Freedom Party Unveiled

It's been 2 weeks since the riots in Moria and as usual everything has changed completely since my last update.

The First Reception Service inside Moria has started handing out papers to people who have been there for 25 days that allow them to move freely on the island of Lesvos. It sounds like great news! I was waiting for two hours at the front gate of Moria to meet with the chief of police the day that they started handing the papers out (he never came). It was really uplifting to watch people approach the open door with their papers in hand, look around suspiciously, take the first step outside Moria and then breathe a huge sigh of relief, or shout cries of joy, or wave their arms around and SMILE. I felt really really lucky to watch that happen. I had heard that these papers were going to start getting distributed soon and had been telling a lot of people about them because I think it gave them something to look forward to. The next day my pals called in the morning saying they were getting their papers at that very moment and that I needed to get there NOW. I spent all of my money on snacks and beer and we went to the beach and did this:
It was awesome.

We also snapped some pictures of the "freedom papers" and sent them to a Greek friend to be translated. It turns out that the papers we had been looking forward to and then celebrating are deportation notices. Well, there are two papers: one is a deportation notice and the second one says the deportation notice is temporarily suspended pending the outcome of the asylum interview. The nature of these papers is more than just a legal curiosity: it draws attention to the fact that the purpose of Moria is to deport people. I want so much for everyone's cases to be treated fairly that I often forget about this. Lately I have had a very hard time encouraging people to be patient and respect a legal process that is so clearly biased against their better interests. My friends call me after they have found alternative ways of getting to Athens and I'm happy for them because they aren't here. On the beach last week we weren't celebrating the contents of the paper so much as the fact that they can now leave Moria whenever they want. This has exciting implications for the nature of my work on the island but first I think it's important to elaborate on how these papers fit into the grander scheme of things.

A couple days ago I read the European Commission's first report on the progress of the EU-Turkey Statement and it helped to put the deportation notices into perspective. The report was hailing the success of declaration because it basically put an end to new arrivals on Lesvos and talked about the increasing capacity for processing and rejecting applications. It was a really important reminder there is a race going on right now. There are only 6 or 7 Greek lawyers working on cases inside Moria and helping to file appeals of decisions that are being handed out at an increasing rate. By the end of the month various bar associations across Europe will have mobilized lawyers and funds in order to come here and represent asylum seekers. In the meantime an ad-hoc legal coordination network works to make sure that when cases are declared inadmissible a lawyer can help them file an appeal.

At the moment, most of the decisions being handed out are inadmissibility decisions for Syrians who are presumed to enjoy greater protection and acceptance in Turkish society. The admissibility interview determines whether an asylum claim can be heard in Greece or whether the applicant has had the opportunity to apply for and receive protection in the place where they came from. The time frame to appeal this decision is 5 calendar days, which is very tight. For example: on Thursday before Greek Easter two girls with no connection to Turkey, unaccompanied minors, had their asylum applications declared inadmissible by the European Asylum Services Office which normally should be making recommendations to the Greek Asylum Services Office who makes the final decision. Not only is this a deviation from protocol, it is a flagrant violation of the rights of two people who fall under several different categories of "vulnerable people" who cannot be pushed back under international law, and it happened in such a way that because of where the holidays fell in the middle of their appeal deadline they actually only had one day to file an appeal.

If appeals are not filed on time then deportation is imminent. When people are returned to Turkey they will not be receiving a pat on the back for giving European asylum the old college try. Without sensationalizing, I can tell you that this week or next you will probably read an article about a minor who was sent back to Turkey, detained without any access to a lawyer for 7 days and beaten repeatedly until he agreed to sign papers authorizing his return to the country he originally fled from. That story is already written and it will break as soon as the person gets to a safe place and agrees to release it. What is happening right now is insane and I feel like the only reason it is allowed to continue is because the truth is unthinkable.

In Moria, the banality of every day life drives people to demand to be heard. But at the moment it simply isn't true that getting called to an interview could bring asylum seekers one step closer to justice and coveted protection status. As long as the EU-Turkey deal is in place, the admissibility interviews which precede the asylum interviews (where applicants actually have a chance to present the substantive evidence in their case) are the next step in a process which is designed to fail them. I don't describe it like that when I'm talking to people because I think my job here is to bring music and hope. So right now I am working on a scheme to get people further away from Moria and take pressure off the Greek authorities. The deportation notices have a line at the end saying that their holders are allowed to be domiciled anywhere on Lesbos and all of my attention & intentions are being directed towards that. I'm leading an initiative with some other volunteers to find an abandoned or soon-to-be abandoned hotel that we can take over and fill with asylum seekers. Progress is slow, but I can feel the wheels turning over. "Moke moke" as they say in Lingala: little by little. That's how we're getting there!

More to come on that project very soon! For now, here's a little link for my crowdfunding site which is still active and I've managed to last 6 weeks without mentioning it ;) I'm going back to Belgium for one week at the end of the month on musical business and then in the beginning of June I'll be coming back to Lesbos to keep working on what I've started here. This was a really easy decision to make! When I left I thought I was going to stay for a month and then I started talking with my friends in Moria about the party we were going to have when they got out and I decided I couldn't go until that happened. It actually happened about a month after I got here and by the time it did happen I felt so involved with their story that I really couldn't imagine bailing out just as it was getting started. So now we're going to find a house and I'll do my best to stay on as their friend, chauffeur, legal advisor, entertainer, counselor, landlord and brother-in-arms until we all get thrown off this island. Please share the crowdfunding link and donate if you haven't already (THANK YOU if you have, thank you if you haven't). The sun is up now and I'm off to do the same thing I do every day: try to take over Moria!!!

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.