“The asylum process in Greece is akin to the proverbial cutting of the nose to spite one’s face” (Image: Fylakio detention centre)Ggia/ Kim Hansen

‘Unfurl’ has long been a media buzzword when it comes to the refugee crisis. Apparently that’s what refugee crises do – ‘unfurl’ and ‘unfold’, completely divorced from any sense of human agency or the misery which drives them. It’s a spectator sport, an inevitable series of events that we can do little about, but whose vignettes we gorge ourselves upon; ‘Afghan Girl’ from the 1985 National Geographic; the skeletal children of the Somalian famine; Omran Daqneesh in the Aleppan ambulance.

A month, a year later, they move from an untenable situation inside their countries to an equally untenable journey, and our cameras follow them. They arrive on our shores in rubber dinghies, and if infants have died, it makes front-page news. But, apart from photos of Calais and Lesbos, the ultimate destination of their journey is little documented.

So perhaps the refugees arriving on Chios were as surprised as I was when they first saw Vial, Europe’s ‘worst’ detention centre, which is located, without any sense of irony from the authorities, on top of an active waste processing plant in the Greek island of Chios. Vial is a void, a black hole for NGOs and grassroots organisations, a dead-end where neither entrance nor aid is permitted. Simply finding it borders on the impossible. It has no road name, let alone postcode, and if it weren’t for a UN bus that drove refugees from Vial to the make-shift camp, Souda, in Chios’ city-centre, it would be a brilliant place to disappear 1,800 refugees.

“People who had arrived in the ‘freedom’ of the EU in the last 24 hours, having risked their lives and sold everything they own to pay a people smuggler, only to find themselves in a new kind of prison”

The detention centre is now full – all refugees who arrive in Chios are sent there for registration and eventually make their way to Souda where they scramble over finding a free tent. But Vial – despite the fact that very few of the refugees are actually being detained – remains the first port of call and sole link to the authorities. I wound up in Vial after one gentlemen said he was incorrectly provided with a Kurdish translator for his asylum interview, despite the fact he speaks Dari. Considering that the entirety of the asylum case rests upon the interview, the situation was pretty grave. I contacted a lawyer (who shall remain unnamed, but who I admire so much) and we decided to go on my penultimate day.

For a detention centre that is very low on translators, Vial has a bizarre attachment to bureaucracy. The first step upon arrival is to wait at what looks strangely like a street-seller’s cabin to acquire a slip of paper that permits you a second slip of paper that allows you to enter the building. No queuing is enforced, so shouting to get the attention of the workers is accepted as the only method. Arab-speakers have a translator present; Farsi-speakers make do with what English they know. The lawyer informed me that I had come on a good day; last week she had waited for over five hours in the rain at this first stage.

After an hour we progressed to waiting outside chicken wire. Again, there was no queue, so people’s faces were pressed up against the mesh trying to get the soldier’s attention. We profited from it being a Friday afternoon and after half an hour we were all ushered in by the soldiers who seemed to have a mind to close early. Somehow I was allowed in with the delegate of lawyers.

I consider myself fairly inured to the scenes of European refugee camps. I’ve translated for unaccompanied minors who’ve had their entire family killed by the Taliban, for men who’ve washed their fathers’ corpses after they found them by the side of the road, executed. But there was something about the expression on peoples’ faces as they sat in cages; people who had arrived in the ‘freedom’ of the EU in the last 24 hours, having risked their lives and sold everything they own to pay a people smuggler, only to find themselves in a new kind of prison. We eventually got the transcript of the interview. The entire ordeal took four and a half hours, for eight pieces of paper to be photocopied.

The asylum process in Greece is akin to the proverbial cutting of the nose to spite one’s face. The more convoluted the system, the stronger the disincentive for those thinking of making the journey. There seems to be a real attempt to misinform – one man had been under the impression he could only apply for family reunification if he was people smuggled to Austria, where his wife and four children are, and so has been trying to sneak himself onto a ferry to Athens every night for nine months.

Another, who has a potentially fatal brain tumour, has elected to postpone his surgery until he is with his wife in Germany, as he had been told by the doctors that the recuperation is long and arduous, and unfeasible in a tent without electricity. But weeks have turned into months, and only his flight to Athens – never mind out of Greece itself – has been booked by the authorities. He has paid a people smuggler from Athens to Germany, for fear that he will die in the interim.

For the Dari-speaking gentleman, we managed to make the relevant changes to his transcript (which meant rewriting it). Last I heard, he’s still waiting to hear the results of his asylum case. As for Vial, and the human misery caged inside it, for now I can only watch it unfurl