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'I'd rather die than be sent to Turkey' — Why Pakistani migrants prefer Greece's hellish camps

Updated Apr 15, 2016 02:09pm

The Greek island of Lesbos is in full bloom during these spring days. The sun has warmed the Aegean Sea to swimming temperature.

By the port of Mytilene, I saw two young Pakistani men wash themselves in the salty seawater, before returning to the squatter camp where they have been living for the last few weeks.

I’ve been covering the story of migration to Europe for more than five years, but somehow, the Pakistani migrant workers in Greece feels like the last chapter.

Also read: Pakistanis among 200 migrants deported to Turkey by Greece

Arrivals have nearly come to a halt and these economic migrants are stuck all over Greece and former Yugoslavia, feeling increasingly desperate as they begin to realise their fate.

They are not getting to Germany or the UK anytime soon. The EU has decided instead to send economic migrants to Turkey from Greece as part of a deal struck last month.

An economic migrant stands near the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos close to an informal squat camp which is run by No Borders Kitchen, a European anarchist group.
An economic migrant stands near the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos close to an informal squat camp which is run by No Borders Kitchen, a European anarchist group.
An economic migrant stands near the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos close to an informal squat camp which is run by No Borders Kitchen.
An economic migrant stands near the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos close to an informal squat camp which is run by No Borders Kitchen.
Omar, a 21 year-old university student from Lahore, who said he decided to flee Pakistan after the January 20, 2016 attack on Bacha Khan University, speaking with a young American volunteer Sara Owens from St. Louis, at the No Borders Kitchen
Omar, a 21 year-old university student from Lahore, who said he decided to flee Pakistan after the January 20, 2016 attack on Bacha Khan University, speaking with a young American volunteer Sara Owens from St. Louis, at the No Borders Kitchen
Between 300 and 400 people, mostly Pakistani, are camping on the beach on the Greek island of Lesbos at the No Borders Kitchen.
Between 300 and 400 people, mostly Pakistani, are camping on the beach on the Greek island of Lesbos at the No Borders Kitchen.
A European volunteer uses binoculars to look for migrants arriving by boat to the island of Lesbos in Greece. International volunteer teams have organised rescue mission, food distributions and all manner of aid for economic migrants arriving in Greece and along the Balkan route.
A European volunteer uses binoculars to look for migrants arriving by boat to the island of Lesbos in Greece. International volunteer teams have organised rescue mission, food distributions and all manner of aid for economic migrants arriving in Greece and along the Balkan route.

Unlike others who are locked in a detention facility a few kilometres away, these young, mostly Pakistani, men spend days sitting on a hillside overlooking the sea playing Bhabhi (a card game) or volleyball.

During the cool nights, they gather around a fire and sometimes sing Pakistani songs.

At meal times, they receive simple dinners of rice or potatoes with vegetables and beans, provided by donations collected by European volunteers. Occasionally, volunteer Spanish lifeguards come by with bags of raisins or nuts.

Also read: The Pakistani slaves of modern Greece

When they appear, hundreds of young migrants run to the receiving line. Lolo from Madrid greets his Pakistani friends with hugs.

"They are some of the ones I saved from the sea," he told me.

Young Pakistani men after taking a bath in the sea on the island of Lesbos, where hundreds of Pakistanis have been stranded since the Balkan route was closed down at the Greek Macedonian border, at which time Greek authorities decided to prevent migrants from traveling to the mainland, which is already overflowing with migrants.
Young Pakistani men after taking a bath in the sea on the island of Lesbos, where hundreds of Pakistanis have been stranded since the Balkan route was closed down at the Greek Macedonian border, at which time Greek authorities decided to prevent migrants from traveling to the mainland, which is already overflowing with migrants.
A young Pakistani man named Amer cut Abdil's hair at the No Borders Kitchen, an unlicensed camp run by European anarchists on the shore of Lesbos island in Greece.
A young Pakistani man named Amer cut Abdil's hair at the No Borders Kitchen, an unlicensed camp run by European anarchists on the shore of Lesbos island in Greece.
A protest sign at the No Borders camp on the island of Lesbos on April 7, 2016. Although already warned they would be transferred to a detention center on the island, they've been granted a reprieve by the local mayor for an additional week.
A protest sign at the No Borders camp on the island of Lesbos on April 7, 2016. Although already warned they would be transferred to a detention center on the island, they've been granted a reprieve by the local mayor for an additional week.
Migrants, many of them Pakistani, line up for dinner at the No Borders camp on the island of Lesbos on April 7, 2016, which is run by volunteers. Although already warned they would be transferred to a detention center on the island, they've been granted a reprieve by the local mayor for an additional week.
Migrants, many of them Pakistani, line up for dinner at the No Borders camp on the island of Lesbos on April 7, 2016, which is run by volunteers. Although already warned they would be transferred to a detention center on the island, they've been granted a reprieve by the local mayor for an additional week.
Nineteen-year-old Omar who was in his second semester of studying electrical engineering at Gujrat University when he decided to leave Pakistan three months ago. After a long journey, he arrived in Greece, but he was too late. The Balkan route had already closed and he, like more than 50,000 other migrants, is now stranded. Although he has brothers working on another Greek island, Greek authorities are not permitting migrants to board ferries or planes to reach other parts of Greece. He said that, "a lot of people cry here for many reasons."
Nineteen-year-old Omar who was in his second semester of studying electrical engineering at Gujrat University when he decided to leave Pakistan three months ago. After a long journey, he arrived in Greece, but he was too late. The Balkan route had already closed and he, like more than 50,000 other migrants, is now stranded. Although he has brothers working on another Greek island, Greek authorities are not permitting migrants to board ferries or planes to reach other parts of Greece. He said that, "a lot of people cry here for many reasons."
Ijaz, 38, a labourer who is the main provider for his family, including his wife and two young sons and his elderly parents, sold his house to finance the trip to Europe. "I am a very poor man. My children have no education, good food or clothes." Now his dreams of lifting his family out of poverty has been dashed. "I'd rather die than be sent back to Turkey," he said.
Ijaz, 38, a labourer who is the main provider for his family, including his wife and two young sons and his elderly parents, sold his house to finance the trip to Europe. "I am a very poor man. My children have no education, good food or clothes." Now his dreams of lifting his family out of poverty has been dashed. "I'd rather die than be sent back to Turkey," he said.
Pakistani men at the No Borders camp at the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, on April 7, 2016. They are on high alert since the local mayor insisted that they abandon the camp and go to Moria, a closed camp where migrants live in prison-like conditions. This week Greece began deporting migrants, the vast majority Pakistani, to Turkey.
Pakistani men at the No Borders camp at the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, on April 7, 2016. They are on high alert since the local mayor insisted that they abandon the camp and go to Moria, a closed camp where migrants live in prison-like conditions. This week Greece began deporting migrants, the vast majority Pakistani, to Turkey.

The people living at the camp are neither happy nor calm, probably the two things they left home in search for.

Instead, they are on constant alert, knowing that at any time the police may raid the camp, dragging the migrants to detention.

A spokesman from the mayor’s office told me that if they don’t go peacefully, police will have to be called in and migrants will be taken to the detention facility.

Even more threatening is the probability of being deported to Turkey which intends to sends migrants who do not meet asylum criteria back to their countries of origin, under readmission agreements. Last week, 326 migrants were deported, among them 200 Pakistanis.

Pakistan migrants hold a hunger strike sit in protest at Moria Camp, a detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 7, 2016. Hundreds of Pakistanis are trapped on the Greek island of Lesbos. Greece began deported immigrants to Turkey last week, among them more than 200 Pakistanis, vastly more than any other group.
Pakistan migrants hold a hunger strike sit in protest at Moria Camp, a detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 7, 2016. Hundreds of Pakistanis are trapped on the Greek island of Lesbos. Greece began deported immigrants to Turkey last week, among them more than 200 Pakistanis, vastly more than any other group.
At the No Border Kitchen, an unauthorised camp on the beach on Lesbos island, migrants found a way into the locked volleyball court and have been holding daily matches. Although daily life is pleasant now that the weather is good, many people are very stressed and nervous about the prospect of being forcibly deported back to Turkey and perhaps after that back to Pakistan.
At the No Border Kitchen, an unauthorised camp on the beach on Lesbos island, migrants found a way into the locked volleyball court and have been holding daily matches. Although daily life is pleasant now that the weather is good, many people are very stressed and nervous about the prospect of being forcibly deported back to Turkey and perhaps after that back to Pakistan.
A migrant runs from police back to the relative safety of the unauthorised No Borders Kitchen camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. They are made to stay near the camp, and at night police sometimes prevent them from entering the port area and city centre.
A migrant runs from police back to the relative safety of the unauthorised No Borders Kitchen camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. They are made to stay near the camp, and at night police sometimes prevent them from entering the port area and city centre.
Pakistani men warm themselves by a fire in the evening at the No Borders Kitchen camp. The weather on the Greek island is hot during the day but drops significantly at night.
Pakistani men warm themselves by a fire in the evening at the No Borders Kitchen camp. The weather on the Greek island is hot during the day but drops significantly at night.
Migrants, the vast majority of whom are Pakistani, line up to receive food donations from Spanish volunteers. Between 300 and 400 migrants, about 90 per cent Pakistanis, are camping at the unauthorised No Borders Kitchen camp, which is overdue to be vacated.
Migrants, the vast majority of whom are Pakistani, line up to receive food donations from Spanish volunteers. Between 300 and 400 migrants, about 90 per cent Pakistanis, are camping at the unauthorised No Borders Kitchen camp, which is overdue to be vacated.
An announcement, posted in English and Urdu, regarding the rights migrants have in Greece to ask for asylum, at the No Borders Kitchen, an unauthorised camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece.
An announcement, posted in English and Urdu, regarding the rights migrants have in Greece to ask for asylum, at the No Borders Kitchen, an unauthorised camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece.
On April 8, 202 migrants were deported from Greece to Turkey, among them the biggest group was 130 Pakistanis, followed by 42 Afghans, the rest from Iran, Congo, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India.
On April 8, 202 migrants were deported from Greece to Turkey, among them the biggest group was 130 Pakistanis, followed by 42 Afghans, the rest from Iran, Congo, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India.

At the same time, Turkey has been working on the details of a readmission agreement with Pakistan, in order to implement a second wave of deportations from Turkey to Pakistan.

Take a look: Trav(ail)ogue of illegal Pakistani immigrants

"My hair turned white due to the tension," explained Ijaz, a 38 year-old father from Gujrat. The sole provider for his family (including two small boys, wife and elderly parents), he sold his family home to pay for the dangerous journey from Pakistan through Iran, Turkey and then by sea on small flimsy rubber boats to Greek islands like Lesbos.

Sitting on the rocks by the seaside, Ijaz told me: "I am a very poor man. My children have no good education, good clothes or good food."

He covered his face with his hands, then looked at me forlornly. Like many others, he has lost hope. He is terrified to be deported back to Turkey, neither a safe country nor an easy place to find decent employment.

Also read: EU refugee crisis: The tragedy of nationalism

Hassan from Lahore, who spoke to me by telephone from inside the detention center, recounted how he was kidnapped in Istanbul. He told me that an Afghan man offered to help him find accommodation. The accommodation ended up being a basement apartment, where he was beaten and held for ransom, until more than a month later, his family paid 3,000 euros in ransom.

Other Pakistani men told me similar stories.

For these migrants, Greece — where they are treated as less than human, where they reside in sheds and eat food that the other inhabitants of the island country would not even touch — is still lesser of the two evils.

"We'd rather die than be sent back to Turkey. It is not a safe country," they said.

—All photos by author


Jodi Hilton is an American photojournalist who has been covering migration in the Middle East and Europe since 2010. She graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism.

In 2008, she travelled across Pakistan and published her stories and photographs in Europe and America.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.