Monthly Archives: September 2015

Islam and Refugees: Some Observations from Samos

These past few days have seen some important statements from both the municipality and the regional authority concerning its strategy for managing the refugees coming to the island over the coming (colder) months. These statements at least show that the local authorities are preparing for the winter and contrasts sharply with their lack of action earlier in the year.

There are some positive aspects in their statements. They say that the refugees must be treated with the ‘humanism of our age-old culture’. That the island can not stand by and see people drown, or abandoned on the beaches. That it is necessary to provide at least some shelter at the ports as the refugees are processed and then wait for the ferries to take them on to Athens. And it also acknowledges the valuable work of the many volunteers on Samos who help the refugees. In the statement from the Prefecture (15th Sept 2015) there is a clear rejection of the idea that if the refugees are not helped this will stop others from crossing. This is said to be unacceptable.

There is also a clear declaration by Mr Katrakazos of the Samos Prefecture that the refugees should spend as little time as possible on Samos. Ideally they should be sent onto Athens on the same day as they arrive and certainly to be here for no more than 36 hours. There is reference to wanting to avoid the chaos on Lesvos. To ensure this they are asking for additional police resources to be located at the port along with a Red Cross presence. In addition, 20 temporary chalets/ huts have just arrived at the port for use in times of bad weather.(These were opened recently and we discovered that refugees were charged 20 Euros to rent an empty room in these chalets).

He also goes out of his way to assure the islanders that the refugees will be kept away from the places where they live. There are to be no new permanent facilities for refugees and the cabins that have arrived will be kept in the port area and away from peoples’ homes. He is especially insistent on both these points as he wants to squash rumours that have recently surfaced saying that a new permanent centre for refugees was to be built in an area near to local peoples’ homes.

It is notable in his statement that there is no reference to the Detention Camp and the refugees who are taken there for processing. Is this because the camp falls outside any normal understanding of humanity? Ignoring the camp also means that the sole focus of the authorities’ response is the Syrians. All the other nationalities of refugees coming to Samos (around 30% of the total) are not mentioned.

The authorities are also making it clear that they will do all they can to minimise the impact on the island of the refugee flow. Keep them at the ports, where they will be processed and hold them there until they leave, hopefully very quickly. They want, wherever possible to keep them away from the locals, although they don’t say why. But the assumptions underlining both the practice and what is said are clear enough. The Syrians whilst now seen as deserving some kindness are not embraced fully as guests and are not welcomed. We have no doubt that these small steps towards a more sympathetic approach is in part due to popular pressure from below both in Samos and Europe as a whole. And anyway to do nothing is equally impossible. Standing by as people die around you would have dire consequences for any sense of humanity.

There are many reasons for this lack of embrace. Here on Samos there is concern about the impact of arriving refugees on the tourist industry which is vital to the island’s economy. There is concern because as the regional authorities understandably complain, they feel abandoned by central government (and the EU) which have been slow in releasing the basic resources needed to manage the huge increases in refugees arriving on the island. These are ongoing issues and in the past months we have seen money running out to pay for the food needed in the Camp, a lack of milk and breakfasts for children and no provision for feeding the Syrians who are at the ports compounded by a lack of sufficient basic facilities such as showers and toilets. And on top of this is the much reduced capacity of the island itself as a consequence of six years of brutal austerity.

But although rarely discussed it is clear to us, as it is too many of the refugees we meet, that there is also an Islamic dimension which influences the European response to the current refugee migration. This has been especially clear in the propaganda pouring out of governments and the mainstream media especially since 9/11 which has bracketed Islam with terrorism and more generally as a religion which shapes a culture that is at odds with the ‘civilised’ West. At this moment in time with pubic sympathy in Europe flowing in favour of the refugees there are fewer politicians prepared to be as outspoken as the Hungarian prime minister who claims that his government is concerned to protect the Christian civilisation of Europe against the masses of Muslim refugees now entering and making their way into the heartlands of western Europe. But Orban is only saying what most of the European leaders are thinking and which has informed so much of current policy and practice.

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Here in Greece for example, the training of coastguard officers has included sessions on how they are being entrusted to protect Europe’s borders from a Muslim invasion – a culture which they are told is both unsuited to and inferior to European civilisation. Until the numbers of people fleeing Syria began to increase this summer most of the states’ responses were informed by a militaristic and police perspective devoid of any welfare concerns. Hence the Camp on Samos with its locks and barbed wire; hence the militarised patrol boats of Frontex and the Coastguards; hence the police being given primary responsibility for the refugees who are arrested, finger printed and photographed whilst kept in Camps governed by prison rules. And so it goes on. Feeding into this toxic mix has been the relentless drum beat of the terrorist threat with commentators lining up to tell us that amongst the exodus are any number of terrorists who are taking advantage of the current chaos to penetrate Europe. We have no idea how these figures emerge but it has not been unusual for us to hear normally sober people on the island tell us that up to 1 in 7 of the refugees are likely terrorists. Very few pose the question of whether the treatment of refugees might actually increase those threats.

Refugees, many of whom are Muslim are entering a Europe which sees some of them as actual or potential terrorists and islamist extremists. The reality is of course that the vast number of refugees are victims of terrorism especially now from Daesh/Isis as well as enduring state terror in which the West itself is deeply implicated. But this has not stopped governments and trans national entities from the EU to NATO from developing surveillance systems of the most intrusive kind which have a real impact on peoples’ lives. Homa Khaleeli, for example, has written a moving account of how one such policy in Britain (PREVENT) is demonising Muslim kids in schools and making parents fearful of having their children removed because of what they might say in class (Guardian 23 Sept 2015). Similar policies are and have been put in place in Germany, France, Holland, Italy, Denmark and Belgium. The EU through people such as EU Council’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove attempt to tie it all together as well as creating a “transnational support-system for networks that are designed to spot ‘radicalisation’ in local communities.” One such initiative is the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network which is focused on connecting and supporting front line workers who have everyday contact with refugee and other vulnerable and disadvantaged groups who in many places now have a legal duty to be on the look out for the radicalised and the potential extremist (James Renton). Teachers, social workers, health care workers, youth workers, university teachers and the like are in places like Britain, expected to spy and report on any behaviour/attitudes which do not reflect British values! Across Europe there are many who simply refuse to comply with these regulations. But there are also many who do.

Renton continues:

“In 2015 most European states see their Muslim populations as a potential threat to human security. For this reason, the UK, France and other governments are working to extend the already global architecture of Muslim surveillance. Most of the governments of Europe and the wider west are, like Orbán, frightened of Muslims. This Islamophobia has led to the biggest, globe-spanning surveillance apparatus in human history. Beyond the observation that the west has a phobia, few scholars or analysts have attempted an answer the question – why? –  why does this mean that Europe must spy on them? We must start to engage with this urgent issue; it lies at the heart of, among other crises, Europe’s current immigration panic—since 2011 most states have wanted to keep Muslim refugees out, and, now the dam has burst, what will be done about it? “(James Renton ‘Why is Europe desperate to spy on its Muslims?’ Open Democracy, 23 September 2015 ; https://opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/james-renton/why-is-europe-desperate-to-spy-on-its-muslims; our emphasis)

Be sure the dam has burst. The front line security checks entrusted to places like Samos have been simply engulfed by the numbers. Places such as Kos and Lesvos which attempted to hold to the checks before pushing the refugees on to Athens found themselves overwhelmed. They simply could not process them quickly enough so huge bottlenecks of people built up with all the accompanying ugly scenes as police battered back refugees frustrated by the time it was taking to issue them with papers. Here on Samos, the authorities have resorted to a much more basic registration and the issuing of ‘half’ a paper which allows them on the ferries to be followed up by a further stage of registration – finger printing, confirmation of identity etc. – once in Athens. Few do this but simply get on with the journey northwards.

This light touch processing is intended only for those from Syria. All other nationals are supposed to be detained in the Camp for the regular and full security process. That’s the theory at least. In practice, unless you have a black skin marking you out as from Africa, the ‘Syrians’ permitted to avoid the Camp include refugees from many other places apart from Syria. As a consequence, in all the endless European level meetings on the ‘refugee crisis’ a core and repeated agenda item concerns strengthening the borders and especially those in Greece. There is no debate or attempt to explain what this means in the context of this exodus of refugees when one might expect there to be at least some debate over opening borders to help with the safe passage of refugees. Instead, we are expected to share and uncritically support the view that the borders need to do more to ensure that thorough security screening needs to be effective. The linkage between refugees and a potential terror threat is simply taken for granted.

When the authorities assure the islanders that they won’t have to live near any concentrations of refugees, who in any event won’t be here for long, they are speaking to and reinforcing these distorted fears. Given this mind set it is not surprising that the authorities have no interest in trying to attract refugees to settle on Samos. The social and economic crisis in Greece does not make this an easy option currently but the obstacles are never even considered as the very idea of settlement is on nobody’s agenda. So dying villages lacking in young families, abandoned farms and houses will continue onwards to collapse even though we know from our discussions with refugees arriving here, that some would consider Samos as a place for settlement.

Likewise, there has never been any interest from the state agencies on the island in encouraging and supporting locals to open their homes to refugees, especially the most vulnerable such as families with young children and babies. This is an obvious strategy to meet some of the challenges we face this winter. Fear of Muslims is taken as a given by these agencies. But in the case of some of the islanders we can see that sometimes (but not always) their engagement with the refugees can bring about completely new understandings and solidarities (and very quickly too). When we hear again and again, people tell us that the refugees are just like us, we suspect what they mean is that they are nothing like the Muslims we read and hear about on the TV. For contrary to the images portrayed in so much of the media, religion, in this case Islam, is for the overwhelming majority of refugees, as all people, just one thread amongst many which shape a person.

The humanitarianism of so many people in Europe is very important now. If nothing else it can hold back some of the more repressive intentions of the authorities and provide some needed breathing space for refugees. The efforts to demonise Muslims over so many years does not appear to be so deeply rooted as many feared. It also suggests that there might be new possibilities for people from different places to negotiate ways of living together which are fulfilling and happy. And, without a doubt we are going to need all those who can free themselves from these viruses, for when the next bomb explodes in the West there is going to be hell to pay and it will be the refugees and other resident Muslim populations who are going to pay that price.

As we watch our new friends march northwards we can not but wonder what awaits them.

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Winter is Coming! Refugees on Samos

The summer is coming to an end. The weather here on Samos continues to be sunny and in the midday the temperatures can be in the low 30s. But the evenings and nights are getting cooler. In the past 10 days six refugees that we know of have died whilst trying to get to Samos from Turkey. In a few weeks we can expect this number to rise as the weather and sea cools. We regularly meet with refugees when they land on the beaches. They are nearly always soaked through. The rubber inflatables are so overloaded that they quickly flood. They are not good quality which leads to them being easily punctured by a sharp buckle or belt. The engines, already under powered, often run out of fuel. The result is that the sea journey is nearly always wet, terrifying and arduous when you have to paddle with your arms and hands to keep moving on. This journey is bad enough in the summer but in the winter ……?

We have made this point on many occasions but why are the refugees denied safe passage on the 3 to 4 ferries which arrive daily from Turkey to Samos during these summer months? We sit with the refugees in the ports of the islands within a 100 metres of these ferries. What do we do? Ignore this reality? How can we? The ferry passengers pay around 30 Euros to come over in safety. The refugees pays on average $1,200 to come at night packed in rubber inflatables. Fortunes are being made by smugglers who would evaporate if the refugees were given safe passage. Safe passage, not only to Greece but for their entire journeys to wherever is absolutely crucial for all the refugees.

The mainstream media and also the social networks are now giving much coverage to the monstrous and unsafe passage of refugees northwards. We can see hundreds and sometimes thousands of refugees held on railways stations, at border crossings, trudging along roads and rail tracks. Each day seems to bring a new situation, as the routes shift and change to get around the barriers which are put in their way as the exodus moves northwards. Bilal a 26 year old business graduate from Damascus asked us “why is our journey to Germany made so difficult?” Without Bilal’s question so much of what we see in the media is little more than sick theatre because his fundamental question is rarely featured in the film clips. Why are refugees exposed to such risks? Why are refugees dying in Europe on this journey? Why are refugees being subjected to such trauma when they have already suffered so much? What does Angela Merkel’s welcome to refugees mean if to get there comes at such a cost?

Many of these costs will have likely long term consequences. There is the obvious material consequences of journeys that drain all your resources. As we have noted in previous pieces many of the Syrian refugees (unlike those from Afghanistan or Africa) have some money and tend to come from the Syrian middle class. But not all. But even this middle class is poor by most European comparisons. Too many people have been taken in by the Syrians’ smart phones which have nothing to do with their financial position but everything to do with their survival, which includes contact with family and friends. The phones are used for navigation and for exchanging information. They are highly valued and protected. Ossam, a Syrian student from Raqa told us that his mother had bought him his phone for she knew how important it was for his journey. In Turkey he nearly lost the phone on 2 occasions including an attempt by a Turkish border guard to rob him: “To lose my phone would be like losing my leg”.

In the absence of sanctioned routes of safe passage across Turkey and Europe the refugees are forced to find their own ‘safest’ passage/route. A recent example is the refugee led Facebook initiative, Crossing No More which resulted in over 8,000 refugees gathering in Edirne in Turkey which they had identified as a safe land passage into Greece. The objectives were clear: Saving refugees “from the claws of death, to save them from the jaws of human traffickers,” by “opening a secure land crossing between Turkey and Greece.” At the moment the refugees are stuck in Edirne and many have been bussed back to Istanbul.

The exodus north costs money. Often all the money they have collected has to be paid out to make the journey – taxis, trains, buses, guides, smugglers, hotels, bribes – at prices which are often exhorbitant. There is a lot of money being made out of this suffering. Every barrier and closed border provides lucrative profits for smugglers who for a price will find a way round. There will be many refugees arriving in countries such as Germany who will be destitute; who will have nothing to get them started again in a new life.

Frightened Every Second

Salwan is Iraqi and his wife is Syrian. They are escaping from Syria (some years before they had escaped from Iraq) with their 5 year old son. Both are fluent in English and told us that they were not sure where to head for. We got talking and sharing ideas. They both wanted to go to England but that seemed almost impossible given the British government’s restrictive policy on Syrian migration (to come from the big camps in Turkey and Jordan but not those already in Europe). So we talked about other possibilities such as Ireland. He then went on to tell us that he had been terrified for every minute of the journey. He was frightened now and about every next step. And though we don’t always talk in detail about their fears and nightmares, we can’t ignore the problems this creates as we hand out many large sized pampers to older children because as their parents tell us, they wet the bed at night. Nightmares, sleep deprivation, bed wetting are common but there is no chance for any help to be given when the Syrian refugees are being pushed on, in this case from Samos to Athens on the next available ferry. And there is no rest during any part of the journey. The refugees are anxious to move on so they can settle and before their money runs out. Similarly many of the transit countries, including Greece don’t want them around and push them through as quickly as possible. What they are fleeing in Syria they describe as hell. Their journey through Europe is little better. Dania an Afghani young woman now settled in Germany, ‘can’t shake off the trauma of the harrowing journey to safety and the hard years of assimilation that followed. “I can’t feel joy any more,” she says with an air of helplessness. “I used to tell myself, one day I’ll have a flat, one day I’ll be safe, one day I’ll have an education. Now I have all that, and I can’t enjoy it”'(Guardian newspaper, 19th Sept 2015).

It is difficult to see unconditional safe passage being given to all refugees by national or European governments. There is already a divisive sifting system operating which favours Syrian refugees and separates them off from the others from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and so on. In a small way this is played out on Samos where all the attention is focused on the Syrians gathered at the ports, and the Camp with its overcrowded refugee population of other nationalities is simply neglected. In the locked camp there are now many children. There is no milk for their breakfasts other than that supplied by a human rights group based in Samos town that is able to supply breakfasts for children on Saturday and Sunday. This what a Swedish visitor mailed us after she had visited the camp:“I am on my way home to Stockholm at the moment. I just wanted to tell you that I went to the camp yesterday.  I have never seen such misery before. Terrible.” Just how are the people locked in the camp different from the Syrians?

Yet this small example is being played out across Europe. Division has been a strategy of power it seems from the beginning of time and so it is with the refugees in Europe today. Syrians are generally privileged over all other nationalities; some want to go further like the Mayor in France or the government in Slovenia which only wants Christian Syrians. It is in the face of such developments that we must demand that all refugees need unconditional safe passage. The case for safe passage is unanswerable. Without it a great hurt is being done to people.

And not least, we must resist all efforts to divide the refugees. We must not neglect any group.

Tourists

With the summer coming to an end the number of tourists is falling and by the beginning of October there will be fewer still as the charter flights from northern Europe stop until next Spring. The contribution of tourists giving direct help to the refugees coming to Samos has been valuable. We have met tourists from the Czech Republic, Britain, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Italy Norway and Denmark amongst others who have given their time and money to meet immediate needs. Many have made repeat journeys from the beaches to the ports carrying refugees who have just arrived. Some of them have had to confront police who have threatened them with arrest although now it seems that it has got through to most that the law has changed. 2 weeks ago one tourist was told that he could be arrested for carrying refugees in his rental car and that he should realise that the refugees he had with him were not Syrian but Iraqi. The policeman said he was concerned only for his well being as it was well known that Iraqi refugees carried small knives and that they were often infected with very bad diseases! Later that day, the same tourist encountered a taxi driver who threatened him with the police for carrying refugees. The taxi driver wanted the business.

It has not been unusual to see convoys of 4 or 5 tourist rental cars carrying refugees in the early hours of the morning. Many of the tourists quickly realise they can make a difference by coming down to where the refugees are gathered and seeing for themselves what they need – often food, shoes, basic medicines for sun burn and headaches, pampers and so on. We met one Swedish woman who had just arrived to help who came with a young guy from her local pizza shop. She realised that with Arabic she would have a much better chance to be effective but she knew no Arabic speaker in her affluent Stockholm neighbourhood until she remembered the young guy in her local pizza shop. It turned out he was Kurdish and came from Syria five years earlier. 3 days after meeting they were in Samos town together helping refugees.

It is a simple fact that the tourists have more money than the locals. They are going to leave a gap when they depart. The feeding of Syrians collected in the ports has come from the people, locals and tourists, and not from the state or any NGO. The response from the islanders has been truly magnificent and has formed the core and sustained food supply around which the tourists can then intervene. There was some brief hope that this might improve when the Mayor of Samos announced that the wealthy Greek Cypriot founder of Easyjet was going to help feed the refugees and ‘needy’ on the island over the next six months. On further reading it turned out this would involve distributing 300,000 croissants over this period. In fact some of these croissants were handed out in Karlovassi port recently and sadly seemed to cause some stomach problems.

Visitors to the island have fed many refugees. In so doing we have seen new understandings and connections being made. There is Mohammed a talented classical guitar player from Aleppo who now has a music contact in Munich who will be able to help him when he eventually arrives in Germany. There is the man from Frankfurt who was a member of an anti refugee group and who by the end of his holiday was one of the keenest and most regular drivers carrying refugees from the beaches into Karlovassi and who now renounces his former beliefs with a vengeance. There are many similar and positive stories.

These new understandings and links are going to be needed ‘back home’ and we are now hearing from those we met earlier in the summer who from working with refugees on Samos have moved seamlessly into working with refugees who are arriving in their countries. We celebrate this flowering of humanity demonstrated by so many people, if not by their governments in northern Europe. Where governments have made it easier for refugees this has been the result of popular pressure from below. An important lesson for us all.

All kinds of contacts spanning large parts of Europe have been forged over the summer. Many tourists for instance on returning from their Samos holidays have created support groups in their home countries and are pledging to continue with financial help throughout the winter. This is incredibly helpful. We don’t know precisely what the next few months will bring but we are not optimistic.

the war grinds on If the West starts a bombing campaign against Daesh then the refugee flow will grow. It is obvious that countries such as Jordan where just over 20% of their population is now made up of refugees from Syria are going to struggle even more, especially when promised international aid falls so far short of what they need. Yemen is suffering under the bombing from Saudi Arabia. All these and more will produce refugees.

Winter is coming!

Bank Account:

With the help of friends in Germany we have opened an account called Samos Chronicles and this is where to send any donations. Here are the details:

Recipient: Samos Chronicles

 

BIC/SWIFT code : GENO DE M1 GLS    (that´s the bank’s code Number for international transactions)

IBAN: DE33 4306 0967 2023 9545 00 (that´s the Account Number for international transactions)

 

The name of the bank is GLS and the account is at their Hamburg Branch (Dusternstrasse 10, Hamburg 20355)

Spending Money!

We are asked many times by our blog readers and supporters how they can help the refugees on Samos. Last year the biggest need was for clothes and shoes, as well as pampas and milk for the babies and young children. Many responded and we had stuff arriving from all over the place. Along with the money we were given it helped us buy hundreds of summer shoes as well as becoming probably the biggest buyers of pampas on Samos!

This summer the priority has been on money so we can respond immediately and practically as soon as the refugees land on the beaches and when they get to one of the two ports on the island. On the north coast in particular we are often able to get biscuits and water to many of the refugees immediately they land and also to transport, especially the young families to the ports. Once at the ports we often provide fruits and drinks and in some instances meals and very often sandwiches. As some of you will know it is not easy to change money in Karlovassi so people go hungry for lack of euros. We and others like us do what we can to make sure that this does not happen.

Having a source of money allows us to be flexible and more capable of responding to daily challenges. Take Friday for example, we drove over in the early afternoon to the Camp where refugees other than the Syrians are incarcerated whilst they are being processed. We hadn’t been for some time as we were mainly in Karlovassi. The camp is always gut churning with refugees behind the steel wire fences. But it was not so stressed as it has been and we were told that they needed some basic medicines. We had just left the camp when we came across five young Syrian men walking down from the mountain. Where were they coming from? They told us that they were part of a big group of 150 who had landed earlier that day in a remote and desolate part of the island. They had walked for 6 hours without food and water across the mountains by the coast. All the rest they had left up at the monastery on the mountain. Although they reckoned around 40 of them were still stuck in the forest and now there was a fire. They weren’t sure how many were injured but they said one of the young Syrian men had died falling off a cliff.

We immediately abandoned the pharmacy run and filled the jeep with bottles of water and rushed back up the mountain. All of it went to the refugees at the monastery. They were utterly exhausted. They had been terrified. Many of them had destroyed their shoes on the rocks. Down again we went to the town to fill the jeep with more water and food and this time we went to the forest where there were about 40 refugees with the firemen and paramedics. Then back to the monastery and then back to the town for shoes. We told the police that there was no way that many of the refugees could walk down to the town and that they must send a bus. The policeman who passed by the monastery returning from the fire said a bus would be sent once its wheel had been mended. He couldn’t say when. The bus never came and in the end many walked down to Vathy whilst we were able to carry the young children, babies and parents.

We spent around 400 euros on this afternoon and evening. Fortunately we took enough money with us – you never know what you will find at the camp. The point for us is that by having the money we could intervene directly and practically. This is what we do with the money so many of you send us.

Thank you!!!

PS

The doors of the monastery never opened. The monks inside did nothing.

Walking in Sun: Refugees on Samos Island

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August 2015: Frontex towing refugees into Agios Konstantinos

August in Samos has been exceptionally hot with temperatures often in the mid 30s. Now it is September and there is still no sign of any cooler weather over the next few weeks. For the refugees coming over from Turkey to Samos and the other Greek frontier islands this weather brings mixed blessings. Importantly it means the sea crossings at night are not deathly cold as in the winter months. On Sunday a packed rubber dinghy sank off the coast. It took four hours to find and rescue the survivors. Some including a 1 month old baby were blue with cold when they were eventually rescued. Had it been earlier in the year she would have died as would have some of the other children with her who were in the sea for so many hours. But on the other hand when they eventually get to Samos the heat and sun becomes a major hazard. The police who are responsible for the refugees make no regular provision for transporting them from their landing places to one of the 2 ports on the island where they are initially processed. Instead they tell them to walk. In this heat it is nothing less than torture.

In making the crossing from Turkey strong bonds often develop amongst those who have been packed into the rubber inflatables. These are not just the result of sharing the agony of the crossing (or the ecstasy of safe arrival on Samos) but also in the hours and days spent in Turkey waiting for the smugglers to get them across. We now hear many stories of ill treatment in these waiting hours and of being forced sometimes at gun point to make long treks through the forests during the night to get to the beaches of departure. Many of the cuts and bruises we now see are due to the falls and stumbles as they make the way to the sea.

Not surprisingly, many of the groups stick together when they land on Samos. In some cases clear leaders have emerged but in most instances the group has simply got to know one another and has a good idea who needs special attention. So when people stop to offer rides it is the refugees themselves who can best decide who is to be given priority. The families with babies and children are obvious to all, but what about the middle aged man with serious cancer, the other with diabetes and so on. It is amazing how much they get to know about one another even when they have only been thrown together for a few days.

These bonds can play a crucial role in their survival and the manner in which they will experience their onward journeys out of Samos and Greece. But just as sharing common threats can build solidarities there are inevitably those who put themselves first and it can be a shock the first time you witness someone taking more than their share and hoarding it in their bags whilst others are left with nothing. Such behaviour needs to be understood as well as being confronted and not subjected to our often simplistic judgements as to a person’s character.

Escaping from Hell

Samos is a brief stop on their escape from Syria. It is significant to them because it means that they have got into Europe. One of the first things they want to tell us is about Syria. They know that we know something about Syria but as one older guy from Damascus said “It is hell. You can’t know this hell.” Increasingly Daesh comes up a lot and many of the younger men and teenagers were terrified by what they saw and were escaping to survive. All those we talk with are directly marked in some way by the hell of Syria today. They knew that they had been abandoned in Syria. Their country is being destroyed before their eyes. There is no sign of any effort, from anywhere, to stop the carnage.

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Syrian baby; Karlovassi, August 2015

Many, but not all, of the Syrians we see coming through Samos are middle class, professionals, university students and graduates. In the past month we have seen a significant increase in young families. There are many more children and babies.

To get to Samos means that they have some resources. But there are wide differences with some having much and many having a little. But generally they are not destitute, yet. We are also now seeing greater numbers being packed into the small rubber dinghies often with tiny engines and insufficient fuel. Frontex over the past month has saved many from boats that ran out of fuel, flooded, or simply crumpled due to the numbers packed in. The refugees are full of praise for the efforts of the coastguards and Frontex which at this time at least is saving people. But the risks are terrifying in getting across to Samos. And through their contacts especially with those that have gone on before them, they know that there are many more dangers ahead as they head north from Greece into Macedonia, then to Serbia and Hungary before getting through to Austria and Germany. But, as we get told time and again, none of this compares to Syria. “We can breath and we can begin to dream of living again.”

Two things stands out each and every day with all the new arrivals. Their determination and how little they expect. Never have we been asked where are the buses which will take us to the port. They know before they arrive here that they will be expected to walk to report to the port police. Many, especially the children are totally exhausted by the sleepless nights waiting to get the boat before the night sea crossing. Yet, despite the heat and the sun and the weight of their sea soaked back packs they walk. And this is what you now see everyday in the mornings along the Samos coast line. Groups of refugees making their way on foot either to Karlovassi or Samos town.

We salute this courage and determination. But why should they walk? Why can’t they use the public buses? There are plenty of buses on Samos and a significant army presence which has many trucks and buses which could be used to pick up the refugees from their landing places. But on Samos, the army to date has been invisible in any humanitarian response to the refugees.

You Won’t Make us Inhuman

The issue of making refugees walk 20 or 25 km s in the blazing heat is just one example amongst many that demonstrates the casual cruelties which are routinely inflicted on the refugees who arrive on Samos. And like all the other examples it has a history as we have noted in earlier articles. It was only this summer that the Greek government amended the law which criminalised giving lifts to refugees in your own transport whether it is a car or a boat. This law was supposed to stop the smugglers but in effect, and we would argue by intent, it was directed more widely at the population as a whole. The premise was simple. Those in power believe that the more pleasant the reception given to refugees the more it will encourage them to come. Make it nasty and they won’t. It is utter nonsense but it has not stopped the authorities from constructing an entire system (both here in Samos and throughout much of the EU) based on making life for refugees as difficult as they can get away with. Including building the Camp on Samos which resembles Guantanamo Bay, from providing no food at the ports, no transport from the beaches, tortuous bureaucratic procedures and of course and critically, providing no safe passage at any stage of their journeys.

In order not to undermine the policy of inhospitality it was necessary to bring the people into line. Threatening them with the loss of their vehicle or boat has had a very negative impact on many people on the island. And still does. That the authorities have not declared that the change in the law has removed this threat has not helped. In fact it seems to us that many of the police themselves do not know the law has changed so they continue to tell us that although they will say nothing and in fact want us to help, we should not be giving rides for example. We are breaking the law! Just a few days a young Syrian told us that he had met this woman from the island and asked her for some water. He told us that she was very upset because although she would like to give him water the law would punish her if she did. It is a fact of life here that many, but not all, are afraid of getting on the wrong side of the police.

But again the sheer weight of numbers is starting to change this. The oppressive laws on ‘illegal hospitality’ had a much greater impact when the refugees were kept out of sight in the Camp. Now they are visible, they are real, walking the streets, gathered in the ports and in some of the bars and cafés. How can you stand and do nothing when you see families with babies and young children walking the roads in the summer heat with no water or food? In these situations the absurdity and inhumanity of this policy is all too obvious and when faced with suffering humanity nearly always wins out whatever the police might say. As one young guy from the island told us as he loaded his pick up with 2 young families, “the police can go to hell. They are not going to make me inhuman!”.

But not for all. Some see economic advantages such as charging refugees 3 euros to recharge their phones, selling on water at high prices, or cheating them on taxi fares. Others, including the mayor of one of the villages which has become a popular landing point continues to rant and rage about the refugees being carriers of disease who should leave the village immediately, on foot, even when babies and young children are involved. In this particular village though it looks as if his position is slowly collapsing as some of his previously close acolytes now distance themselves from his ridiculous rantings.

Joy and Despair

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Syrian refugees from Kobani celebrate as they arrive on a dinghy at a beach on the Greek island of Kos, after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey, August 10, 2015 (Reuters Photo)

 

 

These are constant companions for most of the refugees we encounter. You see it when they land. There is the joy of making it to Europe safely competing with the 3 or 4 hours of terror being packed in a rubber boat on the night time journey to Samos. When they are finally processed and allowed to catch the ferry to Athens you also see their delight and excitement but the knowledge of what awaits them there and especially on the northward journey through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary casts a shadow of fear. Nothing is made easy for them. We can’t help but worry for them when they walk on to the ferries in Samos.

The one thing that seems to be in their favour is the weight of numbers. Cruel and punitive systems require resources if they are to work. With the numbers arriving on Greek islands now running into many thousands a week these systems can no longer operate. So for example on Samos, the majority of arrivals being from Syria are no longer incarcerated in the Camp for anything up to 30 days. They are herded to the ports and there the processing is both basic and quick so they can be moved on without delay. It is becoming more evident daily that Greece and the countries en route to the north are beginning to realise that it is in their interests to move the refugees through their countries as quickly as possible. This has nothing to do with humanity but everything to do with expediency. Thousands of refugees blocked on borders, at railway stations, in city centres, poses innumerable problems for governments especially when they insist on regulation and compliance.

Moreover, despite the attempts of the racists and fascists (as well as governments) to whip up hatred the flow of refugees coming to Europe has revealed a high degree of popular support and solidarity which cannot be ignored. Much of the mainstream media when it does report on this support suggests that it is fragile and that a more reactionary populism of exclusion and control is likely to erupt at any moment. But on Samos, and in much of Greece we have not seen any significant Golden Dawn actions against refugees. We have no immediate explanations but given its racist character and actions and presence throughout Greece its current low profile on refugees cannot pass without notice. Of course there are going to be right wing attacks but we are encouraged that the refugee crisis both here and now in much of Europe is like seeing a garden flower. Here on Samos as on the other frontier islands the economy is in tatters and there is much suffering and hardship. Tourism is vital. Yet time and again we see people wanting to help the refugees even though they know that tourism to the islands is suffering because of the refugee arrivals. From Germany we are receiving many reports that tell us of the mobilisations of thousands of people who are offering direct aid to new refugee arrivals. The scale and sheer imagination of the support from below is inspiring. If we care to look and understand we can see that it is the humanity of the people and not governments in Europe that are now beginning to shift the agenda on refugees away from fences and dogs to welcome and inclusion. Such changes of approach are almost entirely due to the twin pressures of the numbers of refugees combined with a popular humanitarianism.

Look at Kos. Here is a mayor who clearly endorsed a brutal line but within days of footage showing police violence against the refugees and their incarceration in a sports stadium, was seen out on the streets handing out food and water to the refugees. It is not so different on Samos, where the mayor has shown no interest in the refugees. In the past few weeks he has made a point of being seen handing out bread and water to refugees and making more positive statements about the necessity for effective and positive action. Until this week he has consistently argued that the refugee problem is for the central government to resolve. But in a sharp shift of focus Ekathamerini newspaper (Sept 1st 2015) reported that:

“Samos Mayor Michalis Angelopoulous told Kathimerini that the government does not have a plan to tackle the situation and that the municipality would shortly put forward its ideas on dealing with the refugees.“You could, for example, employ the Syrian doctors on some remote [Greek] islands,” he said.”

To be honest we have few expectations of authority because as with the majority of the poor in the world we know that there is no justice in the system. This is a profound lesson. To live in a system which does not value the majority of its people and that profits and flourishes on violence and exploitation cannot but have major implications for how we think and how we act. You are wise to have no expectations of the system then you won’t be disappointed. By and large the system gets in your way when you just want to get on with your life. Its “gifts” are rarely freely given without conditions. But if you see a possibility for something you push for it. So we see the refugees applauding the Mayor for his presence at Samos port. They know very well that it is theatre but if it means that they might get things a bit easier this is worth a smile rather than a snarl. In a system which cares nothing for your well being you take what you can, when you can.

Why Germany?

The overwhelming majority of the Syrians coming through Samos want to go to Germany. Ask why Germany and you hear many of them say that it is because they have friends and family there. Then you will hear talk of the possibilities they feel that they will have to rebuild their lives there especially access to education. What you rarely hear is them talking about the welfare benefits they expect to receive in Germany. Many in power claim that “generous” state welfare is a primary pull factor determining refugee choices of destination. This is not what we hear. Rather it is the significant presence of their compatriots which is more decisive. Yes we hear some say that Sweden and Germany for example will help with housing and health but it is what they hear from those who have gone before which is more important in shaping their decisions. Is it safe? Will we be welcomed? Do we have a chance? This is why it is so important that so many people in places such as Germany and now Iceland are offering a welcome. Many of these activities get known and inform the intelligence networks of the refugees. Facebook seems to be the place where much of this information is shared.

As with all significant migrations being with some of your own people in a strange land makes for a much easier move. This Moroccan refugee tells it clearly who when asked why he wanted to go to Belgium said he had 450,000 reasons. This is the approximate size of Belgium’s Moroccan population. He knew very well that it would be this community which would offer him the best opportunities for regaining his life, and not any supposed state welfare provision on offer in Belgium. So as more and more Syrians move into Germany it it inevitable that more will follow.

Such is the devastation of Syria that many of the refugees don’t think they will ever return. This is a big loss and painful to accept.

Abdullah

Last night we talked with 14 year old Abdullah just before he took the ferry with his uncle to Athens. As we teased him about the German football tea shirt he was wearing (was he hoping to impress the German authorities?) he told us that he was not only crazy about football but that he was also a talented player. His left and right foot were equally good and he had scored many goals as a centre forward for his team. We talked as we passed out some fruit and then he whispered that more than any food he would love to have a ball. He needed a ball! His dream was to play professional football in Germany and then to play international football for Syria. A dream maybe. Who knows. But this young lad had something about him. So look out in few years for Abdullah. And we got a ball for him just before he left.

End Notes

A) Here are the details of the amended law. The English version is via Google translate!

Νόμος 4332 2015 αρθρο 14

2. Η παρ. 6 του άρθρου 30 του Ν. 4251/2014 τροποποιείται και αντικαθίσταται ως εξής:

«6. Οι ανωτέρω κυρώσεις δεν επιβάλλονται στις περιπτώσεις διάσωσης ανθρώπων στη θάλασσα, της μεταφοράς ανθρώπων που χρήζουν διεθνούς προστασίας, κατά τις επιταγές του διεθνούς δικαίου, καθώς και στις περιπτώσεις προώθησης στο εσωτερικό της χώρας ή διευκόλυνσης της μεταφοράς, προς το σκοπό υπαγωγής στις διαδικασίες των άρθρων 83 του Ν. 3386/2005 ή του άρθρου 13 του Ν. 3907/2011, κατόπιν ενημέρωσης των αρμοδίων αστυνομικών και λιμενικών αρχών.»

Διαβάστε περισσότερα στο Lawspot.gr https://www.lawspot.gr/nomikes-plirofories/nomothesia/n-4332-2015/arthro-14-nomos-4332-2015

Law 4332 2015 section 14

2. Par. 6 of Article 30 of Law. 4251/2014 amended and replaced by the following: “6. These sanctions are not imposed on men rescue situations at sea, transport for persons in need of international protection, following the requirements of international law and to the promotion cases within the country or facilitating the transfer, to the entry order in the procedures of Articles 83 of Law no. 3386/2005 or Article 13 of Law. 3907/2011, after informing the competent police and port authorities. ” Read more at Lawspot.gr https://www.lawspot.gr/nomikes-plirofories/nomothesia/n-4332-2015/arthro-14-nomos-4332-2015

b) Alarm phone

Please note this number if you or any of your friends are making the sea journey to Europe. It could save your life.

For Boatpeople in Distress at Sea and in Cases of Pushback

00334 86 517161

THIS NUMBER IS NOT A RESCUE NUMBER!
But an ALARM NUMBER to support rescue operations!

We ourselves cannot rescue anyone, we do not have boats or helicopters.

What to do if you are in distress at sea and pushbacks:

1. First call the coast guards and tell them about your situation of distress.

2. Then call the Alarm Phone. We will make sure that your distress call is noted and acted upon.

3. If you are not promptly rescued by the coast guards, call the Alarm Phone again. We will inform the public media and politicians to put pressure on the rescue services.

We know coastguards act quite differently. There are areas where they do their job well and rescue promptly. But refugees also report that they get pushed back by coast guards or are treated violently. When a distress call is received, we will call the coast guards ourselves, and follow up on their response, making known to them that we are informed and ‘watching’ them. We want to support you in protecting your lives and your right of freedom of movement. See also Safety at sea.

For general information about the situation in certain european countries for refugees – see: http://w2eu.info