In a beautiful olive grove dusted with poppies and daisies stands Kamran Kishwer, a 33-year-old father of three from Sargodha in Punjab province. He wears a look of exhaustion and calm as he eats from a plastic cup half filled with rice. There’s a boiled egg on top. Every day, Kishwer and 300 other Pakistani asylum seekers and migrants are provided this meal for lunch by a group of volunteers running Better Days for Moria (BDFM), a makeshift camp providing essential services next to the Moria Registration Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Kishwer smiles while talking about the volunteers that have helped him and the others, the majority of whom are escaping conflict and extreme poverty. But his uncertain future—especially the lack of information from authorities—has left him in despair.
“My brother was a police officer,” says Kishwer as a group of men gathers around him, listening to his story, often interrupting to help him with his English. “He was kidnapped and then killed by the Taliban. I was afraid and left. My children and wife are now hiding in an apartment and don’t go out.”
Like hundreds of others that have followed the migrant routes to the West in recent months, Kishwer hadn’t heard of the dangers lurking, he says, or that Europe is closing its doors.
“The trip through Iran and Turkey is very dangerous,” he says, tearing up. “We walked, we took a bus, we took a boat. The Iranian army shot at us at the border, killing some people. Then in Turkey, thieves beat me and took my things. I sold my house in order to pay for this trip to Italy and get a job. But now I can’t leave from here.”
A man sitting next to Kishwer pipes in: “We went through all this and now they tell us the road is closed.”
Since 2015, more than a million migrants and refugees have crossed from Turkey to Greece and then continued on to Western Europe, with half of them crossing via Lesbos. This year, propped up by anti-refugee rhetoric, the European Union decided to block migration flows. Only some 160,000 refugees—mainly Syrian—will be relocated from Greece, Turkey, and Italy to Western Europe. The rest—over 54,000 refugees and migrants—have been told to go home or prepare for a long, potentially fatal, wait.
Despite authorities attempting to transfer the remaining migrants to camps that are still being built, the majority of them want to reach Western Europe and are unwilling to leave. Meanwhile, since January, an additional 160,000 refugees and migrants have come to Greece from Turkey: More than 59 percent of those were women and children.
“So now that I’m here, why is Europe not giving us the opportunity to stay here, in safety? I won’t go back,” Kishwer says, slowly raising his voice. “I’ll die here. I’m never going back there [Pakistan]. I have many problems there.”
In late February, authorities started arresting Pakistanis and North Africans to deport them. As a result hundreds of people avoided registering and became stuck on the Greek islands, where a new market for forged travel documents flourished. These fake papers actually ended up aiding authorities however, as their poor quality led to the arrest of many migrants when they attempted to board ferries to Athens.
In April, the BDFM camp saw many peaceful protests and attracted dozens of international journalists. More than 300 people would gather in the middle of the camp, hold placards and chant for freedom of movement and open borders. Kishwer was among those organizing the protests: “Europe Please,” he’d say and the crowd would chant back “Thank you, Greece” for the kindness they experienced, a contrast to their experiences in Turkey and Iran. Their signs were no less poignant. “We are human beings. Open the borders,” said one. “Where are our human rights?” said another.
The volunteers, who came from Western Europe, clapped as they protested. Many cried. They knew their governments back home wouldn’t open the borders for the thousands of Pakistanis and North Africans that want to relocate to Germany and the U.K., as the rise of the extreme right across Europe is likely to cost politicians crucial votes. “I would tell my government to honor human rights and treat each person individually rather than making generic decisions based on race,” said British activist Ayesha Keller, who has been in in Lesbos since November, often protesting.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, are all winning ground in elections as anti-migrant sentiment among voters rises.
“Islam is foreign to us and for that reason, it cannot invoke the principle of religious freedom to the same degree as Christianity,” Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, an AfD lawmaker from the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, told supporters recently.
Among the crowd of protesters is 24-year-old Akeep. He’s from Pakistan-administered Kashmir and left his home to look for a job in Italy. “I lived in the red area of Kashmir, where India and other countries shell us,” he says. “When the shelling stopped, the Taliban would kidnap young boys and take them to teach them how to fight. There’s no education back home and life is bad. I want a better life and a job.”
After his father passed away, Akeep had to support his family. Having left them behind, he now feels helpless and alone. “I have a mother and a small brother waiting for me to send them money, how else will they eat?” he asks.
Despite this rise of xenophobia, Syrians and Afghans are treated slightly better during relocations because of the media focus on unrest in their home states.
No government wants the Pakistanis.
According to a migration deal struck between the European Union and Turkey in March, Ankara will receive about $7 billion from the E.U. in exchange for preventing refugees and migrants from traveling to Europe. It has pledged to use the funds to build more camps and improve living conditions for migrants. Turkey has also pledged to repatriate migrants the E.U. claims will be able to live safely in the Eurasian state.
The deal includes an unusual element: Turkey will take back one migrant that has arrived on Greek islands from its shores for every refugee being relocated to an E.U. country directly from Turkey.
The first deportations under the deal took place at the beginning of April in front of dozens of cameras and millions of viewers. Since then, more than 300 people, the majority Pakistani, have been deported to Turkey. The authorities said that none of these deportees had applied for asylum, but human rights organizations and NGOs have raised concerns over whether they have adhered to legal safeguards.
“In the mad dash to start the deportations deal with Turkey, the European Union and Greece tossed rights to the wind, including for people who wanted to seek asylum,” said Fred Abrahams, Human Rights Watch associate director. “The abusive deportations expose the fundamental flaws in the E.U.’s expedited mass returns to a country that cannot be considered safe.”
But even that deal now seems to be up in the air. Relations between Ankara and the West have deteriorated since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated a massive crackdown following last month’s failed military coup. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted in July that the refugee deal could collapse.
Regardless of the migration deal’s future, the majority of those detained on Lesbos wish to apply for asylum. Even so, few applications are being processed as there are only eight staff members to work on thousands of requests, and the asylum process is complicated and lengthy, requiring translators and specialized staff.
Pakistanis have little chance of being allowed to stay. According to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, only 10 percent of the 48,000 Pakistanis that applied for asylum throughout Europe in 2015 were approved. The rest will be deported. In Greece, the rate is even lower: About 2 percent of the asylum applications were accepted.
And the situation at the camps is worsening.
“With many people now staying on the mainland and on the islands as well, there have been challenges: overcrowding in shelters, a lack of sufficient shelters, scarcity of food in some places, a lack of water and sanitation,” says Boris Chernikov, a UNHCR spokesman on Lesbos. “This situation requires better coordination, better contingency planning—upping the reception capacity. Europe needs to support Greece in that.”
Lawyers have also voiced their concerns over the asylum procedure and how they’re being stopped from performing their duties. “My client asked me at the beginning of April to visit him at the camp of Moria, where he was detained,” says Manolis Chatzichalkias, a lawyer in Lesbos. “I visited and saw that in a special part of Moria, 148 Pakistanis were held separately. None of them were told they could apply for asylum.”
But even after Chatzichalkias informed them of their rights to apply for an asylum, the police continued to block them from applying and only after he intervened by going to the director of the camp was his client allowed to submit an application. “I can’t say for sure that they wanted to misinform the Pakistanis or if the policemen didn’t have the correct information—although the possibility of this being the case is very, very small,” he said. “I believe that the majority will be sent back to Turkey and Pakistan, as the two countries are thought to be safe countries.”
Inside the Moria Detention Camp, things are tough. Children play in the dirt while dozens of people wait in lines for half the day under the hot sun to get food. Shouting is constantly heard after someone jumps the line or complains over the small portions. At night, dozens of people sleep out in the open as there are not enough tents or shipping containers for everyone. At the same time, anxiety and frustration is widespread and tensions are rising, while riots and clashes with the police occur often.
“I’m not sure if the government and the administration can manage with this new law, because we don’t have the manpower, there are too many applications here, and I don’t know how I’ll manage all this procedure,” Chatzichalkias said talking about the immigration law that Greece voted last month in which it ruled that Turkey was a safe country and even asylum-seekers could be deported there.
As the conditions in the Moria Detention Camp continue to deteriorate, hundreds of people have been escaping every night and taking refuge at a beach near the Mytilini port. Around 50 tents are set up at the beach and around 250 people have been living here for months.
Old furniture and wood have been slapped together to create sofas. Migrants sit staring at the sea, while others swim to cool off from the hot Greek sun.
Omar Faruk, 24, sleeps in a tent with five of his friends. One of them had brought a cold bottle of Coke, which was being shared between them. This is the second time Faruk has come to Greece. When he was 16, he left Pakistan due to a vendetta against his family. He worked in the Peloponnese islands as a farmer, happy with his new life and his boss. When he saw that the migration route was open last summer and learned his brother was getting married, he decided to visit his family for a week. When he tried to return, he found that the Europeans had shut the borders. “Back in March, I had Pakistani friends that were allowed to register and continue on their way to Germany. I was unlucky,” he says.
“My boss is waiting for me,” he says. “Can’t he sponsor me? He wants me to work for him.”
Ali, a thin 22-year-old man from Sialkot is staying with Faruk. He’s got a scar on his nose from an attack he survived at the Iranian border. “I worked in Pakistan, but didn’t make enough money,” he says. “I have to feed my mother and my brothers. But everything is too expensive.”
Looking at the Aegean toward the Turkish shore, he says: “I don’t want to be sent back. What will I do in Turkey? I prefer to die. I prefer dying here in Greece than in Pakistan. At least someone here will hear us.”
From our Aug. 13-20, 2016, issue.