Refugees Face Violence Along Hungarian Border

My second piece from Serbia looking at the growing alarm at violent tactics used by Hungarian police who catch refugees trying to make it past the country’s razor-wire border fence. You can also read the full story below or on the VOA website here.

It was his eighth failed attempt at getting into the European Union and Tahir claims that, just like half of his previous efforts, it ended in violence.

Tahir, who requested his entire name not be disclosed to protect his identity, is from Pakistan. He is among an estimated few hundred migrants and refugees camped out in scattered locations on the Serbian border with Hungary.

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Unwilling to play the waiting game at the 17 official camps scattered across Serbia, he and others are trying to make their way across the heavily guarded fence.

“We were walking in Hungary for 12 hours, near to a motorway,” he told VOA from his current home, the crumbing remains of what was once a brick factory on the Serbian side of the border.

“But they must have traced us and when they caught us, they gave us a harsh punishment — they beat us,” he said.”

Tahir’s account is impossible to verify, but as Hungary takes ever more strident measures to keep refugees from crossing illegally, concerns are mounting that violent and degrading treatment is increasingly being meted out to those who take their chances.

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Beaten with batons

A volunteer organization named Fresh Response, which provides water, clothing and other necessities to refugees living along the Serbian border, has been collecting testimony from refugees and migrants, who say they experienced mistreatment before being returned to Serbia.

“What we know from reading the testimonies is that phases of abuse include pepper spray into the eyes, dogs being released on people — they’re muzzled, so using their claws — and people being beaten with batons,” Dan Song, of Fresh Response, said.

“In other testimonies people claim they have been forced to remove their clothes and lay down in the snow for 20 or 30 minutes,” Song added.

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He said the alleged violence was not new. After a drop during autumn, incidents of alleged abuse were seen rising again, he added.

Song estimated that refugees and migrants now caught illegally trying to cross the border faced a 50 percent chance of experiencing similar treatment if caught on the Hungarian side of the border.

Other groups have documented such incidents, too, while violence is also thought to be commonplace along the Bulgarian and Croatian border.

report titled Pushed Back at the Door, released last month by nongovernmental organizations from five eastern European EU member states, looked at the methods used to repel migrants and refugees.

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The report claimed legalization last year in Hungary legitimizing “push-backs,” which allow refugees caught within 8 kilometers of the border to be returned to the country they had just left, contravened EU obligations to those seeking protection.

Furthermore, it called the “widespread nature of reports on violence” inflicted on refugees trying to get into Hungry, as well as Bulgaria, a “serious concern.”

Slim chances

Meanwhile, the chances of crossing legally continue to decrease.

There are about 7,500 refugees and migrants in Serbia, and roughly 6,000 places in the country’s official camps.

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Nearly everyone wants to move on to either Croatia or Hungary; as EU nations, the countries are seen as a gateway to western EU countries like Germany.

Yet with the Hungarian border recently reducing the number of refugees and migrants allowed through daily down to 10, many are eschewing a formal process that by some estimates now may take years rather than months — and not even allow them to cross once they have waited.

“There is a lack of trust towards going into camps,” said Andrea Contenta of Medicins San Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders], before adding that many also feared being expelled from Serbia once they had entered camps.

“The whole system is jammed,” Contenta said.

Facing that reality, many take their chances with smugglers or by going it alone into Hungary, where the reception seems ever more hostile.

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Protecting the borders

“If we want Europe to stay the way as we know it, we must protect its outer borders, including the sea borders — with military forces, if needed,” Laszlo Toroczkai, the mayor of Assothalom, a Hungarian village near the border with Serbia that has reportedly sought to ban public practice of the Muslim faith, as well as “homosexual propaganda.”

Hungary completed the erection of a barbed-wire fence separating it from Serbia in September 2015, and, since then, has ramped up efforts to keep refugees and migrants out, including the ongoing effort to recruit 3,000 so-called “border hunters.”

Toroczkai has been one step ahead of his own, strongly anti-refugee government. He set up the village’s five-person patrol team in early 2014, which works alongside national and international authorities patrolling the border.

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But when it comes to charges of disproportionate use of force — something he says he only “hears about from journalists” — Toroczkai is adamant.

Emphasizing that people are crossing illegally, he says force is only used as a response to provocation.

“If one behaves violently and doesn’t obey the police order, doesn’t stop when he’s instructed to, and assaults the police officers, in the U.S. he would probably be shot,” Toroczkai said. “Here in Hungary the worst thing that can happen to him is getting sprayed with tear gas or having dogs set on them.”

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Unprovoked

A former computer sciences student, Tahir claims he did nothing to provoke a beating.

As a relief from the harshness of his surroundings, Tahir scrolls through pictures of his home — Swat, the mountainous Pakistani district once controlled by the Taliban.

After three months living near the border, though, there are only so many times he is willing to endure these conditions, and risk more violence.

“This is not a life I have here. I feel like no one can help us,” Tahir said. “I feel hopeless.”

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Bleak Barracks Hold Lure for Serbia’s Desperate Refugees

My first piece from Serbia, where some migrants and refugees remain in the bleak shell of a former barracks amid freezing conditions in the centre of Belgrade. There are not enough beds in official camps anyway, but speaking to a few people it seemed that hopelessness over the glacial pace of official routes onwards and fears over conditions in camps due to previous experiences (being forced back into other countries, ‘open camps’ turning into detention centres) are contributing to a desire to stay ‘off radar’, no matter how grim that is.

It struck me that nearly every person I met thanked the Serbians for being good to them – which seemed to be based on the fact that the Serbian police didn’t beat them up, and the public showed them some kindness. The video and story can be seen below or viewed in their original form here. 

There is sunshine outside, but in Belgrade’s crumbling barracks, the darkness is broken only by the dim flicker of fires, around which huddle groups of refugees desperate to leave Serbia.

Many have left this smoke-filled, decrepit shell in recent weeks and gone to an official camp specifically opened to accommodate them.

However, of the hundreds of refugees who have chosen to remain, some calculate that the poor conditions are worth enduring.

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“This is a very difficult life, a very dirty life,” explained 16-year-old Afghan Said Abid, who fled his home seven months ago because of threats from the Taliban against his family.

“I’ve never seen this kind of place before. It’s a place for animals, and now I am sleeping here,” he said.

Conditions are grim, and rats can be heard rustling amid piles of rubbish, while temperatures plunge to sub-zero as night approaches.

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Last month, the building was filled with acrid, poisonous smoke from the burning of treated railway timbers as people fought to keep warm amid heavy snowfall.

The situation drew the attention of international media, and prompted the opening of a camp a month ago specifically created for those living in the barracks.

Humanitarian gesture

“Our goal was to move them away, and to accommodate them into some official asylum centers,” explained Ivan Miskovic, who works for the government’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. He called the move a “humanitarian gesture.”

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The latest camp, one of 17 in Serbia, was opened with a focus on taking in the largely male population around the barracks.

Reports from the camp are mixed. There are unverified claims of a refugee being assaulted by a staff member, something the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration said it had not received reports about.

Others praised the facility. Among satisfied residents are 18-year-old Pakistani Qaisar Ahmed, who told VOA, “… at the camp there’s new beds, new blankets, and they provide us food. It’s very good and I feel better there.”

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Staying off-radar

A clean bed and blankets are exactly what Abdul akbar Safi, an Afghan who once worked for NATO and now lives in the barracks, would like.

For some, access to the camps is a question of numbers. There are about 6,000 spaces in official camps for the 7,500-plus refugees in the country.

For others, though, staying away is a matter of choice. Like many sleeping in rough conditions and remaining off-radar across Serbia, Safi’s decision to remain in the barracks is driven by the desire to find his way into the European Union. He feels that is hindered, not helped, by engaging with the state and following official procedures.

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Safi is effusive in his praise for his treatment in Serbia, but his experience of crossing through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria has left him with a deep mistrust of official camps.

“You cannot imagine life here,” he said, “but I don’t go to the camp as maybe one day the camp will be closed.”

Rumors of camps suddenly becoming “closed” before refugees are deported back to the countries they passed through to get to Serbia are common, though unverified, and they are vigorously denied by the commissariat’s Miskovic.

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Unwilling to wait

Safi also figures the barracks are his best shot at connecting with smugglers and making it into EU member Hungary, which he sees as a gateway into western Europe.

He has made three attempts, and claims one friend has tried and failed 29 times.

Safi has given up on the official procedure passing legally onward, which includes waiting to move up an official waiting list likely to favor families and the most vulnerable.

 

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The number of refugees has grown since Croatia closed its border and neighboring Hungary tightened its border, only allowing about 10 refugees daily to cross.

According to Nuno Felicia, who works in the barracks with volunteer group Holes in the Borders, many refugees “have their bags prepared at any time” to leave.

“They want to go to the border, and be free at any time if a smuggler calls them to cross the border,” he added.

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Never giving up

Soon refugees may not have the choice of whether to endure the barracks’ miserable conditions while they prepare to move on.

The threat of the barracks’ demolition remains, as they stand on ground set to be part of the Belgrade Waterfront project, a major luxury development.

But Safi claims he wants to keep out of the camps.

“Maybe I will find somewhere near this place, maybe I will live in a park. One day, when I am lucky, I will cross the border,” he added.

“I will never give up.”

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Lure of Sex Trade Highlights Plight of Young Refugees in Greece

While in Europe many rightly condemn Trump’s immigration ban , unfortunately on our own doorstep EU policies are fuelling misery for many refugees too. My latest looks at unaccompanied youngsters becoming entangled in the sex trade in Greece – a place described as a ‘warehouse of souls’ for refugees. You can read on, or see the piece in its original form here. 

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Victoria Square in Athens, a well known place where young men and boys prostitute themselves

‘I’m like your uncle,’ the old man reassured brothers Ali, 17, and Ahmad, 16, before pressing a 20 euro note into Ahmad’s palm.

The boys had only just arrived in the Greek capital of Athens, having fled Afghanistan and their father’s murderers, the Taliban, but they had not fully escaped danger.

The second time they met the man, a week later, he had company – and the brothers narrowly escaped abduction.

In Greece, reports of young, unaccompanied refugees and migrants being lured into prostitution are on the rise.

These reports are symptomatic of a broader failing as unaccompanied minors continue to fall through gaps in the Greek asylum process.

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No family, no money

Ali and Ahmad arrived in a central part of Athens called Victoria Square, a well-known meeting point for refugees.

Like thousands of others who had undertaken grueling journeys without adult accompaniment to reach Europe, they found themselves in a strange city with no help and little idea of what to do next.

“We went to Victoria because we didn’t know where else to go and we thought someone could help us,” said Ali.

“At first we thought this man was very kind.”

He wasn’t. The second encounter – a demand for the money to be repaid, followed by a failed attempt to snatch the youngsters – is typical of the tactics used to induce vulnerable young refugees into the sex trade, said social worker Tassos Smetopoulos.

Since around 60,000 refugees and migrants became trapped in Greece by the closure of borders last spring, Victoria Square and nearby Pedion tou Areos park have become known as places where young men and teenage boys sell themselves for sex to make money.

“There was prostitution among migrant men [in the area] before the refugee crisis,” explained Smetopoulos, “but with the refugee crisis they have got younger and increased in numbers.”

Clients – often elderly Greek men – will offer a small payment and sometimes a place to stay and shower to boys as young as 15.

Increasingly desperate for money and keen to escape Greece, some are venturing into this world alone. Others, said Smetopoulos, are being entrapped.

“I see them, men and boys” explained 18-year-old Muhammed Ansari, an Afghan who was waiting for friends at Victoria Square.

“They have come to me and I’ve said no. But the boys have no family, and no money.”

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Going ‘off radar’

Despite an identification process that is supposed to occur upon arrival in Greece, some unaccompanied minors are failing to be identified and protected.

Others have chosen to remain “off-radar” in the hope it will help their efforts to move on elsewhere in Europe – a journey made illegal by border closures, save for a formal process of relocation that has sped up in recent months but remains painfully slow.

The broader problem was highlighted last year when Europol – the EU’s criminal intelligence agency – estimated that 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees had ‘disappeared’ since arriving in Europe.

“Some, especially young boys, are fragile and open to suggestion,” said the Salvation Army’s Maria Konti-Galinou, who works extensively with refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation around central Athens.

“They want to raise some money to reach the countries where their families are,” added Galinou, who explained that a small number of refugee women were also becoming entrapped in the nearby red light district.

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Tassos Smetopoulos

“It’s like someone is dying and you’ll get the vultures coming out.”

According to figures from the U.N. agency assisting refugees, of 2,300 unaccompanied minors in Greece only 1,300 are being provided with ‘shelter or adequate accommodation’.

Unlike others, brothers Ali and Ahmad now have a safe place to stay.

They fled from the gang to the offices of Praksis, an NGO that provides accommodation tailored towards unaccompanied minors.

Praksis did not comment specifically on Ali and Ahmad’s incident, but in an email to VOA it stated that for some men and unaccompanied minors living outside shelters due to a lack of beds “things have already escalated to a level that sex working or survival sex has become their everyday life.”

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Estimates unavailable

Despite its severity, the scale of the problem remains ill-defined.

While acknowledging the issue, Praksis stated that even “estimates regarding this vulnerable population are not available.”

A spokesman for the Greek government stated that the police were collaborating with NGOs and partner organizations and receiving specialist training to help address the trafficking and sexual exploitation of vulnerable minors.

The spokesman added that, as of the end of December, police had received no reports of such cases of recruitment “aiming at sexual exploitation” of minors.

Yet having seen the trade himself from his cafe overlooking Victoria Square, Vasilis Kakomanolis questioned efforts to address the problem.

“If everyone here knows about this, then surely the police do?” he asked, rhetorically.

Following their ordeal, Ali and Ahmad now try to avoid Victoria Square for fear of bumping into the men who tried to abduct them. One day, Ali hopes, he will emulate his father and become a dentist.

But as Afghan boys in Europe, a place ever less welcoming to even the most vulnerable refugees, their future remains opaque.

For Smetopoulos, it is not just the authorities and NGOs in Greece that are falling short, it is the international community as a whole.

“These vulnerable boys need to be given a chance,” he said. “You need to treat children as children.”

Note: The names of Ali and Ahmad have been changed to protect their identity.

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Portraits

Currently taking a break from work, but to keep the site fresh I’ve updated my photography section with a new collection of portraits. You can see them below.

Trapped on The Greek Islands

In recent weeks I travelled around the Greek islands, which in the wake of the EU-Turkey deal have become a prison for thousands of refugees kept waiting for months to see if they will be deported back to Turkey. Well over-capacity, some of the camps on these islands have seen frustration boil over into conflict. To learn more, you can read my work here or here, and included below are some of my shots from that journey.

The Greek village that refuses to hate refugees

Having worked in Chios, where tensions were high between locals and the refugee population, I went to Skala Sikamineas in Lesvos. A small fishing village just a few kilometres from Turkey, it has seen thousands of refugees arrive on its shores. But despite concerns over the impact on tourism, the community here continues to offer shelter and support for those who have risked their lives to reach Europe. Here’s my piece on them, and their feelings on the political conflict that could determine if thousands more will once again be making the journey from Turkey to Greece. You can also see the original piece here.  

Looking out across the narrow slither of the Aegean Sea that separates the small Greek village of Skala Sikamineas from the Turkish mainland, all appears calm.

Previously crowded with the dinghies of refugees and the speedboats of their smugglers, the number of those braving the crossing has eased from a torrent to a trickle during 2016.

The tranquility is uncertain, however, in the wake of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to allow refugees to make the crossing. Dinghies are reportedly being amassed along parts of the Turkish coast.

Yet in this small fishing community perched on the north coast of Lesvos, one of the first that would feel the impact of any new surge, the compassion for those arriving on their shores remains undimmed.

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Only thing to do

At its peak last year, the stream of refugees reached 88 boats in one day, Stratos Valiamos recalled, each making the 5 mile journey from Turkey, and each packed with dozens of people.

Often forgoing the catches they needed to feed their families, fishermen here spent their working hours assisting in efforts to rescue those who put their faith in the smugglers, only to be packed into overcrowded, unreliable dinghies.

“They were asking for help,” Valiamos said, “some boats had holes, in others the engines didn’t work. We were finding people who were swimming in order to reach us.”

Meanwhile on the shore, villagers took in families, shaken from their crossing and uncertain of what was to come next.

“The only thing you do is help,” added Valiamos, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize and whose attitude is typical of many in Skala Sikamineas.

“And if it happens again, we will do the same,” he said.

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Refugee deal on shaky ground

Valiamos and many others in his community now have time to return to their lives — according to the UN’s refugees agency, last month an average of 66 people arrived daily across the whole of Lesvos, compared with 12,500 daily in August 2015.

But that may change in the wake of the growing political gulf between the European Union (EU) and Turkey.

Made in March, the EU-Turkey agreement included a plan to send “new irregular migrants” who had just arrived in Greece back to Turkey and prompted a crackdown by Turkish authorities on those attempting the journey.

But the agreement is now on shaky ground as the two sides clash over Ankara’s potential EU membership.

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With Europe critical of the political clampdown in Turkey following a July coup attempt, Erdogan recently threatened that “the border gates will be opened.” His country is home to more than 2.7 million refugees.

It is threat being taken very seriously by Richard Heard, who is part of Refugee Rescue, a volunteer lifeboat rescue crew stationed in Skala Sikamineas, which is now on high alert.

“I feel if he want to stop the smuggling trade, he can; and I feel if he wants to open it up and send thousands, well that’s well within his power,” Heard said.

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Tourism suffered

Villagers who have helped refugees for much longer than a decade are now waiting to see how the current political struggle will play out, aware that they will feel the impact.

In the wake of last year’s refugee crisis, Lesvos’ crucial tourism industry has been badly hit, and Skala Sikamineas is no exception.

In the past, Georgios Gigintis has been hassled by the police for driving refugees to the nearest town, but as a hotel owner, he is worried about large numbers of new arrivals.

He says that even though the number of refugees was far lower than before, bookings over this summer were down 90 to 95 percent.

“I don’t know what could happen tomorrow — we’re between our government and the Turkish government,” he said.

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Same theater

Yet while some nearby towns have started shunning refugees and the volunteers that help them — there have been several small protests when refugees are brought on shore — those in Skala Sikamineas refuse to tread this path.

“Before there were no volunteers, there were no rescue teams, there were just fishermen and local people helping in the shore, on the sea, and dealing with situation alone, and they will continue to,” said Andrea Montenegro of Lighthouse Relief, another organization based in the village.

“We’re here because they want us to be,” she said.

Despite his fears, Gigintis refuses to blame the refugees themselves.

“I think it is in our nature to help, because of our own history,” he said, referring to the mass movement of Pontian and Anatolian Greeks amid persecution in the early 20th century in what is modern-day Turkey — an event commemorated by the Greek government as genocide.

“We now have the same theater, but with different actors,” he said.

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Pawns in a game

Hostility, it seems, is only reserved for the politicians themselves.

Numerous residents who spoke to VOA referred to what they called “the game,” and the sense that the political classes had no concern for either the refugees’ welfare or that of the town.

And whether the boats gathered on the shores across the water from their 145-person strong community launch, and fresh thousands arrive, it is a fate they seem resigned to.

Unable to change their situation, they have chosen to react to it with compassion.

“They are playing games with these people,” said Valiamos of situation faced by refugees, “and me as well, I am regarded as their pawn.”

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Tensions spiral on Greece’s refugee outpost

I am now on the Greek island of Chios, which is just 5 miles from Turkey and on the frontline of Europe’s efforts to stop refugee arrivals. It is, as one person I spoke to put it, a place ‘sacrificed’ for EU policy, and amid fears of escalating violence it’s hard to see how the situation will improve. You can read the piece below or see it in its original form here

Transformed into a holding pen by the European Union, tensions are escalating on the Greek island of Chios as both residents and refugees pay a heavy price.

Just over a week ago, brewing frustrations culminated in clashes breaking out in Souda refugee camp, which is home to about 800 people.

For two nights running, huge rocks and – some claim – molotov cocktails were thrown from the ancient walls of a castle onto refugees in the tents below, while a small number of Greeks and some residents of the camp clashed.

And with some still too fearful to sleep in the camp, which is in the island’s main town, there are now concerns that more violence could follow.

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Always ready

“Now my bags, my money and my passport are always ready with me,” said Mohammed Al Jassem, who fled Syria and arrived in the camp eight months ago.

“The fascists could come at any time. At any time you could have a big problem,” he said, referring to the widespread belief that neo-fascist Greek political party Golden Dawn, which had a meeting on the island in the days meeting up to the clashes, was involved.

Jassem recalled rocks thudding onto paths and into tents near him as terrified families and children fled for their lives in the darkness of night.

He is desperate to move from the island to Europe, but cannot. Like the others here, he arrived too late.

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Stemming the tide

Up till mid-March, more than 100,000 refugees had washed up in flimsy dinghies on Chios’ shores before quickly moving on to mainland Greece and into the rest of Europe.

However, on March 20 the EU-Turkey deal came into effect. It stemmed the number of refugees arriving in Europe and prevented people from moving on from the Greek islands until a decision was made about their asylum status.

Last Thursday, more violence broke out on Moria detention camp in Lesvos, another one of the islands affected, after a woman and her grandchild died in a gas stove explosion.

Though increasingly fragile, for now the deal still holds, and with the asylum process unable to keep up and people unable to move on, Chios and all the other Greek islands have become stretched well beyond capacity.

The consequences are becoming all too evident.

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Souring relations

Since then, relations have gradually soured in Chios both within the camp and between the refugees and Greeks living on the island.

In Souda camp, alongside Syrians can be found many other nationalities – many of whom feel cheated by procedures and have no idea when, or if, they will be able to leave the island to continue on to mainland Greece.

Shortly after the deal, hundreds of refugees broke out of a detention center on the island, and in June in Souda tents belonging to humanitarian agencies burnt down amid protests in the camp.

“Refugees feel the process is discriminatory and unpredictable, and this generates a lot of tension among the refugee community,” explained the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Sebastien Daridan.

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Layers of frustration

Those living in Chios were quick to help refugees even before NGOs arrived on the island, and many remain sympathetic.

But as petty crime has risen, so the island’s vital tourism economy has taken a hit, and patience is wearing thin.

Daridan said that both refugees and the islanders are victims, with Chios effectively “sacrificed” for the deal.

“You have, due to the asylum process, a situation which is unpredictable and explosive, meaning there are so many layers of frustration that anything can lead to any incident,” he said.

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Dearth of trust

In response, humanitarian workers on the ground told VOA that more needs to be done to improve integration between refugees and the local population if such attacks are to be avoided in the future.

But fractured relationships extend well beyond the island. Last week Greece’s minister for migration criticized local authorities on Chios for not approving the creation of another camp.

It was an accusation rejected by the deputy mayor George Karamanis, who said their trust, and that of the public, had been eroded amid a dearth of information and support from the state.

“They’ve decided the island is going to play an important role in stopping flows [of refugees],” he told VOA, “but the islands are not supported enough in order to play this role.”

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Risk remains

All agree that something needs to change to avoid a repeat of what happened in Souda, and small tweaks have been made in the aftermath – the police, though they are widely distrusted by the refugees, have apparently stepped up patrols around the site.

But as long as islands like Chios remain under-resourced and overcapacity, with both camp residents and islanders deprived of information, the risk remains.

Niko, from Ghana, now sleeps in his brother ‘s tent. His own home of eight months was burnt down during the attacks.

“People are being kept on this island and being treated like animals,” he said. “But it’s like a dog – the more you cage it, the more it becomes wild.”

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Century-Old Refugee tale links Syrian family to Greek host

I’m back in Greece, where more than 50,000 people remain trapped because of the closure of the Balkan route.  Greece is in a situation not of its own making, but while the government’s response is at times questionable, the following piece is just one example of the kindness shown by many of its people – a reminder, in this instance, that the refugee experience is one deeply embedded in European history, too. Read the full piece below or see it in its original form here

As he tends to the flowers outside his home, a strangers’ home, Ammar Othman is reminded of the small garden he cultivated back in Syria, before he and his family fled the war.

“We used to have jasmine, and I love to smell it as I walk through Athens”, he says, smiling at the thought of his old house in al-Bab, Aleppo province, now occupied by Islamic State.

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After months spent in Greek refugee camps, Ammar, his wife Naheed, and their three children finally have a space to call their own, an apartment given to them by someone they had never met before.

The story of how they got there begins just less than a century ago.

Before Izmir

The Othmans live rent-free in a house nestled down a leafy road in suburban Athens, two floors below 38-year-old Adonis Tsangouris, whose family owns the building.

Like many people, when Tsangouris saw video of people risking their lives on flimsy boats to make it to Greece he was deeply moved. But for the 38-year-old their journey resonated with his own family history.

In 1922, his grandparents fled to Athens from their home in Smyrna on the coast of Turkey after being persecuted by Turkish forces that had regained control of the city from the Greek army, an event that formed part of a wider persecution of Greeks that is now annually commemorated in Greece as a genocide.

Today, what was Smyrna is now called Izmir, a point of departure for refugees, including the Othmans, hoping to find a way into Europe.

Tsangouris, who has also opened up the fourth floor of the building to an Iraqi family, recounted the songs his grandmother used to sing to him as a child.

“I only remember one line, ‘and the boat rolled alone into the deep water,’” he said. “As I was looking at these boats my grandma’s lyrics came to my mind,” he explained, adding his family wanted to offer the apartments in memory of his grandparents.

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Home for hope

It is not just the Tsangouris family who have decided to help.

Under a plan named Home for Hope, since April around 600 refugees have, like the Othmans, been donated an apartment to live in or are sharing a home with Greek hosts.

It is part of a broader effort to offer better living conditions to some of the 50,000-plus refugees stuck in Greece and unable to leave the country since the closure of land borders this spring.

Most of them are residing in state run camps of hugely varying quality, and some continue to live in tents.

“This is about offering more human and decent living conditions,” explained Sophia Ioannou of Solidarity Now, the organization behind Home for Hope.

The plan sought to try to make the best of Greece’s dire economic situation, which had driven Greeks from renting to living with their parents, leaving empty apartments, she said.

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Getting along well

The Othmans are deeply appreciative of their host’s gesture, and the home that they moved into two months ago.

“The first thing I felt when I got here is relief,” Ammar explains.

“It is knowing that your family will be comfortable in a home, that we will be able to live independently, he says.

“That my children will suffer no more illness or have to worry about insects.”

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Past, present and future

Yet while the present may be more secure, the past and the future remain a source of tension.

Ammar’s wife Naheed is upset, some of her family remain in their home town in Syria, and a fresh eruption in clashes has left her anxious for their safety.

Meanwhile, like the others benefiting from Home for Hope, the family must wait to hear if they can be resettled elsewhere in Europe.

Such is the state of limbo experienced by all those trapped within Greece by events well beyond their control, some of whom are likely to stay in the country not just for months, but years.

Home for Hope, a pilot project, is likely to be replaced by a new approach next year, explained Solidarity Now’s Ioannou.

“We need to think bigger” she said of those aiding refugees, before calling on the state to do more.

“The next step is to think longer term and create more projects that will integrate people into our societies. This population is now part of our reality.”

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A better future

Yet despite the uncertainty ahead, speaking in the garden that reminds him of a life that was destroyed by war, Ammar is heartened.

He and his wife still believe a better future is possible for their two young daughters, and their four-month-old son Omar.

“We risked our lives and traveled over sea so that our future will be better,” he said, “and it will be, God willing.”

The Only Bike Couriers Braving Beirut

For my latest piece, I had the pleasure of following (or struggling to follow) those behind Lebanon’s only bike courier service. In a country where the driving ranges from erratic to downright suicidal, and as someone who has drawn strange look  for cycling in Beirut, I applaud their efforts.  At times somewhat exhausting, it was also great fun. Even if you can’t understand the interviews, I hope you enjoy it…

Blood, faith and politics as Shia muslims mark Ashura in Lebanon’s Nabatieh

This is the second time I have covered Ashura, a holy day on the Shia muslim calendar marking the death of Imam Hussein in 680AD. However, whereas before I was in the southern suburbs of Beirut, this time I went to Nabatieh, a town in south Lebanon. Here, the practice of tatbir – the controversial act of blood letting – is far more prevalent. Anyway, the full piece can be read below or in its original form here. 

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As streams of blood trickled down the streets of the southern Lebanese town of Nabatieh, Shi’ite muslims commemorating the holy day of Ashura gathered to reflect on the roots of their faith.

Across the world, millions of Shi’ites on Wednesday honoured the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, whose death in battle in 680 marked a schism in Islam that has persisted to this day.

Likewise, believers across Lebanon took to the streets, dressed in black as a sign of mourning.

Numbers were highest in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where entire neighborhoods became a backdrop to the occasion and roads across the southern part of the city were closed down.

In Nabatieh, however, thanks to a ritual of bloodletting largely shunned elsewhere, the scene was very different.

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A precious thing

Showing telltale scars, Ali Saeed, 35, explained the practice of tatbir, in which participants strike themselves over the forehead with a knife.

“Blood is a precious thing to a human being, but it must leave our bodies in protest against those who hate the justice of God,” he said.

He spoke from the courtyard of a mosque in the center of Nabatieh, where groups of men mingled with young boys participating in a ritual that is unusual in Lebanon and remains a practice undertaken only by a small minority of Shi’ite elsewhere in the world.

Beyond them, others marched in processions performing the same ritual, while medical teams waited to stanch wounds and assist the few who had fainted.

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Tatbir is disputed among Shi’ite clerics and disapproved of by Hezbollah, the Iran-backed group with strong political and military clout within Lebanon.

The ritual, however, persists in Nabatieh, often among followers of the Amal Movement, another Shi’ite political group within the country.

Saeed was careful to state that, despite the act of self-harm, for him Ashura was about opposing violence and injustice in the world.

“Why does brother kill brother?” he asked.

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Even in Nabatieh, not everybody approves.

“These are just a small minority of people, and we are not with them,” Ali Diab, 24, said of those who engage in tatbir, adding it “gives a bad image” of Shi’ite Islam to the rest of the world.

Despite disagreements about how best to mark Ashura, many spoke in unity about the contemporary resonance of the day in a country where religious division is all too present.

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A target for attacks

Security is tight around commemorations within Nabatieh, as it is in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon.

Ashura marks the death of Hussein in the battle of Karbala after his refusal to pledge allegiance to Caliph Yezid — a dispute that helped cleave a divide between Sunnis, who are thought to make up about 85 percent of the world’s Muslims, and Shi’ites.

At least 14 people were killed Tuesday after an attack on those gathering at a Shi’ite shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan, the latest in a long line of attacks on those marking the day.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State group — which labels Shi’ites apostates and targets them — remains a threatening force in neighboring Syria.

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In a second rare public appearance in Beirut over consecutive days, as part of a wide-ranging speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said his group would continue to intervene militarily in Syria in support of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, something it has done since 2013.

It is a move that has polarized the nation but enjoys strong support among many in Lebanon’s Shi’ites community.

“Even now, history is coming back,” said Diab, drawing parallels between the killing of Hussein and the violence inflicted on Shi’ites Muslims and others by Islamic State. “In Syria, they are killing people in a bad way, and we are against terrorists.”

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Internal power

Although blood, often accompanied by the chant of “Haidar, Haidar” — a term referring to the nickname of Hussein’s father, Ali — is impossible to miss in Nabatieh, the town’s commemoration shares rituals more commonly seen elsewhere during Ashura.

Families gather as eulogies are recited and the battle of Karbala is re-enacted with elaborate costumes and riders on horseback.

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Meanwhile, free food and drinks are handed out to those present.

For Ahmad Jammoum, 23, the day was one not just of sadness, but of pride and unity for Shi’ites Muslims across the world.

“If it was not for Imam Hussein, Shi’ites would not exist,” Jammoum told VOA.

“We continue to face oppression around the world, but he gave us an internal power,” he said, adding, “It means everything to us to be here today.”

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