In a café in Istanbul last week I listened as a man settling his bill complained loudly to the chef and owner about a nearby district that is now ‘full of Afghans’ who have fled the Taliban. He said the area was already crowded with Syrians, everyone speaks Arabic, you don’t see any Turks on the streets. The same evening, a far-right mob rioted in Altındağ, a low-income suburb of Ankara, targeting Syrian businesses and homes. They were angry because a Turkish teenager had been killed in a fight with Syrian refugees.
Hassan (not his real name) was born in the Kenyan town of Mandera, on the country’s borders with Somalia and Ethiopia, and grew up with relatives who had escaped the Somali civil war in the early 1990s. When his aunt, who fled Mogadishu, applied for refugee resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she listed Hassan as one of her sons – a description which, if understood outside the confines of biological kinship, accurately reflected their relationship.
They were among the lucky few to pass through the competitive and labyrinthine resettlement process for Somalis and, in 2005, Hassan – by then a young adult – was relocated to Minnesota. It would be several years before US Citizenship and Immigration Services introduced DNA tests to assess the veracity of East African refugee petitions. The adoption of genetic testing by Denmark, France and the US, among others, has narrowed the ways in which family relationships can be defined, while giving the resettlement process the air of an impartial audit culture.
The refugee camp at Hitsats, an hour’s drive through the mountains from the town of Shire, in the Ethiopian province of Tigray, consists of simple block structures with corrugated iron roofs. Skinny cows congregate in the shade of the buildings, oblivious to the humanitarian agency traffic lumbering past. Tigray lies along Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, and Hitsats now accommodates at least 12,000 Eritreans, fleeing the regime in Asmara. Last August, during the rainy season, the number stood at 34,000. New refugees were arriving daily, following a 2018 peace deal between the two countries, which threatened to choke off prospective Eritrean asylum seekers.
On the glass of a bedroom window, one of the students across the road tallies ‘days inside’ in red lipstick, the letters oriented to be read from the street. My desk faces this window and its cheery running total that, with no release date in sight, lacks the sense of scratchings on the walls of a prison cell. An uncertain, unwelcome freedom awaits, with promises of economic collapse, unemployment, austerity and, for many, the long, potholed road of grief. Still, it is a comfort to see signs of life in another household, and to know someone is counting as though these were normal, individuated days and not a continuum of lost, fretful time.
Every hour in Pazarkule, the church bells told the migrants how close they were to Europe; and the shots told them they weren’t going to get in. On the Turkish-Greek border, where thousands are still waiting to cross, those who tried were repelled by tear gas and rubber bullets. And all day on Wednesday, as the ambulance sirens came and went, rumours spread of much worse, too: one dead and five injured trying to make it into Greece.
Last Thursday, President Erdoğan announced that he was going to open Turkey’s borders to refugees fleeing to Europe, apparently in order to put pressure on Nato to back him against the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. The Greek media were quick to whip up fear of invading ‘hordes’ of refugees. A four-year-old Syrian boy drowned in the early hours of this morning after a boat capsized off Lesvos. Those who make it to shore are often met by a mob that won’t let them land. Others are freezing on the Greek-Turkish border along the river Evros. Those who get across are pushed back by the army and border guards, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Greece has announced that it won’t process any new asylum claims for a month.
On a Wednesday morning at the end of November, an angry crowd gathered outside a hotel in Sparta. A group of 180 refugees was expected to arrive at any moment. They had been evacuated from the Greek islands, where conditions have reached a new nadir. On Lesvos, for instance, more than 16,000 people are crammed into facilities designed for around 3000. The mayor of Sparta said he hadn’t been informed in advance. ‘I hope this situation ends with the people that have just arrived,’ he told the TV cameras. (A total of 750 were being distributed across the Lakonia municipality, which has a population of 35,000.) ‘Our municipality is already under strain. The day before yesterday five hundred people from Pakistan arrived to work in Geraki. This is not possible. Are we the dumping ground of Greece? We have no growth, no nothing. They shut down the universities, the hospital, they’ve taken away everything.’
The European Commission says the ‘migration crisis’ is over. It has published a fact sheet aimed at countering both the far right, who tell lies about migrants and refugees, and humanitarian campaigners who point to Europe’s complicity in the imprisonment and torture of people in Libyan detention camps. It acknowledges that some ‘structural problems remain’.
But what is over, and who is it over for?
Over the last seven weeks more than 230 undocumented migrants have crossed the English Channel, with forty completing the journey on Christmas Day alone. In the first ten months of 2018, only 220 people made it. The recent spike coincides with increasing numbers of Iranians arriving in Calais. According to one estimate, 40 per cent of the 500 refugees who sleep rough in the town come from Iran.
In Moria camp on Lesvos, 9000 people are trying to live in a space built for less than 2000. Children as young as ten are reported as suicidal. Sitting outside a cafe in Mytilene, UK Border Agency sailors seconded to Europe’s Frontex force drink frappés and talk about football, about a message to a girl back home that she has received but not replied to. In Athens, I had been told by someone recently returned from holiday on Lesvos that the arrival of the Royal Navy had suppressed the trafficker routes from Turkey, allowing the tourist island to return to a kind of normalcy. But the border officers – working two weeks on, two off – tell a different story: ‘Some nights it’s quiet, then there’ll be two, three rescues.’ I asked how long they’ve been stationed here: ‘Too long.’
Lycée Jean Quarré is an abandoned cookery school in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, near the Place des Fêtes. In October 2015, a reported 1000 refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers squatting there were evicted by the police. The NGO Emmaüs Solidarité now manages the building as a Centre d'Hébergement d'Urgence, or CHU, for around 150 refugees and asylum-seekers. Most of the current residents are young men from Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Libya.
The recent decision by the Trump administration to drastically cut its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has left the Palestinian refugees in a more precarious position than ever. A conference was recently held in Rome to raise money to allow UNRWA to continue its vital work providing education, health and other social services to more than five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Given a projected budget deficit of nearly $500 million in 2018, UNRWA’s funding prospects look dim.
A year ago today, a boat carrying about 145 people, almost all of them Somalis with official refugee documents, was on its way to Sudan from Yemen. It was passing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait when it came under fire. The shots, a confidential report to the UN Security Council confirmed four months later, were ‘almost certainly’ fired from a machine-gun mounted on a helicopter. Only ‘the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces,’ it added, ‘have the capability to operate armed utility helicopters in the area.’ (They are Apache helicopters, made in the United States.)
More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Burma’s Rakhine state in the last three months. At least 40,000 unaccompanied children were among those to cross the border, some presenting with bullet wounds. Nearly 60 per cent of Muslim villages in the north of Rakhine have been partially or wholly burned down. Survivors have accused Burma’s military of indiscriminate murder and sexual violence. The army carried out a devastating crackdown after Rohingya militant attacks on security posts in late August.
The Australian government formally closed the Manus Regional Processing Centre on 31 October. The MRPC was an offshore immigration detention facility at a naval base on Manus Island in northern Papua New Guinea, which held around 750 people at its last official count. Refugee solidarity groups across Australia have long called for it to close, along with camps in Nauru and elsewhere. But last week’s developments are no cause for celebration.
The genocide memorial in Yerevan, a giant complex built when Armenia was part of the USSR, sits on a ridge overlooking the city: its museum tells of how ethnic Armenians in the final years of Ottoman rule were massacred and forcibly scattered and how the lands claimed by Armenian nationalists were reduced, by military defeat and international diplomacy, to the present-day republic in the South Caucasus. Passengers who leave the metro station at Yerevan’s central square are greeted with a giant map of Greater Armenia, a historical region that mostly falls within the borders of the current republic’s neighbours: Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. And on the streets, pasted to lamp-posts, walls and junction boxes, are fly-posters offering cheap minibus rides to distant cities: Krasnodar, Rostov, Novosibirsk. The republic’s economy is partly sustained by emigrant workers, most of whom go to Russia.
The Ehang 184 is a Chinese-produced taxi drone that has begun tests in Dubai of trips up to ten miles long. When it arrives on the market, each one will probably cost its private hire operator between $200,000 and $300,000. But prices fall almost as fast the technology improves. According to Paul Rigby, the CEO of Consortiq, a drone consultancy firm, you can now buy for £500 a drone with capabilities that in an equivalent model five years ago would have set you back £10,000. In five years’ time, Rigby says, there’ll probably be drones that can carry a person two hundred miles before the batteries need to be recharged. Uber foresees a day when a 50-mile drone taxi flight from the São Paulo suburb of Campinas to the city centre will cost the equivalent of $24. Refugees who can afford it currently pay thousands of dollars to escape war zones and make the uncertain journey to a place of greater safety in Europe. In the future, perhaps some of them will be able to travel by drone.
The best thing I saw at Edinburgh this year was The Sleeper, written and directed by Henry Krempels. (The play will be on for one night only in London, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre on Thursday.) Karina, played by Michelle Fahrenheim, is a Londoner travelling on an overnight train somewhere in Europe. She’s a writer, probably a Guardian reader, definitely a Remainer. Returning to her compartment after brushing her teeth, she finds someone else in her bunk. She rushes to the guard in a panic. The young woman hiding in her berth, Amena, is a Syrian refugee. She will be kicked off the train at the next stop.
‘Colonialism as a form of violent foreign rule was legitimised by a racist ideology of European superiority,’ says the board that greets you at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. In a slightly too small room, hundreds of objects are laid out in clusters along a line representing the Greenwich Meridian, a ‘symbol of Eurocentrism’ and the anchor for a system that European powers used to navigate, conquer and impose borders on large parts of the world. The objects – carved elephant tusks, commercial images for coffee brands, whips – tell the story of the German Empire.
Alongside a Frontex vessel flying the Union Jack, a group of Afghan men sat dangling makeshift fishing rods into the harbour at Mytilene. It’s over a year since EU and Turkish leaders signed an agreement to ‘end’ irregular migration across the Aegean. Brokered shortly after a cascade of border closures along the overland Balkan route, the deal says that migrants who cross to Greece after 19 March 2016, if their asylum applications are considered inadmissible, will be returned to Turkey. In exchange for gatekeeping at its end, Ankara would receive €6 billion, visa-free travel for Turkish nationals and a promise to fast-track EU membership talks.
Last summer, a young Syrian woman in Istanbul gave birth to a baby boy with a severe umbilical hernia, which required surgery. But after three months he still didn’t have an ID card, and doctors wouldn’t perform surgery without it. Songül, one of their Turkish neighbours, took the baby and his mother to all the hospitals and emergency clinics she knew of, to no avail. One hospital took a blood sample and gave them a referral for surgery, but they were turned away for not having an ID. They were told to go to the police station to get a copy of the baby’s birth certificate. They did, but the hospital wouldn’t accept it – only an ID card would do, they said.
The City Plaza hotel in downtown Athens, ‘the best hotel in Europe’, was empty for years after the company operating it went bankrupt in 2010. A group of activists and refugees occupied it a few months ago. Nasim Lomani, an Afghan national who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is a longtime activist for the rights of migrants and refugees. He opened the door to me when I paid a recent visit to the hotel.
An estimated 387 child refugees who have relatives in the UK are stranded alone in Calais. The UK government doesn't really want to bring them over, and has only started to after being sued by a group of charities. Three teenagers who arrived this week have been accused of looking like young men rather than children. The way the right-wing press has singled out these boys and published their faces in a hit parade is straight-up racist intimidation, playing on a stereotype of non-white foreigners being freakishly and threateningly overdeveloped.
On Monday night, a group of refugees in the Moria camp on Lesvos started a fire that blazed throughout the night and destroyed most of the camp. A storm hit the island the next morning and finished the job, mixing cinders and gravel into dark sludge. The 4000 people staying in the camp were displaced and most of them, including 100 unaccompanied minors, had to sleep rough that night.
The informal EU summit in Bratislava last week was the object of semi-enthusiastic press speculation as the dignitaries prepared to gather, and bored silence once it was over. Billed as the first summit without the UK, all it could say about meeting as a group of 27, rather than 28, was that 'the EU remains indispensable to the rest of us.’ But it set down a new marker in the European refugee crisis, which Theresa May hammered into place yesterday during her first speech to the UN General Assembly in New York. In Europe and the UK the very notion of asylum has finally been buried under security issues.
I started teaching a German language course in a small town near Frankfurt in February, taking over a class of 12 adult students who had been meeting for three hours a day, four times a week, for two years. First they had to learn the Latin alphabet, and many struggled with writing from left to right. Now most of them can understand a letter from the local authority. Four came to Germany from Afghanistan, three from Ethiopia, two from Bulgaria, one from Bangladesh, one from Tibet and one from Yemen. Their average age was about fifty. Some of them have lived here for more than thirty years, but weren’t allocated to a language course until 2014. German governments used to assume that ‘guest workers’ and refugees would eventually go ‘home’, and integration was a low priority.
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.
On Tuesday I went to visit a group of refugee children in police custody in a village near Idomeni, on the Greek border with Macedonia. The policeman banged open the lock of the black metal cell door and it swung forward. The other boys moved aside to let Harith through. The door clanged shut. Harith and the seven boys with him are refugees from Syria, Iraq and Pakistan; they are all aged between 14 and 17. Under Greek law, unaccompanied minors are supposed to be held in police custody only until they can be transferred to centres for young people. But, all over Greece, the centres are full. Harith has been in jail for more than two weeks.
The only travel agencies open in İzmir on a Sunday are in Basmane. A neighbourhood of former imperial splendour, it is now known as Little Syria. I was there on 20 March, the day that the deal between the EU and Turkey to deport ‘all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands’ came into effect. There’d been a suicide bombing in Istanbul the day before, and another in Ankara a week earlier. Basmane was the only part of İzmir where the streets were crowded.
Up to 190 shipping containers are on their way to Lesvos, Samos and Chios, to be used as offices by 600 EU asylum officials and 430 interpreters. According to the terms of the deal between the EU and Turkey that came into effect on 20 March, 'all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands … will be returned to Turkey'.
In August 2012, Fadi Mansour, a 28-year-old law student from Homs, left Syria to avoid conscription. ‘I had to do my military service before the war started; after the war they called me to fight in the reserve army, so I escaped,’ he wrote to me yesterday. He told Amnesty International that he went first to Lebanon, where he was kidnapped and held to ransom. After his release he felt unsafe; in early 2015 he came to Turkey. He flew to Malaysia but was denied entry and sent back to Istanbul. ‘They caught me in the airport,’ Mansour said. ‘I asked for asylum here. But they rejected my request.’ This was on 15 March 2015. Since then Mansour has been detained at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport. He is living in the ‘Problematic Passengers Room’. It has no natural light and no beds. The electric lights are kept on around the clock. ‘Sometimes they let me go outside the room for one or two hours,’ he told me. ‘But nothing is different between here and outside.’
Outside the Greek village of Idomeni, near the Macedonian border, about 15,000 people are living in small recreational tents and a few UN emergency shelters, waiting to continue their journey to Western Europe. The Macedonians shut the gates a week ago. They enforced their decision with tear gas and the threat of water cannon. The frontier occasionally opens and few dozen people cross, but more arrive every day than leave. In the camp, small signs of permanence have started to appear.
In Southampton last week, a city I am completely unfamiliar with, I noticed at the entrance to the City Art Gallery an attractive blue roundel. Bearing the date 2007 it commemorated, seventy years after the event, the arrival of almost 4000 refugee children, with a small support team of teachers, priests and volunteers, from Guernica.
At the Jules Ferry refugee centre in Calais on Saturday there were hundreds of men clamouring to get in to listen to Handel’s Messiah but the gates were closed, with 700 people already inside. I was there with Play 4 Calais, an offshoot of the Lexi social enterprise cinema in North London, spearheaded by the actress Alix Wilton Regan. The aim was to bring four days of film screenings to some of the Jungle refugee camp’s estimated 6500 inhabitants, including children who are waiting to be reunited with their parents in the UK.
A refugee camp has sprung up at Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border. Just over two weeks ago, Macedonia closed the border to certain non-European nationalities. If you’re not from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, you can’t cross. Around 2000 people, mostly from Morocco, Iran and Bangladesh, are stuck. They live in poor and deteriorating conditions, waiting, in hope, for the border to reopen to them.
I met J. at the central railway station in Belgrade, where he was waiting among a handful of Syrian and Afghan refugees. The only English speaker in his group, he introduced me to his family – parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews – as we waited for a train towards Croatia. They were from Homs and had been on the road for several weeks: they’d landed on Samos, taken the ferry to Athens and headed north, on their way to Germany, where their brother had lived for several years. ‘These people,’ J. said, motioning to his family and leaning in, almost whispering, ‘think they can trust all Europeans – but here they cannot. It is dangerous. Serbia is fucked up.’ He had seen refugees being robbed; a Syrian family, who, like many, had spent the previous night in the station, had had their money taken from them as they slept. ‘It’s up to me to look after these people. I've hardly slept for the last week,’ J. said. ‘I carry a knife just in case.’ He leaned back into his chair and looked me up and down. ‘I want to tell you something so you see how hard this journey is for people,’ he said. (I've changed some details to protect his and the others' identities.)
If you look out the window as you come in to land at Mytilene airport on Lesbos, the coast appears to be outlined in orange; the lifejackets and deflated black dinghies are distinguishable just before you touch down. I took the last charter flight of the tourist season from London, on Saturday 3 October; my ticket cost £50 and the plane had barely two dozen people on it. If you’re coming from Syria or Afghanistan, getting to Lesbos is more difficult.
On 7 August 1991, the Albanian ship Vlora docked at the Port of Durrës, twenty miles west of Tirana, with a cargo of Cuban sugar. Thousands of people, desperate to leave Albania in the first throes of its 'transition' from communism, boarded the ship and prevailed on the captain to take them to Italy. The Vlora arrived in Bari the next day. According to a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe report from January 1992:
‘Some people are going to have a problem with that flag,’ a man said to me as we marched down Piccadilly on Saturday. He was talking about the flag of the Syrian National Coalition: green, white and black, with three red stars. A Syrian refugee recently arrived in Britain, he said the flag didn't represent Christians or Kurds, and that he hoped the protesters 'support all civilians'.
I caught up with the group of around 1000 refugees leaving Budapest on foot as they were crossing the Danube on the Elisabeth suspension bridge. We walked west along a dual carriageway. Families wheeled their belongings in pushchairs, with babies teetering on top. People were in flip-flops and beaten-up loafers. A woman pointed at my walking boots: ‘Very good,’ she said. Hungarian drivers stopped to offer people water and food. One man gave a family two pushchairs. At service stations, attendants rushed to the doors to stop people from entering, though they handed out bottles of water. A man on crutches overtook me, his friend carrying his prosthetic leg. It was about 150 miles to Vienna.
There was a sign on the floor of one of the boats abandoned off the coast of Aceh this week. ‘We are Myanmar Rohingya,’ it said in white capital letters. Its occupants may have been picked up by Indonesian fishermen, or they may have drowned. In the last couple of days, Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to give temporary shelter to 7000 or more people stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea, some for as long as four months. The Malaysian navy has also begun to look for boats in its own waters. Thailand won’t be joining them, though it has agreed not to turn the boats away for the moment. ‘Our country has more problems than theirs,’ the Thai prime minister said. He may well be right: a mass grave was discovered in the south of Thailand earlier this month, containing the bodies of 26 Rohingya. There are probably more. On 29 May, there will be a meeting in Bangkok of 15 countries including the US, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Burma, which is attending on condition that no one use the word ‘Rohingya’.
Two hundred Syrians are camped on the pavement outside the Greek parliament in Athens. For two weeks, 150 of them have been on hunger strike. The interior ministry has handed out leaflets: ‘You have nothing to gain if you remain on Syntagma Square. You should follow the only way to a life with dignity. You should apply for asylum.’ The minister repeated the proposal on Tuesday, adding he would ask northern European countries to take them in instead, though he expected the answer would be no.
The way into the Montaza II police station in Alexandria is along a narrow ridge of broken concrete tiles and wet sand. A pool of black and green water with soft grey matter floating in it covers what must once have been a parking lot. There are more than 60 people detained inside, most of them Palestinian Syrians, half of them children under ten, their faces spotted with mosquito bites. On the third floor there's a pile of sand with parts of a broken toilet sticking out of it. A dirty blanket folded over a string separates the women and children’s quarters from the men’s. The detainees were all arrested for trying to get to Europe by boat.