‘This Is Our Jungle’Abysmal Conditions for Refugees in the Greek Islands

The European Union claims that the refugee pact with Turkey has been a success. Yet asylum-seeker camps on Greek islands in the Aegean have transformed into prisons. Thousands of migrants live there in horrific conditions.

By , and Socrates Baltagiannis (Photos)

Socrates Baltagiannis

Annick Toudji has found a bit of shelter in between some cardboard boxes, tarps and plastic bottles. It stinks of urine that has trickled in from the hillside above, past rickety tents and past the rocks where Toudji is about to build a fire. The acrid stench is a constant presence.

A tall and gaunt 33-year-old, Toudji is perched on a stump and cutting tomatoes with short, decisive blows into a pot. “This is our jungle,” she says. It is a jungle without electricity or toilets. Instead, it has rats, cockroaches and scabies.

Thousands of migrants are languishing here on the Greek island of Samos and Toudji, whose journey from Cameroon began almost a year ago, is one of them. There are far too many migrants on the island to fit into Samos’ official refugee camp and it has been spreading, tent after tent, for quite some time. That’s how “The Jungle” came into being.

Annick Toudji in "The Jungle" on the Greek island of Samos. The asylum-seekers receive three frozen meals a day. If they want something else, they have to buy it themselves.

Socrates Baltagiannis

Annick Toudji in “The Jungle” on the Greek island of Samos. The asylum-seekers receive three frozen meals a day. If they want something else, they have to buy it themselves.

The camp and the hillsides surrounding it are currently home to some 3,800 migrants despite having been intended to house just 648 people. No other “hotspot” in the Aegean Islands is as overcrowded. And because the migrants aren’t allowed to leave, Samos has developed into a kind of prison. The situation, says the aid organization Doctors Without Borders, is out of control.

The roots of the current situation were established three years ago in spring 2016, when the European Union reached an informal deal with Turkey. The key elements of that agreement are as follows:

  • Turkey is to keep migrants from continuing onward to the EU and will received 6 billion euros from Brussels in return;
  • the Greek government likewise receives support from the EU and in return promises to collect migrants on five Aegean islands and return them to Turkey, irrespective of their rights to international protection;
  • for every Syrian sent back to Turkey, the EU will accept a different Syrian refugee who will be brought in legally.

Despite significant resistance from her European partners, German Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to push the deal through. The pragmatic goal of her pact: enabling the control of migration while not seeming inordinately inhumane. And according to Merkel, the policy has been a success — to the point that she would like to establish similar deals with countries like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. She sees it as being a key element of her foreign policy legacy and even the European Commission sees the pact with Turkey as a “game changer” — and in a recent bulletin, the EU executive declared the migration crisis to be over.

Outside the main camp, there is a collection of rickety tents with no toilets or electricity, but plenty of cockroaches and rats. It's called "The Jungle."

Socrates Baltagiannis

Outside the main camp, there is a collection of rickety tents with no toilets or electricity, but plenty of cockroaches and rats. It’s called “The Jungle.”

But the situation on Samos makes it clear just how wrong that assessment is. The migration crisis is far from over, it has merely been concentrated into specific locations, including the five Aegean islands. Fewer people may be arriving than during the apex of the crisis, but they are suffering much more. Indeed, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture recently criticized Greece for its treatment of the migrants and refugees.

And because the EU-Turkey deal still isn’t working properly even three years after its introduction, the Greek government wants to replace the pact, DER SPIEGEL has learned. The situation on Samos also raises the question as to whether the EU should even use the deal with Turkey as a model for similar agreements with other countries given that Europe isn’t even able to guarantee humane conditions in the camps located on its own soil.

Back in the jungle, a woman has joined Annick Toudji, her hands buried deep in the pockets of her winter coat as she silently watches Toudji. Her name is Vanessa Djila, a 19-year-old who is also from Cameroon. She has applied cream generously to her round face in an attempt to cover up a bad rash. “The spots are caused by fear,” Djila says.

Edna Abiabie, 24, and Emon Tabi, 23, live at the lower edge of "The Jungle," just a few minutes away from the town of Samos. They're both from Cameroon.

Socrates Baltagiannis

Edna Abiabie, 24, and Emon Tabi, 23, live at the lower edge of “The Jungle,” just a few minutes away from the town of Samos. They’re both from Cameroon.

Fear has been Djila’s constant companion since a night in February, when several men wearing masks forced their way into her tent under the cover of darkness and raped her. A hospital examination report supports her version of events. Ever since that night in February, she has been drinking whiskey every evening so she can fall asleep.

Annick Toudji is familiar with Djila’s story and wants to do all she can to protect the 19-year-old — like a sister, as she says. “This is not a good place,” Toudji says, “especially for women.” In the night, when the feral dogs howl on the hillside above, they don’t dare leave their tents for fear of being attacked by other migrants. If they have to urinate, they do so in one of the plastic bottles lying around.

In the evening, Toudji is sitting on the cold, stone steps of a narrow row-house in the town of Samos below the camp. A Greek lawyer from Lesbos has rented an office for a week, and after just a single visit to the camp, he already has 41 clients. Toudji has been waiting two hours for the office door to open. She nervously shifts back and forth on the stone steps and quietly tells her story.

Annick Toudji, 33, says she left Cameroon after rebels burned down her family's house, killed her parents and then raped her in the bush.

Socrates Baltagiannis

Annick Toudji, 33, says she left Cameroon after rebels burned down her family’s house, killed her parents and then raped her in the bush.

The Toudji family is from Bambili, a small town in northwestern Cameroon, where separatist groups have spent years battling against the military. On her mobile phone, Toudji shows images of her family’s burned-out home. Aside from a beam and a bit of roofing paper, nothing is left. She says the rebels killed her mother and father and that her brother fled, likely to Nigeria. “The men found me in the bush and raped me,” she says. “Again and again.” Since then, she says, she has been struggling with infections and she can’t sit for too long because of the pain.

Her escape led her from Cameroon to Turkey by plane, where she stayed with an uncle, spending months on the country’s west coast sewing buttons onto shirts and blouses. But then, she says, her uncle demanded that she become a prostitute, prompting her to board a boat belonging to a human trafficker. It is impossible to corroborate Toudji’s story. She knew nothing of Samos at the time, but she thought that her life would improve once she made it to Europe.

Instead, she’s been stuck in the jungle since the beginning of the year. When it rains, her tent fills up with water. Three times a day, she lines up for two to three hours to receive a reheated frozen meal. She is plagued at night by panic attacks and nightmares. She had already suffered from the bad dreams before she arrived on Samos, but the jungle has only made them worse.

This is the border between the official camp and "The Jungle." The barbed wire runs across the entire hillside.

Socrates Baltagiannis

This is the border between the official camp and “The Jungle.” The barbed wire runs across the entire hillside.

Toudji has only rarely seen the official refugee camp from the inside. Journalists are not allowed inside and are taken into custody by the police if they film or come too close to the barbed wire, but videos shot by the migrants themselves show what it looks like: The tents are sturdier than those in the jungle and there are showers and toilets, but there too, plastic bottles are strewn about and the floors and walls of the tents are covered in mildew.

Next to the barbed wire hangs a loudspeaker that defines the rhythm of the refugees’ lives, the voice of a camp worker regularly squawking out of it. Those whose names are called have to hurry, otherwise they might miss their opportunity for an asylum hearing.

It is an opportunity for which some asylum-seekers have been waiting for years, in part because of a lack of Greek translators who can speak such languages as Farsi or Urdu. As a result, one family from Afghanistan that lives in the lower part of the camp has been given a hearing date in 2021, noted on a bit of blue paper that the migrants refer to as their “Ausweis,” using the German word for ID, here in the Greek jungle.

Another reason for the delay is that asylum-seekers in Greece can appeal several times, but the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy admits that the country can only handle around 20,000 asylum applications per year. In 2018, though, the country received three times that number of applications, the highest per-capita total of any EU country.

It has been enough to overwhelm the inefficient Greek bureaucracy — despite the fact that in the first three months of 2019, the total number of new arrivals was lower than on a single day in 2015. Turkey, after all, is fulfilling its part of the deal: It is largely preventing refugees from embarking on the short trip from the Turkish mainland to the Greek islands. But during the height of the refugee crisis, the Greek authorities were content to simply allow migrants to continue their journeys, often without any sort of asylum processing. The deal with Turkey brought this convenient practice to an end. Since then, the migrants have had to remain in the islands — and the Greek authorities have had to do more work.

Migration to Greece
Monthly arrivals by sea and land*
* Until January 2018, only arrivals by sea, afterwards sea and land arrivals combined;
Source: UNHCR; Greek Police

Even the most important element of the EU-Turkey deal isn’t working. According to the accord, Greece is supposed to send back to Turkey those migrants who have no right to asylum in Greece within 25 days. But that seldom happens: By the beginning of April, the migration authorities had only managed to deport a total of just 41 people.

Who’s to blame for the chaos? The European Commission and the Greek authorities both point the finger at the other. For the EU, the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers is of particular importance as a deterrent to other potential migrants and Europe continues to believe in the pact with Turkey. “We have repeatedly alerted the Greek authorities about the very challenging situation in the Greek islands,” a European Commission spokeswoman said.

Greece, the spokeswoman said, must develop an effective and sustainable strategy to sort out the problems, particularly given the fact that the country has received more than 2 billion euros in aid to do so. The German weekly newspaper Welt am Sonntag recently quoted from a confidential report compiled by the German Embassy in Athens which included a quote by Simon Mordue, the European official in charge of monitoring the EU-Turkey pact, as saying that the situation has become a “disgrace for Europe.” Patience with the Greek government appears to be wearing thin.

Gerald Knaus, head of the think tank European Stability Initiative (ESI) and the architect of the EU-Turkey refugee deal, is convinced that the disastrous situation for refugees in the Greek islands is not due to a lack of resources, but because the politicians responsible are preventing improvements. Greece, Knaus says, is willing to accept the horrific conditions because “the Tsipras government wants to deter refugees by treating new arrivals poorly.”

Furthermore, because the number of those coming across the Aegean has plunged since the establishment of the deal three years ago, Knaus says, nobody in Europe is interested in taking up the issue. “There is simply a lack of political will to mitigate the suffering of refugees in Greece,” he says.

The Greek Ministry of Migration Policy rejects such a notion and says that Greece is unable to shoulder the entire burden. “Our resources are finite,” the ministry says, adding that the EU-Turkey pact was merely meant as a temporary, emergency measure. “The emergency has passed, and so should the pact,” a ministry official told DER SPIEGEL. As a replacement, the Greek government would like to see a procedure in which other EU member states take refugees off Greece’s hands and process their asylum claims there.

Two men from Afghanistan setting up a tent. Not all migrants receive a tent when they arrive. Many span the tarps using sticks and boxes.

Socrates Baltagiannis

Two men from Afghanistan setting up a tent. Not all migrants receive a tent when they arrive. Many span the tarps using sticks and boxes.

Athens has already negotiated a bilateral agreement with Portugal that works in accordance with this principle. As part of the deal, Lisbon has committed to taking up to 1,000 asylum-seekers. They are to be registered in Greece, but their asylum hearings will be carried out by Portuguese officials.

The plan would resemble the “relocation mechanism” that saw some EU member states begin helping out Greece and Italy in 2015, though on a voluntary basis. That plan has since expired, and it seems unlikely that such a mechanism might be reintroduced. Even after European Parliament elections in late May, countries like Hungary and Poland are likely to continue standing in the way.

The sun has already set by the time Vanessa Djila and Annick Toudji are finally welcomed into the sparsely furnished office belonging to the lawyer from Lesbos. He has crammed two tiny desks and five chairs into the 10-square-meter (110-square-foot) space. The air is sticky and everyone — the lawyer, Toudji and Djila — are all silent. Vanessa has just finished telling the story of that night when she was raped by the group of men. Nobody helped her, she says, and the camp’s only psychologist sent her away after just a few minutes.

Lawyer Emmanuel Chatzihalkias, 53, speaking with Annick Toudji.

Socrates Baltagiannis

Lawyer Emmanuel Chatzihalkias, 53, speaking with Annick Toudji.

Toudji is staring at the wall, her dark eyes full of tears. When it is finally her turn to speak, she says something that even Djila doesn’t know yet: Two days ago, after months in the jungle, she received a residency permit. “I have asylum,” she says.

Toudji says she has already been to the police to apply for her new identification papers, but she says she was sent away and told to come back in two weeks. In the camp, she was also told that it would be better to wait until the UN Refugee Agency has an apartment for her on the mainland.

‘You Are Free!’

Should she go to Athens anyway? All alone, without a job, without a place to live? There, too, she would likely only get the 150 euros per month she receives in the camp. But that’s hardly enough to live on. Maybe she would manage to find a place to live somewhere, but it is far from a certainty. And how is she to find her way in Athens when she doesn’t even know the difference between “kaliméra” (good morning) and “kalispéra” (good evening)? “I’m afraid,” says Toudji. “Maybe I’ll have to stay.”

“Annick,” the lawyer says. “Do you have a blue stamp on your ID papers?”

“Yes,” Toudji says quietly.

“Then go, Annick, go,” the lawyer says. “You are free! You don’t need the police. Even if you don’t get an apartment and money, it’s better than staying here.”

Toudji looks at him and Djila, saying nothing. All the energy seems to have left her body. She slides forward carefully on her plastic chair.

“If they take this stamp away from me,” she says, “then I’m going to walk into the water.”

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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