No choice but fear: police violence and arbitrary arrests of refugees on Lesvos

A week of police violence, arbitrary arrests and abuse of the rule of law has shown that the thousands of refugees stilled trapped here on Lesvos face an impossible choice. Either attempt to resist the border regime and face an immediate, cruel crackdown – or keep quiet, keep your head down, and be deported anyway. Nonetheless, our refugee friends continue to self-organise, with the victory of a group of hunger-strikers this week setting a standard of compassion and solidarity which Volunteers for Lesvos can only hope to emulate in our own work across the island.

With around 700 arrivals to the island in the last fortnight alone, Moria prison camp is over-crowded and threatening to burst. After 12 months’ wait or more, many refugees have seen little or no progress on their cases. In recent weeks these frustrations have boiled over into protests in and around the camp. The vicious police response, which has to be seen to be believed, has been caught on camera by refugee activists within Moria.

Riot police, with faces masked, pelt the demonstrators with stones. A refugee in t-shirt and shorts slides down a loose scree slope and places his hands upon his head, only for the police to fall upon him and batter him with boots and batons. Another protester, already handcuffed, is kicked to the ground by a mob of police. Everywhere, the same border regime which condemns the “barbarism” of the refugees is lashing out with medieval brutality.

Following the protest, riot police – including new squads freshly imported from Athens – reportedly roamed through the camp, arresting at random anyone who seemed to share the protesters’ ethnic background. One victim lost consciousness after being beaten on the neck with a baton, waking up four hours later in hospital in a severe condition. He was bodily dragged to the prison van by police, leaving him with wounds all over his body. Others spent up to six days in jail awaiting their pre-trial hearing without access to a doctor, arriving to court splattered in blood and still with open wounds. In total, 35 arrests were made.

Despite a total paucity of evidence against them, these 35 detainees will likely now be dispersed to prisons all over Greece, to languish for perhaps a year or more until their case is heard. On top of their ongoing asylum claims, they now face heavy legal fees and long-term isolation from their friends and countrymen.

The ‘Lesvos 35’ must not be forgotten, but they are not the only victims of the police response to last week’s protests. In the early hours of Monday morning, riot police swept on Moria and surrounding social centres in their hundreds, carrying out waves of arrests. Along with the swelling numbers of arrivals to the island and local pressure ahead of a hard-right protest which will take place in the principal city of Mytilene this Wednesday, one motivating factor must surely be a desire to repress further protest. The message is clear: stand up to us and we will deport your friends and family.

Some of those detained were released after it was proved they still had papers and could not legally be deported, but scores more were not so lucky. Perhaps 35 more refugees have now joined the ranks of those awaiting deportation, now occurring on a near-daily basis. Those who escaped the round-up are more terrified than ever before. Wednesday’s right-wing demonstration against the situation on the island is expected to include members of local fascist organisations, only increasing fears. But in a sense, the refugees and the anti-refugee protesters are demanding the same thing: that the European border regime allows the asylum-seekers trapped here to move on and build a life for themselves elsewhere in Greece or Europe, free from the persecution they fled in their countries of origin.

It is clear that these calls are not being heard, but our refugee comrades continue to give us hope. After 25 days of starvation, Arash Hampay and his fellow hunger strikers inside Moria prison camp won a small but inspiring victory, securing the release of his brother Amir – imprisoned for months following an attempt to illegally deport him while his case was still outstanding.

Amir’s strike is finished as he recuperates, ‘free’ for the first time in months, but Arash continues his strike alongside the imprisoned Kozhin Hussein and Bahrooz Arash. Though we celebrate his release, it is important to remember that he still faces deportation should his challenge be rejected. You can stand alongside Amir and the imprisoned protesters by joining Arash in a 24-hour hunger strike – visit his Facebook for details – or organising solidarity events in your home cities across the world.

Moreover, every one of the thousands of refugees under threat of deportation deserves the same level of attention and support.

You can support Volunteers for Lesvos in their work by:

Respekt für Griechenland e.V., GLS Bank,
IBAN DE15 4306 0967 1175 7746 02;  BIC: GENO DE M 1 GLS
Purpose of donation: “Volunteers for Lesvos”

You will receive an acknowledgement/tax receipt, if you provide your full    name and address

Perhaps it is best to close with Arash’s words, as the seasoned human rights activist – who has faced torture, imprisonment and the murder of family members in his native Iran – expressed his shock at his treatment by the European border authorities. He writes: “How dare they speak in the beautiful language of human rights? How dare they talk about humanity and law and democracy? How dare they condemn human rights abuses in other countries when they are committing human rights abuses here, themselves?” We urge you to add your voice, energy and rage to his.

M.B., 25.07.17


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