At a desolate refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios earlier this week, a young man died alone in a tent. By the time the guards arrived on the scene, about 12 hours after the Somali refugee’s death, the body was surrounded by rodents.
Asylum seekers who had initially alerted staff spoke in horror at seeing rats and mice swarming about.
It was Orthodox Easter Monday, a national holiday in Greece. The 28-year-old, who has not been named by Greek authorities, is thought to have died of natural causes.
In a short statement, the Greek migration ministry ruled out foul play and said the “unfortunate man” was found by a military doctor to have bites on his ear and hand. “The precise cause of death will become known from the autopsy that is to be conducted.”
Although a registered refugee, the Somali man had been required to remain in Chios’s Vial hilltop holding centre because of Covid-19 restrictions. Island detention centres have been subjected to draconian lockdown measures since just after the start of the pandemic last year.
“We host them and feed them because they are humans, we can’t kick them out,” the camp’s governor, Panagiotis Kimourtzis, told the Guardian. “It’s only logical that rodents would appear when someone has been dead for so many hours. The camp was built very quickly in 2016. The [camp] is in nature, surrounded by fields. We do everything possible, we use pesticides, but there is only so much we can do.”
The young Somali, like the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who preceded him, left a country notorious for violence and poverty. Nearly six years after the onset of Europe’s refugee crisis, the tragic end of what would have been a long and risky journey has again highlighted the deplorable conditions of island “reception centres” in Greece.
For aid workers in Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos – the five Aegean islands on the frontline of migrant flows – the incident offers further proof of failings of the containment policies EU leaders have pursued on the borders of a continent seemingly desperate to keep asylum seekers out.
“There is only one truth and that is that Greek island camps are synonymous with overcrowding and inhuman conditions,” said Dr Apostolos Veizis, executive director in Greece of the international humanitarian organisation Intersos. “People are exposed on a daily basis to rats, rubbish and violence. In clinics across the islands children are often admitted with signs of rat bites. It’s shameful and appalling that they have to live in such disgraceful conditions when it really needn’t be the case.”
Arrivals of asylum seekers into Europe have dropped dramatically in the past year. An estimated 11,472 men, woman and children are now registered on the Aegean outposts, according to Greece’s ministry of citizen protection. Vial, which hosted 5,000 people in December 2019, now accommodates about a fifth of that number, the result of tough migration polices which include “decongesting” the islands.
“Yes, there are fewer people and camp conditions have improved but they are not good,” said Leda Lakka, who heads the UN refugee agency’s office on Chios. “There are rats, around Vial and in Vial. That’s a fact. There are also makeshift shelters. That’s a fact too.”
Athens received about €3bn (£2.6bn) in EU funds to manage the migration crisis between 2015 and 2020, but critics claim evidence of spending cannot be seen on the ground, where conditions have been deplored by one of Europe’s top human rights watchdogs.
“If it had been used properly we would not be talking so many years later about a scene out of the middle ages where a dead man is attacked by rats,” said Veizis, who has worked on the islands for more than a decade. “All the camps are horrible. Every day people fall sick, mentally and physically. You have to wonder if treating them like this, not as humans but as numbers, is a deliberate policy choice of the European Union so that more don’t come.”
With the support of the EU, Athens’ centre-right administration has pledged to replace island facilities with state-of the-art “closed” installations.
Last week the government’s “transparency portal” confirmed that close to €270m in EU funds had been allocated to complete new camps by 31 March next year. Of that amount, €155m had been earmarked for new reception centres in Lesbos and Chios.
Greece, like other EU states, stands accused of pushbacks of migrants and refugees. But in triumphant mode the country’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, recently said that with tightened border controls after Turkey’s threat to flood Europe with asylum seekers, more people had left Greece than had arrived since March last year.
The number of migrants and refugees in accommodation facilities had also dropped from 92,000 a year ago to 56,000, he said.
“In the last 12 months, more people have left the country legally, with deportations, voluntary departures, or relocations,” he was quoted as telling EU counterparts. “There are about 60,000 recognised refugees in our country, fewer than what the country believes.”
With thousands of asylum seekers in Turkey hoping to make the dangerous Aegean crossing, just as the 28-year-old Somali did, migration experts believe that could change. And while Greece’s refugee population has decreased significantly, the prospect of any return to normality for those trapped on the islands remains elusive – despite an accelerated vaccination drive and the possibility of tourism resuming in the coming weeks.
“For a long time the UNHCR has been expressing concerns about the precarious conditions in island camps,” said Stella Nanou, an agency spokesperson in Athens. “Beyond the material difficulties and challenges, there has been the uncertainty of the pandemic, which has added to the frustration of people who so often can see no light at the end of the tunnel.”
A postmortem examination was due to be carried out on the dead man in Lesbos later today.
Teenager saves baby from shipwreck during Mediterranean crossing | Global development
The actions of a teenager from Togo have been lauded after video footage was published of him supporting a baby he saved from a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea last week in which at least 30 people died.
The 17-year-old, whose identity has not been disclosed, swam to save the child, whom he was holding above water when a rescue team arrived, in footage published by the French media group Brut.
“I am a good swimmer and I went to help people,” the teenager said, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), whose Geo Barents rescue ship arrived at the site of the shipwreck.
Michael Bunel, a French photojournalist who was onboard the rescue ship, told Brut that when they arrived they could hear the teenager shouting: “There’s a baby. There’s a baby.”
The crew threw the teenager a flotation device to pull him and another survivor in, and gave urgent treatment to the four-month-old baby, who at first was not breathing. The baby and her mother were evacuated to Malta, according to MSF.
The rubber dinghy was detected only after nine days at sea, said Safa Mselhi, a spokesperson for the UN’s International Organization for Migration. A pregnant woman who could not be resuscitated died onboard the rescue ship.
The Geo Barents rescued 71 people from the shipwreck, some of them with fuel burns, caused when skin comes into contact with petrol that has mixed with seawater.
The survivors on the Geo Barents had to wait almost five days to get to land, only being allowed to disembark at the Italian town of Taranto on Saturday. The ship had been carrying the body of the pregnant woman during this time.
Juan Matías Gil, MSF’s search and rescue representative, said: “This traumatic event is a deadly consequence of the growing inaction and disengagement of European and other border states, including Italy and Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Tragedies at sea continue to cost thousands of lives, and these people are being lost on Europe’s doorstep, with absolute silence and indifference from EU states.”
Sea rescue charities have repeatedly accused the European Union of failing to save refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean by requesting that Libya’s so-called coastguard intercept any boats attempting the crossing, despite allegations of abuse in Libya’s militia-run detention centres.
According to MSF, at least 8,500 people died or went missing, and 95,000 were returned to Libya, in attempting crossings of the Mediterranean between 2017 and 2021.
On Wednesday morning 306 people disembarked in Sicily from SOS Méditerranée’s rescue ship Ocean Viking. Some of the survivors had been onboard for 12 days. The ship carried out eight rescues in less than two weeks – the most recent, on Monday, of 15 people who had been adrift for two days.
Environment: Colombia and the new Latin American left | Opinion
After the victory of president-elect Gustavo Petro and vice-president-elect Francia Márquez in Colombia, many have concluded that we are entering a new leftist wave in Latin America. But simply announcing the rise of a new left is more confusing than it is illuminating. New in what sense? In comparison to what? What distinguishes it from others? Who are its members? Without answers to these questions, Latin America’s political moment cannot be understood, and one risks stating the obvious (that the left is new because it is recent) or randomly grouping together very different movements and governments.
“What is new about the new left?” is a question that surfaces from time to time. The last “new left” (which, of course, it is no longer) was the pink wave at the beginning of the century. As I wrote at the time in a book entitled, predictably, The New Latin American Left, it was the wave led by Lula’s Brazil and swelled by other governments that would follow very different paths, from the progressive democracy of Tabaré Vásquez and Pepe Mujica in Uruguay to the authoritarian disaster of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, as well as governments as diverse as those of the Kirchners in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
I think that what is new and distinctive of the progressivism that won this year in Colombia and Chile is precisely what all those left-wing governments lacked: an environmental agenda and economic policies that understand that fossil fuels and extractive industries are the past. And that there is no future, neither for the left nor for anyone else, on an uninhabitable planet. Despite the profound differences among the leftist governments of the last two decades, all of them shared with right-wing governments the enthusiastic promotion of extractive industries, from oil and coal to mining and agribusiness.
In Brazil, Lula and Dilma Rousseff ended up fulfilling the military dictatorship’s dreams of opening up the Amazon to monumental hydroelectric dams like Belo Monte, to feed energy to mining projects throughout the region. In Bolivia, former vice-president Alvaro García Linera went so far as to publish a defense of extractivism in the Amazon. Rafael Correa was even more explicit: he referred to Indigenous peoples and environmentalists who opposed his policies of aggressive expansion of oil and mining in Ecuador as the “infantile left.” The aberrant case of Venezuela belongs to a different category: “21st century socialism” not only maintained oil dependence, but used it to finance what ended up being a “dictatorship of the 21st century,” as Provea, the well-known Venezuelan NGO, has called it.
The extractivism of the left was due, in part, to reasons of convenience. The pink wave overlapped with a period of record prices for commodities. The resulting hard currency financed exemplary social policies in several countries, such as the Zero Hunger and Bolsa Familia programs in Brazil. In part, however, it was due to sheer conviction. Even today, important sectors of the left, such as the López Obrador government in Mexico, tend to see oil and mining exploitation as indisputable pillars of national development and sovereignty—and environmentalism as a naïve movement, at best, or as an instrument of the rich countries, at worst.
But much has changed in the last twenty years. Today we are living the reality of climate change and know that we have less than a decade left for governments to take urgent action to avoid the most catastrophic scenarios of global warming and the irreversible destruction of vital ecosystems such as the Amazon. We understand that human health and the health of the planet depend on national policies and international agreements to protect biodiversity in at least 30% of the Earth by 2030. Finally, we know that Latin America would suffer disproportionately from the effects of environmental collapse, such as forced migrations, economic and food crises, and social conflicts.
If it is to deserve the label “new,” the left in power would have to rise to this new planetary moment. And follow the momentum of the progressive movements that embody it and that were essential to the electoral outcome in Colombia, as shown by the iconic figure of vice-president-elect Francia Márquez: the Black and Indigenous movements, the urban environmentalism of young people, ecofeminism, the small farmers’ movements.
At a time when the global right seems to bet on the destruction of the planet (Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin, etc.), the left should distinguish itself not only by its social agenda but also by its environmental agenda. Abandoning extractivism and moving towards clean economies is not irresponsible, as critics suggest, but indispensable. This seems to be the view of the environmental progressivism that is emerging in Colombia and Chile. Petro and Márquez’s proposals contemplate a gradual and fair transition to reduce the historic dependence on oil and coal, among other measures. Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s government promised a “just socio-ecological transition” and has just shut down the Ventanas copper smelter, an emblem of mining pollution.
Thus, the first leftist government in Colombia may have regional and global repercussions. An initial sign of this turn was the first conversation between Petro and President Biden, which included a possible alliance on climate change and Amazon conservation. If accompanied by a shift to the left in Brazil (where it remains to be seen whether a possible Lula government would abandon the extractivist tradition) and adequate funding from wealthy countries that have polluted the most, the proposal of Latin American environmental progressivism could contribute not only to the consolidation of a new left, but also to the preservation of life on the planet.
More than 5,000 people are missing in Balochistan. I want my father back | Sammi Deen Baloch
I started protesting after my father, Dr Deen Mohammed Baloch, was abducted from his hospital in Khuzdar, Balochistan, on 28 June 2009. I became an activist, raising my voice against the heinous crime of enforced disappearances: more than 5,000 people are missing in Balochistan.
In the 13 years since my father was taken, I have spent most of my time on roads, in front of journalists’ press clubs across Pakistan – with a photograph in my hand, asking a simple question: “Where is my father? What is his crime?”
Enforced disappearances in my home province is a decades-old issue, from when the Balochistan nationalist movement began in the early 2000s.
In 2014, I, along with other relatives of missing people, marched 2,000km (1,200 miles) over 116 days from Quetta to the capital, Islamabad. As a 15-year-old, with my swollen feet, I thought going to the capital would make those in power have some mercy. I was wrong.
My mother does not know whether she is a widow or still married. We deserve to know the truth – whether my father is alive or dead.
If my father is alive, he should be released or brought to a court of law. If he has been killed, we should be given proof.
I have spent 13 years in this struggle to know the truth but I have never been as humiliated, harassed, beaten and verbally abused as I was at our recent peaceful protest in Karachi.
One police man grasped my hand forcefully and another held me by the neck. I felt as if my bones were going to be fractured.
My sister, Mehlab Baloch, was slapped three times. Bakhtawar, a fellow activist who was filming, had her phone snatched by the police. She was dragged along the road. This was all caught on camera and the video widely shared.
Police mocked us after throwing us in their van. We were warned not to protest or else they would “drag and beat us” more.
The police told me: “You think you are a leader and are at the forefront. We will teach you a lesson.”
Our headscarves were removed. The officers threatened us by saying to each other: “Once their shalwars [trousers] are removed, then they will stop protesting.”
They called us disgraced women, accusing us of protesting to win fame and to appear in the media.
We were released at about 2am.
The state and its security agencies have responded to the separatist movement with a “kill and dump” policy and are forcefully disappearing students, lawyers, doctors, political activists and their sympathisers.
Last year, I, along with other representatives of missing persons’ families, met the former prime minister Imran Khan, who was a critical voice on the issue before coming to power. Khan now seems to be a toothless tiger.
His human rights minister, Shireen Mazari, introduced a bill against enforced disappearances. The irony was that the bill itself went missing.
Now, after losing power, Khan’s party is once again denouncing enforced disappearances.
In the same way, Maryam Nawaz, [vice-president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, then the main opposition party], visited us last year and criticised Imran Khan for his false promises. She assured us that action would be taken if her party came to power.
Nawaz’s uncle, Shehbaz Nawaz, is prime minister now but they seem helpless before the security agencies.
Women’s organisations in Pakistan do not raise their voices for Baloch women and the violence against us. This is saddening.
We come from respectable families and we are not happy to be demonstrating on the streets. Our men have disappeared – that’s why Baloch women, from a conservative province, are coming out of their homes to protest.
I would rather focus on my career like other young women. But how can one if your father, husband or brother is missing?
In April, there was a female suicide bomber, Shari Baloch. Since then the state has cracked down against activists, students and women, saying that we are all terrorists.
We have nothing to do with such violent activities. We don’t support violence.
I am not demanding anything unlawful – enforced disappearance is unlawful. I just want my father back.
Am I asking for something illegal? The state may portray us as terrorists after Shari’s attack but we are not. We are peaceful protesters. We suffer every moment of every day.
Sammi Deen Baloch is general secretary of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), a group that formed alongside the separatist movement in Pakistan
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