Monthly Archives: May 2015

Bleak Times for Refugees on Samos

There have been a number of meetings in the past 2 weeks in response to the increased numbers of refugees – mainly from Syria but also from Afghanistan and Africa – coming to Samos. Sadly but not surprisingly these meetings have been mostly disappointing and are unlikely to lead to any positive action. For the refugees already here and those who will be coming over the summer months the prospects look very bleak. At the time of writing there are around 500 refugees in the Detention Centre including over 20 young children. Last week the number was over 700. This is in a centre which was built to accommodate 250 people. In August 2014 the numbers rose as high as 1,000. We know that this year the numbers will likely climb higher.

The 'camp' on Samos

The ‘camp’ on Samos

The camp, as we call the detention centre, was opened in 2007. The camp was built with funds from the EU. Its design and lay-out says much about its purpose and intent. As is clear in the photographs, the double barbed-wire fence speaks with clarity and eloquence. This is not intended to be a friendly place; a refuge, a haven, a place to rest and recover. It is a prison. It is managed by the police. It looks like Guantanamo Bay. Don’t be taken in by the fact that it has a basket ball court. Nobody plays. Balls are not allowed in the camp. But the court does get used. This is where refugees sleep when all the huts are full. There are no activities for the refugees locked in.

Samos Detention  Centre

Samos Detention Centre

For the refugees this is their first experience of Greece and of Europe.

The world wide refugee crisis embracing over 50 million people is not a catastrophe of nature. It is made by people. We can use any number of words to describe these people who benefit and profit from this crisis. Probably the best word to describe them is criminal. Their criminal activities not only produce refugees. They manufacture poverty and fear on a global scale which stalks the lives of the majority of humanity. Their extra-ordinary wealth is drenched in the blood of the many. Their mantra of all for themselves and nothing for the rest drives the ruthless exploitation of the world’s resources. It is what connects the tragedies of the refugees to all the other dramas unfolding before us – the plundering of the forests and the seas, the degradation of work, insecure and low paid jobs, the explosion in prisons and mass surveillance, endless war and massive poverty which corrodes well being and shortens life. To see the issue of refugees as somehow an isolated and particular problem misses the point and leads to strategies that will ultimately fail.

The authorities on Samos responsible for the ‘care’ of the refugees on the island are not responsible for the wars and the cruel exploitation of resources and lands which drive people to leave their homes and often their families and friends. They find themselves in situations which are not of their making.

But sadly, these authorities – the coastguards, the port police, the police in general, the public prosecutor, the Mayor of Samos, are part of the problem and are not yet any part of a solution for the refugees coming to the island. They comply with EU and nation state policies which are nothing less than cruel and inhumane. They are active in making the journey to Samos more dangerous than it need be. Our sea here holds nameless and uncounted dead in part due to their activities. Never ever have we heard them advocate safe passage. They know their push backs and patrols will never succeed in stopping the flow of refugees coming to Samos. They know however brutal they make their camps and prisons that it will not discourage the refugees. But still they persist.

We must be relentless in criticising these authorities but it is not sufficient. We must also realise that these authorities are well down the chain when it comes to why the refugees come here in the first place and why these policies have been put in place. The camps, the patrol boats, the activities of Frontex which disfigure the Greek islands close to Turkey are all consequences of an EU strategy to keep the refugees at bay. It is the same logic which drives the externalisation of the European borders. London, Berlin and Paris and the other rich capitals of north Europe want the refugees to be managed at the periphery and further beyond if possible. So millions of Syrian refugees languish in massive tented camps in Turkey and Jordan.

Our focus on Samos and to a lesser extent Athens is because we live here and not because we believe it offers any special or unique opportunities in the struggle for a better and humane world. What is being played out here has been and is being determined by forces well beyond our control. But we dig where we stand. We try to give witness in such ‘far away’ and remote places to the cruelties and inhumanities which flow as sure as night follows day from a global system that favours the few. We hope by shining a light on places that power wants to hide to influence those that read our pieces also to consider their responsibilities and also to dig where they stand. The refugees who suffer, who die, who are robbed and humiliated need you; they desperately need your solidarity and your actions to change this bloody and completely unacceptable system.

So let’s get back to Samos. Last week the Athens based head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Greece came to Samos to meet with the authorities here both to discuss the current overcrowding in the camp and the anticipated crisis as the numbers increase over the summer months. He wanted to know what preparations were being planned. From what we have learnt he went away disappointed. In terms of resources the island faces big difficulties. There is no money. This is self-evident. Samos like all of Greece is virtually bankrupt.

The police, largely through their union, have publicly proclaimed on a number of occasions that they simply don’t have sufficient staff to manage the camp. Of course, there is no argument from the police that they are inappropriate people to be doing such work in the first place. The Syriza minister responsible for refugee policy, Tasia Christodoulopou only partially grasped this fundamental problem as is demonstrated in the government’s initiative to retrain police officers for ‘humanitarian work’. In any event it seems that this action is unlikely to have any impact for as she announced in a public meeting in Athens at the beginning of May only 20 police officers from the whole of Greece have volunteered for the programme. The reason for wanting more police in the camps is so that they can process the refugees faster and get them out of the camps. This is a deeply flawed approach which will inevitably mean that the refugees will be pushed out of the camps and on to the streets of Athens. But it is a policy which does attract considerable support simply because the camps are currently so obviously awful. It is our opinion that fast tracking the processing will soon become the main approach for handling the anticipated increases in the numbers of refugees coming to the islands. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that this will be a positive development for the refugees. The streets of Athens are not good places for refugees. As we discovered this week the police’s general behaviour to the refugees in Athens has become less brutal since the Syriza victory. But the cheap hotels are now full with refugees who last year were paying 10 euros a night but are now being charged 25 euros. The refugees are being robbed. What is needed are places and camps which are managed and constructed on a completely different footing where refugees can be genuinely helped and can recover a little and be assisted on their onward journeys into Europe.

Given that Samos is in an area of active earthquakes, there are contingency plans for providing up to 400 places for victims of an earthquake. These contingency plans will not be used for the refugees. There is currently some discussion about using an empty military base near to Hora but the municipality is not happy about such a proposal believing that any additional facilities will make Samos an even more attractive destination for refugees, and that neighbouring islands would want to transfer their refugees to Samos. There is not a shred of evidence to support such assertions.

The Mayor and his colleagues are far more interested in preparing a bid to be the European Capital of Culture in 2021. (This is not a joke.) They simply do not want to think about the refugees in any positive fashion. They want them to disappear. And above all they want to keep the camp and its inmates away from the gaze of tourists. We have talked to many tourists this year and not one of them knew that Samos was one of the entry points into Europe for refugees. None knew about the deaths in the sea. None knew anything about the camp – this cancer which is just 2 kilometres from the centre of the island’s capital. This is what the municipality wants and to a considerable degree has achieved for it is not only the tourists who know nothing but also many who live here. Even the students we met last week who ‘want to do something about the refugees’ knew nothing about the camp; none had been to look and visit; they seemed genuinely surprised to hear what we told them especially, as one said, ‘I know this island and its people very well and I had no idea about this’.

The irony is that the municipality would have much to gain from embracing the refugees. The hill villages are slowly dying, more and more of the land is being abandoned, schools close for the lack of young children. This is true for much of Greece. Deaths are outnumbering births, people are leaving the country, and the population is ageing.

Without migrants from the Balkans and Albania over the past 20 years the population of the country would be falling faster than ever. Not withstanding the crisis, which makes life extremely difficult and depresses the birth rate, it is blindingly obvious that Samos and Greece more generally could benefit greatly from such an influx of largely young people. But who in their right mind would want to stay here when their first encounters with the country are so bad. And on the other hand the minds of so many Greeks have been poisoned by state sponsored propaganda that has framed refugees as wholly negative – potential jihadists, carriers of disease, the dregs of alien societies that have nothing in common with the ‘timeless civilisation’ of Greece and so on. Our colleague was on the ferry that links Lesvos, Chios and Samos with Athens. There were many refugees on board when she came to Samos and all she heard from the crew members was that they had to keep them out of the lounge areas as they were dirty and diseased and made the toilets filthy. Hardly the basis for a popular demand to embrace refugees. Yet we have no doubt whatsoever that even a quick audit of the refugees would reveal a multiplicity of talent.

So the Samos municipality hopes and prays that the refugees will stop coming to these shores. They are living in a fool’s paradise. They are not interested in finding more positive and humane options which can and do exist here and involve little expense; no interest at all in mobilising the people of the island to help with clothes, shoes or food; no interest in all in providing social and educational activities for the refugees, and of trying even modest initiatives that would help the refugees come to terms with being in Europe. Instead they want to keep the refugees locked away and out of sight especially from the gaze of tourists and the people of Samos more generally. It has no interest at all in attempting to make Samos a place where humanity means something and to burn a beacon of justice and hope in a Europe that seems to get darker and crueller by the day.

How You Can Help

Write/phone/e mail the Chief of Police and the Mayor of Samos and;

Ask them what the police and the municipality is doing to help the refugees now.

Ask them why the camp remains locked and closed.

Ask them what plans they have in place to help the refugees who will be coming to Samos in ever greater numbers this summer.

At least let them know that they can’t keep the camp and the refugees a secret, hidden away.

Demand that they press for safe passage for refugees coming to Samos from Turkey. Ferries not smugglers.

Tell them that you don’t want to swim in a sea with dead bodies or relax on beaches littered with life jackets.

Press your own governments to change EU policy and to stop funding Frontex the agency which has responsibility for patrolling the borders. This money, should be spent on care and not control.

If you come to any of the border islands of Greece demand that your airlines collect money for the refugees and make provision for you to leave clothes and shoes to be passed on to the refugees.

Go and visit the camps. You won’t get in but at least witness what is going on.

If you travel on the ferries, especially those which travel back to Pireaus from the border islands talk to the refugees who are almost certainly travelling with you.

Be imaginative. Create your own demands!

Contact Details:

Chief of Police, 129 Them Sofouli St, Samos 83100; tel (0030) 22730 87311; e mail adsamou@hellenicpolice.gr

Mayor, Michalis Angelopoulos, Town Hall, Samos Town, 83100; e mail mangel@on.gr

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Hypocrisies and Cruelties on the Frontier of Fortress Europe

Hypocrisies and Cruelties on the Frontier of Fortress Europe

Reading the mainstream press this past month is enough to make you vomit. This is always a possibility but the reactions and commentaries on the latest slaughter of the innocents in the Mediterranean and Aegean has been especially sick. Even the self proclaimed liberal newspapers such as the British Guardian publish and promote ignorance. Helena Smith, the Guardian’s reporter in Athens noted (Guardian 23 April 2015) that the migrants ‘elect’ to travel in the clapped out boats of the smugglers. No they don’t Helena. Are you stupid? You think that the refugees coming to Samos packed in rubber boats choose to come this way instead of on the daily ferry which now comes to the island from Turkey? The ferry costs about 35 euros. The refugees pay anything between 1500 and 4000 euros for the same journey. There is a safe way to come to Samos and to all the front line Greek islands that form this part of the wall to Fortress Europe (Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Rhodes ….). But let’s not talk about this. Instead the EU is now talking of bombing the smugglers in north Africa and taking military action against the smugglers wherever they are in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Frontex the private agency charged by the EU with guarding these borders has been going down this road for years. As we have said before living on Samos now means that Europeans soaking up the sun on their sunbeds do so to the sight and sounds of the militarised boats that patrol up and down our shores.

Let the refugees on the ferries and the smugglers will disappear soon enough as will the patrol boats.

Life Jackets on the beach:Samos May 2015

Life Jackets on the beach: Samos May 2015

Smugglers are not the problem. They are not primarily responsible for the problems facing the refugees. For many refugees it is only the smugglers who can get them into and then out of Greece. All other legitimate and safe channels are cut off. And for the smugglers, many of whom both in Greece and Turkey are poor and struggling, income from the refugees means that they can survive. They are not all big shots as the mainstream media would have us believe.

As one refugee who came to Samos in 2006 told us, one of the biggest changes that has taken place since he arrived has been the ways in which refugees coming to Greece now find themselves having to pay for nearly every aspect of their journey to, through and out of Greece. Virtually nothing is free. You pay to get across the sea, you pay to obtain telephone contacts of those who have information about who can move you on; who can get you papers, find you a place to stay and so on. In Greece all these activities are considered to be trafficking and can lead to long prison sentences for those caught. The prices vary according to the journey and the risks involved. In Greece many of these services are being provided by refugees who deprived of all other forms of legitimate income and assistance find that they can survive by the monies they can extract from the more recent arrivals. It is a risky business. If you are taking people clandestinely across the land borders to the north there is always the danger of violence from border patrols. It can be very dangerous.

The EU and its media give no sense to the complex realities of so called smugglers and smuggling. There are undoubtedly unscrupulous Mafia styled smugglers, often aided and abetted by coastguards and border police who for a cut of the profits allow these businesses to flourish with no fear of being caught. But many are not like this at all. We have talked to many refugees coming to the Greek islands who organised their own small boats and outboards with one of their number steering the boat. Invariably the Greek authorities arrest the person steering and charge them with smuggling. For this they are imprisoned between 15 and 25 years. Refugees have many stories of being beaten and abused to get them to testify against innocent fellow refugees the Greek authorities allege to be smugglers. But as we have seen time and again it matters little if there are no collaborative testimonies as the word of the coastguards is never challenged by the courts. In Lesbos last year activists bought to the court all the passengers in one boat who testified to the innocence of the 16 year old boy who was steering and had been charged with trafficking. It made no difference. The judge without hesitation dismissed their evidence and took the word of the coastguard. The boy was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.

But of course the mainstream media are not interested. They have readily subscribed to and reinforced the idea that refugees die in the seas because of the smugglers. The truth is elsewhere. They die because the rich countries of Europe don’t want them. They have militarised the sea borders. They have not only denied safe passage to the refugees, such as the ferries, but they have made their clandestine journeys more dangerous. The refugees who come across to Samos from Turkey do so at night, often when there is no moon and when the weather is bad and the sea is rough. The risks are multiplied. And why, because they need to evade the patrol boats of Frontex and the Greek coastguards.

Refugee Boat: Samos April 2015. Photo Maria Sevaastaki

Refugee Boat: Samos April 2015. Photo Maria Sevastaki

Summer is Coming

During the past 3 days (1-3 May 2015) 12 boats with 192 refugees were arrested coming to Samos. Over the same period 304 landed in Lesbos,182 in Chios, 104 in Oinousess, 141 in Kos and 64 in Farmakonisi. Summer is coming and with the better weather more and more refugees will be seeking entry to Europe through these islands.

Last summer was horrendous for the refugees on Samos. The detention centre here designed for 250 people was at times filled with up to 1,000 people. An inadequate water supply made the situation intolerable. Following an incident in April where a 16 year old unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan slashed his arms and set fire to the minors’ dormitory in the camp, the police union here issued a press statement to say that they were completely overwhelmed and that incidents like this were likely to become commonplace. At that time there were around 150 people locked in the camp. And today (May 4th) we have just heard that there are 750 in the camp and that it is utter chaos. Of course there are not enough beds but there are also not enough sleeping bags and blankets.

The recently elected Syriza government has made some difference. We have found that the police in the camp as well as the coastguards have been more co-operative when we have visited them. They have been prepared to let us meet and talk with some of the unaccompanied minors in the camp. They have also modified their language. Syriza has insisted that refugees are no longer to be called illegal immigrants. They are now in the process of releasing refugees from police stations and camps where some of have been detained for up to 18 months without reason. They have declared that push backs to Turkey will not be tolerated. The effectiveness of this measure is not clear as refugees are still reporting push backs. For example, a group of five refugees landing in Lesbos in the middle of April reported that they had been pushed back by coastguards from Samos prior to their journey to Lesbos. There are many local variations. On Chios for example, we learnt yesterday that you will see refugees out in the main town, some staying in hotels, and many gathering in the coffee bars. This is not the case in Samos, where the refugees are still locked away in the camp and not allowed on the streets and in the cafés.

The Syriza government is now attempting to prepare for the increased flow this summer and has asked the mayors of the country to make contingency plans identifying empty hotels, vacant military camps and other public buildings which could be used as makeshift refuges. On Samos we have no sense that such contingency plans have been drawn up. Although an emergency meeting has been called with all interested parties for Wednesday of this week to discuss what might be done. It looks too familiar; too little too late. This is so often the Samos way. The mayors as a whole in Greece have said that whilst they are sympathetic to the government’s proposals they simply have no money to do anything and that without additional funding nothing can be done.

What many activists working with refugees expect is that the main response to the unfolding crisis in the camps all along the frontier will be more rapid processing of the refugees. On Chios this is already the norm. Many of the refugees are ‘processed’ within one or two days and then given the papers they need to move onto Athens. There are many on the Left in Greece who are now demanding that Syriza closes all the detention centres and camps. But precipitate action and rapid processing without any services being put in their place is not without problems for the refugees and seems more like a policy of abandonment rather than liberation. Pushing them on to Athens means leaving many of them on the streets to manage as best they can. The fascist Golden Dawn is more than likely to benefit most from such practices should they be implemented. Much better would be the utter transformation of the camps into proper, humane reception centres where those who choose can stay and take some early steps in recovery.

Sadly, irrespective of Syriza’s undoubtedly sincere concern for refugee welfare which is in massive contrast to previous administrations, there has been little improvement in the Samos camp. The razor wire and dual fencing around the camp remains in place as do the locks on the gate. The refugees are still under the authority of the police and public prosecutor. They are processed as prisoners. So for example when we went to the camp to meet a 15 year old Afghani boy travelling with his 14 year old sister who had become separated from their mother and 2 younger siblings at the end of last year we had to remove the laces from the shoes we took them and we couldn’t give them a pencil sharpener because of its integral blade. Neither were we allowed to take them out into the town. It is almost impossible to imagine what these children have been through yet it is of no account to the authorities. They are prisoners. It’s cruel and evil. What other words can be used to describe such practices?

Why are they locked in at all? What crime have they committed to warrant such denial of liberty. Why are we buying pampas for the babies and basic hygiene materials when many of those in the camp have the means to buy these things for themselves if they were allowed to go out and shop. Why are there no activities organised in the camp? We were told that we could not bring balls into the camp as it might lead to injuries. Anyway, as the head of the reception service told us last week, there is no need for any activities as the refugees only spend a little time in the camp before moving on to Athens. But this is simply not true. Many of the unaccompanied minors spend over 4 weeks in the camp.

From what we can see the professional staff -nurse, social worker, psychologist – in the camp seem paralysed and fearful to take any initiative. They talk of being afraid of the police, of losing their job if they step out of line. They seem to have abandoned any sense of professional responsibility. According to an experienced activist who visited from Lesbos last week this is no accident. The NGOs which are commissioned to provide these services are selected because they make no fuss; they in turn appoint professional workers with the same characteristics, who are often young and fresh out of their training. Some of them are clearly frightened of the refugees and see them as intrinsically threatening. They are paid 1750 euros a month which is exceptional now in Greece. The refugees get virtually nothing from these people.

In fact these stories endlessly repeat themselves. The 2 Afghani minors told us of meeting with a lawyer in the camp who said that if their mother (now in Germany) could send him 2000 euros he could get them re-united without delay with an uncle in Athens who would then get them to their mother. There is no uncle in Athens. But this didn’t stop the kids from phoning their mum to ask her to send the money. Thankfully she refused. She realised it was a scam, but thousands of refugees are not so lucky. Undoubtedly there are some decent lawyers in Samos, as there are other professionals, but the overwhelming tales we hear are about being ripped off. Refugees are being routinely milked by unscrupulous lawyers who charge for services which require no fee or simply disappear once the money is paid over. And they get away with it. Time and again.

Sadly state negligence and sheer indifference plagues every aspect of the refugees’ experience of Greece even when they die. Last week we tried to discover what had happened to the body of a refugee found dead on one of the beaches. We ended up at the hospital where the body had been taken. First we went to the hospital manager who said that it was the responsibility of the social services. They in turn said they knew nothing about it. The hospital manager insisted that it was their responsibility so back to the social worker who then told us that it was in the hands of a doctor responsible for undertaking a post mortem. He was on leave and no one seemed to know when he would be back. In the meantime the body stays in the morgue. We can be sure, because we get messages from distraught relatives, that someone somewhere will be frantic with worry because they have not heard from someone whose last call was from the Turkish coast prior to leaving for Greece. But for the authorities, once it has been established that the body is not that of a tourist and ‘only’ a refugee no further action is taken. It will be yet one more nameless body destined for an unmarked grave.

(These are the telephone numbers of the coastguards based in Samos. If you have lost contact with someone you think might be in Samos please call them. 0030 22730 27318 or 0030 22730 23068)

Greece is proud of what it calls its ‘timeless civilisation’. So is Europe. Its governments prattle endlessly to the rest of the world about its democracies, its human rights, its systems of justice and welfare. Majid, a young Pakistani refugee living on Samos for the past six years told us that he came to Europe because he believed that it was a good place to be and he would have a chance for a better and happier life. He thought he would only be expected to work 8 hours a day, that he would be safe in his work, and live in a sociable and friendly place. His cousin who had come to Greece before him warned him the reality was nothing like this and that he would suffer. Majid didn’t believe him and came. In October he is returning to Pakistan a wiser man. But not before he has to go to court because he let his homeless uncle (who didn’t have the right papers) stay some days in his small apartment. His offence? Illegal hospitality. He asked the police at the time if they would let their mother’s brother sleep on the street. No answer.

Majid is not unique. Many of the refugees we have met come to Europe with similar ideas. They are so happy when we meet them when they land on the beaches. They believe that at last they have reached safety; that they have a chance to breathe and live again. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that their dream is in fact a nightmare.

There are as many Greeks living outside Greece as inside. The vast majority leave now as they did in the past in search of a better life. They are Greek, they are European. They are not black, they are rarely Muslim. They have the ‘right’ papers. Many don’t want to leave Greece but see no future here. They are praised for their initiative and there is sorrow at their departure. Europeans are constantly on the move. Millions migrate to live in countries outside of Europe. How do they travel? How are they received and treated? What restrictions are placed on them?

The EU announced in April 2015 that it would accept 5,000 migrants this year and deport 150,000. It is supposed to be a generous concession.

Think about it.