Category Archives: refugees

A crisis within a crisis: Refugees in Lesbos

Amani and Aliya, 10-year-old twins, fish in the port of Mytilene in Lesbos, Greece. Their family fled Iraq after ISIS killed their uncle and have been stranded in Greece for more than a year as their asylum case is processed.

Two families – one Greek, one Iraqi – come together in a Lesbos hotel, looking for stability amid their own crises.

Lesbos, Greece — Upstairs in the Blue Star hotel, Iman* cooks a large pasta dish and makes tea; a luxury after going without her own stove for more than a year. After dinner, the Alsamaray family* disperses.

Khalil, Iman’s husband, catches up on the latest news from the family’s hometown of Mosul, Iraq. Jamil, 13, goes out, while his sisters Amani and Aliya, 10-year-old twins, lie in bed and watch YouTube videos until they fall asleep.

The family had lived for 10 months in an overcrowded migrant centre in Lesbos, Greeceuntil January, when they moved in to the hotel as part of a United Nations initiative to place vulnerable refugees in better housing during the winter.

Since 2015, more than a million refugees have come through Greece, often on their way to western Europe. Like the Alsamarays, thousands remain stranded until their asylum claims are processed; they find themselves in a crisis within a crisis, fleeing violence only to often spend more than a year in a country stretched thin over the past decade by a financial crisis.

While their refugee guests dine upstairs, the Makris family tries to wind down after a long day. They clear the table from the catering delivered to feed asylum seekers and hotel owner Dimitrios Makris fields calls. There’s a long list of tasks to be completed in time for the tourist season, even if in recent years fewer tourists have been arriving.

At a time of unprecedented economic strife when Greeks are struggling to get by, the refugee crisis adds to the pressure on Greece – while also providing some locals with much-needed income.

Inside these crises, the Alsamarays and the Makrises each fight to survive. Both families know that life can be upended overnight and what it means to be exiled, and both fear their best days are behind them. But, at least for a moment, under one roof, they also give each other what they desperately need: a measure of stability among the uncertainty.

Continue reading at Al Jazeera.

Wie der Ausnahmezustand auf Lesbos zum Alltag wurde

After marching themselves, a brother and sister watch the Greek Independence Day parade in downtown Mytilene. Photo by Talitha Brauer.
Nach der Flüchtlingskrise erholt sich die griechische Insel Lesbos langsam. Doch der Bürgermeister fürchtet, dass die echten Herausforderungen noch bevorstehen
Mayor Spyros Galinos at work in his office at the new town hall in Mytilene, Lesvos. Photo by Talitha Brauer.

Keine Zelte mehr, keine Müllhaufen – auch die vielen Freiwilligen sind verschwunden. Die Not der Flüchtlinge auf der griechischen Insel Lesbos hat die kleine Hafenstadt Mytilini einst auf die Titelseiten von Zeitungen in der ganzen Welt gebracht. Jetzt erinnert in der historischen Altstadt kaum noch etwas an die humanitäre Krise, die das Leben hier so lange geprägt hat. Und dennoch: Wer heute an Lesbos denkt, denkt an die Flüchtlinge, sagen sie auf der Insel.

Dabei kommen längst nicht mehr so viele Flüchtlinge wie noch vor zwei Jahren. Die Balkanroute ist geschlossen, das Rücknahme-Abkommen von EU und Türkei nach wie vor in Kraft. Doch bei den Migranten, die dort sind, wächst die Verzweiflung.

„Die Lage scheint sich derzeit zu entspannen, aber wenn man genauer hinschaut, ist es nicht so einfach“, sagt Achilleas Tzemos. Er ist Projektkoordinator von Ärzte ohne Grenzen auf Lesbos. Viele seien in überfüllten Lagern untergebracht – mit ungewisser Zukunft, was zu schweren psychischen Problemen führe. Vor wenigen Wochen zündete sich ein Syrer auf der benachbarten Insel Chios an – er überlebte nur knapp. Drei Tage davor hatte sich ein anderer in der Nähe von Athen erhängt.

Seit 2015 sind mehr als eine Million Flüchtlinge über Griechenland nach Europa gekommen. In der Hochphase landeten an einem Wochenende bis zu 10000 Menschen an Lesbos’ Küsten, hungrig und erschöpft von der Überfahrt. In der Regel warteten sie ein paar Tage, bevor sie eine Fähre Richtung Festland bestiegen, von wo aus sie nach Schweden oder Deutschland weiterreisten. Nun müssen sie bleiben, bis ihre Asylgesuche entschieden sind.

Continue reading at Der Tagesspiegel.

Europe, Germany Brace for African Migrants as Record Numbers Land in Sicily

In past years, bad weather meant people stop making the dangerous Mediterranean route from Libya, but not this year. There were three landings in just two days in one bad-weather weekend. Photo by Anke Trojan.
As European countries pull back from past commitments to accepting refugees, tens of thousands linger in Italy as they navigate an overwhelmed asylum system.

News started to spread on a Friday evening that a sea landing with nearly 600 people — including more than 100 minors — was expected next morning at Sicily’s port of Catania. It was the middle of January and an unusually cold, rainy week, but none of that mattered. More people kept coming and more continued to die.

That weekend alone, nearly 2,000 were rescued. Half a dozen others arrived in white plastic bags. In Messina, an imam and a priest led prayers for two of them as their relatives mourned their loss, shivering under blankets.

Others, burned from the mixture of fuel and salt water, were taken directly to the hospital, where those who made the trip before them brought them a phone to call their families and reminded them that they should be grateful to be alive. Since January, 602 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the central Mediterranean route, following the deadliest year yet with 4,600 deaths in 2016.

The reasons behind what pushes this group of mostly Sub-Saharan Africans to risk death and endure beatings, rapes and exploitation on their way to Europe are as complex as the individuals themselves. Yet their fate often comes down to a binary decision: they are either refugees where they happen to land, fleeing war or persecution, or they continue their journey and are economic migrants looking for jobs.

And even as the line between both conditions becomes blurrier, it also keeps moving.

Outside immigration centers, migrants and asylum seekers insist they want to keep heading north. “Germany is my country,” one man from Senegal said. “In Germany they like African people,” he insisted.

What they don’t know or talk about is how European countries are erecting fences to stop people from going north and governments are making deals with countries in Africa, including quasi-states such as Libya, to send people back. Now with rising anti-immigrant rhetoric and upcoming elections, politicians and citizens increasingly say countries like Germany can’t take everyone who comes in, especially the Africans.

So far this year, nearly 25,000 people have arrived in Sicily, a trend that if continues could break last year’s record of 181,000. And just as thousands arrive almost weekly, tens of thousands linger in Italy as they navigate an overwhelmed asylum system, appeal their rejected claims or are stranded here — unwilling or unable to go back.

Continue reading at Coda Story.

Schicksalsroute Libyen – Sizilien

Sicherer Hafen. Seit Anfang des Jahres sind mehr als 13.400 Flüchtlinge nach Italien gekommen. Foto: Anke Trojan.
Vergewaltigungen, Prügel, willkürliche Haft: Wer es als Flüchtling über Libyen nach Sizilien schafft, berichtet von furchtbaren Erlebnissen. Ein Bericht aus Catania.

Am Freitagabend verbreitet sich das Gerücht, dass am nächsten Morgen bis zu 600 Menschen in Catania, der zweitgrößten Stadt Siziliens, ankommen werden – darunter mehr als 100 minderjährige Flüchtlinge. Alle werden über Libyen nach Europa gereist sein, und viele von ihnen werden auffallend ähnliche Geschichten erzählen, über Schläge, Vergewaltigung, Erpressung in einem faktisch gescheiterten Staat.

Mitte Januar. Es ist ungewöhnlich kalt und regnerisch. Doch das ist unwichtig: Allein an diesem Wochenende werden fast 2000 Flüchtlinge aus dem Meer geborgen und nach Sizilien gebracht werden. Ein halbes Dutzend von ihnen in weißen Plastiksäcken oder Särgen. Ein Imam und ein katholischer Priester werden in Messina für sie beten, während ihre Verwandten – trotz Wärmedecken vor Kälte zitternd – ihren Verlust beklagen.

Seit Jahresbeginn kamen mindestens 440 Menschen auf dieser Flüchtlingsroute ums Leben, 2016 waren es im gleichen Zeitraum „nur“ 97. Mit dem EU-Türkei-Abkommen ist die zentrale Mittelmeerroute wieder zur meist genutzten Flüchtlingsroute geworden. Seit Januar sind bereits mehr als 13 400 Flüchtlinge in Italien angekommen, 9000 waren es im gleichen Zeitraum 2016 – einem Rekordjahr. Die meisten fliehen vor Krieg, Verfolgung und extremer Armut. Andere haben auf der Suche nach Arbeit zunächst jahrelang in Libyen gelebt, bis die Zustände dort unerträglich wurden.

Libyen steht im Zentrum einer Diskussion darüber, wie man die zentrale Mittelmeerroute abriegeln kann. Beim Gipfel in Malta einigten sich die EU-Staats- und Regierungschefs darauf, ihre Zusammenarbeit mit Libyen zu intensivieren, etwa über Ausbildungsmissionen für die Küstenwache des Landes oder Auffanglager.

Continue reading at Der Tagesspiegel.

Pregnant asylum seekers navigate birth and bureaucracy in Germany

Sadaf and Rohullah Aziz’s son Zedna was born in Berlin 20 days after they arrived in Europe in 2014. Photo by Shane Thomas McMillan.
Sadaf and Rohullah Aziz’s son Zedna was born in Berlin 20 days after they arrived in Europe in 2014. Photo by Shane Thomas McMillan.

When Sadaf Aziz got married she had a firm idea about how her life would unspool. She knew children would follow marriage, and she imagined giving birth with her mother by her side, guiding her and helping take care of the baby while she recovered. Instead, Sadaf finds herself more than 3,500 miles away from her native Afghanistan unsure of whether her young family will be able to stay in Berlin.

Sadaf was seven months pregnant when in 2014 she and her husband Rohullah left everything they had behind: the new crib for their baby, the three-story home they built, their extended families. His job as an interpreter with American contractors and the U.S. military had put their lives in jeopardy, so they fled with two suitcases, a laptop and his work commendation certificates.

In two months, they were in Europe seeking asylum and 20 days later she was giving birth to their son Elham, with her husband interpreting for her.

It is not known how many asylum seekers like Sadaf have given birth in Europe since more than a million people from countries in the Middle East and Africa came to seek refuge. But in 2015, about 28 percent of those seeking asylum in the European Union were women, according to Eurostat data. In Germany, the share was slightly higher at 32 percent.

Berlin’s state office of refugee affairs doesn’t track the number of pregnant asylum seekers or those who give birth due to the number of other agencies involved throughout the process, said its spokesman Sascha Langenbach. Instead, the organization relies on estimates from shelters and makes educated guesses based on the demographics they do have available. In 2016, the “under 4” group of asylum seekers nationwide was about 80,000—nearly 11 percent of those seeking asylum that year.

About 79,000 came to Berlin in 2015 and 55,000 have asylum claims being processed, Langenbach said, with another 17,000 arriving last year. Out of those, about 25 percent are women, “we then have to deal with the fact that some of these women are going to be pregnant or could get pregnant and the existing medical infrastructure must also be altered to deal with this.”

Continue reading at Coda Story.

German Volunteers Surmount Refugee Backlash

Malte Bedürftig, the founder of GoVolunteer, volunteers at a refugee shelter at the Berliner Stadtmission in Moabit in February. Photo Courtesy of GoVolunteer.

Last year, hundreds of Germans lined up to welcome and distribute food and water to the thousands of refugees who arrived by train and foot from the Middle East and Africa. They immediately self-organized via Facebook and created shifts around the clock. Doctors, organizers, and first-timers responded to radio calls for volunteers. So many donations were received, local and national media reported, that the police had to tell people to stop.

A rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the country since the arrival of about a million migrants and asylum-seekers has not deterred many from continuing to help in some form. About nine percent of Germans are still volunteering in some way, researchers have found; that’s roughly seven million people.

“My general impression is that the overall number did not change that much,” said Malte Bedürftig, co-founder of GoVolunteer, which connects projects and initiatives working in refugee relief and integration with people who want to help.

Although there are those who grew frustrated with the system or the refugees themselves, Bedürftig said, and there is an expected backlash generated by the recent Berlin Christmas market truck terrorism. In general, those who were ready to help in 2015 are still ready today, even if not in the same way.

Read more at Coda Story.

‘Lost Boy’ finds life’s missing pieces

In between working three jobs, Chris Koor Garang, 30, takes his son Kyan, 5, to play soccer at Reid Park. “I’ll do anything for him to have a better life than I had,” he says. Photo by Perla Trevizo.

Chris Koor Garang dreamed for years of knowing his parents’ fate, of learning whether they were alive or dead.

His family had been split apart by the war in Sudan one violent night in 1989.

About a week into his first trip home in nearly two decades, he got a letter from his parents. They were alive and in a nearby village in southern Sudan. They wanted to see him right away.

But he couldn’t just leave. There were people who needed his medical care. A little girl had been bitten by a snake and had an infection all the way to her foot bone. A woman had been carried in on a stretcher — a two-day trip to the clinic — after a botched C-section performed by villagers.

He stayed three more days, finishing up what he had traveled about 9,000 miles to do, before climbing on board a pickup truck toward the town of Kwajok, where his parents were waiting.

When they finally saw each other, they clung tightly and didn’t want to let go. His father held his head and spat on it , giving him his blessing.

The family was reunited. But it was more complicated than that.

“When I saw them, I was happy. I was glad they were alive but I didn’t have that connection that somebody who stayed with their parents for so long could have,” says Garang, now 30.

“I grew up alone in the camp. I have my own life, my own family. My friends were my brothers,” he says. “It was just like, all right it’s great you guys are alive, now let’s see how life goes.”

* * *

Garang, whose name Koor means lion in Dinka, comes from a cattle-herding tribe in what is now South Sudan, a landlocked country that gained its independence in 2011. It is smaller than Texas and has about 12 million people.

At the height of the conflict between the North and the South, militiamen on horseback and camels rode through his village in the middle of the night, burning everything along their path, raping women and kidnapping children to sell as slaves.

Garang and his brother ran in different directions, both naked and barefoot. There was no turning back.

At age 7, Garang became one of about 20,000 children, mostly young boys, who trekked in groups through swamps, deserts and across the Nile – a 1,000-mile, months-long journey to neighboring Ethiopia.

His brother, he later found, was killed that night.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.