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.

The daily harassment of the refugees and migrants on Kos

By Luisa Weber

( Louisa is a refugee activist based in Switzerland and worked  in the ‘Open Eyes Balkan Route Kitchen in Samos in 2016)


That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I remember my week on Kos earlier this summer. One week is clearly not a long time, but it was more than enough time to see that there has been no let up in the authority’s on going cruel behaviour towards all the refugees and migrants on the island. I read in the online newsnet of a popular swiss newspaper „Tagesanzeiger“ ( vom 30.10.2015), that even a middle-right-wing politician from Switzerland was able to recognise that the circumstances on the Greek island of Kos are deliberately made and wanted by the local politicians and state authorities. Deterrence, as they keep saying is necessary… it is the endless mantra you hear from the Greek state.

The Hotspot

The hotspot on Kos is located outside of a small village called Pili which is about 15km out of Kos town. From the village there is a dusty road to the Camp. It is out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a high fence with a lot of nato-barbed wire…that’s the type with the razor blades…The people inside the Hotspot are allowed to go out, but no one besides UNCHR and Praksis ( a Greek NGO) have permission to enter the camp.

For the refugees and migrants it is unusual for a family to make a walk to the village for example, because they don’t have keys for their cabins and so they can not lock the doors. A friend from Syria who we met on the road to the camp, told us, that one day she asked one of the police guards at the entrance to give her the key for her family’s cabin, because there had been some thefts. Her family wanted go out of the camp together, like families do but they were scared to leave their belongings in an unlocked cabin. The answer of the policeman was no. And the reason for the no, was that he said ‘you will loose the key, and than I will have to pay 50 Euros to get another’. It was not enough that the policeman was treating her like a small kid. For even when our friend offered to sign an official paper that she would take full responsibility in case she lost the key, the answer was still no.

We wanted to visit this friend in the camp or at least in front of the entrance so that we could talk together. Our journey to the hotspot started with us asking locals where it is and how we can get there. They looked at us like we came from a different planet. Like why for god’s sake do you want to go there? Anyway, when we arrived at the camp, there was a policeman who told us to wait. He left and when he didn’t come back after 10 minutes one of us walked further up the road to ask at the main entrance. When my friend got to about 50 metres before the gates to the camp, there was a policeman who asked her not who she is, but what she is, thinking she has permission to come there. She replied that she is a human being and that she wants to visit a friend who was inside the camp. This was reason enough for another policeman to start shouting at her: ‘Go! Go away!’ My friend was coming back to us and the shouting policeman followed her in a car. In the meantime another friend and I, were just standing around in front of the fence. When the policeman saw this he continued shouting ‘go away’. I told him in a friendly way that it would be nice, if he could speak more kindly to us. Unfortunately this appeared to be impossible for him and he began to shout out his orders to me like ‘show me your passport! Tell me where you are from? What is your name?’ And so on. I decided not to show him my passport, because his only reason for this demand was ‘because I am a policeman“. I told him in a friendly way that this was not a good reason. Inevitably he then began to yell at one of my friends who was standing next to me. He is a refugee, and that’s why we needed to leave after I had told the policeman that it would be better for him if he looked for another job as he seemed unable to deal calmly with situations like this.

We finally met our friend from Syria in the middle of the route back to the town out in middle of nowhere.

The Food Situation

The refugees and migrants inside of the hotspot are not allowed to handle any food by themselves. There is one woman, hired by the authorities, who is running the kitchen of the camp. As our friend told us, the food is often burnt and unfit for human consumption. Now, during Ramadan, the kitchen is not making any kind of arrangements for the people fasting. They distribute the food only once and when the sun is going down it is all cold, every day. One day, someone from Pili brought some special food for the fasting people to eat after sunset. The woman who runs the kitchen took all of it and our Syrian friend was complaining again and again, that it is not OK to steal the food which was specially brought for Ramadan. It was 2 days before she gave some of this food to the residents of the camp. Our friend also told us, that it is completely arbitrary who gets clothes or shoes from the hotspot warehouse. In the warehouse they have a lot of donated hygiene products, but the residents only get given a small bottle of shampoo, lotion or whatever which is needed for personal hygiene. Of course, people can buy their own stuff, if they have any money at all…

Painting from a Syrian refugee in the Kos hotspot,June 2016

Painting from a Syrian refugee in the Kos hotspot,June 2016

Medical Care

If you look from outside of the village to the hotspot you can see a huge white caravan inside the camp, on a hill. It is a real eye catcher, because there is a huge red cross on it. When I ask my Syrian friend how the medical care is working, she responded with a sad smile, ‘it is only a caravan, there is no medical-staff working at all…’.

If someone needs medical care, they must go to a doctor in Kos town. If it turns out, that they need special medical care, the doctor writes a medical certificate recommending that they need to go to Athens. It was like that, our Syrian friend told us, with a little child in the camp. The parents went to the police with the medical certificate, to be told by the police, that they are not allowed to travel, and anyway that the kid is fine. Do policeman in Greece have a high medical education as well? Or is it just more negligence which characterises the whole system?

Women and child protection

In the hotspot all the residents are mixed. That means, that unaccompanied women, families, kids and single men are not separated. For all the refugees and migrants coming from Muslim majority societies where gender separation informs much of daily life and arrangements this is problematic. Women in particular, but also men find this mixing uncomfortable. But when we consider the situation inside the camp it poses a huge problem. People are bored, people don’t have any idea about their future life, they are not allowed to do anything, most of them don’t have any money left, are often traumatized from their escape or by war, and so on and so on. When we are aware of all these circumstances, it is not that hard to guess, that it could be difficult. Our friends in the camp were especially alarmed when some of the men started drinking alcohol which led to really inappropriate behaviour or even worse against women and children. Some of the family members went to the police, who are always around in the camp, to ask them for help in this situation. The answer of the police was: ‘Not our problem’. Abandoned and ignored yet again.

Our friend was not even allowed to take her young niece outside the camp, even when she showed the police, that she has the same family name as her niece. It was only possible, when the father and her brother, came to the gate, to prove that she is his sister and the kid’s aunt. The policeman said that he will allow it for one time only, but in the future, only her father can take her outside of the camp…

Our Syrian friend told us, that her only wish she has for her, her family and all the other refugees is, that someone is telling the world what is happening on Kos and on many of the other Greek islands at this time.

Police station in Kos Town

We came to Kos from Switzerland to help a refugee from Syria who was in prison there because he had been caught trying to travel without papers. We had met him earlier in Samos and then in Athens and he had become a friend. We wanted to support him with a lawyer and to get him out of prison. By the time we arrived, the police in the main police station in Kos town had finally decided to let him out. They told him to leave the island quickly, but how this could happen when he did not have papers nor money? As ever the police told him that this was not their problem.

We also wanted to visit the other refugees and migrants in the cell in the main police station in Kos town. When I walked into the station to request that I would like to see the prisoners, the police woman at the desk told me that ‘there are no prisoners here’. It was clear that she was lying straight in to my face. Even when I asked her again, that I wanted to visit the prisoners inside and that I know that there are some including a few who had already been in for month, she told me the same lie. The police woman then started yelling at me and asked me if I don’t understand. She said that people are held in the cell for just one day, then they are transferred to the hotspot. It was a very weird situation, because our friend who had just got out from prison had told us a lot about the horrible conditions inside and how many were held for weeks at a time. There are between 5 to 10 men in a cell with one hole in the floor as a toilet. He said they were not allowed their mobile phones, they had no privacy, the food was disgusting and they experienced inhumane and disparaging treatment by the police. For example, our friend told us that the most of the police address the prisoners inside only as « malacca » which means asshole.

The second time we went to the police station to visit the inmates, at least the policeman behind the desk did not lie, but he told us to leave in rough way. Two of us went behind the building to see the window where the people are in the cell and where some of them were waving and shouting. The policeman jumped up from his chair very quickly so we needed to leave, so not to put our Syrian friend in danger.

Our experiences have been very clear; that the actions by the police on Kos are totally arbitrary and their only concern is to show their power. They are rude, unfriendly and seem to deal with any attempt to show solidarity by shouting and yelling.

A Hotel for refugees and migrants

In the centre of Kos town there is a hotel, run by UNHCR for refugees and migrants. People with special needs, illness, trauma or unaccompanied pregnant women with small kids are housed in this hotel. We met many wonderful refugees there and the hospitality they showed us in their small hotel rooms was really overwhelming. We spent a few hours with two families from Syria and a funny 17 year old boy.

One of the women who had escaped from Syria with her sister and her husband told us, that her sister has epilepsy. She and her husband are taking care of her, but a few days ago her sister tried to jump from the balcony on the 3rd floor of the hotel. It was clear to see that the woman was desperate and really afraid about what happened to her sister. She went to he UNHCR to ask for psychological support for her sister, but the only thing they told her was: ‘sorry, but we cannot do anything for you’. Seriously? The refugee agency of the UN cannot do anything? If not them, then who?

Kos 2


We came for a week but in those 7 days we yet again confronted the same cruelties we had seen before in Samos and in Athens. We saw police who were totally unsuited for working with vulnerable people, we saw agencies like UNCHR whose contributions were so limited and seemed incapable of offering what was needed. And we met refugees and migrants who despite all these humiliations struggled to stay sane and human and who showed us kindness and friendship which stood in the starkest contrast to the authorities. They knew they could expect little or nothing from the system and placed much hope in ordinary people who they thought could help if only they knew what was going on. Sadly, we are not so sure…….

Samos Hotspot: Roaring With Rage But Who is Listening?

The decision to place all the arrivals in a closed detention centre which followed on from the EU/Turkey pact led some activists and NGOs to withdraw from direct work in the Samos hotspot (aka the Camp). Given the dubious legality of the pact and the intention to return the majority of the arrivals back to Turkey which has been deemed a safe place for refugees, it was considered that any interventions with refugees in the Camp would signify compliance with this latest inappropriate and inhumane response to the refugees. As one MSF worker observed at the time, “how can I help and welcome the arrivals on the beach when I know that they are going to be locked in the camp and then possibly deported to Turkey? I can’t do that”.

The changed role of the NGOs and some activists has not been without some negative consequences. Not the least the refugees now in the Camp (around 1,000 including hundreds of young children) have to some degree been abandoned to the authorities. One of the key lessons we have learnt over the years of working with refugees here, is that the system does not do humanitarianism when it comes to refugees. Many individual volunteers who arrive here for a short time and register with the authorities have continued to enter the camp to do what they can, especially with respect to clothing and in one case offering classes in Greek.

If the pact should collapse it is very likely that the flow to the frontier Greek islands will grow again. As it is the numbers now coming to the frontier islands such as Samos, Lesvos and Chios are slowly increasing. 55 refugees arrived on 7th June and a further 60 three days earlier. This week has also seen the Greek press reporting on convoys of buses travelling into Izmir carrying refugees and ‘hundreds’ of boats being prepared along the coast. Who knows? It is possible and the pact is by no means secure. More significantly, there is no let-up in the war in Syria, nor in Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen. Neither is there any let up in the plundering and corruption which drives so many young men to leave north Africa and Pakistan. And should the situation in the huge refugee camps within Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan continue to deteriorate then more refugees will be taking to the road especially if there is no sign of any peace agreements.


What is so shameful is that there is no desire or intent to provide a safe and supportive place for refugees. The Samos hotspot is a perfect illustration of this attitude. European history is full of examples where the oppression and control of the poor has been exercised in a wide variety of ways, including architecture. Prisons and workhouses in 19th century Britain were not only located in the midst of desperately poor neighbourhoods but were consciously designed and built to be symbols of state power and fear. This is no less true for the Samos hotspot. A double wire fence topped with razor wire speaks volumes and it is not in words of welcome and compassion.

In part this is driven by the notion, which we have heard many times from senior officials on Samos, that a humanitarian embrace of the arrivals would make Samos attractive and encourage more refugees to come over from Turkey. We heard exactly the same sentiments expressed in Hamburg in the 1980s when we visited the converted factories which housed refugee families for up to 5 years in the most appalling overcrowded and dismal conditions. It was important we were told that the message gets back up the line to intending refugees that this was what they could expect. Don’t come! It was the same logic used by the British government in its support for reducing the Italian led Mare Nostrum rescue initiative in the Mediterranean. If the journey was made in the knowledge that there would be less chance of rescue and hence more danger then it would discourage refugees from attempting the journey. It is certainly reflected in the total silence of the system with respect to safe passage across the Aegean from Turkey to Samos. The ferries between the islands and Turkey are now operating again. And yet again they are not allowed to carry refugees.

The system knows all too well that making refugee journeys dangerous and making reception facilities ugly and oppressive has no deterrent impact. This is a known truth across the globe. We are now witnessing sometimes over a thousand people a week drowning in the crossings to Europe, especially from Libya. We are seeing new and more dangerous routes opening up between Turkey and Crete and so it will go on. Knowing that cruel deterrence does not work makes the system’s policies all the more toxic and vile. It simply doesn’t care how many refugees perish. After all they are refugees and not passengers on some missing airliner.

Fewer in Number But Still They Come

There are many factors at play in the recent marked reduction in the refugee flow to the Greek islands since March 20th. Some we can only guess at, as there is, as ever, a marked lack of reliable information about what is going on over in Turkey. So we hear many different accounts from the refugees which include more push backs by the Turkish coastguards, and a reduction in the number of smugglers so making it more difficult to find transport but we have no idea if this because the smugglers are lying low at this time, or if they have moved their operations. We also hear of increased police and army patrols on the Turkish side. Inevitably the closing and militarisation of the land borders out of Greece making the country a prison trapping tens of thousands of refugees, especially the old and the young is leading refugees to forge new roads to Europe avoiding Greece.

Amongst the refugees who have arrived on Samos since the end of March there have been well over 300, nearly all young men, from Pakistan, Morocco and Algeria. All of whom paid between 600 and 1700 Euros to make the dangerous sea passage to Samos on top of all their other costs in getting here. Under the EU/Turkey pact these refugees are considered to be ‘economic migrants’ and prime candidates for immediate deportation back to Turkey, and indeed the majority of those who have been returned are overwhelmingly from these countries. Yet still they come and take enormous risks and confront such hardship whilst they are detained.

It is clear from some of those we have talked with that there is little interest in the details of the latest policies and practices. The system, as they say, is always against them, always interested in stopping them, hassling them in whatever ways it can. This is how it is. Amongst many of the young men we find a determination and a confidence that whatever the barrier they will find a way around. Hundreds of thousands have gone before them, breaking through borders and barriers. OK it might be more difficult now but it is not impossible. Refugees are still making it out of Samos and Greece despite the pact, including our friend Mamoud who left here in April and is now in France. And the choice becomes less crazy when the refugees see the chaos and confusions in the hotspots across Greece. To date only a tiny fragment of asylum applications have been processed in the whole of Greece since the end of March. There are over 7,000 refugees who are still waiting to just make an asylum application. There are around 55,000 refugees stuck in Greece. Just how long is it feasible to hold people in the hotspots as they wait for their cases to be considered?

One of the loudest complaints of the refugees is that they are left in the dark with no information. But there is no information to give. The Greek asylum system generally is in chaos. The authorities running the hotspots don’t know when they are going to get the lawyers and judges necessary for this new system to function. In the Samos hotspot it appears from a question in the Athens parliament this week that there is only ONE person working on the asylum applications!

For months now statements in the local media make grand announcements about the resources that are going to come to Samos. In March we were informed that 500 jobs were to be created in the hotspot which would constitute the biggest job creation project since the Greek crisis started in earnest over 6 years ago. New and better accommodation cabins for the camp were on their way as well as lawyers and asylum experts from across Europe (2,300 of them for the Greek islands). But virtually nothing has arrived apart from more police and Frontex people. And this has been the pattern for years now on Samos. Lots of talk and declarations and then nothing unless it involves security and barbed wire.

Pact Under Pressure

The pact can only work if Turkey is accepted as a safe country for deported refugees. Much to the dismay of the EU authorities, Greece has not endorsed Turkey as a ‘blanket’ safe country and the judges on the panels which hear appeals when asylum is not granted, are insisting that every case for deportation has to be considered on a case by case basis. This completely goes against the plan to deport the majority of new arrivals as rapidly as possible with Turkey established as one of the gateways into Europe. According to the Greek newspaper, Ekathimerini (7th June):

“Fears are rising about the possible breakdown of a deal between the European Union and Turkey for the return of migrants after legal committees in Greece upheld dozens of appeals by refugees against their deportation. By late Monday, Greek appeals committees had ruled in favour of 35 refugees, ruling that Turkey is “an unsafe country.” Only two rulings overturned appeals by refugees against their deportation.”

The pact may fall not simply as a result of whether Turkey gets what it wants (visas and cash) but from within Europe itself. The EU seems (thankfully) incapable of being able to implement its policies and unable to mobilise its collective resources. There is little solidarity between the member states and each is now making its own arrangements irrespective of the wider consequences. One of which appears to be turning countries such as Greece and Italy into giant holding camps for refugees.There are endless examples of these failures including the intention that all newly arriving refugees are to be kept on the frontier islands and not be allowed to move onto the mainland. This is an important aspect of their policy as the Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, noted in an interview on June 5th:

“A refugee, who stays on an island like the [the Greek island of] Lesbos with no chance of receiving asylum, will be more willing to return voluntarily, as someone who has moved into an apartment in Vienna or Berlin.” (

But the hotspots are already massively overcrowded and all new arrivals add to that pressure. Drip by drip and as each day passes the pressure grows. It is not sustainable.

Desperation and Hope

The European authorities constantly fail to grasp that the overwhelming majority of refugees are desperate to find a safe home again. It is desperation that drives them onto the road away from their countries and to make life threatening journeys. And it is often hope that pushes them towards Europe. They may find their final destinations difficult but as yet there are no bombs dropping on Berlin or Munich. Moreover Europe projects itself to the rest of the world not only as a place of peace but also as highly civilised, democratic, protective, governed by the rule of law, justice and so on. A place of refuge, a place where they might live again. Imagine then arriving on such hallowed ground and then being treated as less than human, let alone as a refugee fleeing war and danger; it is quite literally gob-smacking for many refugees. But they don’t relent because they believe that their claims for refuge are un-impeachable and it is almost inconceivable that Europe will not eventually concede and rescue them from the hotspots on the islands. When nothing of the sort happens so their rage (and depression for some) grows and more and more we hear them resort to their very basic demand of “We are human”.

Boiling Over

This rage is going to escalate. For the refugees trapped for months in the hotspot on Samos the Camp is a pressure cooker as we have recounted in earlier articles. Overcrowded, starved of information, having no idea when their lives might resume, treated like dirt, bored out their heads, surviving on pathetic food feeds frustration. Daily fights break out inside the camp as these emotions boil over. But the press only report the big fights such as the one which erupted during the late evening of June 2nd when two of the cabins were burnt down and 7 refugees required hospitalisation. The mainstream media report these more spectacular fights where refugees are injured but they never provide any context so encouraging the belief that this is how refugees are – violent, unpredictable, excitable…. Whereas it is the Camp and its cruelties and inadequacies which are responsible for these tensions. And they are not episodic incidents as the press would have us believe. They are happening every day.

Tourism has collapsed on Samos this summer. It is catastrophic for the island as tourism is such an important part of the local economy. With almost no exception the refugees on Samos have been identified as the reason for this disaster. Visiting government ministers, the mayor, the regional prefect, the hotel associations, the lawyers and so on all point the finger at the refugees and the highly reported explosions in the camp play into this story. Refugees are to be feared because they are dangerous, they fight, they steal, they spread diseases, they sexually harass women; all of which are said to be almost unknown amongst the locals on Samos (Samos Bar Association, 4th June). The local elites then seem disturbed when they find their accounts being publicised in the media especially in countries like Germany and Holland which are traditionally big markets for Samos tourism. It is not the reality here which keeps tourists away because there are no hordes of refugees wandering the streets; there are no outbreaks of dangerous diseases; there is no violence outside of the Camp and it is a lie to suggest that everyone on the island is being badly affected by the presence of the refugees. But this myth making which has become the main tactic of the local establishment when begging for funds from Athens and Brussels has back-fired badly. It is the authorities here which are largely responsible for feeding the media’s one-eyed reporting of the situation on Samos, not the refugees.

New Anxieties

They talk rubbish but it is dangerous for here in Greece it can only be a matter of time before fascist parties such as Golden Dawn begin to exploit this manufactured unease with a vengeance. Only yesterday we heard that far right groups were attacking refugees on Chios. And across Europe as a whole we are seeing attacks on refugees increasing.

We are also seeing new areas of deep concern and anxiety emerging as refugees on Samos are hearing more and more from their friends and families in northern Europe about the huge delays and bureaucracy associated with family re-unification. For many family re-unification was both their dream and their expectation when making their escape to Europe. In all the main receiving countries family reunification procedures are becoming increasingly complex and bureaucratic and lasting from anything between 2 and 3 years. It is a new form of torture with unendurable delays. There is increasing refugee testimony that these barriers are a major influence as to why 37,000 refugees sought voluntary return to their countries from Germany in the past year. Stories such as the one we heard from northern Germany this week where the parents are separated from their 2 daughters in one part of Germany and their son in another, and after 8 months are still no nearer to being united are becoming more common place and provoking deep unease amongst the refugees here.

But it is not just family re-unification which is bothering the refugees. Statewatch, an excellent source of information on refugees, posted the following this week:

As reported by Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW), an interior ministry report based on March 31 data shows there were over 219,000 migrants set to be expelled from Germany. Almost 168,000 of them had been issued the so-called Duldung (tolerance) permits, allowing them to stay in the country until obstacles for their deportation are cleared. The remaining 51,000, however, were to be expelled as soon as possible.”

On the basis of these numbers alone, it would seem that the number one destination country (Germany) for the refugees coming through Samos, does not look so promising.

Being Forgotten

On Samos we need to make sure that the refugees in the Camp are not forgotten. So much of the system’s agenda is played out in and by the mainstream media. But what often gets neglected is the impact of its episodic coverage. A classic example are the ‘missing’ 10,000 refugee children within Europe which Europol revealed in January 2016. For a few days this was news. Since then virtually nothing. They are off the agenda. 10,000 or more children missing and so little attention. It is extraordinary. It takes no imagination to know that if these were British or French children it would be a very different story.

On Samos if there is nothing dramatic to report or to film there is no media coverage. Once off the pages of papers and dropped from the news bulletins it is as if the issue has simply gone away. So although the refugees are not coming now in great numbers we have in our midst a Camp holding over 1000 refugees in conditions which defy any meaning of humanity and solidarity. To live with this tumor in our midst is distressing in the extreme for both the refugees and many islanders. How do you relax over a coffee with friends in the centre of Samos town when you know that less than 1 km away is a Camp where people are frightened and treated worse than any animal on this continent?

We are like many other people on Samos. We want to shout out to the people of Europe and the World. Look at what is happening. Find out. Learn and act. To be silent is to be compliant. The system is foul and dangerous and criminal. It will not reform itself. Only the people of the world, acting as human beings can make the changes so desperately needed.

Revealing Truths: Talking with Refugees in Samos

The term ‘the system’ is one we have come across many times when talking with refugees and with poor people in many places and in various countries. It refers to the ways in which people understand the world and their place in it. It is also a description of the world in which they live under the gaze of teachers, police, social workers, border guards, prison officers, NGOs, bosses and supervisors and so on. It is the system that watches and humiliates and as one young Syrian refugee told us, it celebrates and feeds on wars. “Always war“ he said. “If it is not shooting you in your body, it is trying to destroy your brain and always shoots at our pockets.”

“We are used and abused by the system. The same system that has corrupted north Africa and so many other countries as well, and made it impossible to stay there with any life and freedom is here in Europe. I feel like there are lots of people and organisations living off my back as a refugee. I am being used all the time to make money by big organisations. I know that they get money to look after us. But where does it go. Why don’t we see it?”

His friend, another Moroccan student added; “the system tries to fuck us all the time. It wants to make decisions for all of us but shares nothing. It cares for money and control and not about us. Never. It fights humanity. It wants to destroy humanity. And they call this real life and democracy! Fuck them. “

“Why does this system trouble us so much?”

To which a local from Samos replied that he too was being screwed in his own country and that he too was suffering; “in this situation we must never blame each other. They want us to fight each other.” He continued, “I want to help the refugees here but there is so little I can do even to help myself.”

It was during this conversation that Imad from Algeria took out a paper and drew a pyramid. The top of the pyramid was not connected to the bottom three quarters of the pyramid. PyramidThe gap in between was bridged by a single ladder. And in the top piece Imad drew a giant eye. Hundreds of tiny pyramids filled the bottom three quarters “This is how I see the system. We the people live in the bottom part controlled by a few at the top. They have a giant eye which looks down on us and is always looking for ways to make money. To get out of the bottom part and into the top they have put a single ladder which only allows one person to pass at a time. There are 6 billion of us trying to get to that ladder. It’s chaos at the bottom of the ladder. At the same time they want us to be controlled by the tiny pyramids all around us – schools, police, army…- We are now governed by people we never know or even see.”


Ask about the chief characteristic of the system and the conversation moves to discussions about humanity and inhumanity. These are the most common terms used. Basically the system is seen as lacking humanity and for many it is seen as being actively against humanity. It is cruel on every issue. What, as one Pakistani male refugee asked us can be more inhumane than making and stockpiling nuclear weapons? Or weapons of any kind, said another. Those who hold power simply don’t care about the lives of the majority. They never say simple things like lets help each other. They never stand with people who face difficulties. If they become rich they turn their backs and get to the front. But what saddened many in these discussions was the way in which the system tried and succeeded in dividing people; making people afraid of one another which “makes us forget to trust in each other”. “So many of us end up living in fear”.

The system is global. It touches everyone and everywhere. It has no nationality although some places like the USA, Europe, Russia and China, they tell us have been and continue to be powerful in its shaping. But from Morocco to Iraq, Algeria to Somalia, Yemen to Pakistan we hear the same kinds of stories of a system that only cares for the few and seems to hate the many. Theft of income from national resources takes place on a monumental scale. The people see these grand corruptions regularly go unpunished. It is a system where bribery is part of its blood system. In Algeria it is commonly understood that the bigger the theft the bigger the reward. But thieve a loaf of bread and prison waits. Respect for the law is a joke, for all the laws are made to protect the powerful. They are not our laws, we are told time and again.

Many of the refugees we have met come from countries with rich natural resources the most important being at this time oil and gas but also including a wide number of valuable minerals (gold for example in the case of Libya). This is not however a common treasury for the people but the ‘honey pots’ for which the system will happily bomb and destroy a country in order to keep them for themselves. “To have oil or gas brings big problems to our country. I wish we had beans instead” one Iraqi told us.

Shameless looting for private gain is how local elites sustain their lavish life-styles amidst widespread poverty. “They call themselves Algerian but they don’t live here like us. They have houses in France and the US. They can go anywhere. Not like us” (Imad). Some weeks ago Mamoud had told us that his home city in Punjab had an international airport for the exclusive use of the local rich and businesses. “Its full of private jets. I think most of the time they are used to take people shopping in the Gulf states or to sex resorts like Agadir in Morocco. We can’t use the airport”.

robbersThey are right of course to see how big money talks. When we tell them that the UK government fast tracks permanent residency permits for anyone prepared to invest 1.5million pounds in the UK they smile knowingly. Now Greece is also promising the same, although given the crisis here, the price is much lower at 250,000 Euros. No detention camps for the rich! Nor rubber boats and border controls either!

Whilst many we have talked with see wealth as theft – to become rich means making someone else poor – these discussions with refugees are often much more nuanced and influenced by the Islamic practice of zakat. “Zakat literally means “that which purifies”.Zakat is considered a way to purify one’s income and wealth from sometimes worldly, impure ways of acquisition. According to Murata and Chittick, ” just as ablutions purify the body and salat purifies the soul so zakat purifies possessions and makes them pleasing to God” (Wikipedia).  Zakat is essentially an annual religious tax of 2.5% of your assets above a set minimum which is then distributed to the poor. It is a serious obligation according to Islam and failure to pay zakat will weigh heavily against you at the time of judgement. Practices and amounts vary from place to place but it is estimated that zakat raises around (US)$200 billion a year which is 1.5 times the annual global humanitarian aid contributions. As a result many refugees from Moslem majority countries, whilst utterly rejecting wealth acquired through corruption and looting are more likely to judge the wealthy by what they do with their money rather than with uncompromising hostility. We have been given many examples of how zakat contributions can be critical to well being and provide valuable help to the poor including many in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.’ Needless to say zakat in reality is more uneven in its practice. But it does mean that a crucial humanitarian notion of obligation to the poor and the vulnerable is part of every day discussions about wealth and its meaning for society, which is now totally absent in much of the West.


In the summer of 2015 we happened to come across 44 refugees who had just landed from the usual unsafe and overloaded rubber inflatable. These are very emotional moments as the refugees are washed with relief at having made it without injury or loss of life as well as coming to terms with the terror they had just experienced. There is sobbing and laughter and all places in between. In this instance a brilliant MSF nurse once he had checked all was well got out his accordion and began to play folk dance music. The joy was explosive as we danced and hugged one another. It was amazing to see the transformation in all of us. No common spoken language but an elemental human connection crossing all barriers and bringing us together.

The system might have set its face against humanity but this is not true for vast numbers of people as we have seen so often especially in the past 18 months. But we should not be confused by the mainstream media’s celebration of the heroic efforts of so called ‘ordinary’ people embracing the refugees which has encouraged a view that this response was exceptional, unusual and unexpected. The truth is that human solidarity has always been central to the survival and well being of the poor. It happens all the time and continues to be a source of enormous joy and strength. It forms the protective shield which ensures that the system never crushes us all; that informs the bloody mindedness of the Berber insistence that “we never give up” and “never surrender”. As one Berber refugee from north Africa told us, the system “might get me but there are millions more behind me”. Similar processes and systems are evident daily amongst the local people of Samos who have seen their island destroyed by austerity and poverty. The daily patterns of life here are shaped by countless forms of solidarity (often family based) which directly confronts austerity with a ‘fuck you’ mentality. At the same time there has been the constant drum beat of the system here on Samos which blames the refugees for the collapse of tourism this year. It drips like acid trying to corrode our humanity.

Even so these solidarities provide or at least point to a vision of a society which gives hope. When we hear some of the refugees attacking the system we also hear them saying “it does not need to be like this” and most importantly we could do it much better. We have heard many refugees  tell us how their neighbourhoods which have been abandoned by the state manage themselves without the drama and theatrics of the system. It is not difficult therefore to understand why so many refugees say that they just want the system to let them be: get out of our lives; you only bring us difficulties and humiliations. Let us be so we can sort ourselves out. The millions of euros you spend on managing and controlling us bring only benefits to the system. Give us this money to make a fresh start in Europe and you will see what we can achieve for ourselves and in our new homes. “Stop making decisions for us. You never ask us what we want”. It is the same with many of the NGOs and human rights groups. “They claim to represent our interests. I never gave them this right”. “All their vests, jeeps, offices, workers, flags and logos are paid for from our backs. How does this help us?”

Open Eye Kitchen Samos

Open Eyes Balkan Route Kitchen, Samos

These discussions on Samos at least, were sharpened by the refugees’ experience of the two (No Borders and Open Eyes) kitchens which fed them for over 5 months. The contrast with the NGOs could not have been greater. The kitchens operated and functioned in total solidarity with the refugees. They became the only safe refugee places on the island where people could gather to drink tea, talk, play chess and share information. The food was prepared and cooked with the refugees. Preparing, cooking and then eating the meals was done with respect and dignity and had none of the frenzied, chaotic and inhumane characteristics common within the Camp. Moreover, the volunteers who established and managed the kitchens were in undivided solidarity with the refugees. Unlike most of the other NGO workers who have tight gagging clauses in their contracts which compels them to be silent, the Kitchen volunteers would not tolerate such limitations. The kitchens demonstrated the effectiveness of solidarity and humanity. They stood outside of the system and shared with refugees their disdain for what it does and what it stands for. ‘The system is just not capable of doing good. It needs to destroyed it cannot be reformed’.

Refugees preparing food at No Borders Kitchen, Samos

Refugees preparing food at No Borders Kitchen, Samos

This is but one example from Samos but there are countless others across the globe. Even in the most miserable places such as Idomeni and Calais we have seen refugees create in self managed camps schools, health centres, clubs, libraries, shops, bathing facilities and systems of mutual support which have made life bearable. Little wonder they resist being moved into the camps/ prisons run by the system. We do not lack for inspiration if we know where to look. Health programmes, schools, farming, and more, for the people and by the people based on solidarity and humanity shows us again and again how we can do things better and bring joy rather than misery to many people.

Listen to Us. Talk with Us!

But as some of the refugees we have met told us, so much about their lives and experiences are unknown to the majority of people. ‘They don’t know the difficulties we face neither the ways in which we survive as human beings and resist the attempts of the system to destroy us’. Because people are now so divided and separated in the places where they live, “things happen” which never get reported in the press or the TV. “In my neighbourhood in Algiers it is only poor people. Until we organised, the police were disturbing us every day. Many of them were violent. They came in the night. Broke our doors and messed our homes. This was happening all the time. But who knew? We did but we don’t count. There were no controls for the police. They knew they could batter us and they wouldn’t be stopped. That’s why we had to do something.”

Imad’s understanding can be applied to a huge array of the system’s operations. Take for example the on-going state of emergency in France. It is we are told a ‘popular’ policy gaining something like 91% approval ratings in opinion polls. But what of those who live in segregated minority communities who face the entire brunt of the police’s hugely extended powers to raid their homes and neighbourhoods without limit. (The French state announced to the Council of Europe on November 27th its decision to contravene the European Convention on Human Rights). Who apart from the British Moslem communities knows of the impact of the so called anti-radicalisation PREVENT policy which has now enlisted virtually every state worker (teachers, doctors, nurses, university staff…..) in the surveillance of young Moslems, looking out for signs of so-called terrorist contamination? And so it will continue as long as most of the population never get to see, let alone experience the negative consequences. As one young Moroccan refugee told us, “it is us today. But tomorrow?”

no-jungle-1401There are many good reasons why we should listen when refugees tells us that the world should start to look and learn from poor and the oppressed. Humanity, solidarity, care and compassion alongside a boiling fury at a system with stands against all these principles ran through our discussions. And it should be added, there is usually a lot of laughter too. The system is crazy they say. Just look at its response to the refugees – militarised borders, razor wire, prisons and closed camps, drones and navy patrols and no end to the bombing and destruction of our lands. It can only succeed by total destruction. “Do you believe that this system loves you? I tell you that this system is lying to you and using you against us, the refugees So we keep drowning. “We must not co-operate at all. We must never give up on our humanity !”

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