Striking for Refugees on Samos?

The Crowd in Samos Town for the General Strike, Feb 7

The weather was good on Thursday Feb 7th. This was the day of the General Strike on Samos called by a wide collection of parties and groups to protest the Hotspot in Samos town. The centre point was a gathering in the town centre where various speakers presented their perspective on the issue before moving on to the hospital.

I drove to the meeting not sure what to anticipate. In the days before, 2 friends, separately thought that there was going to be trouble. There wasn’t. But what to make of a rare event in which groups such as the church and the local government, not known for their sympathy with the refugees were now joining with business associations, trade unions, political parties and local societies in support of a one day general strike? And this time, the central argument for closing the Hotspot on Samos was because of its intolerable and inhumane conditions. It is clear that the support from some of the less sympathetic (to refugees)  was based on their assessment that the blindly evident horror of the hotspot was now their best way of getting it off the island. Nevertheless with many provisos the general strike suggested some solidarity with the refugees which does seem like a small step forward.

In the days after, key figures behind the strike were expressing their satisfaction . The turn out of some 3,000 people and the total closure of every business in the town was seen as sending a powerful message of the popular feeling on Samos to the government in Athens concerning the hotspot. It was following the disappointing meetings in December 2018 with ministers in Athens that the decision was taken to adopt a new and wider strategy as a means of forcing the government to take action.

No doubt the organisers will have been pleased by the publicity the strike prompted both in national newspapers and on national TV. Skai sent a crew and they broadcasted a film showing the horrific conditions of the refugees in the ‘jungle’ which now surrounds the hotspot. It also included interviews with some young women refugees who spoke of the fears of being assaulted, especially during the night ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxGA8ntyebc#action=share)

But one of the realities on Samos, at least over the past decade, is that none of this attention has led to any significant improvement in the conditions and treatment of the refugees. Of course it is important that the refugees on Samos are not invisible to the rest of the world but there are clear limits on what public awareness of such issues leads to, at least in terms of the well-being of refugees. One of the most graphic examples being the cells in the central police station which continue to hold mainly refugees in conditions and circumstances that are utterly appalling; up to 30 in a caged room, no natural light, no exercise, confined 24/7 up to 30 days at a time. The police federation routinely complain of the distress of the officers in managing such a hell hole; NGOs and other human rights groups periodically draw attention to the horrors of detention in police cells both in Samos and all over Greece. But nothing has changed.

Where were the refugees?

As for the strike itself there was one overwhelming question as far as I was concerned: “Where were the refugees?” What was supposed to be an act of solidarity was massively diminished by their absence. Yet on fine weather days such as this, you will always see many refugees on the streets, walking by the sea front or with their children in the play areas. But on this day, apart from a scattering of young African men on the very edges of the gathering, there were no refugees to be seen. It was startling and disturbing.

It is not clear as to what happened. KKE (the Greek communist party) claimed that the police stopped refugees from coming down from the camp and closed some of the access roads into the town. And their argument that the police were under orders from Athens to prevent any sign of solidarity between the refugees and the locals makes some sense. However, it was clear from the refugees we met that there had been no serious attempt to engage them in the general strike. There were no refugees on the speaker’s platform, and in the publicity for the event all the posters were in Greek. Had there been any effort to engage with the refugees, who themselves have marched through the streets of Samos town two times in the past month protesting their conditions, it would have been difficult for the police to keep refugees away.

It seems further actions are now being planned. The only response from the government to date has been a statement that a new site for a hotspot, away from Samos town, has been found and will be operational in April. No mention of the previous promise to have a new hotspot by February 2019, nor any details as yet to its location. Other demands raised on the Strike day including the necessity to rescind the EU/ Turkey agreement which until now has turned the Greek frontier islands into holding camps/prisons and to move the arrivals rapidly on to better facilities on the mainland have been totally ignored. As it stands, Athens and Samos are sharply divided.

Samos Notes

Recent actions on Samos have a very immediate and specific focus. Its a little like watching a person running on the spot; we have no idea where they came from or where they are going to. But we are not running on the spot when it comes to refugees here. We have history. Samos has been a gateway for refugees coming to Europe for years by sheer chance of its location. Much of that history is shameful for Samos was never any kind of Ellis Island in the bay of Manhattan. But shameful as it is lessons need to be drawn. The most important of which is that this is not the way to do it! At every conceivable level it is a disaster for refugees. For how much longer will it continue like this? This question is acute for when we lift our eyes from the immediate situation it is patently obvious that in terms of migration movements we have seen nothing yet. Capitalism’s rapacious plundering of the earth is provoking the most serious challenge faced by humanity; our very survival. As our world changes before our eyes we will see huge movements of people compelled to move. For a place like Samos there is more, much more to come. It is a challenge beyond challenges.

If there was ever a time for some serious thinking and planning it is now. When we look up to the authorities we are right to despair at their historic and endemic corruption and incompetence. If that is where our future lies then ….. But on the other hand when we look around us we see intelligence, competence and resources often forged in survival beyond imagining. This is where we must look.

I share David Swanson’s view that;

We have a moral responsibility to do what needs doing. What more has to be said?…..And one cannot simply plod along, working long hours until the plague has run its course. The plague ends us before it runs its course. We have to dedicate ourselves to ending with dignity and kindness, with the closest thing we can manage to the grace and wisdom that could have saved us. And then we have to rededicate ourselves to redoubling our efforts, again and again, with ever greater effort as we continue. The alternative of giving up is guaranteed not to be more enjoyable than working well together on a crisis that could bring out the best in us.”

(David Swanson, ‘The world will end in fire’ Counterpunch Jan 24 2019)

Feb 1

Dropped by to see the new clothing store which has been recently created by a group called Refugees4Refugees (see their facebook page for further details of their activities etc, https://www.facebook.com/Refugee4Refugees/). Great atmosphere in the store with both women -many- and men from the camp organising all their stuff which is not only clothes but much needed hygiene packs. Later went by when crowds of refugees were waiting patiently to be served. Great to see the importance given to the dignity of the refugees when choosing their clothes. Yet again another example of where refugee engagement transforms and makes for a better service.

Feb 8

Took Mohammed to the hospital because he was having bad headaches and neck pain. He laughed when he came back holding 10 paracetamol tablets. Paracetamol he said, is all you ever get here, no matter what the problem. (The same it seems in Greek prisons.)

Feb 10

Visited Kossi from Togo who is having his first asylum interview tomorrow. He is confident, I think rightly, about the strength of his case for asylum, but he is concerned because so many of the refugees from Togo are getting rejections. He tells me that many have had their second interview within one week of the first. When that happens he says, you get rejected.

(International refugee laws and conventions insist that all applications for international protection should be considered on their individual merits. However, it has been well documented that actual practice in Europe and elsewhere categorise refugees according to the state of their countries of origin. Put simply if your country is devastated by war then you have a prima facie case for asylum. If not from such a place, you are categorised as an economic migrant with no case for refugee status. )

We met in Kossi’s room which is provided by ARSIS a Greek NGO funded by UNHCR. The room is basic but a million times better than the tent in the jungle where he lived when he first arrived. But he is being plagued by bed bugs and ARSIS have yet to take any action to get rid of them. Instead they have told all the dozen refugees with rooms in this building that they must not allow their friends living in the jungle to use their showers. This is why they have the bed bugs. They are coming down from the camp.

Like the rest of the building, Kossi’s room, has white painted walls which have been marked by its previous occupants. It cries out to be re-painted. Kossi told me that they would love to do this job to make their living spaces better. “We spend hours in our rooms, lying on our beds doing nothing but looking at our phones”.

Sadly, this is all so typical for Samos. Never and nowhere have we seen any of the authorities here make any attempt to engage with the refugees to improve their living conditions.

Feb 12

Saw James, from Kenya, outside the Open Doors store. He had just come from visiting one of the gyms in the town. They told him he couldn’t join the gym because he didn’t have a passport. Had heard this before but never followed up. James is going to find out more. He is desperate to lose his growing belly. And as he said, “whose ever heard of such a thing ? A passport for gym?”

Feb 13

Met up with Mohammed, the rap singer from Gaza. He was soaked and very fed up. He had just come from the Camp where he had stood outside in today’s storms for 3 hours in a queue waiting to get his asylum card renewed. It is just another example of the casual cruelties routinely experienced by the refugees. The weather forecast for the next week is good. It would take nothing to postpone the renewals for one day to wait for the dry weather.

Mohammed has been busy working on a song about the Camp and his experiences on Samos. The song is powerful not just because of what he says about life in the Camp but also of what he says about how to respond and in its appeal for the solidarity of people; for love and for laughter. Its power for me was that it spoke beyond refugees but to the ways in which we, the people, should face our calamitous future as the earth increasingly rejects our plunderous presence. As his song says, if we follow the pattern set in the hotspots of Greece, then hearts and minds will close and disaster will follow. Now we have to get the song recorded!

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