Human Rights

LGBTI+ refugees trapped on the Greek Islands

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Greek Islands are destination for those refugees who try to reach Europe from Turkey, Middle East and North Africa. The Greek Islands- such as Kos, Lesvos and Chios- which are located between migratory routes had been passageway for hundreds of refugees even before The EU-Turkey Deal was signed. When more than 800.000 people arrived on Greek islands from Turkey and then reached Europe in the summer of 2015, The EU considered that as a major crisis instead of accepting refugees to the mainland and meeting their needs. Thus, they decided to make a deal with Turkey. However, it is crystal-clear that EU-Turkey Deal trapped people on the Greek Islands beside Greece’s weak migration system. Moreover, some of the refugees were sent back to Turkey which is unsafe country for them and more of them are facing to be sent back now.

This situation affects LGBTI+ refugees along with the other vulnerable groups such as women, children and elders. LGBTI+ refugees who trapped on the Greek islands are exposed to multiple discrimination by their own group and the local islanders. LGBTI+ refugees who are deprived of fundamental rights such as access to the labour market, right to health, accommodation and right to education, also have to deal with homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia and as a result of all these, LGBTI+ refugees are sentenced to the social isolation.

On the island, there are two main refugee camps: Karatepe and Moria Camp. Those are controlled by the Greek government and the UN. Conditions of these camps are far below any minimum standards. The needs of refugees such as clean water, healthy and proper meal, security and medical care are not being met. In those camps, there are some major problems such as risk for sexual assault, as well. Additionally, treatment of the police and the soldiers is inhumane. Unfortunately, each refugee arrives to the island has to apply for Moria Camp to apply asylum request.

Moria Camp, general view. ©Agencia EFE

Outside of the Moria Camp, ©Tuğkan Gündoğdu

On the island, there is also Pikpa Refugee Camp which is run by Lesvos Solidarity in which there are kind-hearted people. I found a chance to work in Pikpa for ten days. A group of nice people turned an old facility into a comfortable solidarity place for vulnerable groups such as women, children, disabled and LGBTI+ people. There are tents in which refugees can live, showers, toilets, a large kitchen providing meal three times a day, first-aid and the laundry room in Pikpa. Most important thing is that any kind of discrimination and violence is forbidden in there. This camp, in which people from around the world work voluntarily, solely depends on solidarity. Thus, Pikpa is always open to international solidarity and donations.

Between 12-24 July of this summer, I got the chance to get to know LGBTI+ refugees living in Pikpa, experienced Moria Camp before and activist in Lesvos and to see the conditions on the island. I participated in a session, in which LGBTI+ refugees made speech and I did an interview with Sooma- an Iraqi refugee- and Prospero- an activist of Lesvos LGBTI+ Refugee Solidarity- who worked for an international NGO previously. Prospero asked me to keep his name hidden because of the institution he had worked before and because of his security concerns. He was inspired by the character of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and chose this name afterwards. Lesvos LGBTIQ+ Refugee Solidarity, which was founded by a group of activists in January 2017, provides basic information and psychological support to LGBTIQ+ refugees on the island for now. Additionally, this group being aware of lack of insti-tutions on the island, helps LGBTIQ+ refugees on asylum procedures and direct them to na-tional and international organizations working in this field. Lesvos LGBTIQ+ Refugee Solidari-ty stays organized on Facebook and by meeting two times a week. They are currently focus-ing on establishing an association.

Prospero started his speech saying that “Moria is not safe for anyone, especially for LGBTIQ+ refugees!” Then he said that their process of organizing is natural and organic. “I used to work for an international NGO back then, for that reason I was able to enter Moria. One day, a trans woman was attacked in the camp and beaten badly. On the following day, an Iranian gay came to me and asked for my help. He said that he was scared and did not feel secure anymore after that incident. I could communicate with him because I could speak Farsi. On the following day, I went to Pikpa and told them what happened. Then I met this guy again and Efi, the member of Lesvos Solidarity, told him to pack his stuff and settle in Pikpa. This is the beginning of the story. I had been living on this island since November 2016 and this incident happened in January 2017.”

When I asked him how many refugees live on the island, he answered: “We are in touch with 14 people in Pikpa, and we also think that we can reach about 30 people in Moria camp. However, if they do not identify themselves or do not come out, there is nothing we can do. We have not been able to reach anyone from Karatepe, so we cannot make any prediction.”

“Trans women and lesbians can get involved in Women Protection, but the procedure for gays is harder. Effeminate behaviour is the key criterion for UNHCR. If a gay wants to reach the mainland, this person has to be ‘super feminine’.”

Moria Camp walls, reminding a prison ©Estelle Borel

In addition to all their works, there are some demands that they want urgently to be met by the authorities. Those are:

1)      To provide psychological and psychosocial support to LGBTIQ+ refugees when they arrive on the island.

2)      To transfer LGBTIQ+ refugees from Moria camp to the mainland.

3)      To build a guesthouse where LGBTIQ+ refugees can stay until their paper work is completed, where they can freely express themselves and will not be exposed to dis-crimination and violence.

4)      To provide psychological, legal, medical, sexual health support along with the social activities and to cooperate with other institutions working in the field if necessary.

Sooma is an Iraqi gay and he is 27 years old. He arrived on Lesvos from Turkey months ago. He lives in Pikpa Refugee Camp which is run by Lesvos Solidarity. He has been waiting for his paperwork to be done.

Could you tell me about your life before you came here?

The situation in Iraq was terrible, I was not free because I was gay. I had wanted to leave Iraq since I was 15. My family did not know anything about my sexual orientation. My cousin found out I was gay because he was following me on Instagram. I did not even know that. My brother threatened to kill me. For this reason I came to Turkey. However, I was not safe there, either. I have spent my whole life struggling. I was kidnapped, robbed and exposed to sexual violence. I tried to find a job and started escorting. I stayed with 8 people. Turkish people treated me badly. There were also Kurds among them. I had to fight racism at the same time.

One day, I had a phone call from my brother’s wife and she said “You have to leave Turkey because your cousin and your brother are coming to kill you.” I had no money. All I had was 3000 dollars.

I had to drop out of college. I was studying science. I wish there was something I could do here. I want to be productive. I do not know who is responsible but it is so hard for gay people to be here. We have no choice but to work as escort. This is embarrassing. We have no motivation to study or produce. Our cultural and financial situation does not help. The only thing we do is go to the club and make prostitution.

No one here does anything until something terrible happens to us. You will either be attacked or killed. Nobody cares about you until you're in danger. I was a friend of Wisam who was murdered in Turkey last year. UN has done nothing about this issue. Werde, a transsexual, was a friend of mine and was murdered, as well. This is the situation in Turkey, same as Iraq. A lot of people were murdered in Iraq, it does not matter if you are gay or not. Karar Nushi, a very famous person, was murdered because of his long hair and his clothes. Even though Turkey is more developed than Iraq, the situation in Turkey is terrible. They cut a friend’s penis and put it onto his chest just because he was gay. I witnessed it.

How did you arrive in Greece? How was the journey?

I came here by a boat from Izmir. I tried to come three times before, God saved me. I was even once arrested while trying to come here. When I came to Greece, I left everything be-hind.

Have you stayed in Moria Camp?

Yes I stayed there two weeks. Moria is not safe for anyone. The first day I arrived, people looked at me as if I was an alien. Once, a child came to me, and his family pulled him back from me and said “Don’t touch, come here!” Also a lot of men was carrying their knifes. Moria is completely dangerous. I had to move from one tent to another so many times. I always felt in danger. People was making jokes about me. Also, police was making jokes about me. Nobody was protecting us in there. Now I am outside of Moria and feel safe.

It is a completely different story. If you are gay and you stay there, you have a story. Moria is a terrible place even for a ‘normal’ person, so think about the homosexuals. There are bad people there. Being a refugee does not necessarily mean that you are a good person. I am from Iraq, I am human-being, also I am gay. I am proud of to be gay but I want to feel safe as well.

Could you tell about the conditions of Moria for LGBTI+ refugees?

You need to be careful. I do not want to think how they treat gay people.

What do you think about Lesvos?

All the gays want to live in peace here. I am a cross-dresser and I want to wear make-up, so I am different from others. If you look different, people stare at you. I want to live in a progressive and a free country. I want to live my life. You cannot live in a place where people bully you and stare at you. I despaired when I heard that Athens was worse than Istanbul. I heard that there were so many mafia. You need to be careful. I want to go to a more developed and a free country like Germany in Europe because Greece is like a replica of Turkey. Homosexuality is something new for locals living on the island. Therefore, they find it strange.

What do you do for a living on Lesvos? What can you say about the education and the job opportunities?

There is no job, no education. I wish I could study and there was a system for it. I applied to some places to learn English but it did not help. There is no job because this place is a destination for tourists.

What about the health institutions? Have you ever been to any health institution?

I used to have unprotected sex before I came here. I took a test as soon as I arrived here. I think this is important. I talked to a doctor in Moria and here (Pikpa). They scheduled an appointment for a later date in Moria. I do not normally wake up here at this time. I wake up in the afternoon. The doctor here does not accept anyone after 2 o’clock.

Do you know anybody who is in transition process?

No, I do not.

What about infectious diseases? Is it possible to be protected here?

I have no idea. There are so many people having sex here but I do not really know what is happening. I suggest them to be tested but they do not want.

How is your social and romantic life? Can you find anyone to date?

Everyone has a love story, of course. However, I do not think that I am successful. If you are bottom, things are getting harder. I feel like I cannot find someone because I am bottom. Un-fortunately, %90 of gay community do not care about love. I do not know why but our priority is sex. We push love and commitment into the second plan.

*He used the word minus, referring for bottom, an plus for top.

Do you have future plans? Do you want to leave the island? If so, where do you      want to go?

When I left Turkey, I wanted to go to Europe, Germany or somewhere else. I am in a country which is a part of Europe but this is the poorest country and does not look like Europe. It does not matter where I go as long as they provide social support. Security and financial support is also necessary

What does Lesvos Solidarity mean to you?

It is a wonderful place, so are people. They have much better conditions than Moria does. I love this place.

Do you think that there is a need for an association on the island which supports LGBTI+ rights?

Definitely, yes. First of all, we need a safe space. Unfortunately, there is no LGBTI+ association which helps us. However, some people which are not member of any LGBTI+ association come to help us.

What is the most problematic thing on the island?

Everything here can be problematic.

What is the most beautiful thing on the island?

The sea and you. (We laugh)

Have ever you contacted with any LGBTI+ association in Turkey?

No. I used to visit turkey because of visa, but I cannot do that anymore. If I get caught by Turkish authorities, I can be sent back to Iraq.

Do you want to add anything?

Of course I do. Homosexuals should have equal rights with others and there should be LGBTI+ associations on the island. Homosexuals are so weak and powerless. There is a need for an association which supports us and fights with us. I talked to a lawyer here. He said that I could not apply for asylum and I needed to wait. But I gave up. If there were some other associations, it would be better. People have to wait for more than a year. The life here is not suitable for gays.

This interview is an honor for me. Thank you so much.

Near the Moria Camp ©Tuğkan Gündoğdu

Consequently, EU’s response to this problem with a policy which does not care about needs and interests of people and an unethical deal ‘exchanging’ people caused refugees to be trapped on the Greek islands. Homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and racism among the local population living on the islands make things worse. LGBTI+ refugees are one of the groups who are affected by this terrible situation. While I was trying to make this essay ready, EU Commission announced a support package of 209 million for those refugees in Greece on July 28. It’s better than nothing but, The EU, one of the richest and most developed blocs, needs to take up a political position and develop policies that will ease this humanitarian crisis. We should not forget that this crisis is not a refugee crisis, it results from the fact that countries and migration policies are not ready for migrants.

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