Samos is close to the coast of Turkey and has long been one of the gateways into western Europe for refugees. What made the summer of 2015 so distinctive were the very large numbers of refugees coming to the island, as to all the frontier islands of Greece in the eastern Aegean. It was a tsunami of people fleeing mainly from Syria but also from other war torn places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine as well as from countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Pakistan where widespread corruption and mafia politics makes ‘normal’ living virtually impossible for many.
Tsunami seems a reasonable word to use to describe what happened here as the sheer weight of arrivals overwhelmed and swept through an already stressed and wholly inadequate system for managing refugees on the island. But unlike natural tidal waves where there is often no warning the tsunami of refugees was predicted. Long before they arrived in their over loaded and dangerous inflatables on the shores of Samos thousands of refugees were fleeing into Turkey and on their way to hoped for safety in Europe. But here the authorities despite briefings in the early Spring of 2015 by agencies such as the UNCHR were steadfast in doing nothing. No preparations whatsoever. The existing detention centre with a capacity of around 250 was where any new arrivals were to be sent.
For many years, the authorities on Samos have made it clear that they don’t want refugees coming here. They don’t like refugees. This is evident in many ways. The most obvious is the Guantanamo style Camp in with its double, razor wire topped, perimeter fence, its tiers of grey barrack style tin roofed huts which roast in the summer and freeze in the winter.
Until last summer the authorities had been largely successful in hiding the refugees. Many on the island had no idea that there were refugees here and had little knowledge of the Camp, which is less than 2 km from the centre of the main town. The refugees were treated as criminals, arrested and detained under prison regulations managed by the police. Locked in, the refugees were rarely seen on the streets.
Public help for refugees until mid summer was also criminalised. It was an offence to give refugees a lift either on the land or on the sea. You could lose your car or your boat for such actions which were considered as smuggling. Ironically whilst few on the island knew much about the refugees they did know that there were big risks involved in offering any help. Likewise the Camp was closed and it was almost impossible to get inside unless you were a state agent of some type or another.
The people of Samos know all too well about living in a broken society where the system of state agencies is characterised by incompetency compounded by no resources. The impact of the crisis here has seen state agencies stripped to the bone. Given that Greece has a nightmare bureaucracy in which systemic corruption flourishes in the darkness of endless opaque regulations, the lack of resources has simply paralysed an already incompetent local state.
Not surprisingly when the refugee flows began to pick up in 2015 these flimsy systems quickly collapsed. The camp was overwhelmed. The gates were eventually unlocked because the authorities could not feed them. The olive groves around the Camp were full of tents and canopies because nothing else was made available. For the refugees it was a disgusting and disgraceful first taste of Europe.
Despite many empty hotels, houses, schools, night clubs and military camps on the island, none of them have been used to make life more bearable for the refugees. A deeply rooted belief throughout the Greek state that making life difficult for refugees was necessary to stop more refugees from arriving continued despite the greatly changed situation. “It breaks my heart not being able to open the empty school so that the refugees can be sheltered from the rain. I have the keys in my pocket. But if I did this, within a week we would be like Lesvos and be flooded out with refugees who hear that Samos is a good place to go.” We heard many comments like this from senior local authority officials last year.
Move Them On
The frontier islands like Samos were quickly overwhelmed by the arrival of hundreds of refugees a day. There was no way that the islands could contain the arrivals. So for much of last summer the declared policy and practice was to move the refugees onto Athens as quickly as possible. The majority of refugees were moved on within 36 hours of arriving.
It was a process which had no concern for the welfare of the refugees.
a) there was no provision made for feeding the refugees who were massed at the ferry ports on the island;
b) there was no attempt to assess the needs of the refugees and those who received medical attention were only those with evident injuries and illnesses;
c) there was no consideration given to their trauma or to the mental and physical exhaustion of the refugees which was made much worse by the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey;
d) there was no provision made to meet the refugees on the beaches as they landed or to transport them from their landing places to the nearest port, in most cases 15 km away;
e) there were no systems of liaison created between the refugees and the authorities so refugees never had any say on what was happening to them or what they needed.
f) the authorities made no attempt to encourage refugees to consider staying and settling on the island. With empty shops and closed businesses, abandoned vineyards and olive orchards and villages filled only with older people there are endless opportunities which with minimal start up costs could help some refugees and help re-build the crisis devastated island.
f) above all, there was no friendliness or gentleness in the system’s practice. Shouting at them was the norm. Wearing masks and rubber gloves was also the norm for a long time. Getting them into lines was the norm, caging them behind razor wire fences was the norm.
For many it became accepted that nothing good for the refugees came from the authorities. Similarly it was not possible to believe a word they said. So many promises – to provide toilets, food, shelter and so on were made throughout the summer and nothing ever materialised.
Although for most, their stay on the island was brief, it was an uncomfortable and difficult entry into Europe with the refugees themselves carrying the burden of meeting their needs. They were helped increasingly by the solidarity of many islanders and tourists but much was done by the refugees themselves.
The shared experience of the traumatic sea crossing to Samos had a significant impact in developing strong bonds between the refugees who traveled together. For many groups this started in Turkey during time they spent together in the forests and on the beaches waiting to be loaded onto the boats. Then there was the 4 -12 hours of shared terror. When we met some of them as they landed on Samos in the early hours of the morning we often discovered a determination to stay together and move on together with an understanding of one another’s particular needs. So many times it was the refugees who told us who needed particular help or assistance. If for any reason a refugee was delayed during the minimalist screening procedures it was common to see the whole group delay their departure until their friend could join them. Likewise it was the group who often raised the money for the ferry ticket for those who had no money. Their humanity contrasted sharply with the inhumanity of the authorities and was crucial to their welfare and determination. And, as we heard later was even more important as the refugees moved en masse overland up into northern Europe.
For most of the summer of 2015 the basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter were met partly by the refugees themselves and partly by a growing number of locals and tourists. A big problem for the refugees was their lack of Euros. Many of them, especially the first waves of largely men from Syria arrived with some money but they could not easily exchange it for Euros. Karlovassi port for example is around 3 kms from the town centre and had no money changing offices/banks. Moreover the police processing the refugees in the ports demanded that the refugees not move until they have been seen which routinely meant that the exchange offices were closed by the time the port police had finished with them.
Not surprisingly the main focus of the locals was in the provision of food, water and clothes and this lasted for most of the summer. Networks of local women formed who cooked and distributed meals; a few local restaurants were amazing in being able to produce 2 to 3 hundred nutritious meals at short notice; many of the local shops – bakers, grocers and pharmacies – gave huge discounts to refugees; clothes were collected and stores were created for sorting and handing them out; then there were the groups who daily washed the endless flow of clothes that had been soaked during the sea crossings. Many joked that the noise of the washing machines was the sound track to Summer 2015. And not least there was an increasing flow of individuals both men and women who would come to the ports with whatever they could afford to give.
Alongside the port focused activities a landing network was created. Comprising of locals and tourists they would call one another as the refugee boats were sighted in the early mornings and get down to the beaches with dry clothes, shoes, food, water and first aid materials. Once these immediate needs had been met they would then transport them to the nearest port. It was a crucial intervention and it saved lives.
The authorities did nothing and were largely invisible on the beaches and for most of the summer refugees were not allowed to use the local bus service while taxi drivers refused to pick them up. The hot summer temperatures added urgency to this volunteer transport. Needless to say the authorities did not make this easy and even when the legislation was changed in midsummer so that it was no longer a criminal offence to carry refugees in your car or boat some of the police continued to threaten drivers with prosecution. Later they changed tactics by saying that they were trying to protect the drivers as the refugees were often diseased and many of the young men were armed with knives. Later in the summer the main hassles for the volunteer drivers came from some taxi drivers who realised that refugees were good business and easy prey for high charges. Indeed there was a noticeable shift at this time with restaurants, bars, cafés and hotels often displaying their goods and services in Arabic. Refugees with some money were good for business. Display stands of sun glasses were replaced by sleeping bags and tents outside many shops.
But the ‘popular’ responses and initiatives were impressive and humbling especially in a context of the deep poverty of Samos and the widespread depression of a people who can see no light of improvement after years of destruction. But significant as it was the numbers involved were never great. But for the first time, refugees were plainly visible. They could be seen trudging to the port, massed in their hundreds around ferry terminals and where the beaches and roadsides were littered with hundreds of orange life vests, rubber tubes and the remains of the inflatables that carried them over from Turkey. They could not be ignored unless you closed your eyes and turned off your brain.
It was a summer that changed many people. Islanders had to overcome the effects of years of governmental and media propaganda which presented refugees as an invading and alien Muslim army bent on violence and as a major threat to public health as they were said to carry unknown but seemingly deadly diseases. Many people had been made afraid of the refugees. Time and again we saw these negative stereotypes melt away once the islanders met and helped refugees. It was nothing heroic simply basic human decency responding to the plight of the refugees. If washing machines provided the background music to the summer so the exclamation that the refugees are just like us became its mantra.
And we learned. We learnt that a hug was as important as a loaf of bread. We learnt that how you help was often more crucial than what was provided. Shouting and screaming, throwing food or clothes at the refugees as if they were cattle simply humiliated both the givers and the receivers. Engagement was the key: standing with and alongside the refugees. We learnt about the incredible resilience of so many refugee children who through their laughs and play lifted the hearts of their families and all those around them. The role of the children cannot be under-estimated. In many ways they were the heart of the exodus and the most common factor which led their families to make their hazardous journeys. It was their children, their safety and their future which drove and fueled a determination which marched them across Europe and smash through the then often flimsy border controls.
There was little time or space for reflection. But as the summer progressed and more locals joined the effort to help the refugees the ‘absentees’ became more obvious. Many of the involved locals came from the Left, but their parties, whether KKE or Syriza were rarely if ever seen at the ports. Some rallies and marches were held but these were never where the refugees were and never involved them. These parties rightly demanded fundamental changes to the way in which the state so cruelly treated the refugees but they kept away from offering any direct aid to the refugees. It was clear that some on the Left were critical of the activists for doing the work of the state and letting it off the hook. Political dogma at the expense of the refugees? As for Syriza, now in government there was nothing but crushing disappointment. Same old same old.
Probably the most powerful and resource rich absentee was the Church. It has a massive influence on Samos and its footprint on the island is deep and visible. Some local churches did get involved but in the main the Church was absent and wilful in turning its back on such self-evident suffering. This was vividly illuminated by one incident at one of the largest monasteries on the island which sits on the top of a hill overlooking an especially dangerous part of the coast. On a scorching July day over 100 refugees had landed below the monastery and had struggled for over 6 hours before eventually getting to the monastery and gathering in the car park directly in front of the gates. One of the young male refugees had fallen to his death from the cliffs and as they approached the monastery a fire broke out in the forest adding to the horror.
When we arrived we met with scenes of utter exhaustion and great thirst. They had no water and many were parched. The gates of the monastery never opened. One monk arrived in a Range Rover, parked and walked in ignoring everyone around him. Not one drop of water was offered. The Greek Orthodox Church harbours a deep antagonism to Islam. Is this the reason for their inhumanity and their silence and absence during this humanitarian crisis?
More surprisingly absent were student organisations from the University of the Aegean which has over 2000 studying in Karlovassi. Some individual students got involved but nothing was seen of the Students Union or indeed any other part of the University. There were no initiatives coming from the University to help the thousands of refugees who passed through Karlovassi.
As we noted above, nothing good is expected from the state, but the absence of the army was noticeable. Although not as big a presence as before, the Army is still a major feature of everyday life on Samos. Military bases litter the island, some in use others mothballed. Army vehicles are a common sight on the roads. Not one army bus or truck was used to rescue arriving refugees from the beaches. A huge resource with the capacity to house and feed hundreds of refugees was never used. Why not?
Then there were the ‘present but useless’ best typified by UNCHR. In August when at the Camp, we met a UNCHR worker who had arrived 3 weeks earlier. She wanted to know what we were doing so we told her something about what was happening in Karlovassi. We were amazed when she asked “Karlovassi?”. She had no idea that there were hundreds of refugees passing through this port and thought that Samos Town was the only way off the island. This is what we have come to expect from the UNCHR.
It was not until the Autumn 2015 that a new phase began to emerge with the creation of the Hotspots and the arrival of some of the big NGOs including Medecin Sans Frontiers (MSF) and Save the Children alongside an array of smaller national based charities. This phase will be looked at in a later post.
Much was revealed over this summer. The harshness and inhumanity of the system both locally and internationally was no great surprise. So much of the official policy and practice is rooted in framing the refugees as a security threat to be managed by the penal state. Police and prisons are simply the wrong people and wrong places for human beings seeking safe refuge. (The refugees were not surprised by the hostilities of the system. As we were told repeatedly the police are the same everywhere and anyway at least these police were not threatening to shoot them.) But we did see some positive changes in individual state agents who changed their attitudes and behaviour to the refugees over the summer. The Samos coastguard which not so long ago had a notorious reputation from pushing refugees back into Turkish waters became hugely valued as it shifted its focus to rescue. They saved many lives.
It is the refugees we remember most for whom a kind word was treated like water in a desert. They compelled us to think and to understand them even when they took more of the food or the clothes than they needed. When you never knew when you might eat again or get fresh clothes it was easy to understand why some behaved as they did. But it was their solidarities and their determination to get through which stands out.
There were many tears but there was also much laughter. Laughing, singing, dancing together, sometimes within minutes of stepping on to the beach was extraordinarily powerful in making powerful and positive engagements with the refugees. It was amazing to see even within 36 hours how many solid friendships were created and still continue over a year later. People can and do change. And it can happen very quickly.
And then there were the locals doing what they could reaching out to engage with the refugees. We shall never forget the 85 year old woman in Agios Konstantinos who could only give a pair of shoes but only after she had a friend re-colour the heels which had been badly scratched. Humanity was unleashed and extended to complete strangers. It was an eruption of humanity that took place across much of Europe and provided light and inspiration in a dark and cruel continent. No state system anywhere in Europe can match the quality of help and solidarity that emerged from the grass roots which is why what the system offers is so often inadequate, uncaring and dangerous. For the refugees on Samos the knowledge that ordinary people were mobilising to welcome them in so many places was hugely important. It gave a basic re-assurance they never get from the system.