Lesbos Villa Called Freedom Where Migrants Wait In Search Of Haven

Lesbos villa called Freedom where migrants wait in search for haven

The Times (London), February 13, 2010

Aziz did not pause to admire the view. Nobody does on Skala Sykaminias beach even though the view across the strait to Turkey is spectacular; on a typical pellucid day you can see the sunlight bounce off the minarets.

This stretch of rocky Greek sand is the new bridgehead into the European Union for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants a year. Many of them, like Aziz, are children from Afghanistan. They arrive wet and shoeless, having been passed from smuggler to smuggler, and they already know that it does not do to dawdle on Lesbos.

The beach is scattered with the flotsam and jetsam of a million-euro criminal enterprise: punctured dinghies weighed down with stones, abandoned life vests, nappies and baby-care products discarded in the rush to move deeper into the island and the European Union before they can be caught and expelled.

Lesbos and the neighbouring east Aegean island of Samos have become the favoured destination of people-traffickers. The other sea routes into the EU have become less significant. Tighter patrolling has cut down numbers on the West African route, where corpses used to wash up on the Canary Islands; North African smugglers targeting Spain, Gibraltar and Italy have become more cautious. For Afghans these routes were, in any case, the long way round.

'The only sensible route for an Afghan refugee,' said Greg Kavarnos, the chief social worker in a team of 30 interpreters, doctors, lawyers and teachers looking after Afghan children on Lesbos, 'is through Iran and into Turkey and then over the strait to Greece.'

At its narrowest point, barely 6km (3.7 miles) separates Turkey from Greece. Yet there is nothing simple about the journey.

Like many of the Afghans at the islands old tuberculosis sanatorium, Aziz, 17, is a hazara from a minority Shia Muslim community. With broad, open features, the hazaras look different from Afghan pashtuns and are often bullied and treated as inferior, at best a servant class.

Azizs family fled to Iran when he was 1. He worked in the family bicycle shop after he was forced to leave school. His brother had cerebral palsy and so his father decided to send Aziz to the West in the hope that he would earn enough to pay the medical bills. A smuggler was found to take him from Tehran to Istanbul for 1,000.

Mr Kavarnos shows the route on a set of maps pinned to his office door. The Afghan children in the centre, aged from 9 to 18, often come to stare at the maps to understand how far they have come and how far they have yet to travel. It is this that fascinates them, not Azizs tale. His story is theirs. They prefer to go outside to play football.

Some of the children at the Villa Azadi (Azadi being the Farsi word for freedom) started their journey from Herat in western Afghanistan. After the smugglers took them to Iran they followed the same route taken by Aziz.

The old smugglers routes are used for heroin as well as people: car from Tehran to Qsim; a pause in a safehouse; car to Urumia; a week undercover to wait for other refugees to join the group and make the crossing profitable; then by foot over the frontier to the Turkish town of Gowar; onwards to Van; Dubyazidn and a bus to Istanbul.

'The smugglers run a kind of prison there,' Mr Kavarnos said. 'They keep the Afghans there until they get another $1,500 (960) for the trip to Greece. If the families dont fork up the refugees are put to work in a clothes sewing factory until they have earned not only their keep, but also the cash needed for the trip.'

One of the rooms in Villa Azadi has become a sewing centre to make use of the skills that they were forced to learn by Turkish gangs. Old clothes donated by the people of Lesbos are converted into cloth bags, which are sold to tourists.

Azizs family found the extra money and he was taken to Skala Sykaminias beach in a dinghy with an outboard motor. It was not pleasant but he was later to find that he had been lucky: refugees who pay less find themselves paddling to Greece and become easy prey for the coast guard services of Greece and Turkey.

The refugee rights group Pro Asyl has interviewed Afghan children and adults who found themselves circled by Greek coast guard vessels, forcing their dinghy to capsize. They were taken on board, searched, and then put out to sea again after their dinghy had been punctured with a knife and the paddles confiscated.

In some cases, the Pro Asyl foundation said, the dinghy with the refugees using their shoes as paddles was nudged back into Turkish waters. The head of the Lesbos coast guard, Antonis Sofiadelis, denied that his men had been endangering refugees. 'On the contrary,' Mr Sofiadelis, 40, said. 'We have been saving people the boats are overcrowded, the water at this time of year, very choppy.'

Several refugees drowned in stormy seas off Samos three days ago; their nationality was unknown. Mr Sofiadelis may have a point: Greece has been trying to clean up its act after international criticism of its treatment of refugees.

The bureaucratic machinery has been overwhelmed by the surge of illegal immigrants: 146,000 arrived in Greece in 2008 and when the 2009 figures are released they will show an increase. Under the Dublin II agreement, reached by EU Interior Ministers in December 2002, refugees can claim asylum only in the first EU country they set foot in. The refugees use various tricks destroying their identity papers, slipping across borders until they find a society with a good asylum approval rate but countries such as Germany, without a significant external EU border, are shielded by Greece from a mass immigrant influx from Afghanistan.

Even before its financial crisis it could barely cope. 'We cannot leave Greece alone,' Karl Kopp, the European director of Pro Asyl, said. 'And we can no longer ignore the plight of these refugee kids.'

We The Times photographer Paul Rogers and myself decided to retrace the steps taken by illegal immigrants when they first enter EU territory. Lesbos, an island thick with olive groves, is no longer just the birthplace of the poet Sappho: it is becoming a testing ground for EU immigration policy.

The first shock was four bedraggled Somalis stumbling in daylight from the beach to Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos. It is a 40km walk and they were still wet and exhausted from the crossing. Their aim was to slip on to one of the ferries to Athens, evade the police, find the local Somali community and join the queue to lodge an asylum application.

The office is open once a week; the queue is often made up of more than 1,000 people; the chances of approval close to zero. When the doors close for the day there is a howl of despair. Fighting breaks out.

The second shock was the Pagani holding centre. This was where, until recently, Afghan children were kept along with several hundred adults. The four interlocking warehouses are surrounded by a wall and looped barbed wire. Officially the place has been closed down.

The police were at breakfast so The Times managed to slip in and find three Somali men. But Pagani is still as it was when it housed the children: the blankets tangled on bunkbeds, scrawled appeals for information about missing families written in Farsi, an overflowing latrine, stray cats and dogs moving between the beds. It smelt like a zoo. Will it be cleaned and reopened, a brightly painted dungeon in Fortress Europe?

'Greece has no process for assessing the individual needs and best interests of these children,' Andrej Mahecic, of the UN High Commission for Refugees, said.

Greece, hard up and managed poorly, cannot handle this. Experts have called for a quota system on Europe so that the burden is shared. This was the option rejected by the richer EU countries in 2002.

As for Aziz, he has left Villa Azadi several times in an effort to stow away on ferries to Italy. He believes that he can find a better life there; if not asylum, then at least work. All of his attempts have failed. He is back in the Villa called Freedom. Not persecuted in Iran, far from the fighting in Afghanistan, not beaten by Turkish smugglers, but on a beautiful island in the Aegean Sea and still not at the end of his journey.

Border pressure

The Dublin Regulation was set up to stop 'asylum shopping' refugees who apply for asylum in several EU states. Refugees can seek asylum only in the EU country where they first set foot. If immigrants apply in a second state they can be arrested and sent back to the EU point of entry without appeal

Critics at the UN say that this puts unacceptable pressure on the EU states of Spain, Italy and Greece, which have to bear the brunt of applications. The UN argues that it leads to inadequate refugee protection, especially of unaccompanied children

The EU rejected 204,800 asylum applications in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, and accepted 76,380 an acceptance rate of 27 per cent

The most successful claims came from Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Russia and Eritrea

The countries that approved the most asylum applications were France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Sweden

About 15,300 arrived in Greece by sea in 2008