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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