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The Unknown: Two years of the EU/Turkey deal For two years, we documented the lives of refugees stranded on the Greek island of Chios. This is an interactive story of individuals trapped in limbo, chronicling their journeys through the EU/Turkey deal.

By: Niamh Keady-Tabbal and Izzy Tomico Ellis

The EU/Turkey deal was introduced on the 20th March 2016. In exchange for billions of euros and promises of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe, Turkey agreed to reduce the number of refugees leaving the country and take back 'irregulars' reaching Greece, including asylum seekers. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to Europe via Turkish shores in 2015 and 2016 and continued on to other European countries. In response, Europe closed the Balkan borders and signed a deal that meant all those who reached the Greek islands should be deported to Turkey.

On the Greek islands, the lives of men, women and children are in limbo. Refugees have been confined to an existence without legal status, education, work or safety. Around 13,000 people are left entirely uncertain if they will ever see more of Europe than the Greek island camps, which lack adequate shelter, safety and basic services, or be deported to Turkey.

We spent two years on the Greek island of Chios, just four miles from Turkey. Before the deal, thousands of refugees arrived and then left the island every week. But those who came after March 2016 became trapped and unable to leave.
  • Wassim Omar, his wife and three children arrived to Chios island on the first day of the EU/Turkey deal: March 20th 2016.

Throughout the nine months he and his family spent in Chios, Wassim was a leading voice, campaigning for the rights of refugees. He speaks to us from his new home in Germany and reflects on the beginning of the deal and what it meant for him and tens of thousands of other refugees.

Since the deal, refugees are entered into a system in which they must be found 'admissible' before being allowed to move to the mainland and apply for asylum in Greece. Until then, applicants are contained on the islands, awaiting a decision to determine whether or not Turkey is a safe country for them - if a decision finds that it is, they may be deported. The consistently dysfunctional processing of individual applications often surpasses 12 months, contributing to an epidemic of self harm and suicide attempts.

As the boats have continued to arrive, the islands have been severely overcrowded - regularly reaching populations that are triple their official capacity. Human Rights Watch say the situation on the islands has created an unprecedented mental health crisis for refugees. In April 2017, a young man in Vial camp set himself on fire, protesting the conditions he was living in.

Take a look inside Souda and Vial camp, where Wassim, his family and thousands of other refugees became stuck. Women are particularly unsafe in these conditions, vulnerable to harassment, exploitation and assault.
Despite the deal, boats have continued to reach to the Greek islands. Over 60,000 people have arrived at Lesvos, Chios, Kos, Samos and other Aegean islands since it was introduced.

The Turkish police and coastguard caught 29, 651 people trying to reach Greece in 2017.

  • Inas, was separated from her 11-year-old son when their boat capsized on the way to Chios. She was taken to Greece, while he was returned to Turkey. He was detained in Turkey for nine weeks. Five months later, he made the journey alone with a smuggler to be reunited with his mother.
When asylum seekers first arrive, they are taken from the port of Chios, where they are brought by the coastguard or from the beaches their boats land on, to Vial camp. This is 'registration' and they submit important documents and receive medical assessments.
  • Abdulrahman and his younger brother, Ghaith, arrived in Chios in April 2017. Ghaith was being treated for epilepsy, a chronic neurological disorder; he has also received diagnoses for other psychotic conditions.

“When we first arrived to Chios they took us to a building they called an asylum office behind the cage (‘the cage’ was a metal barred container where new arrivals were transferred after they arrived). We were waiting for the procedure to take our fingerprints and become numbers. They didn’t care about us and were asking questions like what documents we have from Syria and if we have health or mental issues. We wanted to be specific and explain things to them but they just ignored us.” Médecins Sans Frontières say that despite the presence of some medical care providers, even basic medical needs are not met on the islands. After many NGOs left the islands in summer 2017, leading human rights organisations warned the system of detecting and assessing vulnerable individuals was breaking down.

For Abdulrahman and Ghaith the medical screening they received proved disastarous for their case; both have now received rejections for their admissibility claim and their appeals. Abdulrahman spoke to us from a house they have been forced to hide in for over five months:

The Greek authorities organise raids in the camps where they check for people who have been rejected twice and arrest them. They are then imprisoned until a court decision decides their ultimate fate.
  • For Karim, who is from Iraq but was incorrectly registered as Syrian on arrival due to an administrative error, the uncertainty as to whether his application would be accepted, and conditions on Chios, meant he deported himself to Turkey. According to the agreement, Turkey is determined a safe country but since returning, Karim says otherwise.
"After I deported myself to Turkey I was detained and never released. They forced me to sign something I didn't understand. After I signed they told me it was for deportation from Turkey and returned me to Iraq - the country I fled and was seeking refuge from" - Karim.

Protracted humanitarian crises and prevailing conflicts have left a record number of 51 million people displaced worldwide. Refugees stuck on Chios often have claimed that the ever-changing situation in their homelands is not taken into proper consideration.

  • When Hamid and his family received their second rejection, they were imprisoned, along with their two, four and seven-year-old daughters. They are Kurdish and from Afrin, which is currently being invaded by Turkey. Hamid explains his fears and how despite this, Turkey is considered a safe country for his family.
“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children. But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's Crisis Response director.

When the deal began, politicians claimed it would reduce human trafficking and smugglers. But the long waiting times on the islands mean a lot of people choose to leave the Aegean islands illegally and continue their journeys with smugglers. For women this is particularly dangerous, increasing the risk of forced-prostituion and gender-based violence.

  • Rosy, a young Cameroonian woman, was kidnapped by a smuggler who promised to take her out of Chios and to a safe European country.

We, Niamh Keady-Tabbal and Izzy Tomico Ellis, have been on-the-ground of the European refugee crisis since 2015 and are both without official affiliation. The stories included in this report have been verified with copies of the transcripts of admissibility interviews, other witnesses and reports. We have also verified and seen a number of cases that mirror the ones we have included: Like Ghaith, a 24-year-old schizophrenic Kurdish man, whose condition was ignored received a rejection to both his application and appeal. We witnessed Frontex officers in Souda camp repeatedly encouraging refugees to deport themselves to Turkey and have seen numerous cases of self harm and a smaller number of suicide attempts. We have been involved in countless incidents where individuals have been unaware of their rights, procedures and have been the victim of disastrous errors on behalf of the asylum authorities. Finally, throughout this report, official investigations and reportage from leading human rights organisations is linked confirming the commonalities of the stories we have included and for those who wish to find out more about the struggles individuals have encountered as a result of the EU/Turkey Deal.

** With the exemption of Wassim Omar, the names of the refugees who appear in this report were changed due to their own fears of persecution by Greek and Turkish authorities. The figures were provided by Aegean Boat Report, an independent organisation which has been documenting the movement of refugees to Greece since 2015. *** Raw footage of Inas was provided by Action From Switzerland and Seawatch

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Izzy Tomico Ellis Niamh Keady-Tabbal
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Izzy Tomico Ellis and Niamh Keady-Tabbal

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