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!