Interventions in a Crisis – Working with Refugees on Samos Island

(I hope that readers won’t find this post excessively long. It is the basis of some talks that I have been asked to give to social workers in England in February 2017 reflecting on some of our key experiences of being involved with refugees on Samos. I am especially pleased that I will be speaking at Liverpool Hope University as students and staff there have been amongst our long term major supporters. This is an open lecture on Wednesday Feb 22nd starting at 5.30pm in the Senate Room of the University.)

Our work with refugees on Samos has been rooted in our common humanity and informed by mutual respect, solidarity and empathy. In Samos we have come to recognise that these human qualities are shaped by where you stand with the refugees. If you stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers and sisters it nearly always followed that relationships formed where people connected, despite massive differences in background and experience. Even 2015 when the average stay of the refugees on Samos was between 2 to 3 days it was astonishing to see so many friendships made between the refugees and the local activists who met them on the beaches and helped provide clothes and food. Even 2 years later many of these connections have endured.

On the other hand we also saw many ‘helpers’ who did not stand with and alongside the refugees.

These people could talk the talk of their concern for the refugees but they saw themselves as both different and superior. Such an attitude prevented meaningful contact with the refugees and often led to ‘help’ being given in ways which were humiliating and disrespectful. This was evident in many ways. Refugees for example were and are viewed as supplicants with almost no rights to even choose the clothes they were given. If a young male refugee refused a needed pair of jeans for example they were immediately seen as ungrateful. The very idea that they should care about how they looked or comment on the labels/brands on offer was seen as outrageous. Yet in so many ways the young adult refugees are just like their European counterparts in that they do obsess about labels and brands and do care greatly about their appearance; one of the very few parts of their lives they now have any sort of control over. Virtually every other aspect from what they eat to where they sleep and when they can move are under the complete control of others.

Since the EU/Turkey pact in March 2016 refugees have been detained for months on Samos and it is possible to see more clearly how refugees fight to hold on to some control. At the cricket matches organised by the Pakistani refugees the hair styles of many of the players are stunningly fashionable. These are all done within the camp and those with the skills and equipment are in high demand. Their clothes and shoes are not up to much – they never get to choose the clothes that are handed out in the camp -but their hairstyles are top drawer. And this is true for the majority of young male refugees on Samos. Control over their hair style is about all they have!

Here They Come!

The summer of 2015 marked the beginning of a new period in Samos’ long history of being a gateway into Europe for undocumented migrants. The massive increase in arrivals with over 90,000 coming to Samos – three times the population of the island – precipitated by the devastating war in Syria simply overwhelmed the already feeble capacity of the authorities. It was an experience which was repeated again and again as the tidal waves of refugees swept northwards out of Greece during that summer.

On Samos, the previous practice of detaining refugees in a camp that looked like Guantanamo Bay surrounded by a double fence topped with coiled razor wire had to be abandoned. The camp built in 2007 (replacing an equally horrendous ex-police station) had a capacity for 240 detainees and despite the warnings of the impending increase of refugees about to cross the Aegean from nearby Turkey, no additional provision (such as opening closed military camps and empty hotels) had been made.

The decision was taken that the only way to manage was to move the refugees off the island as quickly as possible. Of course, there were other options, but on Samos at least those with power and authority were firmly of the view that anything which made Samos look positive to the refugees would result in even more arrivals. This they wanted to avoid at all costs. So from early summer 2015 all the daily arrivals were no longer taken to the camp but were immediately directed either to the port in Karlovassi or in Samos Town where they could get a ferry to Pireaus/Athens. At the outset the authorities privileged the refugees fleeing from Syria, who were considered to be the most vulnerable. Whilst constituting around 80% of the arrivals there were also significant numbers of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, north Africa and Iran. The plan was that Syrians would be ‘fast tracked’ at the port and on to Athens within 72 hours of arrival. All other nationalities were to be detained in the camp where a more intense processing would take place.

But it was not to be so simple and it was only ever partially implemented. For a start the refugees are not stupid. Most of them knew that the Samos authorities had implemented the Syria first approach. So unless your skin colour (e.g. black) indicated that you were unlikely to be Syrian all other refugees quickly realised that it was best to declare yourself as Syrian if you wanted to avoid being delayed. (Just as in 2006 most of the refugees coming then declared that they were Palestinian because they knew that to be Palestinian meant you wouldn’t be deported.)

Most of the police at the ports clearly knew what was going on and often encouraged refugees from elsewhere (Iraq and Afghanistan) to declare themselves as Syrian because it meant that they avoided the hassle of detaining them in the camp and they could rapidly move them on. For some however this was taken as further illustration of the widely held assumption by the authorities that refugees lie; they are never to be believed. It is an assumption which can have fatal consequences as our friend Wasim discovered when the police refused to believe him in 2013 when he told them that his wife and 2 young children were trapped in the forest in a remote part of Samos. Not only did the police take no action they handcuffed Wasim to a chair for over 24 hours as he protested in vain. His wife and children died in the forest.

Refugees rarely travel ‘alone’. Most of the refugees are with others, either friends or families and these are vital forms of support. But through their smart phones they are also in contact with a much wider network of others including those who have have gone before them. These networks were and remain extremely important and valuable to the refugees. It provides information about routes, about smugglers and other contacts necessary to their onward journeys. It alerted them to what they could expect from the authorities they would be forced to deal with en route. It did not take long for some of the mainstream media to suggest that owning a smart phone indicated that the refugees were not having such a hard time if they could afford such a gadget. They wilfully ignored how vital they were to the refugees’ survival. We met many refugees who told us how their family had all chipped in to buy the phone before they left home and many we discovered were paid for by their mothers. The phones were life lines. This is why one of the most pressing needs expressed by the refugees shortly after arriving here was phone charging and access to free wi fi. The phones and networks created by the refugees became crucial ‘intelligence’ resources in their hands.

In the summer of 2015 the two ports on Samos and not the camp became the focus of the islanders’ efforts to help the refugees. It was here that the refugees were corralled waiting to be photographed and have their basic details (name, birth, country etc.) recorded before being given a ‘white paper’ which allowed them to move on to Athens. Once there they were expected to continue with their applications for asylum. Very few wanted to stay in Greece so there was no question of lingering in Athens for further processing. They were not interested in seeking asylum in Greece. They could see that the Greek economy was in ruins and that there was little or no chance of decent work. They wanted to move on and join the wave of refugees pushing northwards. In any event the Greek asylum service had collapsed and through a newly introduced application system operated through Skype it was virtually impossible to obtain even an initial interview to kick start the procedure.

The Boat Groups

The scenes at the two Samian ports for much of this summer were extraordinary with hundreds of refugees milling around waiting to be dealt with by the police. Every available fence was used for drying the clothes that had been soaked during their crossing and every place that offered some shade was occupied. The great majority of refugees stayed together with those they had travelled with, especially during the sea crossing from Turkey. Some of the groups were mixed and included a variety of nationalities but mostly they were from the same countries – Syrians with Syrians for example. Within each group, of usually around 40 to 60 people, there would be sub groups of friends and families. But the solidarities that formed as a result of the sea crossing which threw people together who were often meeting for the first time were exceptionally strong and significant.

At this time the ‘boat groups’ became the most important survival resource for the refugees. With the authorities offering nothing in terms of food, shelter, clothing and comfort of any kind, the well being of the refugees depended largely on themselves. There were no NGOs on the island, and not only did the authorities do nothing neither did other significant local actors such as the army and the ubiquitous Greek Orthodox Church which turned their back on the refugees It was in the boat groups that money was shared so food could be bought, or hotel rooms could be booked for those who were most in need of a proper bed and toilets – young children, those with disabilities, and those with the greatest trauma. It was from within the boat groups that money was raised to pay for the ferry tickets for those who had lost everything. And it was in these groups that compassion and support was offered. Many times boat groups refused to leave on the ferries until all their group had been issued with the necessary authorisation to leave Samos. Nobody was to be left behind.

Representatives/spokespeople always emerged from the boat groups, usually selected on their ability to speak English. In Karlovassi port we had the enormous advantage of having an Arabic speaker who had come to Samos as a refugee in 2006. Creating effective communication systems with the boat groups was crucial. They were able to identify those within their groups who needed special attention, usually medical but also financial. It was important that our involvement needed to be fully engaged with the boat groups and directed to supporting and deepening their solidarities. For example, it was evident from the beginning that in order to avoid chaos and mobbing over food and clothing distributions that the refugees themselves had to be involved and given responsibilities. The boat groups became vital in this effort and they created effective systems for ensuring that food was shared and distributed with dignity and respect. They also organised the lunches setting up lines of sandwich makers. And they were especially important in terms of maintaining some semblance of hygiene in a very difficult situation.

The negligence of the authorities seemed to have no limits and this extended to a complete disregard for the hygiene and cleanliness of the ports. In Karlovassi for example, apart from the quayside bars some of which allowed the refugees to use their toilets there was a single broken w.c. in an abandoned port police building at the harbour. Yet there were often 200 to 300 refugees staying there. Within days this single toilet and the empty rooms in the building were a public health disaster area. Under pressure from the locals the local authority announced that it would install portaloos in the harbour. They promised immediate action. But as ever nothing materialised. No portaloos ever came. To do nothing quickly became impossible. The health risks from this stinking excrement filled building in the very centre of where the refugees stayed at the port were extreme. With nothing forthcoming from the system the activists at the port took over the abandoned police building, cleaned it out, painted the rooms and got the single w.c. working again. In the meantime another local group had managed to raise enough money to install additional toilets and outside washing sinks. No permission was sought. Direct action was taken.

Although driven by the immediate health needs of the refugees, both they and the activists were well aware of the broader context where refugees are routinely demonised as being dirty and diseased. The disgusting state of the port police building was taken as yet further proof of this stereotype. In Karlovassi, the importance of keeping the area free of garbage and keeping the restored building and toilets clean became a daily drum beat. It was not only about keeping themselves as healthy as possible but it was also a conscious fightback against one aspect of their demonisation.

This was the broad context in which islanders responded to the needs of the refugees. It took various forms and was spontaneous. There was no overall co-ordination although a web of relationships formed between the various groups which helped with effectiveness. Neither was there any time when any individual or group attempted to take control. This in part might be explained by the absence of the organised left parties such as the communist party (KKE) and Syriza in these initiatives. As anyone with any familiarity of the Greek Left knows, their thirst to manage and control is (in)famous. Their absence was justified largely on the grounds that these popular interventions allowed the authorities both in Greece and the EU to evade their responsibilities for the refugees. And with some justification they argued that the explosion of popular action across Europe in response to the refugees deflected attention from the machinations of imperialism and neo liberalism which were at the root of the refugee crisis. But for the islanders who were at the ports the all too evident suffering of the refugees demanded immediate action. And for many it was never a question of either helping the refugees or criticising the neglect of the authorities or the evils of imperialism and global capital; both were seen as necessary. There was also some hope that their example would shame the authorities into doing something humane for the refugees. This never materialised.

Criminalising Help

Help for the refugees came from a range of quarters on Samos. For example, before the NGOs arrived at the end of the summer, a collection of tourists and regular summer visitors to Samos (between 15-40 at any one time) made a crucial contribution in meeting the refugees when they landed on the beaches. A phone rota was created so that when refugee boats were spotted coming into land, usually between 4am and 7am they could be called on to drive down to the beaches and help both with the landing and above all to take them to the nearest port. Despite the high summer temperatures the authorities made no provision for either the landings (need for water and dry clothes) or transport to the ports. Without the drivers and their vehicles the already exhausted refugees faced a walk of up to 20 kms to get to the nearest port. Furthermore public transport was not an option as the bus company refused to carry refugees. The same applied to the taxis, although that changed later in the summer as it became evident that they were missing out on a highly lucrative source of income. But worse still was a long standing law in Greece which criminalised giving any lifts to refugees either by car, boat or even donkey. Even though this restriction was lifted in the early summer of 2015 (although you were still expected to inform the police every time you took a refugee) the police took a great deal longer to accept that the law had changed. So drivers were often stopped and told that they were breaking the law; they had to report to police stations with their documents and were generally harassed.

The tourists and holiday visitors were not so fearful of this law nor of the Greek police and saw it as an outrageous attempt to curb their humanity. Not only did they continue to drive in the face of police harassment but they often came down to the ports with food once the refugees had settled in. Moreover, many of those continued to offer valuable financial support once they returned home by fund-raising for refugees on Samos and some have linked up with refugees who they first met on Samos and who successfully made it to northern Europe.

As always it was the refugees who suffered most from these laws. Countless cars and pick-ups with room for passengers never stopped to pick up refugees tramping to the ports. Many islanders reported of being afraid of the consequences if they stopped to help. As recounted in detail in Samos Chronicles for some refugees the consequences have been fatal as in the case of Wasim who was not helped by the local fishermen as he swam along the coast looking for help for his wife and 2 young children trapped on the shore. Boats would approach him but turn away once they saw he was a refugee. They feared if they helped they would be arrested as smugglers and lose their boat. It was not an idle threat as confiscations had happened and been widely reported. But for Wasim it was a contributory factor in the death of his family. Similarly when a motor launch capsized in 2014 and led to the deaths of over 22 refugees locked in the cabin, none of the small fishing boats in the nearby fishing village were prepared to go out and take part in the search and rescue of survivors. When pressed they all expressed fear that they would be arrested and risk the loss of their boats. We watched in mounting horror from the vantage of our home this drama unfold when for over 2 hours we could see no attempt at rescue.

Laws criminalising refugee help, seeing it as an aspect of smuggling, are widespread in Europe and not confined to Greece. But there can be no doubt that here on Samos it has been a contributory factor in making locals fearful of helping refugees. The islanders live under an unrelenting drizzle of propaganda which demonises refugees. They are dirty, they are diseased and a threat to our health, they are violent, they are selfish, they are sexual predators, they are terrorists and not least they are mainly Muslim. The list is endless and changes depending on the latest ‘outrage’ and moral panic. It has many consequences and generating fear amongst the people is one. It was evident in the small numbers of islanders who offer lifts to the refugees which was not just the consequence of the law. It was evident in some of the ways in which much needed clothes, food, and water were distributed at the ports. Cars would arrive and simply leave a pile of clothes or fruit with no attempt to make direct contact with the refugees and help ensure its fair distribution. Similarly, very few refugees were ever invited to stay or visit the homes of islanders. The lack of a common language did not help but the fear element also played a role.

The nervousness of many local people wanting to help the refugees was in fact easily overcome. Those who crossed the line and sat and talked with the refugees soon found themselves in conversations like those they would have amongst themselves. Again and again islanders exclaimed that the refugees “are just like us” after spending time with them at the ports. For so many this was a life changing revelation especially given the intensity in which refugees are portrayed as being not like us; as different and often dangerous. It was a revelation which energised activists who flourished as friendships with the refugees deepened. It was just as well for with hundreds arriving every day and with the rapid turn over as the refugees moved on to Athens, systems had to be re-created almost on a daily basis.

Help from ‘Below’

Scores of islanders came to help the refugees in whatever ways they could. It was all the more impressive given that Samos as throughout Greece was in its sixth year of devastating austerity which had seen wages and pensions slashed and jobs evaporate. Poverty on Samos is acute and widespread and if it were not for the gardens that so many islanders cultivate and the high level of home ownership the situation here would be utterly desperate. With many having given up their cars and pick ups and a bus service which (poorly) connects the main towns leaving the smaller villages isolated meant that going to the ports to offer direct support to the refugees was not an option for many. But even so many organised clothing collections in their villages, others collected fruits and tomatoes from their gardens and some became involved in cooking groups and clothes washing and drying. In other words they ‘dug where they stood’ and contributed with great generosity and with love. It was exemplified by one older woman in one of the villages who after going through her few possessions came up with a pair of women’s shoes. They were leather, in good condition but there were some scuff marks on the heels. So she had her friend re-dye the shoes before giving them. As far as she was concerned giving scuffed shoes would be an insult. This concern with the dignity of the refugees was common and reflected in the quality of the clothing donated. It was very rare to find rubbish.

Those who came down to the ports represented only a fraction of the local people who helped the refugees. Those who were there distributing food, especially cooked meals commonly had behind them a network of women who in their homes and villages were preparing meals and who had organised rotas which allowed their efforts to be sustained over the summer months. Others spent hours washing, drying and recycling clothes. Family relationships and friendships with those in local businesses were also activated with great effect. Some pharmacies either donated or massively discounted essential medicines and first aid materials. The same was true for some of the locally owned (not the big, national/multinational chains) supermarkets and fruit sellers and one businessman gave rent free a large modern warehouse to be used as a refugee clothing and equipment store.

So much was learnt during these days. We learnt about the importance of working together with the refugees; of the myriad ways in which to communicate when there is no common language; of the power of humour; of the bonds which unite us despite our differences and of the importance of working in ways which strengthened refugee solidarities. It was during that summer that it became clear that personal contacts with the refugees were as important as providing meals and shoes. Landing on the beaches of Samos in the early hours of the morning is a tumultuous experience for the refugees. There is the relief at surviving an often terrifying journey through the night. Low in the water, packed in small underpowered rubber dinghies, being steered by another refugee who might have had 5 minutes practice with the engine before leaving the Turkish coast most of the refugees pray their way through the 4 – 8 hours it takes. Not surprisingly they are overwhelmed when they arrive with some just sitting sobbing whilst others who have got a signal on their phones are shouting with joy to friends and family as they tell them that they are alive and now in Europe. Not knowing what reception to expect it meant so much when they were met by those who gave them a hug which is such a powerful act of fellowship and solidarity and was just as important as the dry clothes and snacks provided. The arrivals often had no idea who we were. Many had endured months of being scared of strangers as they made their way to the Turkish coast. Some had been attacked and robbed. In this context an embrace, a hug and a smile can almost instantaneously vaporise their anxieties. They were at least for the moment with people who cared for them and who didn’t see them as garbage.

Abusive Authority

The contrast with the state authorities could not be greater. Newly arriving refugees were and still are met by police and other officers wearing masks and rubber gloves and in lieu of a common language revert to shouting at the refugees. ‘Malaka’ is one of the first Greek words many refugees learn. It is a vulgar term of abuse and is widely used by the police when talking to refugees. It resonates disrespect, of refugees ‘counting for nothing’. Surgical gloves and masks are also powerful symbols. The police on Samos never tire to tell us and our friends that we should not take refugees in our cars because of the health risks. In this context then an embrace and simply being with and amongst the refugees is a powerful and necessary act of solidarity as well as a repudiation of the state’s propaganda..

Abusive behaviour towards refugees is not unique to the police, who in any event should have never been given such a key role in the management of refugees coming to Samos in the first place. The Greek police has its own particular history which includes a significant long standing connection with fascism and is reflected in such facts that over 50% of the police in Athens voted for the openly fascistic Golden Dawn party in the last General Election. Given a long and well documented history of endemic racism within much of the Greek police which includes deaths, severe injuries, torture and routine neglect of refugees and migrants, it is astonishing that the police were given such a crucial role in the management of refugees. But with no papers, refugees are still considered to be illegal arrivals to be managed by police and so placed within a penal rather than welfare framework. That they are refugees traumatised and frightened leaving everything behind as they fled to safety is not the starting point.

The Arrival of the NGOs

The humanitarian NGOs which began to arrive in numbers from late 2015, including Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF), Red Cross, Save the Children in addition to a number of Greek based NGOs. During the same period UNCHR greatly expanded its involvement especially in the provision of tents and temporary structures which made up the so named ‘Hotspot’ which was initially constructed in the port area of Samos Town. The arrival of the NGOs took the major burden of care off the shoulders of the locals as they took over trying to meet the basic needs of the refugees. Whilst the NGOs have benefited the refugees, their impact has also been problematic in a number of ways for both the refugees and the local activists.

For many of the big international NGOs such as MSF this was the first time they had ever operated in western Europe as it was widely believed that this part of the world was more than capable of dealing with such humanitarian challenges. That it was in fact incapable was not just a matter of politics but also a reflection of the extent to which neo-liberalism had hollowed out the social capacity of many European governments. They no longer had the agencies or the personnel to respond and were already over-committed to providing what shredded social services survived to their own vulnerable populations. This is spectacularly true for Greece where austerity has almost done away with state public services. Into this vacuum stepped the NGOs acting in much the same way as privatised contracted out companies which have taken over and richly profited from the vanishing social state. They may not be motivated by generating profits, but it was evident on Samos that not only are the international NGOs big business but they have come to form one part of the ‘system’s’ response to the ‘refugee crisis’ which was reflected in their ambiguous stance to the refugees, to the local activists and also in their relationships to the Greek authorities.

Obsessed by their concern to stay in control, the authorities both in Samos and Athens have placed all kinds of limits on the NGOs. Basically every NGO action needs official permission which in Samos means endless delays, countless meetings and unimaginable amounts of paper work. Obey us or leave was basically the Greek state’s message to the big NGOs. Despite their size and influence the extent to which the NGOs submitted to the control of the Greek authorities was surprising. It was exemplified in the contracts issued to their staff which required them to comply without comment, to the demands of the authorities and on no account to speak or disclose anything of their work. In short gagging contracts. We witnessed many examples where the NGOs failed to speak out so as not to upset the Greek authorities. Even though some did make an eventual stand over the EU/Turkey pact in March 2016 and declared that they could not countenance working in locked camps this should not be allowed to blind us to their temerity and concern not ‘to rock the boat’. To many on Samos, the NGOs showed a remarkable lack of political ‘nous’ and courage.

But it was in their failure to stand full square, shoulder to shoulder with refugees which represented one of the most serious flaws in the NGO interventions. Refugees are routinely excluded from any involvement in setting the priorities and then the planning and implementation of NGO operations. Whilst the NGOs never hesitate to claim that they speak for the refugees they seem incapable of engaging with or even listening to them. Since the EU/Turkey pact of March 2016 refugees on Samos no longer move on to Athens after 48 -72 hours which was common throughout 2015. Instead they are stuck here for months. Many have been here for 9 months which is more than enough time to build relationships directly with refugees and to get them actively involved. This has not happened.

The arrival of the NGOs significantly changed the nature of the refugee experience, both for the refugees and the islanders. Help has been professionalised with all that entails. Despite the presence of some truly inspirational workers it was surprising to see how many NGO staff kept their distance from refugees. It is unusual on Samos to see an NGO worker sitting with refugees offering them a coffee or juice in a café or in the squares. Groups of 10 -20 NGO workers can be seen every day in the summer months meeting up for a drink and a meal (on expenses in many cases). Never a refugee in sight. There was one notable occasion when the refugees forced open the gates to the camp in Samos town. It was a carnival atmosphere as the refugees flooded out of the open gates. Families with young children filled the streets as they made their way down to the sea front where they sat and enjoyed their freedom. In reality only a small victory but much enjoyed. However what stood out was that whilst the refugees and their friends sat on the sea wall all the NGO workers who came down were standing apart on the pavement and looking over to where we sat. None of them came over. That so few of the NGOs get close to the refugees and stay desk bound in their offices has led them to being nicknamed Never Go Out by the refugees.

In addition, top down social work has long been infected by infantilising those it seeks to help. Clients, in all shapes and form are often viewed as children (often insulting children in the process); immature, lacking in judgement and prone to unreasonable and irresponsible behaviour and so on. There is more than a hint of these perspectives thriving in Samos where refugees are not valued and their voices are rarely heard. This in turn contributes to an almost total disdain which sees refugees as having nothing to offer. For months the clothing store managed by ‘volunteers’ (mainly short stay visitors from the USA and Europe who come to ‘help’ the refugees) refused to allow refugees to either help in or even visit the store. What made this worse was refugees are clamouring with frustration and want to do something. The store offered one such opportunity for meaningful activity. The reasons given for this refusal was that the refugees could not be trusted not to thieve and/or to take more than they needed. Reasons that had added irony given that everything in the store was donated for the refugees. It was their stuff! And this was not an isolated example. Workers in one of the more respected NGOs even ran a ‘book’ betting on how long another smaller clothing store would stay open because it was managed by one of their workers who believed in working with the refugees. It was a joint initiative in which she gave refugees control over its organisation, access and distribution. In fact the store flourished and was more effective precisely because the refugees were involved.

The disdain of the refugees also characterised the NGOs’ relationships with the activists on the island whose core work they now took over. Of course this was an enormous relief but it also led to a significant withdrawal of islanders from working with refugees. In the main the NGOs referred to the local activists as volunteers and through their behaviour indicated that the time had come for the ‘experts’ to run the show. It was a process which not only discarded a valuable resource for the refugees but had profound consequences in widening the distance between the islanders and the refugees which is currently being exploited by the authorities on Samos. Diminishing numbers of islanders are now involved with the refugees and like them they are not routinely included in determining the activities of the NGOs. That wide web of relationships which had emerged in 2015 which connected so many local people to the realities of the refugees has largely disappeared. This disconnection between the locals and the refugees is now being relentlessly exploited by the island authorities. In the past six months for example, the authorities have found it easier to claim that the island has to be rid of all refugees because they have made life almost intolerable for the locals. Although tourism on Samos was declining long before the numbers of refugee arrivals exploded in 2015, it is now the common sense here that refugees are exclusively to blame for its current dire state. But as a consequence of the arrival of the NGOs and their style of expertise they have marginalised an important countervailing voice. All kinds of resentments are now being actively promoted as islanders read about resources supposedly being devoted to refugees whilst they get nothing. At the same time nothing is heard of the refugees resentment that these very same resources rarely get to them and simply support an ever growing number of people who do nothing for them.

A Different Way of Working

Again and again the interventions most valued by the refugees were the ones in which they had involvement and shared responsibility. And none of these came from the official system whether an NGO or state agency. There were two outstanding examples and both involved anarchist groups, one from Germany and the other from Switzerland who set up kitchens on the island and provided the best food that Samos refugees have had in their history here. The key to their success was linked with what they did and how they did it. It is never a matter of just what you do but how you do it.

The 2 Open kitchens were brilliant for the refugees and it was a sad time in early 2016 when the army took control of food provision for the camp. Understandably the kitchens decided to leave and go on to where they were most needed. These kitchens were much more than just about providing fresh cooked nutritious meals. From the outset they involved the refugees in shopping, storage, cooking, food preparation and menus. The volunteer workers stood side by side with the refugees in all these activities, working and talking, laughing and joking. Unlike so many of the NGO workers as well as many of the newly arriving ‘volunteers’ the core staff did not stand apart from the refugees.

The kitchens were happy places. A characteristic that can be rarely applied to the NGOs and state agencies here on Samos, or even within many if any contemporary organised social work settings. It was in the refugee camps of the West Bank in Palestine that I first understood the importance of jokes and laughter as one of the means of surviving the intolerable oppression of the Israeli occupation. Alongside deep hurts the Palestinians had great jokes. I still don’t fully understand how this all hangs together but I do know that laughter draws people together in a myriad of ways and is a source of great strength.

Both kitchens created seating areas around an ever ready supply of tea. Noticeboards were created for sharing information and the kitchens rapidly became the most important centres for the refugees to meet, relax and to do something. The importance of activity cannot be under-estimated and it is no exaggeration to say that the enforced idleness of being detained on Samos for months, with no idea when they will have their asylum claims assessed drives them crazy with frustration. And guess what? The refugees had talent. Refugees came forward who had worked in kitchens and restaurants, who knew how and what to cook to satisfy their compatriots; others had skills in IT and were experts at trawling the net for information especially concerning the routes to follow once released from the island, others organised backgammon competitions, all of which made the kitchens places where you wanted to spend time.

The ‘politics’ of the Open kitchens were critical to their success which saturated everything they did. They knew that the ‘system’ was inhumane and had no care for the well being of the refugees. They were explicit in seeing borders and papers as cruel and unnecessary. They knew much about the ways in which our world creates refugees through wars and exploitation. They were angry at the hurts and injustices and the pain of the refugees. They felt this pain. They did not pity but were full of empathy and rage at the inhumanities before their eyes. They stood shoulder to shoulder with refugees as human beings.

And Then Came the Volunteers

The media spotlight on the Greek frontier islands such as Samos in 2015 drew individuals who wanted ‘to help’ the refugees. They have come to be termed the volunteers. At any one time there can be up to 50 volunteers here. They are overwhelming middle class and tend to be either young people from Europe or the USA and Australia with many having just completed a university course, or newly retired. They stay from anything from 2 or 3 days to a month, and a few even longer. They are a mixed group with different motivations for their interventions.

The volunteers do not come here as part of an organised intervention. They travel often on their own or as a couple. Few if any questions are asked of their competence. The very fact that they have volunteered seems to be enough to allow them to intervene. Some are excellent and stand full square with the refugees. Others are not. Some for example seem to be trophy hunters such as the young German couple who spent just under one hour with refugee children getting them to paint pictures of their experiences which were then gathered together to be taken back to Germany to show to their friends. Fortunately these volunteers were prevented by activists who asked whether they had sought the permission of the kids to keep their paintings. Of course they hadn’t. For most however it was their endless photographs/selfies of posing with refugees as they handed out bottles of water or snacks which are then posted on their Facebook pages which were most prized. Not only did these photographs elicit effusive responses as to their heroic actions but they also helped the volunteers raise funds for their stay.

Driven by their desire to do something, anything when they arrive also led to the volunteers falling into the embrace of the authorities on the island. For the system, the volunteers were rapidly seized upon as being useful as form of bottom tier labour that could undertake some of the dirty work such as cleaning rubbish in and around the camp. As the numbers increased the authorities made available a warehouse and entrusted the distribution of clothes, shoes, tents, sleeping bags and the like to the volunteers. (It was the local authority which insisted that the refugees should not be allowed in the store either as casual visitors or to help in its work. This injunction was not challenged by the volunteers.)

As with the NGOs the arrival of the volunteers has been a mixed blessing. As they themselves are now realising their contributions allow the funded agencies to evade some of their core responsibilities. This coupled with the experience of only being allowed to undertake work sanctioned by the authorities has pushed the volunteers into a fundamental review of their purpose which at the time of writing is yet to be resolved.

But as with the NGOs the volunteers have inadvertently contributed to the distancing of the islanders from the refugees. For a variety of reasons there are virtually no locals working with the volunteers and similarly little interaction between the islanders and the volunteers who tend to stick together even when socialising. Furthermore the island authorities have now created a system whereby all those who wish to work with refugees and are not employed by an appropriate agency are expected to register and be approved. Few local activists are prepared to seek permission to engage with refugees from the very authorities which are so patently part of the problem.

Some Final Reflections

There can be no conclusion as the inhumane treatment and management of refugees on Samos is still ongoing and the situation here continues to unfold according to the shifting policies of the EU and the other power brokers involved. As for the refugees it remains a tortuous time in which their humanity is routinely denied. Nobody denies any more that the conditions for the refugees on the Greek frontier islands are deplorable. Refugees are dying every week from these conditions. Detained for months, never knowing when they will be either deported to Turkey or allowed asylum is torture for them. Their lives in a sense have stopped.

There is still no evidence of any compassion in the ever shifting policies towards refugees. As ever so called security concerns always trump refugee welfare. So this winter we see hundreds of refugees living in tents during freezing weather but at the same time no hesitation in deploying additional police. Samos is awash with police. At the same time we have the authorities on all the Greek frontier islands insisting that their populations can take no more of the refugees and are trying to drive new wedges between the refugees and the islanders. On places such as neighbouring Chios we are seeing clear collusion with the fascist Golden Dawn who have been organising attacks on the refugees and their camps. These crimes are taken as a sign of the islanders’ frustration and anger at the presence of the refugees who have apparently destroyed their crucial tourist economy. It is scapegoating of a classic form channelling the desperation and misery of seven years of austerity on to the shoulders of refugees.

We are also witnessing a renewed focus on the so-called ‘economic migrants’ from Pakistan and north Africa who, without papers and authorisation, are a significant part of the refugee population on Samos. That poverty and hopelessness of any possibility for a reasonable life in their home places drives them on to the dangerous and expensive clandestine routes to Samos counts for nothing. Who would risk such a journey if they could flourish at home? Instead, they are dismissed as selfish vermin with no right at all to seek sanctuary in Europe. At this time, international law still allows all refugees to make a claim for asylum. One wonders how much longer this right will remain. Even so, the EU and its constituent governments have made it clear that those who are not basically fleeing war will have their asylum claims dismissed and be subject to deportation.

At the same time over 200,000 young people have left Greece in the past 5 years in search of work and a better life. It is a cause of sadness but never a cause for their demonisation as selfish free loaders. But it also illustrates in part the huge commonalities which are shared by both the islanders and the refugees both in terms of the causes and the consequences of their ongoing misery.

Today the ‘ European Refugee Crisis’ has moved down the mainstream media’s agenda as the numbers of new arrivals has dropped, especially via the ‘Eastern Route’ across the Aegean to places like Samos. There is still considerable movement, mostly clandestine, but there has also emerged, especially in the borderlands of Greece and the Balkans places where refugees are detained, fenced and stopped. These peripheral places, unlike the squares and railway stations of Germany, Austria, Sweden and the rest of the more prosperous north are easier to ignore and easier to manage. They are dark places and they need to be illuminated.

We have come to expect nothing of value and benefit to the refugees coming from the top whether it be an NGO or governmental welfare agency. They are part of the problem and certainly not the solution, On the other hand we have seen the power and effectiveness of interventions which work with and alongside the refugees as people ‘just like ourselves’. But if it is be more compelling we must recognise that we must also shed light on these darkest of places. It is a huge challenge. But it is necessary if the barbarism of the system is to be halted.

Chris Jones

Feb 2017

(With many thanks to Tony Novak for commenting on the endless drafts I turned out!)

An End of Year Letter from Samos

Dear Friends,

We are sorry that we have not posted anything from Samos over these past few weeks. The mood for writing has not been there.

In large measure this has been caused by an overwhelming sense of sadness which hangs like a thunder cloud over this beautiful island. It is a cloud that affects us all. There are many elements which feed this cloud. There is the crazy global context with its political strategies which promote division, hate and suspicion, fracturing humanity at the very time when it needs to be more united to confront the greed and profit which drives humanity to destruction as the earth is plundered.

If this is not bad enough on Samos we have the plight of the refugees and the plight of most of the people living here who continue to endure the consequences of seven years of economic decline and austerity. It is no exaggeration to claim that a large part of the island’s population live on the edge of catastrophe. Yesterday for example our neighbour was told that unless she has urgent heart surgery she will be dead within a month. For this she will have to go to Athens. And she will need to pay 4,000 euros. Yet she and her family have nothing. A month ago the island’s hospital had no hot water for a week. The list is endless.

And for both refugees and islanders there is no glimmer of hope; of things getting any better. This hopelessness is a killer. It always is, but what has been particularly devastating has been the experience of a Syriza government. There was so much hope that things would improve under a clean Syriza administration. All these dreams are now ashes. Whether any lessons have been learnt about the profound limitations of electoral politics remains an open question.

As for the refugees on Samos it is much the same misery as ever before, except now winter is here so there are now very cold and wet days. Today it is sunny but it is zero degrees outside. Not good for camping, as many do in the hotspot! The situation is pretty well summarised by the refugees who tell us that the 2 words that they will always associate with being held in the Camp are WAIT and Malaka (which means wanker, useless, loser).

From what we can see, there is now widespread agreement from the EU Commission downwards, that the conditions in the island hotspots on Samos, Lesbos, Chios and others are deplorable. They are not safe, they are not healthy, there is no adequate provision for vulnerable refugees, the food is inadequate……….. and so on and so on. There is absolutely no need for more reports to be published or inquiries to be launched. The library is full of reports all of which say pretty much the same. Naming and shaming has its part to play in exposing the system’s inhumanities but if the hotspots on the Greek frontier islands are anything to go by, it is a profound error to think that such exposures result in any positive change or action.

However, particularly those refugees who have been stuck on Samos since March 2016, will tell you that the one of the most obvious changes over the months of their detention has been the growth in the numbers of people ‘working’ in the camp. Michael, a 50 year old Palestinian refugee who has been here with his family since June noted how the numbers of cars now parked out on the approach road to the Camp have multiplied. “I counted over 120 cars and motor bikes this morning. There seem to be more week by week. But what are all these people doing? I have no idea except I see a lot of people sitting around drinking coffee.” Michael is not alone in wondering what the hell is going on. Why with so many people are they still waiting months to get processed? Or as Abdul from Morocco observed, “there is lot of money being spent here. On hire cars, more police, more people employed in the camp, but none of it seems to get to us. I am still sleeping in a tent and the Camp is a disgusting place to live.”

Fights, hassles and confrontations amongst the refugees are commonplace now. Over the past 2 weeks for example, we have seen 2 Pakistani refugees who play cricket with us twice a week, turn up with stitches in head wounds as a result of being attacked by other refugees with iron bars. Most of these fights erupt around meal times and are a direct consequence of the inhuman way refugees are provided with their food. Given the frustrations and conditions of the refugees it is remarkable that there have not been more serious eruptions of rage and destruction. Nevertheless, the fights are making life more stressful for many refugees.

Although it is not difficult to understand why such violence erupts there has been no serious attempt to identify how key aspects of the management of the refugees in the hotspot is one of the root causes. The inordinate delays, the lack of information, the failure to treat refugees with any respect are primary causes of frustration but it is made much worse by the crude prioritisation of one group over another. Again and again you will hear refugees tell you that the reason they are stuck on Samos for so long is because the system is only concerned with the Syrian refugees. They say these are given the top priority. There is no disagreement about the Syrians’ position at the top of the pecking order but who comes next depends upon who you talk with. Yesterday a group of Iranian refugees told us that there was no doubt in their minds that they were at the bottom, and the Pakistanis will tell you the same, as will the north Africans. As for the Algerians it is now the case that they are regarded as the most ‘delinquent’ as the Greek migration minister put it last week, and sadly this view is also held by many including some refugees. The Algerians, overwhelming male, tend to be one of the groups who do not accept being pushed around by the authorities. Some resist – they demand, they get into the faces of the police, they don’t give up – and for their troubles they have been scapegoated. On Samos at least, the Algerian refugees are the most common victims of arbitrary arrest and detention in the police cells.

Dealing with the refugee population by their nationality has long been the preferred method of the system here. But it is clear that this is a crude measure and also extremely divisive and not the least cruel. Anything like a humane refugee policy would have in place a triage system that would make an attempt to assess the needs of all the refugees not withstanding where they came from. This is absent so there are refugees here on Samos who have escaped from deadly violence, torture and perpetual fear but because they are not from Syria are simply neglected and ignored for months. Daily people detained in the Camp are pleading to be seen, to be heard, but are turned away told that they cannot be seen now because they are dealing with the Syrians. Then they will see to the Iraqis, then…… and so on. The resentment caused by this approach is very deep. We can’t count the number of times we have heard young Pakistanis ask are we not human too? But the reality for the Syrians is not so great either. Yesterday Ahmed a young Syrian man told us that his asylum application had been turned down. He had escaped from Aleppo. All his family and all of his friends who had remained in Aleppo were now dead. His friend, who traveled with him from Aleppo has had his application accepted. Ahmed was told that his rejection was on the grounds that Turkey is a safe place for him and he should return there for processing! Being Syrian guarantees you nothing.

Despite their diversity the refugees have far more in common with one another than their differences. Yet this commonality is constantly being eroded and undermined with some refugees now blaming others for their plight. Many will rightly point out that this is a classic divide and rule approach and works to the system’s advantage. It is and it does, but it flows from cluelessness rather than intelligence.

In contrast there has been no let up in the efforts to encourage the locals to blame the refugees as the principal reason why things are so bad for them on Samos. They are held to be responsible for the on going decline of tourism and for more generally ‘unsettling’ the population by their presence. As one young Greek student from Karlovassi told us yesterday, he could never see Samos welcoming refugees and encouraging them to settle here even though he personally could see how a settlement of refugees on the island could rejuvenate and benefit the whole community. According to Vasili, too many here believe that the refugees are too different from the Greeks and they would not be accepted.

Some of the comments above came during a music concert for refugee solidarity that was held on Sunday December 11th in Vathi. It was one of the most positive events of 2016 in Samos for it was one of the few times this year when both refugees and locals came together to share food and music and enjoy themselves. The turn out was impressive and the music made by refugee and locals playing and singing together was beautiful. It was an event that pushed back at the sadness which dominates so much of life here and was alive with possibilities. We could hear many people talking about organising further and bigger events and building on the confidence gained from this concert. Laughing, singing, relaxing, eating together is always positive and now when so much effort is directed to dividing us and building hatreds activities such as these taken on even more importance. As we heard from local people at the concert much damage has been already done. One coffee bar worker told us that she had customers who would regard her as a traitor simply by coming to the concert. Yet she continued, if only these people would stand still for a moment and think about the situation they would or should realise that the locals of Samos as victims of monumental injustice share much in common with the refugees here. She was under no illusion that this would be easy!

The dark cloud remains but there are moments when the sun shines through and many of us here, refugees, locals, volunteers/activists alike can take some comfort and hope.

Finally, please don’t forget us. Many here, refugees and islanders feel abandoned and forgotten.

Refugees, Tourism and Islamophobia on Samos

Without exception every report on the refugee situation on Greek frontier islands such as Samos agree that the refugees stuck in the hotspots are suffering and that it is getting worse, week by week. In the 10 days leading up to 25th October 2016 there were 758 new arrivals on Samos with just 139 departures according to the local authority. All of them have been pushed into the Camp. Virtually every space has been taken up by tents. There are now close to 3,000 refugees in a fenced enclosure which is intended for 800. There is absolutely nothing positive to say about the Camp. This week we met a journalist from New York who had recently visited refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon who told us that the Samos camp was the worst she had seen.

Despite the mountains of reports and statements condemning the treatment of refugees arriving on the Greek islands, nothing improves. This starkly contrasts with the speed in which security and border hardening measures are implemented and expanded. So, before another report is commissioned or another journalist despatched to the islands is it not time to investigate why nothing changes; why no action is taken? Why is this cruel situation allowed to continue? The last thing the refugees need is yet another costly report telling them that their lives in the Camp are basically shit.

A useful starting point might be Maina Kiai’s final report as a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association to the UN Assembly (20th October 2016) in which she comments:

Many of those in power often don’t want to hear what people have to say. They don’t want to upset the status quo, even if that status quo is catapulting us towards obliteration.”


From the political right to the far left, from NGOs to most but not all European governments, from the EU to the UN there is unanimity about the inhuman conditions faced by refugees caught in the border camps. It is the one issue where there is some kind of agreement. On islands such as Samos, the various anti-refugee voices all cite these conditions as one of their reasons for wanting to see refugees moved off the island, within 72 hours of arrival if possible. Samos SOS which is planning a demonstration against the refugees in Vathi today (October 30th) in co-operation with the local Chamber of Commerce made this argument as well as stating that on no account would they accept a permanent Muslim minority on the island.

But the key issue which unites Samos SOS with the Chamber of Commerce is the now taken for granted argument on Samos that the refugees, largely Muslim, have had deeply damaged tourism on the island. Whilst they remain then tourism will never recover. So it is ironic to say the least that many tourist businesses represented in the Chamber of Commerce are trying to attract more Turkish tourists and indeed have them to thank for preventing a difficult tourist season from becoming a catastrophe. 2016 saw a 68% increase in Turkish tourists compared to 2015 with nearly 30,000 arrivals and an even bigger spike during the Eid festivities in October which are not yet included in the statistics. In the tourist village of Manolates the tourist shop keepers admitted that after a slow start to the season in May, this summer was no worse than 2015 saved by the increase in Turkish visitors, who incidentally are welcomed as they travel around the island and spend more money than most other nationalities.

Even so the contest between anti-islamic bigotry and money continues on Samos. This week a meeting was called in the sea side village of Agios Konstantinos to demand that the village should be refugee and Muslim free. The meeting however gathered little support which quickly evaporated when a local businessman arrived to denounce his fellow villagers as stupid for turning their back on what might be a valuable source of sustainable income. ‘Our hotels and bars are empty. If the refugees come with money we should welcome them’.

Driving through Samos town yesterday evening we saw many refugees out on the streets. There must have been at least 10 groups of young men and boys fishing along the sea wall. (We had learnt from the refugees at the cricket matches that fishing was now increasingly popular not just because it passed time but because they were catching some decent fish which were then cooked and eaten in the camp.) The children’s play areas were also busy with young refugee families having fun with their kids. There were small groups of young mothers walking and talking with toddlers in push chairs. The shops were closed so their general lack of money was not such an issue for them, and the refugees clearly outnumbered the locals. Quite simply we found the atmosphere to be wonderful. Like many, we are furious and saddened by the treatment of the refugees on Samos nevertheless it is not hell all of the time. Friendships and relationships have developed; people hang out together, cook and eat together, laugh and joke and support each other. On evenings such as last night you realise that in their lived reality as well as in their diversity refugees are not easy to demonise when they are around you, laughing and playing on the streets and by the sea. It is much easier for the system to lie about the refugees – as terrorists, as disease carriers, as religious fanatics ……. when you can’t see them. (Is this why the authorities locked the camp down on Friday morning and would not let any of the refugees out so they would not ‘contaminate’ by their presence the annual theatre of parades which mark Ohi Day (when in 1940 Greece said No to the Italian’s ultimatum of surrender or be invaded)?

Finally we would be very happy if all those who are against a Muslim presence on Samos and Europe more widely would take a moment to consider this little piece of information:

“The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the heart of Christian quarter of the walled Old City [Al Quds/Jerusalem] covers the assumed site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Six denominations – Latin (Roman Catholic), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Copts – share custodianship of the cavernous church. Bitter disputes over territories and responsibilities have erupted in the past, sometimes involving physical altercations.

In a sign of the distrust between the different denominations, the keys to the church have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century.” (The Guardian, 28th October 2016)

As Fatima, a Syrian mother told us recently “without laughter we will be destroyed by our tears”.

SNAFU and its Consequences for Refugees on Samos

(SNAFU – situation normal all fucked up)

It is now the middle of October and the weather is still holding fine. But the first heavy rains of the autumn are likely at any time. What then for the hundreds of refugees who are living in the tents inside the Hotspot/Camp? From what we can determine no provision has or is being planned for the coming winter.

The past week has seen the biggest daily arrivals since before the EU/Turkey pact of March 2016, with over 500 this week. Most are from Syria. For some reason the Greek media is giving little publicity to this significant increase. Recent experience tells us that the Turkish government has been fairly effective over the past 7 months in keeping down the refugee numbers crossing to the islands. So is this recent increase a sign of Turkey’s growing impatience with the EU over the granting of visas and a not so subtle hint of what might follow if the EU pulls back on its promise?

At the moment all the new arrivals are being absorbed/packed into the already overcrowded camp.

This week we needed the phone number of the Camp Manager. No problem except that we were warned it might be difficult to make contact as the Camp Manager had only just arrived and was not expected to stay for longer than 3 weeks. It appears that no one is prepared to take on the job on a long term basis so Camp Managers come and go at an extraordinary rate. As one of the NGO bosses here told us, it takes them at least a couple of weeks for the manager to get any kind grasp of what is involved and then they have to brief their successor before leaving.

It is a ridiculous situation that such a strategic position is filled in this way. But sadly when it comes to the care of the refugees it is all too commonplace. There is an endless turnover of key personnel; there is no effective management; there is no planning or development agenda; the priority is day to day maintenance. The consequences are many. Allocation of accommodation in the camp to newly arriving refugees is chaotic. Families with young children can find themselves in tents whilst fit able young adults are housed in cabins. In the past month we have seen the arrival of over 120 new staff to the camp, amongst their number we are told are social workers and psychologists. But they are doing virtually nothing and seem to sit around all day in their orange waist coats drinking coffee. There is just one coordinator who is overwhelmed trying to find ‘placements’ for the new workers. In the meantime there are hundreds of young kids running around unsupervised who are desperately in need of structured activities; there are older children now who have learnt that self harming gets them some attention; and there is the pall of depression which hangs like a thunder cloud over the camp and which this week saw a young Pakistani refugee try and end things by pouring petrol over himself. He survived but is badly burnt.

It is easy to forget that the nearly 2000 people in the Camp is around the same number of students in a large British secondary school. Caring and supporting them is not some sort of unbelievably hard or unreasonable challenge. But here they aren’t even at first base.


Since March 20th the overwhelming majority of arrivals have been held on Samos. Many have now been here for between 5 and 7 months. There is not the constant turmoil of short stays and departures as was the case last year. This ought to have favoured better outcomes for refugees by allowing systems and processes to be put in place – systematic children’s activities including education, language classes, recreational activities, and cooking for example.

But nothing much happens which is systematic and enduring. And much of this is to do with the short term characteristics of the system. It is not just the Camp Management which is continually changing. A 13 year old unaccompanied minor from Pakistan told us yesterday how much he had learnt from the teachers who held classes in the house where he was staying with 9 other youngsters. But he said, they were always changing. One week, two weeks and then they were gone and new ones arrived. He didn’t like it. Same with the lawyers, who are so desperately needed. They too come for similar short periods of time as do many of the other volunteers who come to Samos. It would seem that virtually all the services most valued by the refugees are provided on a short term basis, usually by NGOs which can attract professional volunteers (such as teachers, lawyers and therapists). Good as some of these volunteers are, there is a limit to what they can achieve in a few weeks and most importantly there is no continuity of care and no corresponding accumulation of experience and expertise.


There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs. Not the least is that the state in Greece is broken. It lacks both competency and capacity. There are many examples which illustrate this reality. On October 5th Ekathimerini reported that EU officials have warned Greece that they might have to return 509 million euros from the 1 billion they have been given for refugees this past year, “due to the slow pace at which those funds are being absorbed.” In other words the money is not being spent. The un-named Commission official continued: “There is an increasing sense of a country that cannot bring about results in the refugee crisis or in the economy.” Greece is an easy target, its frailties are well known. But within the EU the intensity by which member states guard their sovereignty especially with respect to migration, defence and border management have made it almost impossible for the EU to control, enforce, and implement key aspects of its refugee policy. So many of these elements such as re-location to relieve the pressure on Greece and Italy are not working as member states refuse to act to fulfil their pledges. Amnesty International recently estimated that at the current rate it will take 18 years to relocate the refugees now in Greece and Italy. Commitments which are given high profile at the time later vanish into thin air. As the Greek deputy foreign minister (Nikos Xydakis) complained at the end of September (Keep Talking Greece 28/9/2016):

“…7,000 refugees could be immediately relocated from Greece to other EU countries, all formalities for this procedure have been met. But it does not happen. Most EU countries take far too few refugees from Greece, some EU countries do not even respond to our requests…..

The EU Commission said in March this year that we needed 400 officers from the Asylum Agency EASO. To date only 26 officers have come to the islands. We need extremely more support from the EU countries in tackling the refugee crisis in Greece. I expect that the Europeans will now show solidarity and not only make promises, but also act.”

We can see nothing which suggests a resurgence of European solidarity in the near future. So on the frontier islands such as Samos we will continue to hear the announcements that promise some improvements – getting the kids into school, moving the most vulnerable from the islands to better specialist provision on the mainland, more resources for unaccompanied minors and so on – but then nothing happens. As the Samos Municipality noted in its statement following this week’s meeting with 5 government ministers in Athens (October 11th) to discuss the refugee situation on Samos:

“It is obvious that the municipality of Samos welcomes any initiative to address these issues [!!!!] and we will work with all the relevant authorities to solve it. However, for these efforts to be effective they must be developed in a framework of absolute transparency and compliance with the law and not stay at the stage of promises and simple drawings on paper, as before…..

[T]he problem will not be solved by mere promises nor with announcements of their “desirability”.They require a plan, a process and operation…The time for words, after all, has long since passed. Action is needed now and indeed already by yesterday.”(My Samos Blog, 11.10.2016)

Little wonder then that refugees and activists on Samos take no notice of official statements of intent, while despite the flow of reports from NGOs and think tanks which endlessly detail and report on the awful conditions in the Hotspots compounded by the inappropriate actions of the police nothing changes. And as far as we can see nothing fundamental will change until and unless the authorities and NGOs start listening to and engaging with refugees. But for that to happen the system is going to have change its entire approach to the refugees and see them in completely new ways as competent human beings.


Nobody in authority here listens to refugees; nobody here asks them what they need or how they could be involved to make life more bearable. There has been no attempt to create any forum where refugees can get their voices heard. There are many groups here who speak passionately on behalf of the refugees but which have no direct input or engagement with the refugees. Time and again refugees have pointed to the wide gulf between themselves and those who are paid to help them. There are no office hours for refugees and their problems yet ‘wait, come back tomorrow, we close at 5pm’, are all familiar responses to the refugees. Many of the refugees in the camp are acute observers of what goes on around them. Many have little else to do all day but look and watch. They see the hundreds of new people coming to work in the camp but doing nothing. They see the offices where refugees are never invited inside but conduct their business from the door way. They see the money spent on the ephemera – the vests and uniforms, the fancy engraved doors of the MSF office, the handsome vehicles, the flags; they can’t avoid seeing the refugee professionals in the bars, cafés and restaurants. They know that some of these senior staff pay over 1000 euros rent for their accommodation, and have cleaners and subsidised food. The vast majority of the refugees have nothing, not one cent after being here for 6 to 7 months. That is why so many stay in the camp and rarely venture into the town. That is why we no longer see advertising signs in Arabic outside the shops; that is why you won’t see piles of sleeping bags for sale outside the tourist shops like last year. These refugees have little or no money after being stuck on Samos for so many months.

There is no transparency when it comes to funding whether to state agencies or NGOs on Samos. We have no clear idea of what money comes in, how it is distributed or spent. But the 90 plus hire cars we have seen parked outside the Camp fences would alone suggest that the funding is significant. What is clear though is that the refugees are not the principal beneficiaries. There is for example no provision to pay for the ferry fares to Athens when the refugees do get papers to leave the island. There is no help given to help refugees find jobs or find houses and rooms to rent when they decide, as many now do, to stay on Samos to complete their paperwork. Many realise that Athens is not the place to be if you have no contacts there or a place to stay. But there are no systems through which they communicate any of their needs or demands.

So each day rolls into the next and SNAFU remains the reality.

Cricket on Samos

Since the beginning of August 2016 there have been regular cricket matches between a team drawn from Kashmiri refugees and a team of Pakistani refugees. They play two limited over matches (12 overs per innings) on the astro turf (football pitch) at the Vathi Stadium on Tuesday and Friday mornings starting at 9.30am and finishing at 1pm.

img_0405We have been involved since the beginning of September and our main responsibility is to be the bag carriers, bringing the gear-donated by cricket fans in Scotland and Ireland- the water and some fruit and not least the score sheets. Our one other job is to toss the coin to determine which team gets to bat first.cricekt-gear

We had no idea what to expect. But from the very beginning it was obvious that many of these guys were good cricketers. Both teams have batsmen and bowlers who are impressive. The astro turf makes it difficult to score runs as the ball is quickly slowed by the surface. So both teams seek to score as many boundaries as possible. The fielding team is mainly set out along the boundaries. It has led to some exciting play as the batsmen launch themselves into huge strokes as they try to clear the boundaries for either 6 or 4 runs. There are spectacular catches every match and it is often in the high quality of the fielding that you realise you are seeing players who know and play the game well.


We knew that cricket was a huge game in Pakistan and Kashmir and that all over these countries there were thousands upon thousands (usually boys and men) playing and watching the game. There is a passion for cricket. So it is with these 2 teams and as we get to know more about the players we learnt that a fair few of them had played in top quality cricket in district, village and university teams. One of them even held a cricket scholarship at university. So little wonder we are privileged to see such a high standard on Samos.

Cricket is not widely known in Greece (outside of Corfu). Not surprisingly the matches attract very few locals although those that have come have enjoyed the exciting play even when totally confused by the rules. Those who do come are mainly other refugees from the camp and a scattering of volunteers. Without exception, all those from ‘outside’ who have come to the matches have found it a moving experience as this visitor from Ireland told us;

I’m a cricket lover at home having played with my brother so I follow it a little, but as I said to my brother I got more pleasure out of watching that match than any at Lords or the “GABA” in Brisbane.
For me to see the lads with such confidence and enjoying themselves in a normal situation was the most heart warming experience of the fortnight”.img_0432

These cricket matches on Samos are not exceptional. For billions of people sport is one of the ways in which they find happiness in a world which is often cruel and gives little or no opportunity to most people to express themselves. Sports can provide spaces where you can breath again and feel human with some autonomy. This is the case with these two refugee teams and their supporters many of whom have now been stuck on Samos for 7 months and many of whom are likely to face deportation when their asylum claims are finally rejected.

Who could not feel utterly dejected by this situation yet it is their refusal to be overwhelmed by depression that is so impressive. These cricket matches are seen by them as life savers. They know it and they cherish it. Those who knew the players before these matches started talked of their deep depression and their occasional bouts of drinking which inevitably led to scuffles and fights. This is no longer the case as the players concern themselves with being fit for the matches. However there are match days when people are down and sad usually following the rejection of asylum appeals and recently with the arrest of six Pakistani refugees from the camp who had exhausted the asylum procedure and were taken to the police cells awaiting deportation to Turkey. Some of these were deported 3 days ago. The cricket can do so much but it does not change their circumstances or their likely future.

cricket-4The matches provide us with a chance to talk together in ways that are almost impossible within the camp. There is only so much you can say about the horrors of the camp and the endless wait for the authorities to process their claims. Whereas the cricket matches allow for much wider and deeper conversations about their lives, experiences and hopes. There are some exceptions, but the majority of the Kasmiris and Pakistanis want to come to Europe to find a life which is denied them at home. Many want to continue with their university education, more want to find work which will give them a living wage and the possibility of helping the friends and family they leave behind. Such remittances are crucial to many in the most impoverished parts of the world and are far greater and more effective than the combined global humanitarian funds distributed each year.

So many of our conversations with these refugees are identical to those we have with many Greek friends who along with other 200,000 young people have left Greece over the past four years in search of a life not possible in this now stricken society. It is also worth noting that in a recent survey of those leaving Greece 40% gave corruption as a major factor in their decision, which is much the same as we hear from those who come from Pakistan, Morocco and Algeria. However that is where the similarities stop. Giannis and Maria can travel like human beings in search of their futures, but Fatima and Mohammed travel with no dignity and often in danger to end up in places like the Samos Camp. Of course they ask why? But do those born in the right places ever ask why too?


Kashmir Kings

Reflections on a Crazy Summer; Samos Island 2015

Samos is close to the coast of Turkey and has long been one of the gateways into western Europe for refugees. What made the summer of 2015 so distinctive were the very large numbers of refugees coming to the island, as to all the frontier islands of Greece in the eastern Aegean. It was a tsunami of people fleeing mainly from Syria but also from other war torn places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine as well as from countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Pakistan where widespread corruption and mafia politics makes ‘normal’ living virtually impossible for many.

Tsunami seems a reasonable word to use to describe what happened here as the sheer weight of arrivals overwhelmed and swept through an already stressed and wholly inadequate system for managing refugees on the island. But unlike natural tidal waves where there is often no warning the tsunami of refugees was predicted. Long before they arrived in their over loaded and dangerous inflatables on the shores of Samos thousands of refugees were fleeing into Turkey and on their way to hoped for safety in Europe. But here the authorities despite briefings in the early Spring of 2015 by agencies such as the UNCHR were steadfast in doing nothing. No preparations whatsoever. The existing detention centre with a capacity of around 250 was where any new arrivals were to be sent.

Samos Detention Centre

Samos Detention Centre :The Camp

For many years, the authorities on Samos have made it clear that they don’t want refugees coming here. They don’t like refugees. This is evident in many ways. The most obvious is the Guantanamo style Camp in with its double, razor wire topped, perimeter fence, its tiers of grey barrack style tin roofed huts which roast in the summer and freeze in the winter.

Until last summer the authorities had been largely successful in hiding the refugees. Many on the island had no idea that there were refugees here and had little knowledge of the Camp, which is less than 2 km from the centre of the main town. The refugees were treated as criminals, arrested and detained under prison regulations managed by the police. Locked in, the refugees were rarely seen on the streets.

Public help for refugees until mid summer was also criminalised. It was an offence to give refugees a lift either on the land or on the sea. You could lose your car or your boat for such actions which were considered as smuggling. Ironically whilst few on the island knew much about the refugees they did know that there were big risks involved in offering any help. Likewise the Camp was closed and it was almost impossible to get inside unless you were a state agent of some type or another.

The people of Samos know all too well about living in a broken society where the system of state agencies is characterised by incompetency compounded by no resources. The impact of the crisis here has seen state agencies stripped to the bone. Given that Greece has a nightmare bureaucracy in which systemic corruption flourishes in the darkness of endless opaque regulations, the lack of resources has simply paralysed an already incompetent local state.

Not surprisingly when the refugee flows began to pick up in 2015 these flimsy systems quickly collapsed. The camp was overwhelmed. The gates were eventually unlocked because the authorities could not feed them. The olive groves around the Camp were full of tents and canopies because nothing else was made available. For the refugees it was a disgusting and disgraceful first taste of Europe.

Despite many empty hotels, houses, schools, night clubs and military camps on the island, none of them have been used to make life more bearable for the refugees. A deeply rooted belief throughout the Greek state that making life difficult for refugees was necessary to stop more refugees from arriving continued despite the greatly changed situation. “It breaks my heart not being able to open the empty school so that the refugees can be sheltered from the rain. I have the keys in my pocket. But if I did this, within a week we would be like Lesvos and be flooded out with refugees who hear that Samos is a good place to go.” We heard many comments like this from senior local authority officials last year.

Move Them On

The frontier islands like Samos were quickly overwhelmed by the arrival of hundreds of refugees a day. There was no way that the islands could contain the arrivals. So for much of last summer the declared policy and practice was to move the refugees onto Athens as quickly as possible. The majority of refugees were moved on within 36 hours of arriving.

It was a process which had no concern for the welfare of the refugees.

a) there was no provision made for feeding the refugees who were massed at the ferry ports on the island;

b) there was no attempt to assess the needs of the refugees and those who received medical attention were only those with evident injuries and illnesses;

c) there was no consideration given to their trauma or to the mental and physical exhaustion of the refugees which was made much worse by the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey;

d) there was no provision made to meet the refugees on the beaches as they landed or to transport them from their landing places to the nearest port, in most cases 15 km away;

e) there were no systems of liaison created between the refugees and the authorities so refugees never had any say on what was happening to them or what they needed.

f) the authorities made no attempt to encourage refugees to consider staying and settling on the island. With empty shops and closed businesses, abandoned vineyards and olive orchards and villages filled only with older people there are endless opportunities which with minimal start up costs could help some refugees and help re-build the crisis devastated island.

f) above all, there was no friendliness or gentleness in the system’s practice. Shouting at them was the norm. Wearing masks and rubber gloves was also the norm for a long time. Getting them into lines was the norm, caging them behind razor wire fences was the norm.

For many it became accepted that nothing good for the refugees came from the authorities. Similarly it was not possible to believe a word they said. So many promises – to provide toilets, food, shelter and so on were made throughout the summer and nothing ever materialised.

Although for most, their stay on the island was brief, it was an uncomfortable and difficult entry into Europe with the refugees themselves carrying the burden of meeting their needs. They were helped increasingly by the solidarity of many islanders and tourists but much was done by the refugees themselves.

The shared experience of the traumatic sea crossing to Samos had a significant impact in developing strong bonds between the refugees who traveled together. For many groups this started in Turkey during time they spent together in the forests and on the beaches waiting to be loaded onto the boats. Then there was the 4 -12 hours of shared terror. When we met some of them as they landed on Samos in the early hours of the morning we often discovered a determination to stay together and move on together with an understanding of one another’s particular needs. So many times it was the refugees who told us who needed particular help or assistance. If for any reason a refugee was delayed during the minimalist screening procedures it was common to see the whole group delay their departure until their friend could join them. Likewise it was the group who often raised the money for the ferry ticket for those who had no money. Their humanity contrasted sharply with the inhumanity of the authorities and was crucial to their welfare and determination. And, as we heard later was even more important as the refugees moved en masse overland up into northern Europe.

For most of the summer of 2015 the basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter were met partly by the refugees themselves and partly by a growing number of locals and tourists. A big problem for the refugees was their lack of Euros. Many of them, especially the first waves of largely men from Syria arrived with some money but they could not easily exchange it for Euros. Karlovassi port for example is around 3 kms from the town centre and had no money changing offices/banks. Moreover the police processing the refugees in the ports demanded that the refugees not move until they have been seen which routinely meant that the exchange offices were closed by the time the port police had finished with them.

Not surprisingly the main focus of the locals was in the provision of food, water and clothes and this lasted for most of the summer. Networks of local women formed who cooked and distributed meals; a few local restaurants were amazing in being able to produce 2 to 3 hundred nutritious meals at short notice; many of the local shops – bakers, grocers and pharmacies – gave huge discounts to refugees; clothes were collected and stores were created for sorting and handing them out; then there were the groups who daily washed the endless flow of clothes that had been soaked during the sea crossings. Many joked that the noise of the washing machines was the sound track to Summer 2015. And not least there was an increasing flow of individuals both men and women who would come to the ports with whatever they could afford to give.

Waiting to be taken to Karlovassi Port

Waiting to be taken to Karlovassi Port

Alongside the port focused activities a landing network was created. Comprising of locals and tourists they would call one another as the refugee boats were sighted in the early mornings and get down to the beaches with dry clothes, shoes, food, water and first aid materials. Once these immediate needs had been met they would then transport them to the nearest port. It was a crucial intervention and it saved lives.

The authorities did nothing and were largely invisible on the beaches and for most of the summer refugees were not allowed to use the local bus service while taxi drivers refused to pick them up. The hot summer temperatures added urgency to this volunteer transport. Needless to say the authorities did not make this easy and even when the legislation was changed in midsummer so that it was no longer a criminal offence to carry refugees in your car or boat some of the police continued to threaten drivers with prosecution. Later they changed tactics by saying that they were trying to protect the drivers as the refugees were often diseased and many of the young men were armed with knives. Later in the summer the main hassles for the volunteer drivers came from some taxi drivers who realised that refugees were good business and easy prey for high charges. Indeed there was a noticeable shift at this time with restaurants, bars, cafés and hotels often displaying their goods and services in Arabic. Refugees with some money were good for business. Display stands of sun glasses were replaced by sleeping bags and tents outside many shops.

But the ‘popular’ responses and initiatives were impressive and humbling especially in a context of the deep poverty of Samos and the widespread depression of a people who can see no light of improvement after years of destruction. But significant as it was the numbers involved were never great. But for the first time, refugees were plainly visible. They could be seen trudging to the port, massed in their hundreds around ferry terminals and where the beaches and roadsides were littered with hundreds of orange life vests, rubber tubes and the remains of the inflatables that carried them over from Turkey. They could not be ignored unless you closed your eyes and turned off your brain.

It was a summer that changed many people. Islanders had to overcome the effects of years of governmental and media propaganda which presented refugees as an invading and alien Muslim army bent on violence and as a major threat to public health as they were said to carry unknown but seemingly deadly diseases. Many people had been made afraid of the refugees. Time and again we saw these negative stereotypes melt away once the islanders met and helped refugees. It was nothing heroic simply basic human decency responding to the plight of the refugees. If washing machines provided the background music to the summer so the exclamation that the refugees are just like us became its mantra.

And we learned. We learnt that a hug was as important as a loaf of bread. We learnt that how you help was often more crucial than what was provided. Shouting and screaming, throwing food or clothes at the refugees as if they were cattle simply humiliated both the givers and the receivers. Engagement was the key: standing with and alongside the refugees. We learnt about the incredible resilience of so many refugee children who through their laughs and play lifted the hearts of their families and all those around them. The role of the children cannot be under-estimated. In many ways they were the heart of the exodus and the most common factor which led their families to make their hazardous journeys. It was their children, their safety and their future which drove and fueled a determination which marched them across Europe and smash through the then often flimsy border controls.


There was little time or space for reflection. But as the summer progressed and more locals joined the effort to help the refugees the ‘absentees’ became more obvious. Many of the involved locals came from the Left, but their parties, whether KKE or Syriza were rarely if ever seen at the ports. Some rallies and marches were held but these were never where the refugees were and never involved them. These parties rightly demanded fundamental changes to the way in which the state so cruelly treated the refugees but they kept away from offering any direct aid to the refugees. It was clear that some on the Left were critical of the activists for doing the work of the state and letting it off the hook. Political dogma at the expense of the refugees? As for Syriza, now in government there was nothing but crushing disappointment. Same old same old.

Probably the most powerful and resource rich absentee was the Church. It has a massive influence on Samos and its footprint on the island is deep and visible. Some local churches did get involved but in the main the Church was absent and wilful in turning its back on such self-evident suffering. This was vividly illuminated by one incident at one of the largest monasteries on the island which sits on the top of a hill overlooking an especially dangerous part of the coast. On a scorching July day over 100 refugees had landed below the monastery and had struggled for over 6 hours before eventually getting to the monastery and gathering in the car park directly in front of the gates. One of the young male refugees had fallen to his death from the cliffs and as they approached the monastery a fire broke out in the forest adding to the horror.

When we arrived we met with scenes of utter exhaustion and great thirst. They had no water and many were parched. The gates of the monastery never opened. One monk arrived in a Range Rover, parked and walked in ignoring everyone around him. Not one drop of water was offered. The Greek Orthodox Church harbours a deep antagonism to Islam. Is this the reason for their inhumanity and their silence and absence during this humanitarian crisis?

More surprisingly absent were student organisations from the University of the Aegean which has over 2000 studying in Karlovassi. Some individual students got involved but nothing was seen of the Students Union or indeed any other part of the University. There were no initiatives coming from the University to help the thousands of refugees who passed through Karlovassi.

As we noted above, nothing good is expected from the state, but the absence of the army was noticeable. Although not as big a presence as before, the Army is still a major feature of everyday life on Samos. Military bases litter the island, some in use others mothballed. Army vehicles are a common sight on the roads. Not one army bus or truck was used to rescue arriving refugees from the beaches. A huge resource with the capacity to house and feed hundreds of refugees was never used. Why not?

Then there were the ‘present but useless’ best typified by UNCHR. In August when at the Camp, we met a UNCHR worker who had arrived 3 weeks earlier. She wanted to know what we were doing so we told her something about what was happening in Karlovassi. We were amazed when she asked “Karlovassi?”. She had no idea that there were hundreds of refugees passing through this port and thought that Samos Town was the only way off the island. This is what we have come to expect from the UNCHR.

It was not until the Autumn 2015 that a new phase began to emerge with the creation of the Hotspots and the arrival of some of the big NGOs including Medecin Sans Frontiers (MSF) and Save the Children alongside an array of smaller national based charities. This phase will be looked at in a later post.


Much was revealed over this summer. The harshness and inhumanity of the system both locally and internationally was no great surprise. So much of the official policy and practice is rooted in framing the refugees as a security threat to be managed by the penal state. Police and prisons are simply the wrong people and wrong places for human beings seeking safe refuge. (The refugees were not surprised by the hostilities of the system. As we were told repeatedly the police are the same everywhere and anyway at least these police were not threatening to shoot them.) But we did see some positive changes in individual state agents who changed their attitudes and behaviour to the refugees over the summer. The Samos coastguard which not so long ago had a notorious reputation from pushing refugees back into Turkish waters became hugely valued as it shifted its focus to rescue. They saved many lives.

It is the refugees we remember most for whom a kind word was treated like water in a desert. They compelled us to think and to understand them even when they took more of the food or the clothes than they needed. When you never knew when you might eat again or get fresh clothes it was easy to understand why some behaved as they did. But it was their solidarities and their determination to get through which stands out.

There were many tears but there was also much laughter. Laughing, singing, dancing together, sometimes within minutes of stepping on to the beach was extraordinarily powerful in making powerful and positive engagements with the refugees. It was amazing to see even within 36 hours how many solid friendships were created and still continue over a year later. People can and do change. And it can happen very quickly.

And then there were the locals doing what they could reaching out to engage with the refugees. We shall never forget the 85 year old woman in Agios Konstantinos who could only give a pair of shoes but only after she had a friend re-colour the heels which had been badly scratched. Humanity was unleashed and extended to complete strangers. It was an eruption of humanity that took place across much of Europe and provided light and inspiration in a dark and cruel continent. No state system anywhere in Europe can match the quality of help and solidarity that emerged from the grass roots which is why what the system offers is so often inadequate, uncaring and dangerous. For the refugees on Samos the knowledge that ordinary people were mobilising to welcome them in so many places was hugely important. It gave a basic re-assurance they never get from the system.

Chris Jones

September 2016

Volunteers and Refugees on Samos

Since last autumn we have seen a stream of volunteers coming to Samos to ‘help’ the refugees. It has been a new experience for us although we are aware that this type of humanitarian tourism has been around for some years and is said to be one of the fastest growing areas of the global tourist industry. (Guardian November 14 2010, ‘Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do’.)

On Samos at least, the term ‘volunteer’ now has a specific meaning referring to those from outside the island who sign up to work with an NGO called Samos Volunteers. The term volunteer for example does not include the many local people who over the past 12 months did so much to support and sustain the thousands of refugees who landed here. Nor does it include the refugee activists who come to work on Samos but refuse to be bound by the rules and regulations of the authorities.

We write about our experience of the Samos volunteers with some care as we are aware that some of our critical observations might be hurtful and discouraging for the volunteers many of whom are passionate about helping the refugees here. It is always been our concern to write in ways which both inform and above all which might benefit the refugees. We make no excuse for wanting to try and make things better by changing the ways in which people think and act. We very much hope that the volunteers will take our words in the spirit in which they are intended which is to think more clearly and act more appropriately when trying to help to the refugees here.

Our Observations and Thoughts

1) The volunteers who come to Samos are very mixed. They are not all young ‘gap year’ tourists although many are students who have just completed some of their higher education. There has also been a significant minority who are older and recently retired. The overwhelming majority are European/North American/Australian middle class Caucasians. We have seen no volunteers from Muslim majority societies and even more surprisingly very few from Greece and none from Samos.

Samos Volunteers, from their Facebook page

Samos Volunteers, from their Facebook page

For some, Samos is their latest island. A surprising number can list a string of frontier islands from Lesvos to our north to Kos to our south where they have done some days or weeks of volunteering.

2) Samos Volunteers provides the key contact point and a system for the arriving volunteers. It is an NGO which is part of the network of officially recognised organisations working on the island including the other NGOs and state agencies. It has close ties with the local authority which in the past has provided free accommodation and key resources such as their store house. The downside is that it ties the volunteers into a system that remains part of the problem and not the solution.

3) Many volunteers stay for a very short time, often less than 4 weeks and some for only a few days. They tend to be here today and gone tomorrow. There is very little opportunity for them to engage effectively with the refugees given their stay is so brief. This applies especially to the younger children many of whom have been traumatised by the wars they are fleeing, the terrible journey to get to Samos and then the experience of the Camp. They thirst for stability and safety and many are desperate to learn fully aware that they have missed months and sometimes years of schooling. Many of the volunteers understandably want to work with children but their short stays can be problematic as it exposes the children yet again to a reality which has little stability.

4) We have been surprised by the volunteers’ general lack of curiosity and understanding of the situation they are working in. For example, we can’t recall many asking us about our experiences on Samos and the context here. It is as if it does not matter. They want to do something now. Activity and not understanding seems to be their main concern. Some are very poorly informed and worse, come with negative prejudices especially about young Muslim men which are so widespread in the western media. This week we heard 5 volunteers telling us that the people of Samos are against the refugees. This is not true and insulting to the islanders. Yes, the Samian authorities are antagonistic but not the majority of the islanders.

We suggested to some recent volunteers working in their clothing store that they should involve refugees in managing and organising the place given that the refugees are so stressed by boredom and inactivity. They are crying out to do something. But one responded that she had been warned not to talk to the refugees about the location of the store (which is near to the Camp) otherwise they would raid it and rob it. The volunteer co-ordinator was very concerned when we took a Syrian refugee to the store to choose a suitcase. We had made a big mistake they told us. Refugees were not to come there and certainly not to choose what they needed for themselves. 2 weeks earlier an activist was similarly outraged when she was told she could not bring a pregnant Afghani woman to the store to choose her clothes. We suspect that the rule of keeping refugees away from the store is imposed by the local authority and is a clear example of the kind of difficulties which result from being part of the ‘system’. Nevertheless, the volunteers seem to forget that everything in the store has been sent for the refugees. It is their stuff!

Sadly, many of the volunteers as well as many working for the NGOs here are similar in this respect: they rarely engage personally or deeply with refugees as partners. Some clearly don’t trust the refugees and believe that the refugees need discipline and surveillance when they get near to things they need! Refugees are too often seen as people you do things to even though you may well have no skills or experience yourself. Want to help with the kids? Off you go and do it. It is disrespectful and arrogant and in the main they don’t even think about it.

We have also seen a minority of volunteers behave like trophy hunters such as the 2 young Germans who were here a few weeks ago and did some painting with children. They were with the children for less than an hour (the volunteers wanted to go off to the beach). But still enough time for the kids to make some pictures. Until they were stopped it was their intention to take all these pictures back to Germany and not give them to the children.

Many are keen for photographs of themselves with refugees which are then posted on their Facebook pages to much acclaim from their friends for being such wonderful human beings. These volunteers want to be ‘the story’. Moreover, as with so many aspects of refugee practices and policies there is no transparency at all with respect to the funds which many raise to pay for their time in Samos. It is not clear to us that this is the best use of resources.

Most of the volunteers we meet have ‘good hearts’ even if their own personal self development seems to be the most important issue for them. They genuinely care. But the refugees need them to have good heads too.

5) There is a general lack of any kind of progressive political perspective on the part of most of the volunteers we have met. Samos Volunteers does not make any attempt to address the political orientations of those joining them. It is as if their assumed compassion is sufficient. Imagine having to confront a 21year old medical student from London who insisted that the Syrian refugees must take responsibility for the destruction of their country? Or who believe that the EU is right to deport them back to Turkey?

The contrast with the activists who ran the 2 Open Kitchens earlier this year couldn’t be greater. These activists worked with and built solidaristic relationships with the refugees. They made friends with the refugees, sitting and talking for hours together. You will rarely see a volunteer sitting in a café with a refugee drinking coffee.

Whatever we might write, we are not going to stop volunteers from coming to Samos any more than the EU is going to stop refugees from coming to Europe. There is rarely a week that passes when we don’t get messages on our Facebook page from those who want to come to Samos. We have no wish to stop them from coming here. There are so many opportunities for them to see first hand the cruelties of the system and hopefully, to use this experience ‘back home’ to press for change.

Overall we don’t feel that volunteers damage the refugees and with respect to clothes distribution they have made a difference to many but it could be so much better for it is not just a matter of what you do but how you do it. Some of their recent educational initiatives also look promising and make good use of the longer times the refugees now spend on Samos.

Concluding Thoughts

The questions we pose for the volunteers are ones we regularly ask ourselves. We don’t always have clear answers especially when we feel we are doing things which should be done by the authorities, including NGOs like MSF, Save the Children, Red Cross ….. as well as the UNHCR. Like government agencies these NGOs hold massive budgets but so much seems to be spent on themselves, their staff, their cars, apartments, meals, logos, offices, mini buses and so on and so on. The idea that this money should be passed on directly to the refugees is never considered and yet in our opinion this would be the most beneficial direct aid for most of the refugees. It would also help more people on Samos as with money in their pockets the refugees would spend it in the local shops and cafés, renting rooms and apartments and even starting their own enterprises here.

We all need to remember that we are not the story. We can never hope to get near to the experiences of the refugees but we can at least try and stand in their shoes and make that the starting point of our activity. It will not be enough but it might mean we can help in ways which shames and highlights the system’s inhumanity to our fellow human beings as well as demonstrating our solidarity and providing something however small which makes refugees stronger and not weaker.