THE REFUGEE CRISIS
Hakim Anwar, 23, sat staring blankly ahead as he recalled being locked in the back of a moving truck with roughly 30 other people for over a day somewhere in Macedonia. Two people were discovered to have died, presumably from a combination of heat stroke and suffocation, when the doors were finally opened. Upon arrival, they were then arrested and brought to Gazi Baba*, a detention center in Skopje where they were kept for 18 days incommunicado, sleeping on the floor with nothing but a small blanket, two toilets for the hundreds of other arrested refugees, and barely enough food to survive on.
After telling me his story, Hakim looked over and said “But if you want to hear a bad story, listen to this kid” as he nodded toward a young man sitting next to him. Hicham, 17, went on to explain how his boat sank crossing the Aegean from Izmir and he was one of the only ones to survive; how he walked through Greece, through Macedonia, through Serbia, on his own under the cover of darkness; how he had been beaten by police, robbed by mafia and gone days without food or water.
A few weeks after I met him, Hakim was deported back to Greece and since then, back to his home in Morocco.
Hicham eventually made it to Germany, but after two months was arrested and brought back to Bekescaba Detention Camp for men in Hungary. I have not been able to reach him since he sent me a string of messages a month ago, begging for help.
When each story is more horrifying than the last, you really start to question the limits of humanity.
In March and April of 2016, my documentation of the current refugee crisis brought me to the Idomeni Camp on the Greece-Macedonia border, one of the largest makeshift camps in Europe. For the previous few months I documented the journey of refugees through the Balkans from border towns in Northern Serbia to train stations in Sarajevo to tent cities in Croatia, but I had yet to spend time with refugees who were no longer in active transit. Idomeni was not their home by any means, but most people I met had been there for nearly 2 months, and were prepared to stay far longer. Small businesses had been set up by those with incredible entrepreneurial skills: bread sellers and outdoor barber shops, among others. Volunteers have constructed a school for the kids, and there is entertainment a few nights a weeks. Small portions of coffee and eggs are available in the mornings; some food is handed out throughout the day; families with children are given a banana. Overall there are not enough volunteers, not enough supplies and not enough people creating solutions for the largest migration since World War ll.
Instead, countries have closed their boarders. There have been mass accusations of police brutality. The EU has switched from one policy to the next, consistently failing to create solutions to the problems we as journalists and photographers are witnessing every single day and that an unimaginable number of people are being subjected to. Whether from war, human rights abuses, or economic crisis, the reasons are unending as is the flow of people. In 2015 alone, more than 1 million people crossed into Europe and an estimated 3770 died trying to cross the Mediterranean. There have been reports with upwards of 500 people dying in a single attempt to cross from Libya, official numbers rarely accessible because the bodies are never recovered.
When the numbers are this large they tend to become abstract to an audience who is hearing it or reading it every day on the news. It becomes just a number rather than a representation of individuals. For those documenting the crisis, this disconnect becomes the problem - how do we keep this in the news, demonstrating its relentlessness and need for solution, but not over-saturate and not desensitize the public to these images of horror? For the very reason that the refugee crisis must stay in the news and stay relevant it has become incredibly difficult to continue covering, because nothing is changing except the public’s apathy.
Idomeni Camp has since been shut down. At its peak, Idomeni housed 14,000 people. In May, when the clearing operation began, there were 8,400 people. Those who chose to go with authorities were moved to official camps, although many, out of fear of faulty information, chose to move with their tents to other makeshift camps.
One of the most personally challenging aspects throughout my time documenting this societal breakdown has been the blatant and inescapable privilege I have because of my nationality. While these men, women and children are beaten, walking across countries, losing their families, or dying, I am taking out my passport, putting my headphones in and waiting for the plane to land. While they are sleeping in water logged tents and getting tear gassed for coming too close to the Macedonian fence, I am driving across the border twice daily because it’s cheaper to stay in Macedonia than it is in Greece. When you are on the frontline, whether it be war or natural catastrophe, you as a photographer become a part of the chaos. In many ways you face the same, if not more, risks. But documenting refugees as they walk through European cities and drown in European waters is a collision of worlds that is hard to reconcile. As much as you try to immerse yourself, you are still just watching: watching as the boats sink, watching as people drown, watching as family members search for lost loved ones. We are all watching as the most powerful countries and people in the world turn their backs on those fighting for their lives.
*Gazi Baba has since been described by Human Rights Watch as ‘inhuman and degrading’, with the police guards ‘routinely ill-treat[ing] the detainees… though physical and verbal abuse”.
-ALEXANDRA R HOWLAND