Monthly Archives: October 2016

Refugees, Tourism and Islamophobia on Samos

Without exception every report on the refugee situation on Greek frontier islands such as Samos agree that the refugees stuck in the hotspots are suffering and that it is getting worse, week by week. In the 10 days leading up to 25th October 2016 there were 758 new arrivals on Samos with just 139 departures according to the local authority. All of them have been pushed into the Camp. Virtually every space has been taken up by tents. There are now close to 3,000 refugees in a fenced enclosure which is intended for 800. There is absolutely nothing positive to say about the Camp. This week we met a journalist from New York who had recently visited refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon who told us that the Samos camp was the worst she had seen.

Despite the mountains of reports and statements condemning the treatment of refugees arriving on the Greek islands, nothing improves. This starkly contrasts with the speed in which security and border hardening measures are implemented and expanded. So, before another report is commissioned or another journalist despatched to the islands is it not time to investigate why nothing changes; why no action is taken? Why is this cruel situation allowed to continue? The last thing the refugees need is yet another costly report telling them that their lives in the Camp are basically shit.

A useful starting point might be Maina Kiai’s final report as a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association to the UN Assembly (20th October 2016) in which she comments:

Many of those in power often don’t want to hear what people have to say. They don’t want to upset the status quo, even if that status quo is catapulting us towards obliteration.”

(http://statewatch.org/news/2016/oct/un-sr-final-statement.htm)

From the political right to the far left, from NGOs to most but not all European governments, from the EU to the UN there is unanimity about the inhuman conditions faced by refugees caught in the border camps. It is the one issue where there is some kind of agreement. On islands such as Samos, the various anti-refugee voices all cite these conditions as one of their reasons for wanting to see refugees moved off the island, within 72 hours of arrival if possible. Samos SOS which is planning a demonstration against the refugees in Vathi today (October 30th) in co-operation with the local Chamber of Commerce made this argument as well as stating that on no account would they accept a permanent Muslim minority on the island.

But the key issue which unites Samos SOS with the Chamber of Commerce is the now taken for granted argument on Samos that the refugees, largely Muslim, have had deeply damaged tourism on the island. Whilst they remain then tourism will never recover. So it is ironic to say the least that many tourist businesses represented in the Chamber of Commerce are trying to attract more Turkish tourists and indeed have them to thank for preventing a difficult tourist season from becoming a catastrophe. 2016 saw a 68% increase in Turkish tourists compared to 2015 with nearly 30,000 arrivals and an even bigger spike during the Eid festivities in October which are not yet included in the statistics. In the tourist village of Manolates the tourist shop keepers admitted that after a slow start to the season in May, this summer was no worse than 2015 saved by the increase in Turkish visitors, who incidentally are welcomed as they travel around the island and spend more money than most other nationalities.

Even so the contest between anti-islamic bigotry and money continues on Samos. This week a meeting was called in the sea side village of Agios Konstantinos to demand that the village should be refugee and Muslim free. The meeting however gathered little support which quickly evaporated when a local businessman arrived to denounce his fellow villagers as stupid for turning their back on what might be a valuable source of sustainable income. ‘Our hotels and bars are empty. If the refugees come with money we should welcome them’.

Driving through Samos town yesterday evening we saw many refugees out on the streets. There must have been at least 10 groups of young men and boys fishing along the sea wall. (We had learnt from the refugees at the cricket matches that fishing was now increasingly popular not just because it passed time but because they were catching some decent fish which were then cooked and eaten in the camp.) The children’s play areas were also busy with young refugee families having fun with their kids. There were small groups of young mothers walking and talking with toddlers in push chairs. The shops were closed so their general lack of money was not such an issue for them, and the refugees clearly outnumbered the locals. Quite simply we found the atmosphere to be wonderful. Like many, we are furious and saddened by the treatment of the refugees on Samos nevertheless it is not hell all of the time. Friendships and relationships have developed; people hang out together, cook and eat together, laugh and joke and support each other. On evenings such as last night you realise that in their lived reality as well as in their diversity refugees are not easy to demonise when they are around you, laughing and playing on the streets and by the sea. It is much easier for the system to lie about the refugees – as terrorists, as disease carriers, as religious fanatics ……. when you can’t see them. (Is this why the authorities locked the camp down on Friday morning and would not let any of the refugees out so they would not ‘contaminate’ by their presence the annual theatre of parades which mark Ohi Day (when in 1940 Greece said No to the Italian’s ultimatum of surrender or be invaded)?

Finally we would be very happy if all those who are against a Muslim presence on Samos and Europe more widely would take a moment to consider this little piece of information:

“The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the heart of Christian quarter of the walled Old City [Al Quds/Jerusalem] covers the assumed site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Six denominations – Latin (Roman Catholic), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Copts – share custodianship of the cavernous church. Bitter disputes over territories and responsibilities have erupted in the past, sometimes involving physical altercations.

In a sign of the distrust between the different denominations, the keys to the church have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century.” (The Guardian, 28th October 2016)

As Fatima, a Syrian mother told us recently “without laughter we will be destroyed by our tears”.

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SNAFU and its Consequences for Refugees on Samos

(SNAFU – situation normal all fucked up)

It is now the middle of October and the weather is still holding fine. But the first heavy rains of the autumn are likely at any time. What then for the hundreds of refugees who are living in the tents inside the Hotspot/Camp? From what we can determine no provision has or is being planned for the coming winter.

The past week has seen the biggest daily arrivals since before the EU/Turkey pact of March 2016, with over 500 this week. Most are from Syria. For some reason the Greek media is giving little publicity to this significant increase. Recent experience tells us that the Turkish government has been fairly effective over the past 7 months in keeping down the refugee numbers crossing to the islands. So is this recent increase a sign of Turkey’s growing impatience with the EU over the granting of visas and a not so subtle hint of what might follow if the EU pulls back on its promise?

At the moment all the new arrivals are being absorbed/packed into the already overcrowded camp.

This week we needed the phone number of the Camp Manager. No problem except that we were warned it might be difficult to make contact as the Camp Manager had only just arrived and was not expected to stay for longer than 3 weeks. It appears that no one is prepared to take on the job on a long term basis so Camp Managers come and go at an extraordinary rate. As one of the NGO bosses here told us, it takes them at least a couple of weeks for the manager to get any kind grasp of what is involved and then they have to brief their successor before leaving.

It is a ridiculous situation that such a strategic position is filled in this way. But sadly when it comes to the care of the refugees it is all too commonplace. There is an endless turnover of key personnel; there is no effective management; there is no planning or development agenda; the priority is day to day maintenance. The consequences are many. Allocation of accommodation in the camp to newly arriving refugees is chaotic. Families with young children can find themselves in tents whilst fit able young adults are housed in cabins. In the past month we have seen the arrival of over 120 new staff to the camp, amongst their number we are told are social workers and psychologists. But they are doing virtually nothing and seem to sit around all day in their orange waist coats drinking coffee. There is just one coordinator who is overwhelmed trying to find ‘placements’ for the new workers. In the meantime there are hundreds of young kids running around unsupervised who are desperately in need of structured activities; there are older children now who have learnt that self harming gets them some attention; and there is the pall of depression which hangs like a thunder cloud over the camp and which this week saw a young Pakistani refugee try and end things by pouring petrol over himself. He survived but is badly burnt.

It is easy to forget that the nearly 2000 people in the Camp is around the same number of students in a large British secondary school. Caring and supporting them is not some sort of unbelievably hard or unreasonable challenge. But here they aren’t even at first base.

SHORT TERMISM

Since March 20th the overwhelming majority of arrivals have been held on Samos. Many have now been here for between 5 and 7 months. There is not the constant turmoil of short stays and departures as was the case last year. This ought to have favoured better outcomes for refugees by allowing systems and processes to be put in place – systematic children’s activities including education, language classes, recreational activities, and cooking for example.

But nothing much happens which is systematic and enduring. And much of this is to do with the short term characteristics of the system. It is not just the Camp Management which is continually changing. A 13 year old unaccompanied minor from Pakistan told us yesterday how much he had learnt from the teachers who held classes in the house where he was staying with 9 other youngsters. But he said, they were always changing. One week, two weeks and then they were gone and new ones arrived. He didn’t like it. Same with the lawyers, who are so desperately needed. They too come for similar short periods of time as do many of the other volunteers who come to Samos. It would seem that virtually all the services most valued by the refugees are provided on a short term basis, usually by NGOs which can attract professional volunteers (such as teachers, lawyers and therapists). Good as some of these volunteers are, there is a limit to what they can achieve in a few weeks and most importantly there is no continuity of care and no corresponding accumulation of experience and expertise.

PROMISES, PROMISES

There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs. Not the least is that the state in Greece is broken. It lacks both competency and capacity. There are many examples which illustrate this reality. On October 5th Ekathimerini reported that EU officials have warned Greece that they might have to return 509 million euros from the 1 billion they have been given for refugees this past year, “due to the slow pace at which those funds are being absorbed.” In other words the money is not being spent. The un-named Commission official continued: “There is an increasing sense of a country that cannot bring about results in the refugee crisis or in the economy.” Greece is an easy target, its frailties are well known. But within the EU the intensity by which member states guard their sovereignty especially with respect to migration, defence and border management have made it almost impossible for the EU to control, enforce, and implement key aspects of its refugee policy. So many of these elements such as re-location to relieve the pressure on Greece and Italy are not working as member states refuse to act to fulfil their pledges. Amnesty International recently estimated that at the current rate it will take 18 years to relocate the refugees now in Greece and Italy. Commitments which are given high profile at the time later vanish into thin air. As the Greek deputy foreign minister (Nikos Xydakis) complained at the end of September (Keep Talking Greece 28/9/2016):

“…7,000 refugees could be immediately relocated from Greece to other EU countries, all formalities for this procedure have been met. But it does not happen. Most EU countries take far too few refugees from Greece, some EU countries do not even respond to our requests…..

The EU Commission said in March this year that we needed 400 officers from the Asylum Agency EASO. To date only 26 officers have come to the islands. We need extremely more support from the EU countries in tackling the refugee crisis in Greece. I expect that the Europeans will now show solidarity and not only make promises, but also act.”

We can see nothing which suggests a resurgence of European solidarity in the near future. So on the frontier islands such as Samos we will continue to hear the announcements that promise some improvements – getting the kids into school, moving the most vulnerable from the islands to better specialist provision on the mainland, more resources for unaccompanied minors and so on – but then nothing happens. As the Samos Municipality noted in its statement following this week’s meeting with 5 government ministers in Athens (October 11th) to discuss the refugee situation on Samos:

“It is obvious that the municipality of Samos welcomes any initiative to address these issues [!!!!] and we will work with all the relevant authorities to solve it. However, for these efforts to be effective they must be developed in a framework of absolute transparency and compliance with the law and not stay at the stage of promises and simple drawings on paper, as before…..

[T]he problem will not be solved by mere promises nor with announcements of their “desirability”.They require a plan, a process and operation…The time for words, after all, has long since passed. Action is needed now and indeed already by yesterday.”(My Samos Blog, 11.10.2016)

Little wonder then that refugees and activists on Samos take no notice of official statements of intent, while despite the flow of reports from NGOs and think tanks which endlessly detail and report on the awful conditions in the Hotspots compounded by the inappropriate actions of the police nothing changes. And as far as we can see nothing fundamental will change until and unless the authorities and NGOs start listening to and engaging with refugees. But for that to happen the system is going to have change its entire approach to the refugees and see them in completely new ways as competent human beings.

SILENCED

Nobody in authority here listens to refugees; nobody here asks them what they need or how they could be involved to make life more bearable. There has been no attempt to create any forum where refugees can get their voices heard. There are many groups here who speak passionately on behalf of the refugees but which have no direct input or engagement with the refugees. Time and again refugees have pointed to the wide gulf between themselves and those who are paid to help them. There are no office hours for refugees and their problems yet ‘wait, come back tomorrow, we close at 5pm’, are all familiar responses to the refugees. Many of the refugees in the camp are acute observers of what goes on around them. Many have little else to do all day but look and watch. They see the hundreds of new people coming to work in the camp but doing nothing. They see the offices where refugees are never invited inside but conduct their business from the door way. They see the money spent on the ephemera – the vests and uniforms, the fancy engraved doors of the MSF office, the handsome vehicles, the flags; they can’t avoid seeing the refugee professionals in the bars, cafés and restaurants. They know that some of these senior staff pay over 1000 euros rent for their accommodation, and have cleaners and subsidised food. The vast majority of the refugees have nothing, not one cent after being here for 6 to 7 months. That is why so many stay in the camp and rarely venture into the town. That is why we no longer see advertising signs in Arabic outside the shops; that is why you won’t see piles of sleeping bags for sale outside the tourist shops like last year. These refugees have little or no money after being stuck on Samos for so many months.

There is no transparency when it comes to funding whether to state agencies or NGOs on Samos. We have no clear idea of what money comes in, how it is distributed or spent. But the 90 plus hire cars we have seen parked outside the Camp fences would alone suggest that the funding is significant. What is clear though is that the refugees are not the principal beneficiaries. There is for example no provision to pay for the ferry fares to Athens when the refugees do get papers to leave the island. There is no help given to help refugees find jobs or find houses and rooms to rent when they decide, as many now do, to stay on Samos to complete their paperwork. Many realise that Athens is not the place to be if you have no contacts there or a place to stay. But there are no systems through which they communicate any of their needs or demands.

So each day rolls into the next and SNAFU remains the reality.

Cricket on Samos

Since the beginning of August 2016 there have been regular cricket matches between a team drawn from Kashmiri refugees and a team of Pakistani refugees. They play two limited over matches (12 overs per innings) on the astro turf (football pitch) at the Vathi Stadium on Tuesday and Friday mornings starting at 9.30am and finishing at 1pm.

img_0405We have been involved since the beginning of September and our main responsibility is to be the bag carriers, bringing the gear-donated by cricket fans in Scotland and Ireland- the water and some fruit and not least the score sheets. Our one other job is to toss the coin to determine which team gets to bat first.cricekt-gear

We had no idea what to expect. But from the very beginning it was obvious that many of these guys were good cricketers. Both teams have batsmen and bowlers who are impressive. The astro turf makes it difficult to score runs as the ball is quickly slowed by the surface. So both teams seek to score as many boundaries as possible. The fielding team is mainly set out along the boundaries. It has led to some exciting play as the batsmen launch themselves into huge strokes as they try to clear the boundaries for either 6 or 4 runs. There are spectacular catches every match and it is often in the high quality of the fielding that you realise you are seeing players who know and play the game well.

img_0430

We knew that cricket was a huge game in Pakistan and Kashmir and that all over these countries there were thousands upon thousands (usually boys and men) playing and watching the game. There is a passion for cricket. So it is with these 2 teams and as we get to know more about the players we learnt that a fair few of them had played in top quality cricket in district, village and university teams. One of them even held a cricket scholarship at university. So little wonder we are privileged to see such a high standard on Samos.

Cricket is not widely known in Greece (outside of Corfu). Not surprisingly the matches attract very few locals although those that have come have enjoyed the exciting play even when totally confused by the rules. Those who do come are mainly other refugees from the camp and a scattering of volunteers. Without exception, all those from ‘outside’ who have come to the matches have found it a moving experience as this visitor from Ireland told us;

I’m a cricket lover at home having played with my brother so I follow it a little, but as I said to my brother I got more pleasure out of watching that match than any at Lords or the “GABA” in Brisbane.
For me to see the lads with such confidence and enjoying themselves in a normal situation was the most heart warming experience of the fortnight”.img_0432

These cricket matches on Samos are not exceptional. For billions of people sport is one of the ways in which they find happiness in a world which is often cruel and gives little or no opportunity to most people to express themselves. Sports can provide spaces where you can breath again and feel human with some autonomy. This is the case with these two refugee teams and their supporters many of whom have now been stuck on Samos for 7 months and many of whom are likely to face deportation when their asylum claims are finally rejected.

Who could not feel utterly dejected by this situation yet it is their refusal to be overwhelmed by depression that is so impressive. These cricket matches are seen by them as life savers. They know it and they cherish it. Those who knew the players before these matches started talked of their deep depression and their occasional bouts of drinking which inevitably led to scuffles and fights. This is no longer the case as the players concern themselves with being fit for the matches. However there are match days when people are down and sad usually following the rejection of asylum appeals and recently with the arrest of six Pakistani refugees from the camp who had exhausted the asylum procedure and were taken to the police cells awaiting deportation to Turkey. Some of these were deported 3 days ago. The cricket can do so much but it does not change their circumstances or their likely future.

cricket-4The matches provide us with a chance to talk together in ways that are almost impossible within the camp. There is only so much you can say about the horrors of the camp and the endless wait for the authorities to process their claims. Whereas the cricket matches allow for much wider and deeper conversations about their lives, experiences and hopes. There are some exceptions, but the majority of the Kasmiris and Pakistanis want to come to Europe to find a life which is denied them at home. Many want to continue with their university education, more want to find work which will give them a living wage and the possibility of helping the friends and family they leave behind. Such remittances are crucial to many in the most impoverished parts of the world and are far greater and more effective than the combined global humanitarian funds distributed each year.

So many of our conversations with these refugees are identical to those we have with many Greek friends who along with other 200,000 young people have left Greece over the past four years in search of a life not possible in this now stricken society. It is also worth noting that in a recent survey of those leaving Greece 40% gave corruption as a major factor in their decision, which is much the same as we hear from those who come from Pakistan, Morocco and Algeria. However that is where the similarities stop. Giannis and Maria can travel like human beings in search of their futures, but Fatima and Mohammed travel with no dignity and often in danger to end up in places like the Samos Camp. Of course they ask why? But do those born in the right places ever ask why too?

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Kashmir Kings