by Michelle Brucker
“They didn’t take him, because he was too young to carry a gun.” This was the answer a young migrant offered, when explaining why the Taliban had not recruited his eight-year-old brother before they made the trek to Europe. They, like most unaccompanied migrants in Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece, came from Afghanistan not out of choice, but out of necessity. For them, the cost of survival meant leaving behind their belongings and their home, and even losing family members.
Abhrim was fifteen years old when he crossed the Afghanistan-Iran border, seen as a series of straight lines that do not resemble the uncertain stop-and-go kind of journey this young migrant took in his efforts to reach safety. The sun had already set when Abhrim’s family set towards their path from Afghanistan to the European continent. It was the most dangerous part of the journey, where Iranian officers are known to have killed illegal migrants with their bare hands or by shooting them from a distance. There were two groups travelling together that evening. The first one was composed of women, many clutching their babies and struggling to keep moving. Abhrim remembered his father suggesting that the young boy walk over to help the mothers handle their belongings, and he did just that. He could look over his shoulder and see his family following right behind. And so, the boy continued until he crossed the Turkish border. There, he waited six weeks, hoping to see his family drive up behind him. His three older brothers, mother, and father never reached Turkey while Abhrim was there. He was told to decide whether he wanted to take the last boat to Greece. His other option was to return to where the journey had begun.
Traveling as an undocumented immigrant begins with the decision to cross borders and put yourself at the risk of unjustified violence. Moreover, this individual or family decision is driven by both indirect and direct causes of combat in the region. In light of the ensuing European migrant crisis, which has already extended beyond the continent, foreign intervention is a key consideration, which has further escalated conflict in Afghanistan. After 2001, combat missions and foreign troops in Afghanistan positioned military presence derived from various national troops, initially drawn from the United States and the United Kingdom (later encompassing troops from over 40 contributing nations). The International Security Assistance force maintains its presence in Afghanistan today, and nearly half of all districts in the region are either controlled by the Taliban or contested (as either belonging to the Kabul government or the fundamentalist organizations). This paints a messy picture, tainted by rough diplomatic talks that ended in strife. International debate and political contestation amongst state and non-state actors continues to this day. Subsequently, it has become difficult to picture what life might be like when standing on the same ground, as a civilian rather than a threat. Civilians are, however, the majority of the population. While not all asylum applications are rendered viable for foreign residency, their stories cannot be denied. They all stem from the conflict, one way or another.
Visions and experiences of a shattered economy and destroyed buildings can attest to this. Sympathizing with this international public issue is not a commitment that fills the empty pockets of homeless refugees, nor is it used to drain state treasuries with already accumulated debt. More importantly, the included observations are referenced to raise awareness for those who experience first-hand the loss of their entire family, when capital did not stop them from escaping peril and police brutality did.
When Abhrim reached the northern coast of Lesbos, he slept on newspapers until he was found by another family who would care for him. He told them of children who had drowned on the journey to Greece, and did not hide his concerns for his family, for whom a Red Cross initiative is still searching across the Middle East and throughout the Mediterranean.
Elena Lyndon, a nurse and volunteer for Medical Volunteers International, came from Ireland to aid migrants arriving on the shores of Lesbos without a family. She says that she likes the “philosophy of the NGO.” Before Lesbos, Lyndon worked in a more relaxed environment, with hardly the number of patients she now sees on a daily basis. She is the mother of four children of her own, and, voluntarily, of another two thousand unaccompanied migrants living in Moria camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece. In April of this year, a year after Abhrim had left Afghanistan, I spoke with Lyndon over the phone after discovering a mutual friend. She began the phone call by explaining that she was working in a camp that had a maximum occupancy of 2,800 migrants but that currently contains over 22,000. She added that “150 migrants just arrived yesterday,” and more might arrive the following day, and the day after that.
When COVID-19 was classified as a pandemic and various countries began responding to the situation with lockdowns, there was an exodus of volunteers evacuating Lesbos’ Moria camp. Violence carried out by Greek authorities coalesced into clouds of tear gas, mass protests, and violent tension within migrant groups. Naval warships from Italy, England, Switzerland and Ireland were reportedly “supervising” the oceans for migrants crossing into European waters. Mrs. Lyndon explained: “That’s illegal. Once the boats are within European waters, Greece must let them in and onto shore.” Earlier this year, Greece suspended the right for migrants to apply for asylum, breaching international and European law (UN Declaration of Human rights and Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Rights). As of April 1st, this suspension has been lifted. This means that national authorities had not respected the repeal of this freeze on asylum applications – a violation of domestic law could also be deemed “illegal.”
Guards in Moria employed by the Greek government are yet another group initially responsible for “supervising” migrants, specifically children. Young children have witnessed forms of violence from various perpetrators – non-state actors in their countries of origin, border patrols, as well as other migrants. Both the children and those they interact with in the future would benefit from increased control to limit the replication of aggression. These are children who have not yet finished school or who arrive as newborn babies; their vulnerability to various forms of hostility is clear to anyone entering what should be a “safe zone.” Lyndon contrasted two different spaces by Moria camp, where unaccompanied minors can be found today: “the safe zone,” a sheltered space within the camp, or “the jungle,” a space sheltered only by shrubbery outside of the camp. Yet neither the jungle nor the safe zones are areas sheltered from sexual assault, abuse, stabbing and robbery. Even the guards themselves are responsible for these kinds of abuse.
Lyndon explained that after other volunteers were out of sight, “you could always see the EU flag and the Greek flag” within the camp’s grounds. Camp Moria is an EU-funded migrant camp and, despite its overbearing density of nearly ten times the occupancy limit, funds have not increased. Instead, Greek authorities suspended the right to asylum for migrants and the European Union invited select migrants to return to their countries of origin with an additional 2,000 euros in each of their pockets. These efforts were far from sufficient. The flags might not have moved, but the authorities that they symbolize have been changing their policies nearly every month. These changes have only made things worse.
Abhrim, other Afghani citizens, and internationals alike know the Taliban as a brutal organization responsible for the death of Afghani soldiers and civilians, and the forced recruitment of boys and men, throughout the region and beyond. Abhrim decided to continue his journey after noticing the absence of his family. His decision was justified. He could have been an easy target, both before recruitment and as a combat soldier himself for the organization. Yet, even the Taliban astonished some members of the international community by facing the COVID-19 pandemic and health crisis with the organization of medical resources and protective equipment. Children, including Abhrim, could not have predicted nor seen this international health crisis as a potential motivator during their voyages across sand dunes and choppy seas. In this regard, they too face unexpected surprises while in new countries. The safety of migrants is jeopardized from the moment conflict ravages the safety of their homes, to the moment they find new ones. Migrant camps are like instruments of “island hopping”- a military strategy used by the United States, involving the use of ‘safe zones’ to escape attack by both land and sea, except that migrants do not fight back, and they’re more vulnerable in this climate than in any other.
One piece of fruit every month: this is the diet on which children have to live. As numbers in the camp increase and funding does not, food rations have decreased in both quality and quantity. The breakfast queue starts at 4am, and if you arrive at 7 o’clock, Lyndon describes, “you would be too late.” Lunch is a small container of rice and beans or rice and a piece of chicken, about the size of a tablespoon. Dinner used to be a sandwich, fruit, and a boiled egg. Now, “most days everyone gets a boiled egg.” Lyndon and various organizations working at Moria do whatever possible to improve the diets of residents. She was invited to lead a nutrition workshop to better the diets of unaccompanied minors, who have trouble remembering the last meal that left them feeling anything but hungry.
It is hard to sympathize from afar, let alone for individuals with whom you have not had direct contact. But it is also difficult to leave your families to find protection against persecution. Lyndon is not the only volunteer who has noticed Moria’s absence of humane conditions, and she will not be the last. Migrants in Moria refugee camp are under unfathomable pressure from government authorities, bystanders, protesters and even their neighbors. The pressure that they face is all due to an increasingly unstable environment, in which families and unaccompanied children are the scapegoats of financial disparities, fiscal irresponsibility, war and much more.
The unaccompanied children under Lyndon’s care typically wait 2 to 4 hours every day in line for their next meal. When their turn comes, food shortages sometimes force them to skip meals, or receive nothing more than a boiled egg for dinner, as is the case most days. Other non-governmental organizations were previously on site, working to compensate these food shortages. Now, the children depend on the individual actions and contributions of volunteers like Lyndon herself. Still, they are living on less than 1000 calories each day. Considering that many are observant Muslims and in observance of Ramadan, it is not unheard of for children to miss out on all meals offered by authorities throughout the day. Today, the international health crisis has brought challenges to many of us, including migrants. I was grateful to have been contacted by Lyndon herself in light of this situation. There is a discernible need for many of us to ameliorate the effects of a pandemic. However, it is not difficult to confirm that it hits some much harder than others. It then should not be difficult to pay recognition to a scarcity of resources, a rupture seen across every border housing migrants without roofs.
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