LESVOS, Greece – “I’m fine. My situation is not,” Tasif Ali told me in April, while standing on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos.
Tasif is a lanky 20-year-old from Pakistan with a generous mop of black hair, a strong nose and a missing front tooth that he might have lost during his journey. When I met him, he was living in an unofficial camp organized by a volunteer group called the Open Borders Kitchen.
At the beginning of March, he crossed the Aegean Sea in an overcrowded rubber dinghy arranged by smugglers on the Turkish coast with the dream of reaching Western Europe. But his hopes of continuing on were dashed on March 8 when Macedonian authorities closed their border with Greece to refugees and migrants. More than 50,000 people were stranded in the Hellenic Republic due to the closure.
After a long and expensive journey, during which he was kidnapped, beaten and held for ransom, Tasif is now stuck. Along with thousands of others, he faces detention and deportation under a recent agreement between the EU and Turkey aimed at stemming the flow of people across the Aegean into Europe. Tasif was right. His situation was not good.
Earlier in the day, two ferries chugged out to sea from the port of Mytilene, the island’s capital, clearly visible from where Tasif was standing. They carried the first 136 people, almost exclusively South Asians, to be deported from Greece back to Turkey.
Under the E.U.-Turkey agreement, people stranded in Greece have the right to apply for asylum. But even if they qualify, their claims can be rejected and they can still be deported under the premise that Turkey provides protection for asylum seekers that is equivalent to what they would receive in Europe.
Human rights organizations have heavily criticized the agreement and the claim that Turkey is a “safe country” for refugees. Several days before the deal went into effect, Amnesty International released a report documenting the forced return from Turkey of around 100 Syrians per day since mid-January. At the end of March, Amnesty also documented the forced return of around 30 asylum seekers to Afghanistan.
The agreement has also solidified a kind of hierarchy among asylum seekers. Syrians are widely viewed as legitimate refugees, as a guard outside of the Moria detention center, based five miles north of Mytilene, said to me. Others, particularly those from South Asia and North Africa, are seen as economic migrants piggybacking on the legitimate flight of Syrians. “There is no war in Pakistan,” as the guard said.
This perception heavily influences the approval process of asylum claims. “Where you’re from depends a great deal on the success of the claim,” said Daniel Szabo, a communication officer with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
But people from countries other than Syria are not just making their way to Europe for economic reasons, according to Szabo. “Some of these people are in very vulnerable situations, but don’t fall into that refugee category,” he said. The fate of these people – people like Tasif – under the E.U.-Turkey agreement is entirely unclear.
“I’m not coming here for money. I’m coming here to save my life,” Tasif said as people milled around the Open Borders Kitchen camp and the fading daylight cast long shadows of small tents camped across the ground. Like most of the Pakistanis in the camp, Tasif is from the Punjab region of Pakistan.
An ongoing series of border skirmishes with India that began in 2014 left dozens dead in the area, while flooding of the Chenab River killed hundreds and displaced over 100,000 in the past two years. To add to the climactic displacement, terrorist attacks in Pakistan have caused more than 300 civilian deaths since January 2015. The combined effect of these events led Tasif to seek a safer and more secure life in Europe. But the clandestine journey to get here was far from straightforward.
Along the way, Tasif put himself at the mercy of smugglers. After traveling from the Pakistani port of Karachi to Iran, his handlers put him on a bus. “There was no food. No water,” Tasif said. But it turned out that hunger and thirst were the least of his woes.
Tasif was kidnapped by the very people who were helping him flee.
“They said give us $2,000, and we will release you,” Tasif told me. The men beat him on the head and back with sticks and forced him to call his family for ransom money, but Tasif’s family couldn’t pay. Finally, two men in the group were able to come up with the ransom, a total of $4,000 dollars. Tasif and the others were allowed to continue their journey. The difficulties, however, didn’t end there.
Crossing the border from Iran into Turkey took 12 hours of walking across challenging terrain. During the trek, security forces opened fire on the group. Having narrowly escaped the gunshots,Tasif took a bus to Istanbul and then on to Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city and main portal for human smuggling. After spending less than seven days in Turkey, he boarded a rubber dinghy with 77 people and headed out to sea. “It’s capacity was written clearly, ‘For 18 people only,’” Tasif said incredulously.
“After I reached here the Greek Navy said: ‘Welcome to Europe.’ But, where is [the] welcome to Europe?” Tasif asked, sweeping his hand across the crowded, makeshift camp on the beach.
The trip took Tasif a month and cost him a little bit over $5,000. “I sold my home in Pakistan to get here,” Tasif, the eldest of six siblings, told me. “If I go back, I won’t have money and I won’t have a home.”
The evening I spoke with Tasif, there was a sense that the organization that held the Open Borders Kitchen camp together over several months of refugee arrivals was starting to fray. The dumpsters were overflowing. People were moving around with a frenetic energy. The packing pallets stacked at the entrance indicated that the place was being slowly dismantled.
Earlier in the day, the police came and informed the roughly 500 residents, mostly from South Asia and North Africa, that they would be evicted in two days. Everyone would be taken to Moria, an official refugee camp and registration point that has been turned into a detention center under the E.U.-Turkey agreement. From there, the expectation was that it would only be a matter of time before the people living in the Open Borders Kitchen camp were deported.
“Not safe Moria. Not safe Turkey. Not safe Pakistan,” Tasif said when I asked him about the future. “Many people say they will commit suicide if they go to Turkey. I will not go. Turkey is not safe for me. We wish to go to another country in Europe.”
The talk of suicide was not just hyperbole. There have been at least three attempts inside Moria, a former prison that is over capacity by about 1,000 people and surrounded with high fences topped with spools of razor wire, according to media reports and the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR. Frustrations in the camp, without enough tents to house everyone and lack of adequate sanitation given the overcrowding, recently boiled over into riots.
Tasif’s agitation is shared by others awaiting eviction. “We’re waiting here for the people to come and take us to Turkey,” Nabil, a dejected looking Algerian sitting with two friends at the entrance of the Open Borders Kitchen camp, told me. “If there was anything in Algeria, I would have stayed there. There’s nothing there.” The official unemployment rate for youth in Algeria is almost 30 percent.
Rumors were flying in the camp, and accurate information was difficult to come by. Nobody actually knew what was going to happen or when. “Do you know when the police will come?” Nabil asked, a flicker of hope flashing across his face.
The Open Borders Kitchen did not close immediately. But, on April 21, Greek police came early in the morning and placed the remaining residents of the camp on buses bound for Moria. The informal venue that had fed tens of thousands transiting through the island was closed.
People in Moria, and elsewhere in Greece, have now entered an indeterminate period of waiting. After 346 people were deported during the first week of April, returns to Turkey have slowed to a trickle because of heavy criticism from human rights organizations. “The first round of European Union-sanctioned deportations … was rushed, chaotic and violated the rights of those deported,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a press statement.
Logistical challenges have also impeded the returns. There are a large number of people applying for asylum in Greece. The E.U. promised to send experts to help process the claims, but most of the support has yet to arrive.
There are further concerns about non-Syrians deported to Turkey under the agreement. Syrians are automatically granted “Temporary Protection” status, but the fate of individuals from other nationalities is unclear. Turkey does not have a status that gives legal rights or protection to vulnerable people who are not considered refugees, according to Wenzel Michalski, HRW’s director for Germany.
Instead of allowing people to stay in the country, Turkey is seeking to send them back to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. On April 15, Turkey signed a readmission agreement with Pakistan to help expedite this process and is negotiating readmission agreements with a number of other countries.
Adding to the uncertainty for those facing deportation, nothing is known about the treatment or conditions of the people who have already been sent back to Turkey. “All these people disappeared inside a detention center in Turkey,” Michalski said over the phone. International and human rights organizations have been denied access to the facility where they are being held. “They’re behind walls and fences and nobody has seen them,” he said.
Barring any changes in the implementation of the E.U.-Turkey agreement, for Tasif – and other people facing likely deportation from Greece – this is the future that awaits.
Route Mediterranean is our series focusing on one of several refugee routes that form the Mediterranean crossings.
This series has been produced with support from Medium magazine.