No refuge for refugees: life in the refugee camps in Greece

Content Warning: This post includes descriptions of violence.

By Catherine Bruce, Director, Refugee Law Office Toronto

In September 2016, I spent two weeks working with a group of international volunteers and interpreters in a refugee camp in Greece. This is my account of my experiences.

The trauma invaded my dreams

Perhaps I should start by saying that after my first day working in the camps, I dreamed that I saw an airplane circle around and around in the sky.

In my dream I was lying on the beach. And I was thinking to myself in my dream: why is that plane circling and what is the pilot in that plane watching? And then I saw that the pilot was watching a helicopter and the helicopter was coming to the ground. And as it landed, people jumped out of it, and suddenly on the ground next to me everyone was screaming and shouting, “run, they are shooting”. And I got up and ran, and then I woke up.

On the second night that I was here I dreamed that I was in a car, and then the person in the back seat suddenly covered my head with a hood and I was abducted.  I screamed for help, but my cry reverberated into silent emptiness.

Suffice it to say that in the 15 years that I have represented refugee claimants, I have never seen trauma like I am seeing here in my life before, nor has it ever invaded my dreams in the way that is has here.

Three camps on Chios

There are three camps on Chios, one of the three Greek islands off the coast of Turkey where refugees are being held and where I am working. Two are close to the waterfront. One of these, just outside the wall of an ancient castle, consists of tents and plastic tarps crammed between a corridor on the streets. The other is a mixture of UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) tents and containers.

The third, located about 20 minutes by taxi inland, consists of metal container upon metal container surrounded by a barbed wire fence—in appearance a prison, not a shelter for the desperate and the desperately traumatized.

It is here that refugees wait, many for six months and counting, in situations of desperation and danger (yes, the camps are dangerous) for their claims to be processed by a Greek asylum system bursting at the seams with the sudden influx of men, women and children; the persecuted, the tortured and the dispossessed.

Traumatized minors and witnesses

There are many unaccompanied desperately traumatized children here. If they are from “non-refugee-producing countries” like Algeria and Nigeria (yes, Algeria and Nigeria) and cannot prove their age, they are detained.

Early this week, a child said he would kill himself if he was kept in prison one more day, while a baby-faced 15-year-old boy slashed himself 20 times, because he was so desperate to get an answer to his asylum claim and to get out of the camps.

There is story after story of Syrians who witnessed beheadings, or who watched as bombs fell on their houses, who tell of how they ran back to find their mother and father and siblings dead in the rubble, and not only dead, but the bodies of their loved ones dismembered and in pieces; a disembodied head here, a severed limb there.

People told me how they would collect the severed limbs of the injured and put them in the ambulances with the dead, dying and injured without knowing whose leg or arm it was, hoping that the doctors at the hospital might find out to whom the limb belonged and re-attach it. Of kids who watched from their balconies as snipers picked off people in the streets below, murdered for no other reason than that they happened to be on the street below.

Personal accounts

Should I tell you of the 20-year-old Syrian who says he doesn’t trouble himself with thinking about whether God exists or not because whether you believe in God or whether you do not, God metes out the same brutality to everyone?

Or of the conscript who shook violently as he told the tale and relived the carnage of a truck packed with explosives which detonated with such force that the blast threw one person through a wall, another up into a tree where he was impaled by the branches, and his best friend so hard against the floor that his spine was blown through his back.

Or of the man whose eyes told the story, later confirmed in a harrowing six-hour interview, of tanks that crushed innocent men, women and children, of desecrated bodies with their fingers cut off, of witnessed rape, and mass pillaging?

No psychiatric help

Despite the clear and desperate need for it, there seems to be virtually no psychiatric assistance here for the many thousands of people – men, women, children – who are so deeply traumatized by what they have witnessed, endured, or been forced to take part in.

Yesterday, volunteers witnessed a man, in desperation, stabbing himself in the throat in an attempt to kill himself. This was one of several suicide attempts that have taken place over the last few weeks and months in the camps.

Internationally realpolitik, not basic humanity, seems to matter

Should I tell you of the agreement that Europe signed with Turkey, pursuant to which Syrians who made, and make it, to Greece after March 20, 2016 are supposed to be returned to Turkey, because Turkey has agreed to allow Syrians to remain in Turkey (but not other refugees) and because Europe therefore considers Turkey to be a “safe” third country for Syrians?

“Safe”, despite the fact that we are hearing story after credible story of how Turkish gendarmes shoot at Syrians trying to cross the border into Turkey, sometimes killing those fleeing in desperation, frequently returning them across the border back into Syria, and sometimes actually delivering them directly back into the hands of ISIS fighters in Syria.

“Safe” despite the fact that Turkey has suffered a recent coup attempt, is responsible for massive human rights abuses, and is at war with its Kurdish population.

The only “good” thing I can report is that, despite this agreement, Turkey is currently not actually accepting Syrians returned from Greece, because Europe has not held up its part of the deal to let Turks travel visa free through Europe, and until it does, Turkey is refusing to accept the asylum claimants back.

It’s difficult to conclude anything other than that realpolitik matters, and that basic humanity does not.

A world caring only about its own individual boundaries

Should I write of a Europe and a world that for the most part cares only about its own individual boundaries?

Of a Britain that in 2015 accepted only 60 refugees per 100,000 of the population while Sweden in the same period and in contrast accepted 1,667 refugees per 100,000 of the population?

Or of a Canada that prides itself on accepting just over 30,000 Syrian refugees in the past twelve months when Germany received 476,000 asylum applications in 2015 alone?

Should I tell you of the closed borders in Europe that prevent any of the asylum claimants trapped in Greece from moving on, unless they employ human smugglers, at great risk and at a cost which most no longer have the means to meet, to get them out of Greece illegally?

That some are considering selling a kidney as a way to get out? That the passageways of the smuggled are littered with the bodies of the men, women and children who died, or who were killed, in the attempt to reach safety?

Should I speak of the traumatized nuclear families separated from one another by the Greek asylum system, one family member told they must return to Turkey, another that they will be permitted to stay in Greece, despite their obvious mutual dependence?

Or of the fact that hundreds of refugees who arrived in Greece on March 19th before the agreement went into effect were registered as arriving on March 20th, so the Greek authorities could wipe their hands of responsibility for them?

How much greater will the wall of shame grow, and what will be the international consequences in terms of world stability and peace?

So much trauma, so much anger

There is so much trauma, so much anger here, that inevitably, some of the traumatized and the oppressed carry their anger and their hatred with them and victimize both others and “the other” in the camps.

Also inevitably, given the pressure-cooker environment in which people are living, the basic circumstances of their existence, the trauma which they have endured, the lengthy delays they have faced, the uncertainty of their futures, anger sometimes explodes.

During my first week in Greece, there was a demonstration in the inland camp. I was on the phone speaking with one of the US lawyers, when suddenly I could hear gunfire in the background.

The camp was locked down, the volunteers in the guarded section in the middle. Everyone was safe, no one harmed. But no-one could get out or in to the camp for the rest of the day either until security was assured.

What we do

As for what we do on a day-to-day basis, some of us work with unaccompanied children, others help local Greek lawyers appeal individualized Turkey safe third-country decisions.

The former involves representing unaccompanied children at refugee hearings conducted in English, trying to get them released from detention and trying to discover if they have “Dublin” claims (which would allow them to be reunited with family members elsewhere in Europe).

With respect to the appeal work, refugees typically appear before the tribunal of first instance determining individualized safe third country claims without legal representation: we are therefore interviewing clients from scratch to document their asylum claims, and to highlight situations of individual vulnerability (though who among the persecuted is not vulnerable?) and to document their personalized experiences to show that they are not safe in Turkey. Once complete, our interview notes then go to the Greek lawyers who draft the appeals based on the facts we have collected.

Dealing with vicarious trauma

To deal with the vicarious trauma we inevitably suffer, the team of volunteers meets for breakfast every morning before our work in the camps begins, and supper every night after the day is over.

This helps quite a bit; we have a great group of volunteers.

The island itself is beautiful and since the camps are now open, we can interview where we want.

I often choose to do my interviews in a chilled out Café, in the warm and beautiful sunshine, rather than in the grim environment of the camps. The experience is surreal: sharing a coffee in a beautiful setting, with people recounting stories of the most horrendous brutality in the context of a world torn between countries willing to do a limited something but not enough, and countries wanting to wash their hands entirely of the crushing problem of lives ripped apart by dictatorship, war and bloodshed.

Panic in light of a new development: denial of appeals and imprisonment

Meanwhile on Friday there was a new development on the islands: a Syrian whose appeal of a safe third country decision was denied was imprisoned to prevent him from fleeing the island and to safeguard his eventual return from Greece to Turkey.

The denial of his appeal came in the aftermath of changes made to the composition of the three-member panel Appeal Board. Initially composed of two Greek lawyers with human rights expertise and a lawyer from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Appeal Board overturned many first level safe third country decisions.

The response of the Greek government was to replace the human rights lawyers on the Appeal Board with corporate lawyers, a change that can only be interpreted as intended to produce the appeal denials that subsequently ensued.

Word of this and the detention of the denied appellate spread like wildfire through the camp; panic ensued among the Syrian refugees. That same night, seven Syrian refugees, petrified of being returned from Greece to Turkey, and from Turkey back into the land of their persecution and into the hands of their persecutors, tried to flee the islands. Crushed together in the refrigerator of a ferry leaving the islands, all seven suffocated to death, an outcome so common in an indifferent world that the major newspapers did not even bother to report the tragedy.

As for me…

As for me, I listen to tale after tale of horrendous brutality, each account different from the last, each account as harrowing as the next.

Observing the world’s indifference to humanity’s cry, I have never been in a situation where saying the words, “I hear you” or “I am so sorry” sounds quite so hollow or quite so useless…

Catherine Bruce is the Legal Aid Ontario’s Refugee Law Office Director. Before that, she worked in private practice as a refugee lawyer for 13 years, representing clients from around the world. She has appeared at all levels of the adjudicative process, including the Supreme Court of Canada.



Currently, an estimated 62,000 refugees are stranded in Greece, including 15,995 trapped on the islands. 4,211 of these are in Chios, living in camps designed to hold no more than 1,100 people, and a further 6124 reside in camps in Lesvos, where conditions are equally as appalling as in Chios, if not worse.   

 In September hundreds of refugees in Moira camp in Lesvos were forced to flee after violence broke out in the camp after a women and her grandchild died in gas explosions.  On  November 19th and November 19th,  xenophobic  attacks  by members of a far right political party in Greece, who lobbed Molotov cocktails into tents in Souda camp in Chios,  left hundreds of refugees sleeping out in the open rather than risk the unsafe conditions in the camp itself.    There have also been reported incidents of  sexual assault and rape on the camps, rendering the camps particularly unsafe for women.  Although the camps are no place for children, thousands of children are trapped within their confines, among them hundreds of unaccompanied minors.   Indeed, there  are estimated to be 1,100 children trapped in Chios alone, 700 of whom are under the age of 8, and 120 of whom are unaccompanied minors.

Nor is there an end in sight to the misery.  On the contrary, there are reports from Amnesty International that Greece recently returned 8 Syrians to Turkey illegally.  As well Europe’s borders remain sealed firmly shut to refugees.  Thus,  despite pledges from Europe to relocate asylum seekers on a quota based system, between September 2015 and September 2016, only 3734 asylum seekers have been relocated from Greece to other parts of Europe – just 6% of the promised total of European relocations.

And sadly, despite presenting itself as a beacon of hope and tolerance in a world which would deny refuge to those who so desperately need it, Canada’s hands are not clean either.  On the contrary,  because Greece has ratified the UN Refugee Convention the Canadian government takes the position that those trapped on Greece’s shores have a “durable solution” to their problems of forced displacement, persecution, torture and brutality on a scale the like of which the world has rarely, if ever, seen.  As a result of its durable solution stance, the Canadian government will not relocate refugees from Greece, and a potential route out through private sponsorship to the safety of Canada’s shore remains, to all intents and purposes, effectively blocked.

And so it is that thousands of desperately traumatized men, women and children are trapped in desolate, unsafe, unsanitary open air prisons on Greece’s remote shores, deprived of hope and denied a future.  

It is time for the world to recognize that the refugees trapped in Greece are people, not pawns, to whom the world owes a duty of protection.   This is not charity, this is not ask, this is our responsibility, a responsibility to respond to humanity’s cry for help and plea for compassion.

The world and Canada can, and must, do better.

Read: Amnesty International Messages from Greece: Our Hope is Broken