Part 4 of a series written by Inês, our Advocacy Officer at Fenix, for Revista Visão. Through the stories of 7 people, Layla, Armand, Sophie, Joseph, Jean, Marie and Thérès, Inês illustrates the difficulties that migrants face in their journey to Europe and the challenging situation they deal with once they arrive.
I will call her Layla: a fictitious woman, but whose stories and life paths are brutally real. She represents the many women whom I have come across in the Moria Refugee Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Layla was born and lived in Duma for most of her life. After the death of her parents when she was just 10 years old, she went to live with her older sister who already had a husband and two young children. As you might imagine, Layla's childhood was not easy without her parents' absence, and was further complicated by her sister's economic difficulties.
When she was 17, Layla married a cousin of her brother-in-law, a man she saw for the first time on the wedding day itself. At first they had a good relationship, but a few months into the marriage, he started to become more controlling and violent. Psychological and physical violence became a daily occurence. Layla hardly left the confines of the house and was limited to taking care of the household and children. After nine years of marriage, Layla could not take it anymore and ran away. Her daughter accompanied her mother, but her son stayed with his father. She has never seen or spoken to him since, although she has tried repeatedly to contact him. She only knows that he lives outside Syria now.
After leaving her first husband's house, Layla moved back in with her sister. However, the relationship between the two was not the best. Her sister did not agree with her separation from her husband. Layla had hardly any schooling and struggled with reading and writing, so she had serious difficulty finding a job. After a few months, she got a job as a maid for a rich family, also living in Duma, who allowed her and her daughter to live in an annexed service room.
Two years later, Layla met the man who would become her second husband. He was working in her employers' company. After some time, the two married and lived a happy life, despite the problems they would face. In 2011, her husband took part in the major protests against the dictatorial regime of Bashar Hafez al-Assad in Damascus. At one of the demonstrations he was arrested and subsequently tortured, and then was imprisoned for 2 years.
As soon as Layla's husband was released from prison, the couple had to move into a quasi-clandestine situation due to threats of further detention or forced recruitment into the Syrian army. In 2017 the constant bombing resulting from the Civil War with foreign intervention forced them to flee from Duma to northern Syria. A week after leaving their city, the house where they had previously lived was bombed.
Meanwhile, Layla's daughter had a son, and also decided to flee Duma in search of a safer place to live, opting to leave Syria altogether. In 2018, Layla's husband was killed during an air strike. Not knowing what to do with her life, Layla ended up living in Syria for another year, later fleeing in the company of neighbours.
When they reached the border between Syria and Turkey, the bus they were on was stopped by Turkish police. Everyone was full of fear about what was going to happen to them. Rumours abounded. They were forced off the bus and searched. The men were beaten, and all those who were searched were stripped of many of their possessions.
Layla managed to keep her documents and the little money she had because, just as she was about to be searched, another bus had appeared and the group of policemen who were attacking them went to deal with the new group of people approaching. While the Turkish policemen went to stop the incoming bus, a group of about 15 people, including Layla, managed to escape and hide in a nearby forest that existed in the border area. They walked all night.
Late the next day, the group of Syrians found a village. They thought they would be safe. However, as they were approaching the first houses in the village, Turkish police officers appeared and stopped them. All the people were immobilised - cuffed at the their feet and hands - and beaten. When they finished their abuse, the policemen left them to their fate. The next day, the group decided to continue on foot to the coastal city of Izmir. Once there, the group split up. Alone and not knowing what to do, Layla wandered around the city for two days. She did not eat and she had no clothes suitable to bear the terrible cold of December 2019. She was terrified, in terrible pain, and bleeding. On the third day she happened to meet a Turkish man who spoke Arabic and who told her he could help her get to Greece.
Driven to desperation by her situation she accepted the offer without a second thought, and, with the money she still had, she paid for the "passage". The man simply told her that the next day she would have to be in front of a certain house by the sea at around nine o'clock in the evening. The group that formed was made up of about 30 people. For many, it was not the first time they had tried to enter Europe. For Layla, it was.
As I reported in a previous chronicle, at dawn that group of refugees came ashore after being chased by the Greek Coast Guard. They managed to escape since the tide was low and they had come onto the island at a rocky section of the coastline. In this way they avoided being informally arrested by Greek police forces and illegally returned to Turkey. So, Layla eventually arrived at Moria Camp.
Once she had been registered and had formalised an asylum application, she was informed that her asylum interview would not be until 2021, over a year later. She also filed a request for family reunification with her daughter and grandson, who at this point were living in France. The request was ignored. She had no legal support so she had no choice but to wait.
For months she had no access to the health care she needed and, as a result of this neglect, her physical and mental health deteriorated. The violent reality of the camp only worsened with the measures implemented as a result of the pandemic. On the night of 8-9 September 2020, a fire consumed Moria Camp. Layla was taken by surprise. She managed to escape with only the clothes she had on her body and a small bag where she kept her documents. Once again she lost all her possessions and was forced to stay on the streets with virtually no access to water, food, toilets or medical support.
On 12 September 2020, the Greek government announced that the new temporary camp was ready. A day later, Layla decided to get in, despite fears of what might happen to her there. In early October 2020 she was finally called for her asylum interview. However, because she had Syrian nationality, and Turkey had been classified by Greece as a "safe country" for nationals of Syria, the Greek authorities rejected her asylum application in January 2021. This decision should have resulted in her being returned to Turkey, but that has not yet happened because she is currently still waiting to hear back about her appeal.
Will the initial decision be changed? Is it acceptable that this is almost always the position of the European Union and its Member States?