing their fate  beyond the bounds of law and order once again. This is the dilemma we were all considering on the side of the road at 2am!

In the end, everyone made what seemed to me to be the best choice, which was to accept the exceptional invitation to Kara Tepe where they would sleep 4 to a room instead of 40, where three meals are delivered to their door each day (and even one delicious midnight snack to welcome them), where the toilets are kept in a way that you come out cleaner than you entered, where there are activities for kids, and where people are treated with the respect they deserve while they wade through this arduous process. I wasn't sure how much I liked or trusted the man in charge until he took it upon himself to put his own neck on the line and accept new visitors into his camp in the middle of the night to give them a safe place to weigh their fates and rest their minds. At one point while we were checking everyone into what I affectionately refer to as "Hotel Kara Tepe" somebody used the word refugee and he quipped back: Why do you use this word, my friend? Who decides who is a refugee? Me? You? No, nobody does. Don't trouble your mind with such complicated words. What are these people doing? They are traveling, so they are travelers, and now they are my visitors. As everyone went off to their new temporary homes, I thanked him one more time for his help and he thanked me for helping to take care of his visitors, and I walked away convinced that finally there was one official on the island who really cared about travelers.

Special big thanks to the volunteers I met on the side of the road with my friends in the middle of the night! Like everyone else in this story, I don't want to mention you by name, but I do want the world to know that this late night rescue mission would have been impossible without your dedication to all of our traveling friends we haven't met yet. You are the light!



Freedom Party?

It has been a very busy week since my last update which left me at a cliff-hanger ending, waging a legal battle with papers and pens and basic information about the asylum procedure and charging through the front gates of Moria. Spoiler alert: I still haven't made it into Moria! I tried for a few days, arriving at the front gate relatively proper, sporting a collared shirt and a list of names & contact details of my Morian friends ('clients') that I kept in an old brief case found in the CK team warehouse. I told the guards I was there to provide counseling services to people who had requested them, as is their right under the Asylums Procedures Directive. I brought that directive with me in case there was any confusion. They told me to come back later, to talk to a chief of police who wasn't there, to arrange a meeting with Anthi Karangeli of the interior ministry (the so-called dragon lady who runs Moria) without any information about how to get in touch with her other than come back and talk to the next guard after the shift change. In many ways they told me to go away over and over again.

I went back to the gate with actual lawyers and even one supreme court lawyer from Lesbos and found that the situation at the gate was identical even for non-undercover-musicians. It's crazy. At the legal coordination meeting for advocacy groups working on the island, we heard similar stories, but most frightening was another fact which came to light in our discussion. There is no protocol, no set of procedures which the Greek Asylum Service is following and applying uniformly to everyone in the camp. Even if we could get into the camp to give advice, we don't know what we're preparing people for and the evidence we've seen so far in the form of rejection letters issued on the basis of inadmissability suggests some form of blanket expulsion that does not examine the merits of the cases in question. And so we wait. The pope came and went, everybody was fed for a couple days and the place got cleaned up a bit but now it's degrading back to its previous state of hunger, violence and disorder.

My legal ambitions being somewhat stonewalled, I've gone back to bringing music and company, making daily visits to the fence at Moria and inside another camp up the road called Kara Tepe. Kara Tepe is an open camp, meaning the approximately 1000 people there (mostly women, children, families and generally vulnerable people) can come and go as they please. I have an agreement with the man who runs this camp and refers to its inhabitants as "My People" to be able to go inside with my guitar on the grounds that I don't do anything other than play music and make his "visitors" happy. Stavros is an incredibly intimidating ex-military, ex-sercret service type, always wearing dark sunglasses that complement his apr├Ęs-safari look. Whenever I see him, he is holding court in the shade like a lion. And even though he doesn't ever appear to be doing anything, the toilets are always clean, food gets delivered door-to-door to every house, and the people are generally happy with some sense of independence. The only time I caught him in a moment of weakness was as he was being pummeled with pebbles by a group of laughing children. He took off his glasses and looked me in the eyes and said that somebody needs to run these kids around until they are exhausted.

I still have notebooks and pens and copies of the UNHCR's asylum interview preparation self-help kit tucked away in my guitar case but for the most part, they stay there. The lawyers I've been working with don't have time to follow up with anyone or know what to tell them and I'm afraid of giving people false hope. It's really sad to go over someone's story and tell them that even though ISIS burnt his home and his office to the ground and told his neighbours that they were going to find him and his family wherever they are and kill them all, even though he fears for his life in Turkey because it's so easily accessible to his persecutors, he will probably be sent back there because he failed to properly document his case. In his own words, he's not an economic migrant but a frightened human being seeking shelter. At the moment it feels like that shelter is not mine to give. Stavros told me that only Greek lawyers are welcome at Kara Tepe and that all of the foreign lawyers who want to help the refugees need to go back to their own countries and change the laws so that they can start accepting refugees there. His nationalist rhetoric stood as an affront to the zeitgeist of "No Borders, No Nations" which inspires volunteers to action but is nonetheless a very pragmatic outlet for their goodwill. There are 42000 refugees stranded in Greece and they don't want to be here. The answer was and remains: tear down your fences!

One bit of really great news that is spiraling around the volunteer grapeline is that everyone who has been in Moria for 25 days will be allowed to come and go as of Monday. I have no idea how this is going to happen in practice and nobody inside has received any kind of news about it. I read it on a pretty minor looking news site and can't find it anywhere else, but according to the new director of UNHCR on Lesbos it's true. The down-side and possible counter-rumour is that Kara Tepe is expected to receive an extra 2000 guests and if that happens, I can't imagine the toilets staying clean there (among other problems which would carry over from putting way too many people in a tiny space). Also, the No Borders Kitchen which was home to about 300 Pakistani men got bull-dozed this week and everyone was bused off to Moria. And the Better Days For Moria camp in the olive grove across the street has been completely dismantled, and that would have been a good alternative location. In fact, I really don't know where people are going to be housed if they leave Moria. But focusing on the good news side of things, if and when my friends in Moria are allowed to walk out the front door we're going to the beach and we're all looking forward to it and talking about it as if it's really going to happen. We never mentioned it, but they all arrived on a boat that came through Borderline's abandoned-cheese-factory-turned-welcome-centre on my first day on the island and I know which beach they landed on and how beautiful it is. My biggest wish is to take them back there so they can start their time in Europe over again, preferably with ice cream and a BBQ with non-food-ration-sized portions and no-lineup. I'm not really sure where to take them after the freedom party but these days little victories are worth alot and that would be a really great one.

Undercover Hippy Legal Services (Lesbos Update #3)

It has now been 9 days since we had a boat landing on the north coast and I am busier than ever! Since we haven't been receiving boats, I've been reading a lot about EU asylum procedures, qualifications, and returns in my tent at night and I've been making more trips to Moria with my guitar in the daytime. Some really magical things are coming together.

Last week I met an incredible group of people who fled political violence in their home country. This was on the one day when I left in a hurry without my guitar and one of these new friends told me I needed to come back and bring it with me because everyone where they come from is a singer. We spent most of the next day singing in the shade of an olive tree that straddles the fence line of the detention camp and shared a beautiful musical moment that brought us closer together. In between songs they told me bits and pieces of stories that reflected the very reasons why the international community felt compelled to protect human dignity with legal instruments like the Geneva Convention or the European Convention on Human Rights. And in spite of horrible experiences like kidnapping, torture,  murder, and now this seemingly indefinite detention that none of us understood, we were smiling, laughing, singing, dancing, clapping, tapping and whistling out all the parts we couldn't remember in an olive grove on a Greek island thousands of miles away from home.

The next day I got wind of a couple human rights lawyers coming to the island for the weekend with the intention of talking to asylum applicants about their cases. I tried and failed to put them in touch with my friends on the other side of the fence. But I did manage to pin them down for long enough to grill them about most of the aspects of EU asylum law that might help to clarify what advice we can give to people in Moria and they gave me a lot of homework that helped me understand what on earth is going on there. You will not be surprised to learn that it has a lot to do with the EU-Turkey agreement!

The EU-Turkey agreement declares Turkey to be a first country of asylum for Syrians and a safe third country for everyone else who entered the EU irregularly from there. According to the EU returns directive, Greece can declare asylum claims of applicants to be inadmissable if they come through such a place and it has the right to detain applicants for up to 6 months while it is taking steps toward their expulsion. Because mass deportations are indiscriminate in nature and therefore illegal, Greece is required to give each applicant a personal interview in a language they understand in order to assess the circumstances of their particular case; to give them a chance to review the transcript of this interview and the contents of their submission; and to submit an appeal if they are rejected or only granted subsidiary protection rather than refugee status. For non-Syrians, expulsion is automatically suspended while this process takes place, while Syrians need to ask for this specifically since they are presumed to have already received protection from Turkey. This has important implications for understanding Moria and other Greek detention centres but even more so for the asylum applicants who entered Greece irregularly after the entry-into-force of the EU-Turkey deal.

For the detention centres, it means they are legal as long as they are not found to be violating the European Convention on Human Rights. Given the extremely limited access to the detention facilities and the fact that many of the major NGOs who would normally be inside documenting these violations have pulled out in a political protest to the EU-Turkey deal, it is incredibly likely that these humanitarian concerns will start to be addressed after people start dying or when tensions boil over into chaos.

For the refugees, it means that it's incredibly important for them to understand that the asylum interviews that they are anxiously waiting to be called to are not an opportunity to tell Greek authorities why they think they should be allowed into their country. The interviews are a procedural safeguard in the deportation process that gives them an opportunity to identify exceptional circumstances which are particular to them and which render their impending deportation illegal. It is their chance to prove that Turkey is an unsafe place for them in particular or that, given the good chance of their being sent back to their home country from Turkey, the real and ongoing threat against them there is sufficient to warrant international protection.

Before Moria was turned into a detention centre, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was helping asylum applicants to tell their stories in a way that made sure they would not overlook any important details, but they have also pulled a lot of their services out of Lesbos to protest the EU-Turkey deal. My understanding is that they are present in Moria only as observers now. Today I was told that the advice oneperson got from them was to apply for asylum, which is great advice but not very thorough. In any case, literally none of the detainees who I have spoken to has had a clear idea of why they were imprisoned, how long they would be there or what would happen in their interview. So now I'm really excited to have a day job and it is this undercover hippie legal service that accidentally sprang to life over the course of the last week. Today I gave my nee friends 10 empty notebooks, a bunch of pens and the best legal advice I could muster about how to prepare for their asylum interviews. My boss told me that he would give me 500 more notebooks so we can work a little bit faster! The human rights lawyers from this weekend are coming back this week, so I'm hoping they can follow up with everyone. And now that I'm all fired up about it, I'm pretty dead set on finding a way to walk into Moria through the front door with the permission of the Greek Interior Ministry because it just seems absurd that anyone should object to the distribution of office supplies. I will keep you posted on it how that goes.



Update from Lesbos: My first night off!

Tonight is my first night off since I got to Lesbos so I'm taking advantage of it to give you another update. I've only been here for one week and already we've been nominated for a nobel peace prize and the pope is coming to visit! There is a NATO warship rumbling through the 10km wide channel between this Greek fishing village and the Turkish coast where I can see the lights flickering into the night. I can only imagine how tempting the view must be from the other side. I've spent the last 7 nights watching these lights from various campsites along the rugged northeast coast of the island waiting for boats to land. So far I haven't met any personally but every day is still very exciting here!

Medicins Sans Frontieres gives us 4x4s to drive down winding dirt roads that remind me a lot of the back country in BC. These roads lead to isolated places that were seeing 4 or 5 laindings each night when the traffic peaked. We are there to meet the boats, give first aid and coordinate transportation to an abandoned cheese factory that serves as a makeshift welcome center. There is a bit of a cat and mouse game going on with the local authorities but that's OK. In spite of everything we've heard about increased border security, nobody else is waiting along the coast at night and this brief moment we have to give them tea, dry clothes, medical attention and a crash course on EU asylum procedures is critical.

For the moment, everyone who arrives on Lesbos goes to Moria, which is a terrible place. It has an official capacity of 2200 people but there are currently over 3000 refugees detained there. There is not enough food to go around and there are violent outbreaks every day. I go there most days with my guitar and give out some candy and cigarettes, neither of which are very healthy but it's only a pretext to start a conversation. Through this 3m fence crowned with coils of barb-wire I've made friends from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Congo. I can't feed 3000 people but I can keep some of them company while they wait in the sun, and the strange truth is that we have a lot of fun. The camp is a travesty and an insult to human dignity and even though I'm saddened beyond words at the plight of these people sometimes my stomach hurts from laughing when I'm with them. We make a lot of wise cracks and talk about the crazy world we live in. One of the volunteers on my team has a 2-month old puppy that runs in and out of the camp through a crack in the fence, that's always good fun. These are incredibly normal people caged up like animals. The police bark at them like dogs in a language they don't understand and it's frustrating for everyone. Nobody knows how long they will be there but we all take comfort in the fact that this absurd dystopia can't possibly last forever. These are the most patient people I have ever met.

Two days ago, 139 of these prisoners were deported back to Turkey. I joined volunteers from all around the island at the port in Mytilene to protest this action but the prisoners were loaded onto the boat very early in the morning while I was still on my night-shift. A few hours later we were helping to move the now-evicted No Borders Kitchen just up the road. Some journalists showed up and a crowd of Pakistani men chanted "We want asylum!" for about 15 minutes and with so much passion that one of them passed out. Officially, everyone who left did so voluntarily but I don't think that's true. 13 of them had claimed asylum in Greece and still hadn't been to a tribunal or given a chance to appeal. EU Law and International Law require that all cases are handled individually, so mass deportations are illegal. There is also an important principle in international law called "non-refoulement" which says that victims fleeing from persecution cannot be returned to their persecutors. Since Turkey has sent refugees back to Syria already, sending refugees back to Turkey violates this principle. According to the EU's standard operating procedures for border guards who might come into contact with irregular migrants, claiming asylum isn't actually very difficult. You just have to go to the authorities and tell them you want asylum. Even if you can't speak the language, if there is any indication that a person might be fleeing violence and persecution, the officer who receives them has an active duty to treat them as an asylum case and give them legal assistance in their own language. This means that the EU-Turkey deal that I was so worried about in my last update is proving highly impractical, and the day after the first boat left, Greece "suspended" deportations while they do the paperwork. That's great because it means Europe has more time to make better decisions about where to send people after they get to Greece.

The laws we have to protect refugees are more than adequate and we just need to do a better job of implementing them. There is a big political logjam and lots of very large numbers are getting thrown around but I think bottom-up solutions are even more urgently needed. What's going on in your community to roll out the red carpet for refugees? The message I'm hearing through the fence is just, "Get me out of here!" Everybody on Lesbos is in this sort of bureaucratic limbo right now and the way out is to lay the foundations in Brussels, Ottawa, Lillooet, Matraia, Winnipeg, Geneva, Rolla, London, anywhere really. One of my guiding principles is that if you wait until you are ready you will never get started. When we're picking apples in Keremeos, we say you have to fill the bag and not the bin. If we're asking where we can put 1 million people then we're asking the wrong question because there is no good answer. It would be much easier to start asking how we could go about welcoming people into our communities and then do it over and over again. Raise money, find vacant property, build houses, and let the world know you're ready to receive! That's something anyone can do anywhere to help get these people get out of limbo and out of Moria.

This week, everyone who supported my crowdfunding campaign got a song called "ECHOES". The message in it is that the world we live in is a crazy messed up place and I know it and you know it and you know I know it and I know you know it and I know you know I know it and you know I know you know it and the feeling is palpable!