Earlier this year, in a crowded refugee camp at the edge of Europe, I stood next to a Pakistani refugee as a storm brewed off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The darkness was gathering and the low-hung lightbulbs for the camp shelters were beginning to flicker.
“Pata hain, aaj Vial main kya hua tha?” (Do you know what happened in Vial today?)” he asked me as he pulled out his cellphone. I shook my head no. “Sab log baat kar rahe hain. Bahut bura hua hain (Everyone is talking about it. It’s a terrible thing that has happened),” he said.
It was March and my husband and I were volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece. After months of consideration, we had found a Norwegian charity that organised volunteers and had taken time off work, booked tickets, and a few weeks later found ourselves in Chios, Greece.
As a result of the war in Syria, the United Nations estimates over 5 million people have been displaced from their homes. It is the greatest migration in human history since World War 2. As Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said, “Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions.” The displacement has forced hundreds of people to flee to the Greek coast, hoping for an asylum application in Europe.
While I talked to the Pakistani refugee, my eyes scanned the mishmash of cultures and nationalities lining up for dinner in the makeshift tent by the beach. While the vast majority of residents in the camp are Syrian, there are others, including Afghan, Iraqi, Moroccan, Pakistani, Eritrean, Sudanese and even a single Bolivian. As the various nationalities shared the camp, tensions between the different ethnic groups were inevitable and fights between them were frequent.
During our time there, an incident with the caterer led to a mass outbreak of food poisoning from the meals served in the camp. Roughly a third of the camps’ residents were ill through the night, but with Greek authorities imposing limitations on the charities allowed to operate within the camps, many of the bathrooms had not been cleaned for days. It meant queues of men, women and children waiting to use unsanitary public bathrooms with severe cases of diarrhoea and vomiting. In the morning, suspicions had grown between groups, with each of them arguing that this was sabotage. A strike ensued, with residents refusing to eat the caterers’ food. For many of the families, refusing the food soon became an impossible option.
For many of the residents of the camp, the journey across the Mediterranean has been dangerous and lengthy. Families have endured exploitative fees and rough seas. They have put their children and all their belongings in a dinghy and wished it across the ocean in the hopes of a safe place to call home. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that over 3,770 migrants have lost their lives trying to make the journey. In April 2015, a boat carrying about 800 people capsized in the sea off Libya. It is believed that overcrowding of the boat was the main reason for the disaster.
The storm continued to howl around us as I chatted in a mish mash of Hindi and Urdu with my Pakistani informant. He was telling me gossip from around the camp, mainly the troubles with the different groups and the rats that had grown bolder now that it was harder to clean the smell of food off the beach. As I watched, he took out his cellphone and showed me a video widely circulated on WhatsApp that day. It was all any of the children were able to talk about.
For hundreds of refugees on the other side of the treacherous journey across the sea, the wait has been excruciating. Many men have ventured forth first, hoping to scope out the chances of relocation before asking wives and children to join them. It’s a double-edged sword, as the likelihood of being placed increased considerably when accompanied by family. I watch as familiar faces line up in the queue for their portioned meals, flashing identity cards that entitle them to strict portions of food three times a day. We are standing at the edge of Souda refugee camp, on a pebbled beach face from which the outline of Turkey can just be made out on the horizon and there is not much to do. The days are often long and filled with boredom as people wait for responses from immigration authorities.
Tensions between the refugee camps and members of the local Greek community are mostly strained and venturing into the main city is not really an option. For many, the applications have been unsuccessful and the wait has been long. Not knowing what to do, they are stranded between a vast and unforgiving water body and an immigration system that is overworked and underprepared. For so many refugees, crossing the border from Greece into Europe illegally is one of the only options at hand.
My conversation continued and we talked about the incident in Vial, the other refugee camp located further up the mountainous region of the island. I have never been to Vial, but have heard that the conditions are worse and the security more rigid. The video on the cellphone was of a man. Young, angry and vehemently expressing himself in Arabic, the man had doused himself in a liquid and was threatening to set himself on fire to the guards. He was frustrated, annoyed at how long his papers have taken to process, I was told. He didn’t want to wait anymore. Knowing that this was an impossible situation. That he would likely be stuck, as a number in the system for months – maybe even years. As he spoke, there was a shake in the video, a moment of confusion, and a terrifying visual of a man on fire came into focus on the screen in front of me.
I don’t know the man in Vial and I probably never will. But his story is symbolic of the pain, the frustration and the hopelessness of thousands of refugees in Greece and around the world. It is a story of refugees battling with mental health issues and a lack of access to proper care in the most extreme conditions for any human being. It is a story of helplessness and frustration in a world that passes around a WhatsApp video of a man being burnt alive in desperation.
The man in Vial lit himself on fire that day. Confused, angry and frustrated at a system that sees him as nothing more than a number on a sheet, he did what he thought best. The man in Vial was someone. He must have had a name, people who cared about him, likes and dislikes. The man in Vial was real and yet, and yet, he could be any of the hundreds of refugees placed in makeshift camps all along the border of Greece.