Life in Greece has become so difficult for Amir and Walaa, teachers from Syria, that they sometimes think about returning to the home they risked everything to flee.
“I know in Syria we have war and bombs every day,” says Amir, visibly exhausted. But there, “every Syrian dies once. Here we die every day. Every day is bad.”
For the past six months, home is a bleak tent on the Aegean island of Chios, pitched in a dusty medieval castle moat, where they wait without work or money for a verdict on their asylum claims.
Until then, they are prevented from going beyond Greece, or even Chios, under a deal agreed in March between the European Union and Ankara that will see those who do not qualify for asylum sent back to Turkey, from where they arrived.
They are among thousands in the same predicament.
Conditions at the Souda camp, as well as on other two sites on the island, deteriorated over the summer as the migrant population swelled to three times the capacity.
A fire tore through tents during a protest in June, and brawls are frequent at night. Walaa says she and her children, aged six and eight, are too scared to leave the tent after sunset, as men frequently get drunk and fight one another.
The couple fled the wrecked city of Homs for Europe and arrived in Greece on March 19 – a day before the EU-Turkey deal was implemented – but were barred from leaving the island. Since then, they have been interviewed twice, but have yet to be given any information on their fate, they said.
The process – which includes thorough identity checks, interviews and an assessment of whether Turkey is safe or not for a particular individual – can take weeks. Applicants can appeal a negative decision, prolonging the procedure.
In nearly six months since the EU-Turkey accord was agreed, just over 500 people have been ferried back to Turkey, but none of those who had requested asylum were among them, Greece says. Meanwhile, nearly everyone currently on Chios and four other Aegean islands close to Turkey has expressed an interest in applying.
Even though arrivals have slowed to a hundred or so a day from thousands last year, about 13,000 refugees and migrants are currently on the islands, up from about 5,000 in March. Over 3,500 are on Chios alone.
“We wait,” Walaa said, stirring sugar into tea, “but what we wait for, I don’t know.”
Each day, she checks a board for when their number – 10,624 – will be called. But they are not called in any particular order, so it’s anyone’s guess when that may be – “maybe tomorrow, maybe after one week,” authorities say.
More than 57,000 refugees and migrants, mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, are in camps across Greece, stranded since countries across the Balkans closed off the route to northern Europe. Humanitarian organizations on the ground have deplored conditions at the camps as unfit for humans.
“The conditions are unacceptable for humans, let alone for refugees who are vulnerable and who carry wounds from war,” said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, an Amnesty International researcher and former Greece director.
A few meters down, in a tiny tent with a tarpaulin roof barely bigger than 1 by 2 meters (40 x 80 inches), 26-year-old Syrian student Mohammad Al-Jassem, who arrived in Greece on March 30, spends his days writing notes to his family back home.
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“I love you mama. I hope to see you in the future,” reads one, in green ink on yellow paper. “I want to stay in Europe. I am tired of the Middle East. Always war.”
Like others in the camp, Al-Jassem says he had no choice but to leave the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor.
“I don’t want to hold a weapon and kill someone,” he said. “I just want to study, to work, to have a new life, to have a new start, to go to Germany, to find peace, to leave this mess.”
And if Turkey was safe, he would not have come to Europe in the first place, he says. “If they send me back to Turkey I will go back to Syria.”
For everyone in the camp, the days are long. “Five months and 11 days,” says Daud, a 45-year-old Syrian, when asked how long he has been in Greece.
He describes long days spent in temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit), and long nights of people fighting, brandishing knives and stealing.
“Every day there is a fight,” he says. After three interviews, he has yet to be told what will become of him and his wife.
Asked what will happen if they are ordered back to Turkey, he replies without hesitation: “No. I will go to Syria and die in Syria.”