What we witness in Samos is not unique. There are many borderlands where exactly the same things are happening. Official refugee policies and practices are now in the language of security and warfare and not welfare and care. People searching for safety and a future in Greece and Europe are hounded, robbed, abused, killed, criminalised, and humiliated.
Whatever they might say about respecting human rights the overwhelming majority of the states in the rich world are continuing to build a military style response to a humanitarian disaster. The resources being deployed by nation states and confederations such as the EU far outweigh those of the refugees and those who live from the trafficking. Thermal imaging, sophisticated surveillance systems, more armed patrol boats, drone deployment and so on continue to surge as resources are poured in to stem the ‘tide’ of refugees. None of this is being implemented with the intent to save lives. A consortium of 10 European journalists using the data base, ‘The Migrant Files, concluded that more than 23,000 people have died as a consequence of the militarisation of the external EU border since 2000.
The refugees still come to Samos in inflated rubber dinghies wearing life jackets. No change there. But their journeys to islands such as Samos are now more dangerous and more expensive. Now they have to travel in darkness or when the weather and sea conditions give them a chance to get to the Samos coast. For some this is their last journey.
The Detention Centre
It is not surprising that the numbers of refugees coming to Samos this year have sharply risen. The militarisation of the land border with Turkey to the north made it a certainty that Greek islands close to the Turkish coast would see more refugees. Coming to Greece through Turkey remains a major route for those fleeing the horrors of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan as well as from Somalia and Eritrea. As one border area hardens up another opens.
The numbers coming to Samos have increased this year. 3,000 so far which is over double last year’s figure. Worldwide, refugees have soared to over 50 million; the highest ever recorded. What we see in Samos is just one tiny trickle. The vast majority of refugees are either displaced in their own lands or are living in overcrowded refugee camps in nearby countries. This is the case for Pakistan and Turkey for example. The numbers matter only because it tells us which peoples are facing the greatest challenges. Of course they are the poorest usually in the most impoverished countries.
Other than that the numbers should not be an issue. Refugees are people, our fellow human beings. They have been hurt and are still hurting. They come to us for refuge. But what do they get when they arrive at the borders of Europe? Why we ask is this allowed to happen?
Samos Detention Centre
As we write the Detention Centre in Samos Town where those who make it are locked up as they wait to be processed by the legal system, is in crisis. The caged compound was built for around 280 people and now it has over 650 refugees crammed in.
We were shocked to see so many people crowded in the camp when we visited earlier this week. Standing by the gate on the inside of the camp was a family of 6 from Afghanistan. 4 young girls with their mum and dad. Why is this family being held in this locked cage? Why are they processed as criminals and not as refugees? This is not right.
The camp is overwhelmed. The police guy who let us in was upset that they had no pampers for the 16 babies now in the camp. He brought in what he could but it was not enough. The babies don’t need clothes in this heat; they need pampers, he told us. We have little chance to mix with the refugees as we are taken into the administration/medical/welfare building. Here the same desperation amongst the doctors, psychologist, translators as we saw at the gate. They were overwhelmed by the numbers and the needs of those in the camp. It seemed that whoever was responsible for funding the Detention Centre made no allowances for the presence of babies. So no pampers and no baby milk. The same applied to sanitary towels and shampoo. There is money for drone patrols but nothing for pampers.
The stress of the camp workers cannot be compared to that of the refugees locked in the Centre. But it needs acknowledging that there are some who work in these places who care deeply and who know first hand about the inhumanity of the system. They live more closely with the refugees than most other groups of state workers. They can see what is going on; they see pain and trauma. Such workers should not be overlooked.
But as the refugees testify in endless reports, there are also other inhumane and cruel people working in the systems that try to keep them out.
Such are the current pressures in the Centre that the head of the Samos police responsible for refugees went public with his letter to the Chief of Greek Police on August 4th talking of the pressures on a few staff and the negative impact on all those in the Centre including the detainees. “Therefore please send a sufficient number of police officers(at least 70 people in total) which will manage the huge volume of incoming illegal immigrants, as well as logistical support (vehicles, device fingerprinting, magnetic gate machine X-ray) to facilitate police work, before [we] end up in unpleasant situations for us all. “
The needs of the refugees were not central to his appeal. It will be interesting to see how the Greek chief of police will respond. In December 2013, Amnesty reported his comment that “we must make their [refugees] lives intolerable” .
Nevertheless, there is also something very wrong when many of the refugees in Samos’ very own Guantanamo Bay, are probably better off there than outside the locked gates. For many refugees in Greece the walls of the prison extend far beyond the fences of the Detention Centres.
It is rarely a walk to freedom when the gates open to let you out. Most will leave with papers that have refused them permission to remain and apply for asylum. Instead, they have a paper which gives them 30 days to leave Greece. Many will try. But not through the ‘normal’ channels since they have been refused papers that would allow them to travel further into Europe. They have to go underground, to pay for guides and ID papers that will get them across borders to their final destinations. Some will get stuck in Athens mostly because they have run out of money to buy into the escape networks. Some of these are big businesses now. When you are on the streets extreme vigilance is needed to escape police harassment and incarceration in appalling conditions for 18 months at a stretch.
Many of the refugees leave for Athens full of hope. We fear for them.
Refugees and Samos
A German TV reporter this week wanted our views on the refugee situation on Samos. He wanted to know about the ‘dark side’ of this beautiful Aegean island that just happens to be one of the gateways into Europe for people fleeing from the horrors of Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea in particular. There is a dark side but it belongs to us all and not just Samos. As we have already said, there are many places in the world like Samos, where fundamental human rights are being daily trampled on in the attempt to keep refugees out. This is the fully conscious policy framework of the Greek state and the EU. It is criminal. Then there are the catastrophes that have befallen people in their home countries which precipitates refugee journeys. Catastrophes which in many cases have been the direct consequences of the policies of the very states which now want to keep them out. And if not states, they face multi national conglomerates that plunder the material resources of the Southern world with such fateful consequences for the poor who live there. These are issues which go far beyond Samos’ reach but they also affect the island.
We gave as one example the way in which people on Samos have been made afraid to have any direct contact with refugees even those in trouble. Two friends were discussing whether to get a more powerful outboard motor so they could go out to help when refugees were in difficulty. They had realised during the tragedy in May 2014 when over 20 refugees died in the sea close to their home that if they had had a better engine they could have gone out to rescue people. But in the end they said they wouldn’t. They were sure that they would be arrested for helping refugees (i.e. as traffickers). They would lose their boat certainly and maybe their business. And this not a fanciful fear. This happens.
There is something sick about a country where the government has made many people afraid to be human. Hospitality to strangers is a strong sentiment in Greek popular consciousness and it is now being attacked in a very cruel way. The drum beat of the refugee threat is strong in the mainstream media here. The state here exploits and uses that drumbeat with its threat of punishing those who reach out to refugees. It is also gives a dreadful impunity to those state agencies directly involved with stemming the so called tide of refugees.
Separation and Division
There is little direct contact between the refugees and the islanders. The Detention Centre is not far from the centre of Samos Town but isolated at the end of a small track. It cannot be seen from the centre of Samos town. It might be only 3 km from the town but for most islanders it could be on another planet. It is prison after all and who visits prisons out of choice?
When the refugees have been processed at the camp they are taken directly to the port to be put on the ferry to Pireaus.
The majority of the refugees who make it to Samos move on to Athens as soon as they are released from detention. For them Samos is no more than an entry point into Europe Their final destinations are elsewhere, usually where they have relatives or where there are already settled communities from their home countries. Very few ever settle on Samos and then usually because they find it easier to be stuck here than in Athens.
The Samos media routinely report on the daily arrests of the arrivals but with never a question about the criminalisation of refuge or why it is that the police have such a prominent role in the process. Do they think we are all stupid? It is blindingly obvious what is needed. When we talk of refugees we are speaking of our fellow human beings who need to be embraced and welcomed. Is this is what we are doing when we build detention centres and use agencies such as the police, Frontex and the rest?
Absolutely nothing is reported about the daily life and routines of the Centre: the boredom, the lack of any reading materials in Arabic, the overcrowding, lack of clothes and basic things as shampoo, sanitary towels and pampers. Deaths at sea do get coverage (usually with a stress on the heroic efforts of the border guards to save lives). But only on the activist blogs and through groups such as Amnesty International do we ever hear the voices of the refugees themselves. Their stories are all different with much sadness in them but the same themes and questions emerge. “Why are we treated like this when we come to Greece and Europe? ‘Animals are cared for better than us here!’ ‘We are not criminals’. ‘They just don’t care about us. I could never imagine this’ “…..
And amidst these nightmares will be stories of the solidarities that grow between the refugees. Deep and lasting relationships that keep them going both now and in the future. It is a necessary wealth, but wealth it is and far better than anything coming from the authorities.
Hunger Strike, Samos Detention Centre 2010
There are many reasons why it is in the interest of the state to try and create as much ideological and physical distance as possible between the refugees and the local people. It is much easier to be harsh towards refugees if they can persuade the people that refugees are not only a danger to our way of life (culturally, medically, socially etc.) but that they are in the final analysis not the same sort of people as ourselves. Give a millimetre of ground to these lies and all of us in time will feel the inhuman consequences. Such a position partly depends on ignorance and separation. This is something we can all do something about. Don’t be in a position of not knowing what is going on. We have a personal responsibility to find out and there are plenty of places to look for your answers.
One thing is for sure and that is refugee stories connect deeply with many Greeks. They know much about corrupt states and systems of government; of rampant Mafioso style politics which enriches a few at the expense of us all; impunity for the powerful and terror and prisons for the poor. .Greeks also know much about the relationship between refugees and corrupt governments and state terror. From the massive ‘transfer’ of Greeks from Turkey in 1922 refugee flows continued in different but equally brutal ways during much of the last century. It includes the Axis occupation, the Civil War through to the Junta. Today we have austerity and the Troika and again Greeks are leaving their country searching for jobs and income. They may have papers that allow them to travel to places not open to refugees on the streets of Athens or in camps like on Samos, but they too are leaving in sadness and away from their homes and everyday life.
This week a family of five will be leaving Ambelos for Germany. There is sure to be singing and music to help their journey away from the village they love and where they want to live. But they can’t survive here any more. Last week at the Detention Camp we watched a group being loaded into the mini buses to take them to the ferry. Above them and behind the wire was a ‘choir’ of young people singing to wish them farewell and luck. It was solidarity music. We cried as we listened to the refugees in the camp sing farewell as we cry for our friends who are leaving the village.
It is humanity which binds us together. We can see it in many places and at many times. People all over the world are crying now as they see Israeli missiles and bombs tear into Gaza. We feel their pain. We connect with them not as Palestinians but as fellow human beings who are being slaughtered and terrorised. This is why hundreds of thousands have marched again on the streets of cities across the world during this latest Israeli onslaught. It is but one expression of humanity’s outrage. Yet in Greece, and certainly in Samos, there is no corresponding outrage when it comes to the refugees even when its own recent history would suggest otherwise.
Those in power have always and will always try to divide humanity. It is one of their levers of power. The outrageous treatment of refugees trying to get into Europe is part of a war against humanity. It is no side show.
Austerity and Depression
As we told the German TV reporter, there is much depression on Samos today after 6 years of austerity with still no signs of a recovery that will bring back jobs and wages. Nor is there any sense that deep rooted systems of corruption in the society have been removed. We might have our beautiful nature, weather and sea, but there is also gloom and despair here. Austerity, like the refugee issues here are like ever present shadows.
One consequence of this depression is that there are very few refugee activists or groups on Samos at the moment. In the recent past there was more activism. But in our opinion this current situation is very much connected to the impact of austerity and not a reflection of anti-refugee feelings. It is hard to think about helping others when you yourself are struggling to get by. But when asked directly for clothes and shoes to take to the centre the response is always generous. Many people here tell us that they want to do something but they don’t know what. This is a pressing challenge for us in Samos.
It is not good that here in Samos too few people seem to know what is going on their midst. Surely it cannot be down to the damage it might cause Samos’ ailing tourist industry although that might be one factor for tour operators. Sharing a beach with refugees is probably not going to attract many to holiday here. The daily sea patrols on the north coast, the Guantanamo styled detention centre, the debris of slashed up rubber dinghies and life jackets, the groups of refugees making their way in the early mornings to the authorities in Samos Town are all unavoidable aspects of Samos life today.
How do we get people to recognise their responsibility to learn about what is happening on their island and often in their name? Our activity must provide immediate help to refugees as well as pressing for the kind of world in which the needs of the majority are at the centre. We need to learn from other places such as Lesvos where activists in ‘The Village All Together’ group have done so much to help refugees and never relented from attacking the authorities both in Greece and elsewhere who are responsible for so much suffering (see http://lesvos.w2eu.net/files/2013/03/pikpa-Kopie-28-klein.pdf). This dual approach is crucial.
They Don’t Give a Damn
But we also need to think about what to do when we know full well that the powerful whether in government, state offices or corporations don’t give a damn for the majority. The world they have created is rotten and damaging. They might talk up their actions and agencies in high sounding words like democracy and human rights. But this is no more than theatre. Their actions, policies and history tell a very different tale. It seems ridiculous to expect anything positive from that quarter. Sure, we will use their high blown sentiments against them to expose their hypocrisies. Sure we will continue to exploit all those loop holes in their systems that might bring about some help for the people. And we should do so knowing full well that any concessions will be conditional and subject to removal at a moment’s notice. But expect the existing power systems to change themselves in favour of humanity: Never! They need to go and they have no right at all to be involved in any future social developments.
And in Greece, last week’s court judgement acquitting those who shot into the crowds of strawberry pickers – wounding 35 workers – demanding their back wages of 6 months is a clear reminder of what we can expect from the Law!
Refugees also expect nothing good from the authorities. They too expect nothing from state justice. Their resistance and their survival is rooted in solidarity. It is not always easy to achieve and maintain. But in the end that is what gets you by. Keeps you going. It is full of humour too.
Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones