On June 15, only a few days before social media exploded with outrage over the cries and screams of migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.–Mexico border, I was on the Northern Aegean island of Samos, Greece, touring another kind of immigration disaster—one of the most overcrowded and unsanitary refugee camps in Greece.
As the heartbreaking pictures of weeping children and toddlers in American cages were filling my phone, I was watching a small girl and her two younger brothers in the Samos camp playing around me while their mother talked to an official. The girl was about 7, her name was Aliya, and she had learned enough English to say, “Hi, how are you?” and to tell me her and her brothers’ names. The children here may have to live in overcrowded shipping containers or rat-infested tents—not an exaggeration—but they are, at least, with their parents—if they have any.
This is not to say that the children at this camp aren’t suffering. Like their adult counterparts, the majority are traumatized both by war and the perils of their flight. Many have seen a parent or relative killed in front of them, have lived through bombings, or watched family members being arrested, beaten, or kidnapped. All have traveled for days in cars or trucks so crowded and hot they could barely breathe, and crossed seas that, although narrow, are prone to sudden storms and violent winds—I’ve felt those winds myself standing on the coast of Samos. (Over 1,000 refugees have drowned off capsized boats on their way to Greece since 2015, some 845 missing just this year.)
Mexican and Central American child refugees—fleeing gang violence, political repression, or poverty—are often traumatized, too. But when children lose both parents, either because of war or government policy, the results are even more devastating. Such children are usually unable to sleep and are plagued by nightmares. They might cut themselves, burst into rages, refuse to speak, or become desperately clingy, and some show symptoms of psychosis. This is just as true of a Mexican child taken from her parents by ICE as it is for a Congolese child whose parents were taken by a militia.
Refugee children in the U.S. and Greece have other problems in common, too, and one of them is lack of access to education. Just as advocates are saying immigrant children held at detention centers in the U.S. will have trouble enrolling in schools, most refugee children in Samos are not going to school at all.
The only exceptions are the few children lucky enough to get into the small school for kids under 12 down the road from the camp, run by a Greek NGO called Praxis, but the school only has room for about 80 students, not the hundreds of children here. The result is that most are missing vital years of education, essentially growing up illiterate. Children aged 13 to 17 are luckier because they can take classes run by the main, if tiny, NGO in the area, Samos Volunteers, which does what it can to provide activities and classes for adults, as well. But teenagers over 17 are out of luck entirely.
During my second week on Samos, I met a 7-year-old boy named Shaheen living at the camp. Shaheen cannot read or write, the school has no room for him, and the refugee parents here have no space, pens, or paper with which to make their own school. While his parents and I sat talking for hours over coffee and ice cream, he had not a single toy, crayon, paper, or book to entertain him. I gave him my pen and a table mat on which to draw, but he was more interested in simply running. He and his family spend most of the day confined to their tiny container in the camp, and he was desperate to move.
Health care for children at the Samos camp is also dire. Shaheen’s mother, Ghadeer, has two other children, twins of 1 year and 8 months: a bright, lively girl named Maria; and a quieter boy named Mahmood. (Like the other refugees I spoke to, Ghadeer asked me not to use her full name for fear of jeopardizing her asylum case.) The family come from Homs, the Syrian city that was targeted by President Bashar al-Assad in a now notorious massacre in 2012, after which they fled to the city of Idlib. But there, too, they soon came under attack.
“The bombs burst one of Mahmood’s eardrums and now he cannot hear properly,” Ghadeer told me through a fellow Syrian refugee, Ayad, who was acting as our translator. “He couldn’t even say Mama or Baba until recently. All he could do was scream. He often has fevers, and every night he cries in pain. Blood comes from his ear.”
Ghadeer and her husband, Meyssar, said they waited weeks to see the camp’s single doctor, sometimes spending five hours in the waiting room only to watch him leave without seeing them at all. Finally, they were told Mahmood needs to see a specialist, but there is no specialist on Samos. For that, they need to go to the mainland, but even if they could get the papers to go, they have no money or place to stay when they get there. So Mahmood suffers.
When they were living at home in Syria, Ghadeer and Meyssar said, they worked for a Syrian NGO called JRS, helping displaced families in a refugee camp there—he as the manager of the camp, she as a volunteer counselor for widows. Now they are refugees themselves; an irony not lost on them.
As I was talking to Meyssar, a tall gray-eyed man who looks a decade older than his 38 years, and Ghadeer, who at 27 is pale and unwell but determined, it struck me that although the Trump administration insists on calling Central American and Mexican migrants “illegal aliens,” many, if not most, are no less refugees than this Syrian couple. In some cases they have fled the violence of civil war, in others, violence from drug cartels, criminal gangs or murderous husbands, but the motivation was the same: the hope of saving their children’s lives and providing them with a future.
Trump’s immigration policy is therefore in direct violation of the Geneva Convention of 1951, which “recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries,” and “asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”
The U.S. is not alone in violating the human rights of refugees. Conditions at the Greek island camps are so appalling they violate refugee rights all the time. Overcrowding, lack of adequate food, lack of education for the children, restricted freedom of movement—all these contradict the conditions under which a refugee is supposed to live under international law.
Part of this is a result of where the islands happen to be located. Samos, for example, is only a stone’s throw from the Turkish coast, the narrowest point between it and Turkey being less than a mile wide. Thus many people fleeing wars and persecution in the Middle East and Africa try to reach the safety of Europe by crossing these narrow straits on overloaded rubber boats, and then flinging themselves on the mercy of the Greek government.
Because not all the Aegean islands have a place to house the refugees, if they land on one without a camp, they are shipped to one of three main islands with camps—the biggest one on Lesbos, and the next biggest where I am, on Samos. Here, they are held until they win clearance to move to the mainland. This means they must undergo a series of interviews, each many months apart, after which they are either granted asylum or are deported back to Turkey. Yet, these days, even those who have won clearance must wait for two years or more because all the refugee shelters in mainland Greece are bursting at the seams.
The waiting has grown much worse in the past two years because several European countries, including Austria, Hungary, and other Balkan states, have closed their borders to refugees. This has clogged the pipeline and left Greece—still recovering from the 2015 financial crisis—holding back the tidal wave. Meanwhile, some 75–95 people are arriving on the islands every day. During the week I was writing this alone, 522 people had already arrived, 189 in Samos alone, according to the weekly UNHCR count. In total, the islands hold 14,500 refugees and migrants now—31 percent of whom are children, the majority under 12.
All this has been exacerbated by the 2016 European Union–Turkey deal, which restricted asylum-seekers to the islands on which they land. Thanks to this restriction, the camp on Samos, originally built to hold 700 transitory people on their way to the mainland, now holds at least 2,500 adults and children, many of whom have been here for months, even more than a year. (One official at the camp, who asked not to be named, told me the actual population is 3,500.)
The overcrowding means that new arrivals in Samos often have to spend weeks, if not months, sleeping in the open or in tents. I met a 28-year-old Iraqi who told me he’d been living in a tent for more than a year. Ayad said that when he and his family arrived, including his 9-month-old sister, they had to sleep in the woods behind the camp amidst excrement and litter—he showed me the spot, and it wasn’t pleasant. When he asked for somewhere safer to protect his baby sister from insects and germs, he was told there was no room anywhere.
While I was talking to little Aliya in the camp, I overheard a conversation between a newly arrived young couple and a camp official, who was translating what was said into English for another official. The woman said she was pregnant and afraid of having a miscarriage because of the filthy and unsafe conditions she faced sleeping in the woods.
“We can’t help you,” said the official in English. “We are too crowded. We have no space to give you.”
The overcrowding is evident, for between the many rows of long white metal containers, in which the refugees and their children sleep in rows of bunk beds, every inch of ground is jammed with tents leaning right up against one another. Some are makeshift—no more than a drape over a rope—and others more like the tents one would use for camping. Rats run in and out of the tents day and night.
The containers themselves are crowded too, some holding as many as 38 people who have to share two to three toilets with one another as well as the people in nearby tents. And the camp’s water supply often stops after about two hours a day, even in the hottest weather. When I was there, no water was running at all.
Ghadeer told me that the two families and single man in her container have to restrict themselves to showering only twice a week because of the crowding and lack of water, so it is hard to keep her children and their clothes clean and healthy. Indeed, her children often have fevers and diarrhea, and the entire camp stinks of overflowing toilets and unwashed bodies.
Yet, even as families have to live in these deplorable conditions, Greek law holds that they must stay together: “Greek asylum authorities are required to ensure the family unity of those who are recognized as refugees … ”
I could not help contrast this to the recent news that, at home in the U.S., nearly 3,000 immigrant babies, toddlers, and small children who have been taken from their parents are being put in “tender-age” shelters in Texas.
After several hours of talking to Ghadeer and Meyssar, we finally rose to shake hands and say goodbye. Shaheen gave me back my pen, and Meyssar handed each child a lollipop.
“Mama?” little Maria called, reaching to be lifted into her mother’s arms.
Mama was right there.