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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