Two weeks ago, a group of several hundred refugees, most of them Syrian, fled a crowded detention camp on Chios, where violence had broken out between Afghans and Syrians. ‘I woke up with a rock coming through my window,’ a young Syrian man told me. ‘They were shouting “Syri! Syri!” They hit people with sticks. An old man has cuts all over his head. So the next day we left.’ Five hundred Syrian and Pakistani refugees broke through the camp’s flimsy fence, walked to Chios town and set up camp in the port, hoping to get on a boat to Athens.
Last Thursday, a crowd of angry locals gathered around the port. Ferries from the mainland, unable to dock where people had pitched their tents, had had to divert to Mesta, 25 miles away on bad roads. Feelings had been running high for several days; last Wednesday night, Molotov cocktails were thrown at a house in the town used by refugees and volunteers. People told me that Golden Dawn members from elsewhere in Greece had travelled to Chios.
Running battles on the streets near the port began at around 9 p.m. A Syrian man told me he’d been attacked by three men in a side-street: ‘They said they would kill me.’ He managed to escape to the port but was later arrested by the police, he said. A tourist who was waiting for the ferry told me he had stood between the crowd and a Syrian family as they collected their belongings and fled into the port. ‘We’ll get you later,’ someone in the crowd said to him.
By 11 p.m. close to a hundred people had surrounded the port, lighting fires, rattling the railings and shouting. They pushed away anyone with a camera. A few men tried to jump the fence to get at the refugees. Inside, women and children ran screaming away, further into the port. With the hostile crowd metres away, one woman started screaming and hitting herself before fainting into the arms of her friends. Paramedics took her away in an ambulance.
Fireworks and burning debris were thrown into the refugee encampment. Children woke up and ran to their parents in fear. One woman, consoled by a Reuters journalist, pointed at the sky, crying: ‘Bomba! Bomba!’ The mayor of Chios, Emmanouil Vournous, told the refugees: ‘Either you come with me, or’ – pointing to the perimeter of the port – ‘you go with them!’ The refugees sat down and refused to move. The police, and the mayor himself, began pulling men to their feet. ‘Everybody up!’ a policeman ordered. Other officers grabbed men at random, handcuffed them and dragged them out of the port. The other refugees followed. The crowd applauded as the last of the refugees left the port for a nearby refugee camp.
By 2 a.m., nine Syrian men and one Moroccan had been arrested for resisting arrest, disobeying police orders and incitement. Some of them were handcuffed to a stairway railing in the police station overnight, and, they said, beaten. ‘They were playing football and I was the ball,’ one of the men told me through a translator. ‘We didn’t get to use a toilet for a whole night,’ he said. Another said they had been denied a lawyer because ‘we know you can’t afford one.’ One of the arrested men translated when the others gave their statements. They were charged a day later with disobedience. They appeared before a court without a lawyer. ‘We were told that if we wanted a lawyer, we’d have to got back to the prison for a night.’
They were given suspended sentences of four months and thirty days. In Greece, you can’t appeal against a sentence shorter than five months. A lawyer advising the men said that technically the sentences should not affect their asylum claims but in practice, with so many claims submitted on the island – more than a thousand are currently being considered – the asylum officers may be looking for any grounds for rejection.