Monday, January 25, 2016

i am troubled

I am troubled

i've just come from the starfish weekly meeting, and I am troubled.
For the past few days, we have been asked for our passports as well as our starfish badges when entering the moria compound.

The greek police run the camp and it's getting increasingly restrictive and oppressive. Supposedly a registration and aid camp, it feels more and more like a detention center. In my first post I told you about the barbed wire surrounding the camp, the restrictions on photos, and I think I mentioned the police presence, but the gate is far more heavily manned now, and one starfish volunteer mentioned at the meeting tonight that an undercover policeman had wanted to wipe out all his photos on his phone after seeing him take a picture with a refugee.

If you've been reading this blog, you have likely noticed that after saying I wasn't allowed to take photos, I have added a background photo to the blog page. It is a view of the barbed wire surrounding the dorms from the top. The forbidding coils of barbed wire contrast sharply with the beauty of the island sunset, as the hell of moria contrasts with the beauty and grace of lesvos and most of its people, whether greek, refugee, or volunteer.

After observing others—refugees included—taking pictures with their phones, I decided I could too, as long as I used my phone instead of my far more conspicuous bigger (and better) cameras. And so I somewhat surreptitiously began snapping away. Though I love taking portraits, the journalist in me was more focused on documenting conditions than individuals.

Last night, during my quiet night at moria, the DRC staff and we volunteers were discussing the photo restriction which is now becoming more of an issue, apparently. The greek police who are administering the camp are reportedly surfing the internet—facebook, mostly—and cracking down hard on those who are sharing pictures of moria, banning the photographer and possibly the organization from the camp. The ostensible reason is to respect the privacy of the refugees, and I can understand that. In a worst case scenario, pictures of individual refugees, if recognized, could conceivably endanger relatives still in whichever war torn land they hail from.

But the impression most of us have gotten is that the police are more concerned with their own image and privacy. Some volunteers have seen the police being abusive toward refugees in the registration line. I have seen some yelling and shoving, but have not personally seen the kind of abuse reported by some of my fellow volunteers. Given my general impression of police everywhere, though, I can't say I was surprised to hear their reports.

Our meeting tonight was much longer than usual as we debated our role in moria. It is not the only effort the starfish foundation I am affiliated with is making. We also help the IRC (international relief committee) with clothing distribution at a center here in molyvos, sort and store clothing donations at a warehouse we call donkey (for the donkey farm next door), and do harbor duty out of captain's table, the restaurant starfish founder melinda owns. Harbor duty involves a certain cooperation with the police as well. When a boat comes into lesvos on its own, the refugees on board are free to make their way to moria for registration and new lives as EU citizens, as are refugees rescued by Greenpeace. However, refugees on boats that are brought in by the coastguard are automatically under arrest, and harbor duty with starfish includes registering the arrested refugees and transporting them for the police, though we also provide them with food and dry clothes. I have not seen any boats on either of my harbor shifts.

However, the long debate at the meeting tonight included the question of whether starfish should be assisting the police in their looming clamp down on moria—whether we should pull out of the camp altogether.

We have been asked, as a provision of entering moria to perform our duties, to fill in and sign a form with some personal details, including email, telephone, passport number, a photo, and a photocopy of our passport, even though as volunteers we have already had to register with the police. By signing the form, we are also agreeing to the moria rules printed on the back of the form. Most of them are unobjectionable, stating what we all believe about treating refugees with dignity, not exploiting them sexually or financially...basic tenets of respect. But the ban on photos is in the rules, and some people argued that by our continuing presence at moria in the face of the increased restrictions, we are supporting an aspect of a police state—that we are tacitly sanctioning the abusiveness some have seen at the hands of the police, and that moria is turning into a detention camp. In light of the ever increasing tightening of borders against the massive and growing refugee population, it isn't hard to imagine moria becoming a detention camp.

Others argued that it's better to be at moria ensuring refugees get services to the best of our ability than to abandon the task.

Politically, I certainly agree with not wanting to support any kind of police oppression, but in the face of the enormous need, I cannot agree with turning away from what succor we can offer.
And as far as signing the document? My word is important to me, but my word given under coercion or duress is a different matter. It's important to me that the rest of the world's population is shown the conditions under which the refugees are suffering, every step along their treacherous path to what I hope will be a better life for all of them.

If starfish foundation does in fact decide to withdraw from moria, I will withdraw from starfish. I may anyway, but that is another story. I came here to help where I am most needed, and that's what I intend to keep doing. Wish us all luck. We need it.

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