If you know what the weather is going to do, you know when the refugees will be crossing the strait between Turkey and Greece. I wrote yesterday that there were 20 refugees on the island and that was because of some brutally cold weather (that is still going on) and very high winds. The rough weather allowed for the backlog of refugees to be registered and leave on the large ferries to Athens.
But, as I wrote a few weeks ago, when there is a lull in arrivals due to the weather, this means a full on blitz when it lifts, because a buildup happens on the Turkish shores. The Aegean Sea finally became calm yesterday afternoon and then the boats started to arrive, wave after wave.
One of the overwhelming aspects of being over here is the sheer volume of the problem. The refugees are coming by the hundreds, thousands and they just don’t stop. Boatload upon boatload and it’s just continuous. Even though you know it’s going to happen when you’re here that more will arrive, it still just seems surprising when each new busload of people arrive at Tabakika. It could just be because you see almost every face and interact in some small way with most of the refugees whether that is putting on a bracelet, giving them a registration form, distributing clothes or food, or letting them pass through a gate, answering questions, etc. This makes the numbers feel really large. And this only one place that receives refugees (14% of the total – here are latest Chios figures) and this has been happening for months and will continue to for a while yet. The numbers are staggering.
Fletcher friend Camilla and I stopped by Tabakika yesterday in the afternoon to see what was going on. The volunteer WhatsApp group had been silent and when we arrived, Tabakika was empty as it had been the night before. We spoke to one the NRC staff to see about future boats and she said that there would be a bus of refugees arriving in one hour. It was the 1st of January and there was little staff on duty and no volunteers around, because of the lull, so we offered to stay and help.
That first group of around 50 was sent to Souda (the post-registration camp). And then another boat arrived. And then another, to the port, where they arrived a bit wet. All were sent to Souda (because the police were not working to register refugees and Souda is warmer than Tabakika). We helped with clothes distribution there for a while, as they don’t normally give out clothes on those premises. One thing that I’ve been asked to do quite a bit is prepare, from the containers at Tabakika, rapid response clothes boxes, including a little bit of everything for man/woman/boy/girl/baby, and then sending them out to where they are needed. So, I did this and then followed them to Souda a bit later to get people, mostly children, out of wet clothes. Once that was done, we found out that the police would start registering at Tabakika at 22:00, which was in an hour or so, and that all refugees would be sent to Tabakika from Souda. So, back to Tabakika (yes, efficiency is not one of the strong suits of this process). Meanwhile, two more boats arrived. By the time the registration process finally started at 22:30+, 5 boatloads of refugees, around 250 people were at Tabakika.
Last night was frigid. Really, really cold. All the space heaters were lit up, but their range is maybe 1 meter from outside the cage that holds them, so people get what chairs they can find in the main hall and huddle around them while they hang their clothes to dry/heat up on the cages themselves.
I spent most of the night thereafter manning the Snake. There was only one NRC staff and 1 Samaritan’s Purse staff on duty and a handful of volunteers (honestly and objectively, none of this (receiving refugees) would be possible without volunteers – I can’t imagine the absolute mayhem if just two people were there to do everything that all of us were doing last night). Eventually, a volunteer group of Germans came and took over the clothes boutique (thankfully). And the boats kept coming. At least 3 more.
The buses would come and offload the refugees at the front door, someone would have to rush to the head of the line before they entered the general population to give them bracelets and a registration form. Then it was putting out fires constantly (luckily not literally even though there is that concern from the space heaters). A diabetic without medicine and no doctors to be found. People, especially babies, needing blankets. Wet people. Dry people in the wet people line for clothes. Changing out space heater gas tanks. Finding bracelets for people arriving separately, because they had had to go the hospital or some other reason.
The electricity in the entire building would go out every half hour for a few minutes. Pitch, pitch dark (the building is horribly wired and this has been a constant struggle). The refugees are asking questions continuously (as is kind of expected, because information is at a premium and it’s just not clear what is going on all the time, especially with different colored bracelets (yellow on Friday, green on Saturday, so they switched at midnight, and that means there was a Yellow 1 group and a Green 1 group at the same time and it’s not clear to the refugees how the process works and why yellow is before green in the registration order nor is there almost anyone who can communicate this in Arabic/Farsi – Google Translate is becoming very useful)).
I got questions asking what island this was. People always ask advice about what nationality they should put on their form so they have a better chance of getting a visa/asylum. When do we eat? Where do we get blankets? When can we leave? How long before I see the police? And more people just kept coming.
On days/nights like this it seems that those of us working at Tabakika (and the other sites) are walking on the edge of the tipping point to disaster. It just seems like one bad thing happening, or one extra task that needed carrying out, would make the entire situation explode. People are desperate, they are cold, they are hungry. You can feel that tension in the air as we try to juggle all the requirements, both basic and extraneous, of the refugee population.
A half-hour before I left for the night (at 3:00 am), a staff member came up to me and wanted to tell me something quietly. Apparently, in the group Green 3, there was a rumor that there were 3 smugglers in the group, so the staff member asked to look for any suspicious activity that would indicate a smuggler. From what I understand, they act differently, they are more relaxed, laugh a bit more, are not in as much shock, have money, etc. Smugglers sometimes try to pose as refugees to also gain access to Europe. Eyes peeled. At the same time that this seems completely normal in the dimly lit, dirty, freezing, refugee filled, leaky main hall at Tabakika, you’re like, “Where the hell am I?”
In arriving just before mid-day today at Tabakika to work again, more boats had arrived and everywhere (Tabakika, the port, Dipethe) was getting packed. When I left last night, we were about to call the group Yellow 4 (remember, each group has 50 people) and at around 14:00 today when talking with an NRC staff member, they were just announcing Yellow 5 (last of the yellows). The police had stopped working at some point last night, without notice (they are a surly bunch), so little advance had been made. When I left today, Green ~16 was being braceleted, meaning 800 refugees were still waiting to be registered. And more were arriving, non-stop.
Photo: These windmills are probably the most famous landmark on Chios and are a 3-minute walk from Tabakika.