Just before Christmas, on December 22, as people are merrily buying their last gifts in Aplotaria, I meet with mayor of Chios, Manolis Vournous. He seems tired, but his views are stern and clear. After months of wrangling with the Greek government and chasing elusive responsibilities on the island, his patience is running thin. When I ask, to begin with, what he considers his main problem, he goes straight to what he sees as the heart of the matter.
The fundamental hypocrisy
“Chios, as well as Lesbos, Kos, Samos, have been assigned to be open camps,” he says. Meanwhile the EU and the Greek state don’t properly detain refugees. “So they’re hiding the fact that they want people not to be able to move, but at the same time they do not say that we want closed detention centers. On this lie, this hypocrisy, is based all the mess that has happened on the islands.”
“All the rest is technicalities.”
These technicalities sprout around him in endless and undying variety. Refugees protest, fascists protest back, there are attacks, robberies, fights, suicide attempts. Society is tense and polarized. After the island was made a hotspot, tourism crumbled. But that’s not all. “There is very bad administration, there is very bad coordination, there is money that cannot be seen, there is lack of transparency, lack of information.”
Vournous is architect by profession, and a capable one as far as I’ve gathered. He seems to look at his problems rather like an issue of a bad diagram that needs to be fixed, of plumbing that has to be adjusted. He is, in short, a technocrat. It comes only as a mild surprise, therefore, that he admires the European Union. “By far, it is the best union of nations and of states, by far, globally, and all around history,” he says with not a hint of irony. “At least the history which I know!” he adds and laughs. “You cannot find any other union of states better than the EU.”
Two days earlier, Maarten Verwey, coordinator for the EU-Turkey statement, had visited Chios to present Brussels’ vision for the island’s future. In it, there seems little chance of Vournous gaining much control over Chios, but he’s happy with the plan nonetheless. “It is the first time that we see seven pages, eight pages, describing which are the intentions.” Until now it was all irritatingly informal. But, according to mayor Vournous, Verwey’s plan — which includes pre-removal centers and faster processing — has two fundamental defects: It has no enforcement mechanism, and it leaves the refugees on the island as before.
The issue of enforcement brings Vournous onto an extended grumble about the nature of his job. “I do not accept that somebody is going to press me, I want people to make things happen and I do not want to be pressed for something or for me to press somebody else. How to press? I mean, humanly? Vocally? By hands? Or by other means? I do not accept this pressing as a political means which can be used in today’s society.” In other words, Vournous wishes for a politics without interest groups or power dynamics. His vision is of politics beyond politics, “a democratically made hierarchy,” with “people who decide something and people who must do it.”
He brings this up again later on, when talking about the vaporous organisation of camps and provision for refugees on the island. “A year and a half [has passed and] still the decisions and the coordination are left to a goodwill basis. We cannot go just with goodwill. There must be orders. There must be a hierarchy. I do this and you do the other; that’s my job, that’s your job, because otherwise we create this mess.”
When it comes to the result his hierarchy should preferably produce, he is more clear. “We must be able to say to our societies and ourselves that we do use detention centers, that we’re not hiding that behind the water.” If detention centers are used, that should be the openly stated policy. The detention should be unequivocal, with no going in or out. “In order to make that clear, the detention centers could be elsewhere.” One can almost feel his sigh of relief at the thought. “In Germany, in Italy, in France, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be here, on Chios or on Samos. And of course we should be able to provide decent conditions for those who are detained.”
Reportedly, Verwey said in a meeting with the municipal councilors that Turkey had demanded the detention centers should be on the Greek islands. Vournous is not accommodating of this demand. “This is a matter of Greece, or the EU, where they’re going to have the detention centers. It is not a matter of Turkey.”
The mayor spares a thought for the differences between nations. “We have decided — not now, but thousands of years ago — that it is better to live within separated societies. When the societies have similar characteristics they can come into relations and gradually increase their brotherhood, their bonding, but at the same time there are borders of societies.” Though he doesn’t expound on our brotherhood with Turks or Arabs, he goes on to explain what he considers to be our fundamental values.
“The European civilization has as its basis the humanistic ideals and rationalism. We have to combine these,” he says. “We might have ideals, but since we are human, and we cannot do that on the absolute scale which God or nature can do it, you must put a human measure on it. We must say how much and how we are going to serve our humanistic ideals. It is not an option anymore to say that those who arrived on my borders are welcome and I give them…”
He interrupts himself.
“If you really want to serve your humanistic ideals, you must be where the need is. Not wait for people from Afghanistan or Mali to walk some thousands of kilometers and pay smugglers to arrive at your borders. You are not showing your humanistic face because someone arrived on Chios or Mytilini.”
As for the most urgent thing facing him right now, it’s a mere stone’s throw from his office: Camp Souda. “The most pressing issue is to clear Souda, to demolish it. But you cannot demolish it while still there are people in there.”
As we talk, Souda was in its sixth day of electricity shortages, meaning heaters couldn’t be distributed. “I’ve heard enough with finding those who are responsible,” Vournous exclaims. “There is a deterioration if there is no heating in there. It’s deteriorating people. There we have taken the decision — I have taken the decision and the municipal council has confirmed it yesterday afternoon — that, yes, we are going to provide heating there. We are going to do it with our money.” He emphasizes the last two words. In a strangled economy such as that of Chios, this is no trifling matter.
He denies that this is a buildup of infrastructure. “It’s something that’s happening at twelve today and tomorrow at twelve it might be cut.” He maintains that the camp will be taken down at the first opportunity. And there will be no further camps.
“We are being asked to provide new areas for people to settle. We do not provide anything. We say that, no, people should leave Chios.”
And why isn’t that happening?
“The EU says no, the Greek government says no.”
The hierarchy refuses. Alas, it seems, politics and pressure are the only weapons left to mayor Vournos.