By the thousands they came, fleeing bombs, brutality and hardship. At day, they tore through muddy fields; at night, they huddled around small fires. Young and old, they passed through barbed wire, crammed inside trucks and braved rough seas in flimsy boats.
Along the way, they saw loved ones – wives and husbands, daughters and sons – perish. With little left to lose, they persevered, only to have their path – and a chance for a better life – blocked.
Days of despair have since turned into weeks, and weeks into months. But the nightmare won’t let go, each time appearing under a new guise.
Twice last week, a lethal mix of Molotov bombs and massive stones rained down on a cluster of tents perched inside the overcrowded Souda refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios. It cracked skulls, burned belongings and spread panic.
By pure luck, no one died – this time.
Yet, the potentially murderous attacks, carried out from the top of an ancient castle wall rising next to the narrow camp, were enough to inflict further pain on Souda’s already traumatised residents. Scores of children, men and women, some pregnant, refused to go back, opting to sleep out in the winter cold than risking suffering another night of violence.
“These people escaped war zones and survived shipwrecks, to be attacked now with firebombs and stones,” Claire Whelan, a Chios-based worker for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Al Jazeera.
“They feel destitute, hopeless and abandoned.”
Just as Souda was burning, another tragic milestone was marked further south, off the coast of Libya – yet few noticed.
Four shipwrecks in less than three days left almost 340 refugees dead or missing, according to the International Organization for Migration. This means there have now been more than 4,500 deaths in the Mediterranean this year, making 2016 the deadliest for people risking the perilous journey to Europe.
That’s at least 14 deaths a day, one every 100 minutes, just in these waters.
‘Rise of the walls’
It’s not hard to identify the culprits for the rising shipwreck deaths: bad weather, unseaworthy vessels and people-smuggling can all be blamed.
Yet some argue the same can also be said about increasingly isolationist policies in a number of European countries which force people in desperate conditions to undertake treacherous journeys.
A report this month by the Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis project concluded that a failure to open up safe and legal routes is directly driving refugees into the hands of human smugglers, who resort to more dangerous routes as a response to increased controls.
“Smuggling is driven, rather than broken, by EU policy,” it said.
Early last year, a series of Balkan and central European countries closed their borders along a humanitarian corridor towards northern Europe, leaving thousands stranded in squalid tent cities across Greece. Razor-wire fences were erected, and troops deployed to ensure no one was allowed to continue their journey.
“The central and eastern European countries are being very short-sighted to think that if they hold their breath, the emergency will pass,” professor Anna Triandafyllidou, of the European University Institute, told Al Jazeera.
But Triandafyllidou, citing initiatives such as mandatory resettlement quotas and naval rescue operations among others, said it would be wrong to disregard the EU’s political will to deal with the crisis.
“If anyone has failed of rising up to the challenge, it was specific EU members who actually played this chicken game – they didn’t cooperate because others were cooperating,” she said.
“Germany has received at least half a million asylum applications, Sweden 200,000 – if all European countries did their share, there wouldn’t be such an emergency.”
One of the EU’s most controversial responses has been its deal with Turkey last March, which drew widespread criticism both by aid groups and UN agencies.
Under the agreement, migrants and refugees arriving in Greece after March 20 were to be held in centres on five islands, including Chios, and deported to Turkey if their asylum applications are rejected.
The deal largely shut down the eastern passage to Europe, and forced increasing numbers of refugees to join thousands from Africa in the more dangerous central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy.
Since then, deaths off Libya have spiked, and tensions on Greece’s islands have also boiled over as the process moves at a snail’s pace.
It is also applied inconsistently and fraught with particular difficulties, including refugees having to navigate a complex legal asylum system in foreign languages or travelling hundreds of kilometres just to register.
Processing is also being done based on nationality, rather than arrival date and vulnerability, humanitarian groups say. As a result, people who started their journey a long time ago have now been stuck in overcrowded camps for more than six months. This multi-tier system is causing further friction among separate ethnic groups and a sense of discrimination.
Amid the lags and the despair, some attempt to kill themselves; many self-harm.
In Chios, the UN says there are currently more than 2,000 refugees, with some 800 based in Souda.
Overall, more than 60,000 refugees are stranded across Greece, trapped inside a country still down on its knees after more than six years of deepening recession.
Since 2009, Greece has lost a staggering 25 percent of its economy. One-quarter of its population – and more than half of its young people – is without a job; the educational and health systems are under severe pressure; and economic recovery is admittedly nowhere in sight. On the refugee-hosting islands, many have also suffered additional economic losses from a steep decline in tourism arrivals.
Amid a protracted downturn, far-right populism has found fertile ground to move from the fringes. Taking advantage of a protest vote against domestic political failures and internationally imposed austerity, the far-right Golden Dawn went from polling just 0.3 percent in 2009 to coming third in last year’s election with almost seven percent.
Aid workers whisper that Golden Dawn members were behind last week’s Souda attack while refugees and volunteers shout it aloud. The local police have also come in for criticism for failing to act quickly enough, a charge they deny.
But can the financial and social demise justify such attacks? Can it rationalise hate?
“Certainly not,” said Seraphim Seferiades, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens. “Instead, they [the attacks] highlight the huge responsibility of an EU thinking which incubates the conditions for the emergence of such attitudes and the rise of xenophobia and right-wing groups.
“EU officials are quick to shed crocodile tears about the refugees’ drama, yet at the same time they adopt policies such as border closures that not only fail to deal with the causes of the problem, but actually make things worse,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They should be held accountable for their criminal acts.”
Takis Giannopoulos, a member of the Greek activist group Anti-Nazi Zone, agrees. “Chios is experiencing a real problem, but the only ones who are not to blame are the refugees living in inhumane conditions,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The answer to that [problem] is not xenophobic attacks, but the integration of these people into the island’s life, or the facilitation of the process that will enable them to continue their journey.”
Despite incidents like the Souda attack, most Greeks have been welcoming. Families have opened their houses; community groups have set up shelters; teachers have expanded their classrooms; artists have raised awareness.
In a way, said Triandafyllidou, the plight of the refugees largely mobilised the positive reflexes of Greeks.
“It was surprising,” she told Al Jazeera, but “it was almost as if the financial crisis prepared people for reacting positively towards the refugees.
“During the big flow, the municipality of Athens and NGOs said ‘don’t bring any more clothes, toys, shoes; we don’t know where to put them, we don’t have enough volunteers to distribute them.'”
And that was also the reaction of many people across Europe, responding with commitment and compassion to the worst refugee crisis in decades.
“The challenge is big,” said Triandafyllidou. “We need to work on all fronts and recognise that migration is part of a whole socioeconomic transformation – there won’t be a one-size-fits-all policy,” she added.
“There are no easy solutions and answers, so we need to work on every possible small solution because the many small solutions will do a big effect.”
Until then, attacks on refugees seem likely to continue, and death tolls will keep on breaking grim record after grim record.