On a Saturday morning last November the world woke up to the Islamic State inspired terrorist attack on the people of Paris. Earlier that day, together with a filmmaker friend, I had taken time out from recording the migrant and refugee arrivals on the rocky beaches of Lesbos to help one man and his family out of a jam. Samr, a Syrian taxi driver, and his family had made the dangerous six-kilometre sea passage from Turkey during a howling storm.
Bad weather provides a discount – so Samr only had to pay 4,500 euro rather than the usual 5,000 for himself, his Lebanese wife and three young daughters. They were packed into an unseaworthy rubber dingy with forty other migrants. Samr is a practical man. Despite suffering from a heart condition (he has recently undergone a bypass operation), and diabetes, he knows how to cox a rigid inflatable boat and was forced by the smugglers to pilot the dingy.
'Samr turned back for the 'safety' of the Turkish beach where the refugees were met by men with knives and knuckledusters. One Afghan refugee was beaten when he tried to leave the boat. Rabih was forced to turn around and attempt once again to skipper his precious cargo across treacherous waters'
After a few minutes heading out into the surf the ill-made and flexible boat began to flood. Fearing for the lives of his family and the other passengers, Samr turned back for the 'safety' of the Turkish beach where the refugees were met by men with knives and knuckledusters. One Afghan refugee was beaten when he tried to leave the boat. Samr was forced to turn around and attempt once again to skipper his precious cargo across treacherous waters.
‘its like Vietnam'
Remarkably, a testimony to his skill and determination, Samr managed to navigate the boat to within a few hundred metres of the Greek coastline at Eftalou on Lesbos Island. Then, as the dinghy hit the rollers driving the boat relentlessly onto the boulder-strewn shore, the inflatable capsized. In the chaos that followed Samr held onto his family but lost his baggage, his money, his documents and his medication. Samr was distraught; his voice hoarse from the constant shouting that had been his lot as he tried to keep his human cargo from moving around during the perilous crossing. Without his baggage he would not be able to take his medication, he would have no money to look after his family, and no documents to prove his refugee status.
Most refugees who had survived the crossing were awaiting tickets for the few busses provided by the UN and aid agencies to EU registration centres sixty kilometres to the south, a process through which they were required to give up vital personal information which might later be used to deny them access to humanitarian services and even nullify their asylum applications (place of origin etc.).
Myself and Peter met Samr and his family at Oxy: a surreal place – the car park of a discotheque built to resemble a flying saucer which was had been temporarily converted into a home for hundreds of sodden and bedraggled refugees. Most refugees who had survived the crossing were awaiting tickets for the few busses provided by the UN and aid agencies to EU registration centres sixty kilometres to the south, a process through which they were required to give up vital personal information which might later be used to deny them access to humanitarian services and even nullify their asylum applications (place of origin etc.).
Two beautiful little girls hugged us spontaneously while Rabih's wife quietly sobbed.
We met his wife and daughters too. Two beautiful little girls hugged us spontaneously while Rabih's wife quietly sobbed. We had no choice; we offered to take him back to the beach and search for his bag. The sun was beginning to set and a chill wind blew onto the lonely beach where he had landed. After an hour of fruitless searching among the debris of lifejackets and ripped open dinghies we only managed to recover his daughter’s tiny woollen sweater and a small bottle of medication belonging to his wife. Rabih clung onto these pathetic items as though they were all he had in the world, and perhaps they were: ‘its like Vietnam’, he whispered as we clambered back up the beach to where I had parked the car. Two Danish volunteers stood by tending a open fire, awaiting the next human cargo. On our return to Oxy, feeling a little defeated ourselves, we did what we could: bought his family some sandwiches and bottled water and exchanged ‘phone numbers.
“What shall I do?”
A week later I received a 'phone call from Germany at midnight while we partied in a nightclub in Mitilini, the capital of the Greek Island. Samr was on a train to Konstanz, near the Swiss border. “I am so tired and the children are freezing, we will get to Konstanz soon but have nowhere to stay. What shall I do?” I had no idea, of course. In the middle of the night we Googled to find volunteer organisations in Germany and I called the remarkable Marily Pritz, a photographer who has set up a nationwide organisation called Welcome to Europe to support refugees.
"As a Syrian refugee in Lebanon Samr was tortured by Hezbollah when he refused to fight for the Assad government. They fucked my wife in front of me and the kids and cut me, he said, in a low whisper infused with shame."
At Konstanz, after a six-hour train ride, Samr and his family were given new train tickets to Karlsruhe, an industrial city in the Ruhr valley in northwest Germany. The next morning he sent me a photo showing his family sleeping rough in a city park. ‘What shall I do?” He pleaded again. Marily managed to get hold of him on the ‘phone from Lesbos and urge him to find the refugee reception centre and get registered. She told me that he had not taken his medication and was very sick. Soon enough Samr got back in touch, this time from a hospital bed in Schwetzingen. He had a temperature of 105 and his blood sugar levels were going through the roof. “I don’t know where my wife and children are. What shall I do?” I made a futile attempt to calm him down, but what he told me next rocked my world. As a Syrian refugee in Lebanon Samr was tortured by Hezbollah when he refused to fight for the Assad government. ”They fucked my wife in front of me and the kids and cut me”, he said, in a low whisper infused with shame.
Samr's reasons for seeking asylum in Europe the same as ours for hunting down ISIS killers. They tortured him and raped his wife in front of him because he refused to join them. He risked and lost everything to bring his family to Europe, which he believes (unjustifiably) is the cradle of freedom and justice.
Samr and his family are as much victims of the war of ideas in the Islamic world as are the people of Paris, Brussels and Nice. Samr's reasons for seeking asylum in Europe the same as ours for hunting down the killers. They tortured him and raped his wife in front of him because he refused to join them. He risked and lost everything to bring his family to Europe, which he believes (unjustifiably) is the cradle of freedom and justice. There is no doubt that he is a hero in this momentous war, and deserves our respect and support. And Samr is only one of countless others seeking refuge from the torturers, rapists and murderers who are destroying the Islamic world.
How can the Blockchain Help?
I've been thinking about Samr and the other refugees I met on Lesbos recently: we talk every week on Watsapp. There is a lot of interest in using the Blockchain to provide refugees with an identity in the absence of documentation. Most of this comes from either the United Nations or from major recipients of refugees and asylum seekers in the West. The UK, USA, Germany and so on. However, much of this interest is a double edged sword. Yes, these states want to verify the identity of 'real' refugees and asylum seekers (insofar as they are defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention), but they also want to exclude certain people from crossing borders - even gather information that may make them ineligible for asylum and lead to their deportation back to a very uncertain future. Putting biometrics and other kinds of physical identity data on the blockchain is probably the worse thing that we can do. Those people are consigned to a future in which they can never escape being traced back to factors for which they have no personal responsibility but may well be used as a justification for persecution, incarceration, repatriation and even murder by predatory states (their skin colour, place of birth, family name, religious or ethnic heritage, sexual orientation and so on).
I too am interested in how the blockchain can provide people at risk of persecution with identities, but in a very different way. I think pseudo-anonymous identities can enable stateless or persecuted people to make their way in the world without revealing the data that predatory states may use to persecute them. BITNATION, my wife's visionary project to develop the worlds's first decentralised borderless virtual nation (DVBN), provides the perfect vehicle for such people to find a jurisdiction in which they can live their on/offline lives without fear of revealing information that may be used to prejudice their access to security and services, the core functions of the state: and the same functions that are routinely denied to migrants.
James Fennell MBE has worked in warzones for 37 years across Africa, the Middle East, Central America, the Balkans and Asia. He has a weird interest in string theory and a less weird interest in making really, really good bloody marys. James has worked on using drones for humanitarian assistance and is an active supporter of BITNATION. He is currently working on BITNATION's security and refugee services. He has a wife, Susanne, and a puppy, General Patton, and lives and loves in Amsterdam.