Refugees and the Onslaught on Human Decency
10 days ago we spent 2 hours waiting outside the Karlovassi police station for the release of 2 friends who had been wrongly arrested for a shop robbery the night before. One was picked up on the street near his home; the other went willingly to the police station when he heard that the police wanted to see him. They were clearly keen to arrest him as they had his home staked out for most of the evening.
They were detained for over 4 hours between 9.30 pm and 1.30am. One was released at 11pm the other later. There was no evidence linking them to the robbery and the shop keeper concerned did not identify them. They were innocent and nowhere near the incident. But as they pointed out, this doesn’t matter. They were refugees and this is all that counted as far as the police were concerned.
We went over as soon as we heard that they were in the police station for the simple reason that we knew it was important for their safety that the police should know they had friends ‘outside’ and we would know if anything more untoward than their wrongful arrest occurred. The state here, as I have documented in previous blogs, behaves towards the refugees as if they are alone and friendless. This makes them extremely vulnerable to unaccountable and arbitrary state violence. It is also very frightening.
Our friends were understandably pissed off to be arrested and then detained. The police even took them off to a bank cash machine and demanded that they use their bank cards to reveal the state of their accounts. As our friends told the police what planet are you from? Bank cards, bank accounts, what a joke.
They also told us that they complained that the only reason for their arrest was because they were refugees. The 2 arresting officers denied this and said that they were neither racist nor supporters of the neo fascist Golden Dawn party! But then our friends asked why the only other people in the police station that night were 2 Pakistani young guys. Of course, they got no answer.
A week later, we heard from an older friend who has a pension and rents out rooms. Four refugees had arrived at her door earlier that morning and asked for help. They had just been brought over from Turkey and landed on a beach near Karlovassi undetected. They had come to the pension because a friend told them that she had helped him a year earlier and she would do the same for them. She took them in. But like the four young guys she was extremely frightened, concerned that her neighbours might report her to the police with all that implied, including the fear that she would be closed down. The state here terrorizes anyone who offers any support to refugees by accusing them of being involved in ‘human trafficking’. And such an accusation has dire consequences. One of our friends lost his car for example when he picked up a couple of hitch hikers and was subsequently stopped at a police checkpoint. He had no idea that they were undocumented refugees but by the time the case came to court 8 months later his car had been sold even though the case was thrown out.
We went over to see what we could do. These young guys were from Iran, although at first they said that they were from Afghanistan. Like many refugees they had learnt that it is better to say that they are from a well known trouble spot which is why so many refugees here report that they are Palestinian. When they realized we were friends they revealed that they were Iranian and were wanting to transit through Greece to get to Switzerland where one of them had a brother waiting for them. The strategy which would have been safer for our Greek friend would have involved them going to the police where they would have been held for 4 -5 days before being given a ticket for the boat to Athens and papers requiring they leave Greece within 31 days. But this was not a strategy which appealed to them for they knew that if they were processed in Samos then they would be sent back to Greece should they be caught anywhere else in Europe. This was a fate to be avoided at all costs if possible.
These guys were not impoverished as are some refugees and they were able to leave later that day on the evening ferry. It was not hard to work out that it was their sexuality which had made Iran an impossible place for them to live. They lived in hope that Switzerland would be better.
Needless to say the incessant demonization of refugees means that there is virtually no discussion or understanding of the reasons that compel people to leave their homes, friends and families. Refugees are routinely and systematically dehumanized. Yet as every encounter I have ever had with refugees highlights they embark on their hazardous journeys relying on the help of strangers to keep them safe, to make their onward journeys possible, to house and feed them. What is always notable in their stories is the kindness and humanity of complete strangers without whom they could not survive. It is these stories which overwhelm the far more negative stories of exploitation where relatively huge amounts of money are paid out to the vultures who feed off their plight such as those who carry them across the sea from Turkey to Greece.
The vultures know the risks and presumably factor them in to their calculations. But for those such as our friend the pension owner this not part of her consciousness. She feeds and houses them at no charge because as a human being she feels for them and cares for them. When they tried to pay her she refused saying that they would need all their money to continue onward. But she also pressed a more telling argument about how we must always help those in need where we can without regard to any reward and that they too must do the same when they eventually found a place which is safe. This was, she said, a fundamental human responsibility from which there was no escape, at least if you wanted to look at yourself in a mirror everyday without shame.
These decent and fundamental values are what the state seeks to eradicate through its actions and which makes the offensive against refugees and asylum seekers so disturbing for it is a process which not only punishes and frightens the most vulnerable but seeks to destroy the very core values of human society. It is this wider aspect of the repression which is too readily ignored and yet which is so important in making the world a more unpleasant place for us all. Just taking the case of our friend the pension owner, it makes you ponder what sort of society Greece has become that she can feel so terrified of offering comfort to strangers in difficulties. That she should be so fearful of her neighbours reporting her? For what? For being a decent human being!
Samos Diary 7