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.
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.
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!
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)