Refugee Lessons: Let us Free Like the Birds !


My life has been turned upside down amd inside out. My brain has never had to work so hard to make sense, to survive and to live. For some of my hardest years, the system saw me and treated me as illegal. That is a big experience. I learnt much. But above all I thought about being human and being free.


Now 24 years old I was born in Aleppo in northern Syria. As one of the oldest human cities in the world it is rich with history. But I didn’t think of the city as a unique place. I thought that our cultures were everywhere in the world. As a young Syrian I couldn’t leave the country for many reasons, including money and international laws, which did not allow me to roam freely across the earth. I had no direct knowledge of the world other than Syria.

After the winds of war tore up my country, I was forced to leave Syria without any options other than escaping into Turkey, illegally. For the first time in my life I came to understand the incredible importance that humans give to ‘papers’ – passports, ID, visas and so on. If I had been a bird in Aleppo I would have been free to go where I wished with no thought about papers or borders. For birds and all other living creatures on this earth borders have no meaning. But we seem to be alone amongst living things in restricting this universal right.


When I arrived in Turkey I discovered that there are people who speak a strange language (my first feeling), which is Turkish and they do not know Arabic. I thought that I must learn their language so that I can communicate with them, but the Turkish language was not the only obstacle; the Turkish way of life I found hard to accept.

In the short time I spent in Turkey I experienced a society where men and women worked so hard for little money. Life for many seemed little better than prison.

On one sunny morning I went to a public garden to sit under the sun. There were a lot of young and old people in the garden and I approached one of them and said “Hi” to him, but he refused to respond and then he said, “What do you want, do you know me?”

I returned to my house where I heard the voices of the women in our neighbourhood, which I did not understand, but they were very loud. It was strange for me that their women sit in the street and talk and prepare food and wear bright clothes whilst on their heads they put a coloured cap that does not cover half of their hair, while their daughters wear short skirts and go from morning until evening to work. Their life looked very difficult and complex and I did not understand it well.

On Fridays I saw men streaming to the mosque to hear the Imam’s speech ًwhich is filled with screaming, crying, warnings and intimidations from God. And the people there were all crying and praying. But once they left the mosque they go back to their hard work, and later, tired after long hours of work they drink beer (which is not allowed in Islam ) and eat dough mixed with chili. (I don’t like chili!) There was a simplicity to this life but it was so hard and I felt that I was never accepted as a refugee from Syria. I felt that I had to become like them in order to live with them.

After some days I decided that I couldn’t make a new life in Turkey so I left for Greece, again ‘illegally’. There was no other choice for me. I am no longer afraid of illegal travel. I have been a homeless and guilty refugee as some people in the world seem to see me and as international laws want me, but in fact I am a bird traveling wherever he wants.


When I arrived in Greece (Samos Island) I could not roam the streets or travel between the islands because I was forced to live in a cage (camp for refugees).

Samos camp was full of refugees of different colours, shapes and languages. For the first time I met many different people, who I hadn’t been able to meet before, such as Ethiopians and Afghanis, Pakistanis, Indians, Egyptian Arabs, Algerians and many others. I did not know that all human beings were so alike and that we eat similar food with a slightly different taste and that Afghans and Pakistanis have a lot of cooking skills. And others were into sports and learning languages, and the prettiest of all of this was the chance I had to touch the body of one of the black refugees from Africa without fear, and I knew they were human beings like us. And it was in Greece where I had the opportunity to meet and know people from Europe and the north America.

How beautiful it is to be a free bird.

Despite all these great and new experiences there were many difficulties in getting close to people from so many different societies. There seemed many issues which held us back from accepting one another.

Even gays from Arab and Asian countries
including Greece seemed closed to themselves and do not seem to like any person except gays. But I think that is a reaction because many people don’t accept them. How hard it is to be different and to be a friend to all people, they see you as different and you see them as different and both of you are afraid of the other.

The Greek government allowed me to fly to its capital after much trouble and time and to start another tale.

Athens is not similar to Aleppo or Izmir and was so different from them, with people from many countries and cultures. But this did not change the nature of its people who love to dance and party, drinking beer and raki which is the best alcoholic beverage they have.This may be nice for them, but I was very surprised that most of the workers I saw in Athens were immigrants and refugees from Asia and Africa.

It was not difficult to talk to the young Greek people because they speak English and I have enough to make conversation. But their pronunciation of the English language can seem strange as they speak a new language with a strange voice, but the bigger problem was with the old people who speak only the language of their country.

If I hadn’t met my English friends, life would have been harder for me in Greece. It was also great that my English friends are sociologists which helped them and me better understand the Greek people and others. I began to realise that I too had been influenced by the place where I grew up where the air I breathed was not so open and fresh.

In Greece, which is one of the gateways into Europe, you find a lot of refugees fleeing from their walled countries; many of them also seek to escape from Greece. And the reason is that they are looking for a country that does not have racism, fences and prisons, and is full of safety and love and coexistence. And where you have a chance to make a new life. Greece is a beautiful country but it is so poor that like many refugees I couldn’t see how I could make my new life there.

It seemed to me that most of us still carry in our minds many feelings of distrust and lack of acceptance of those different from ourselves just as we are looking for people different from us and to become like them. I experienced a lot of persecution from refugees which made me think that the freedom we are looking is still infected by the poisonous air from the soceities where we once called home. Even now I am still trying to understand all of this!


My illegal journey finished in Greece. I was so lucky when the Dutch government allowed to me to go to Holland by family re-unification. They recognized me as a free, legal bird . A few weeks after my acceptance I took the travel documents and went to Athens airport to stand there as all other people and could now say I am here ! A legitimate bird so you have to let me get into the plane.

I arrived in the Netherlands with my beautiful loyal dog Max after I got financial help from my British friends to buy travel tickets for me and my dog and some money to buy food, clothes and bags.

The journey was very beautiful, but the fear of another shock was in my mind all the time. I arrived in that beautiful green country, which is trying to escape from the water which is threatening it from all sides. Should it win then will I be safe with Dutch people or should I learn how to swim to start again my journey again but this time as fish not bird ? That was the first question in my mind. Crazy!

In the airport in Amsterdam my friend was waiting me to take me to his house in Enschede where he is living. It was not a house but just one room he shared with another three Syrian refugees.

These were not the easiest days for me in the Netherlands because I was living with my friend and Max my dog in a small room. I couldn’t relax because these Syrian birds didn’t accept me and my dog with them in the same house and because they see me as a ‘fucking feminine’ boy so they want to fuck me or for me to leave the house. They didn’t accept Max either because they said it is not allowed in Islam to have a dog in your house. Although I tried to talk with one of them to explain to him that we are both human and that I am a good person and not as he thinks and his answer was “why you are talking with me ? What do you want ? “

My question is, is he right that I shouldn’t have talked to him and every person must make his life in a small shell ? or is he a psychiatric patient who needs treatment in order to learn to live with others?


Before going to my friend’s house I had to spend a few days in a camp sorting out my papers. I arrived at the refugee camp after a journey of more than three and a half hours, but the beauty of the nature and the houses there made me forget everything. I had not seen in my life more beautiful buildings and more beautiful grounds for a refugee camp.Wherever you look, you find trees, flowers and small houses with red rooves, white doors and policemen wandering around the camp on bicycles with a beautiful smile on their faces.

I can not forget those smiles that explained the meaning of life and assured me of my humanity, which I feel has been ‘imprisoned’ since I was a child growing up in Aleppo. And it was not only the smiles on the faces of the police, but wherever you go, you find people smiling at you and greeting you as if they knew you for years or as if you were one of their family.

Even the refugees living here were painting their faces with the same smile. Perhaps the secret is that when you see this smile everywhere and all the time it will draw on your face without thinking. This experience made me so happy because I never imagined that there are people smiling for all people even if they have different colours, religions, shapes, education levels, races and passports.

The story does not end here, but the smiles still accompany me everywhere here in the city where I decided to live in the east of the Netherlands. Every morning and evening I go out with my dog for a walk. I see people around me smile and greet each other and me . That is really the key to life and this is a beautiful society which seems to accept all cultures, and with smiles welcomes all people and all creatures.

Perhaps the Netherlands is not the only country with these wonderful qualities, but this is what I have discovered so far. Life is going on and my wings are stronger and longer now that I have I got legitimate wings. But I will never forget that legal or not we will never stop trying to fly, free like the birds in the sky.

Saad Abdullah

August 2019


This man is Hisham Mustafa from Aleppo, Al Sfir 

Turkish police transferred him 25 days ago from Istanbul to Syria ( Idleb). He was given no choice but to return to a place where the war continues. In Istanbul he left behind his wife and their three children. Without Hisham they don’t have any one to help them or to fed them. He had to get back to them. He tried many times but it is very difficult now in the border area between Syria and Turkey because it is full of Turkish soldiers. But then one day it was different because the soldiers let him to get into the border area after he had told them his story and his frantic concern for his wife and children in Istanbul. He had only walked some metres on Turkish land to find his body was the target of Turkish soldiers’ bullets.

In truth he was killed many times. The first time was when they let him get into Turkey with his family illegally without any papers . The second time was when they left him to work illegally in Turkey and to have a house and to slowly re-build his life, all illegally . The  third time was when they decided that being illegal in Turkey he should now go back to his country as he came originally; without his family without his money; without everything. And the fourth time was the easiest when they killed him with their bullets

He is now gone with his beautiful dreams and noble desire to return to his family to give them the help that they needed. 

Many of us who fled Syria and had the luck and the money to get into Europe have family and friends in Turkey which has been the home of millions of Syrians escaping the war. The life for them there is very hard – few jobs, low wages, overcrowded homes and poverty. For many this has been their life for six years. They rely on their own efforts with nothing from the government or UNHCR.

And now we have new fear in their lives. In recent months the Erdogan administration has started removing work from the men in particular and deporting them back to the Idlib region. Hisham was just one man caught and returned.

More and more we are getting terrible news from Turkey.

The woman in the photo  was taken as she was on a bus going back to Syria. The police caught her on the streets and forced her on to the bus. She cried a lot. She asked the police to give her time to say goodbye to her children. They refused.

We are now sick with worry for our friends and families stuck in Turkey. Although some of us are now safe Europe, we are so powerless to help. It is so cruel what is happening. We can’t stay quiet. We must not be silent faced with such evil.

Saad Abdllah August 2019

Listen to the Voices

‘Listen to the voices of the prison stones which see everything inside.’

By Saad Abdllah

The crying of the rubble in Syria reveals the pain of the people trapped under the debris. But the pain of the Syrian refugees continues as they search for safety and life.

The walls of the prisons in Athens are screaming injustice! Many Syrian refugees are in prisons without charge or conviction, many of them were forced to sail the sea to find life; they were terrified, frightened by the waves, the cold, the small boat tossed like a leaf in the wind, and many were scared of the smugglers and lost their power and their will.

Many Syrians have come to the Ottoman lands to escape the war in their country.This is the closest point they can cross into Europe. But as all of you know many of the human traffickers and soldiers of the Ottomans take from the Syrian refugees everything they have.

The shadow of death and injury follows them as they travel through the Ottoman lands. And when they stand at last on the beaches and look across the sea to the islands of Greece they now must face their biggest danger; to cross the sea of death (the Aegean Sea ) .They are now very close to death, not sure whether they will live or die. But there is no return. So on they go, placing their lives in the hands of smugglers.

Young Syrians are subjected to many tricks when dealing with human traffickers. They are vulnerable to theft, violence, rape and the worst forms of torture because they are Syrian on Ottoman soil.

Refugees are asked for large amounts of money,to cross the sea. Those who can pay will be on the death journey but those who do not have enough will be asked to drive the boat and carry on their shoulders the responsibility for all their friends as they drive into the sea to face and wrestle with waves and the weather, often in the darkness of night.

Accused! Arrested! and Imprisoned!

There are many examples of young Syrians who have been forced to drive the rubber boats simply because they do not have enough money. Some of them had enough money but still they ended up driving the boat because the boat driver who had been sent by the smuggler was not capable.So they drove to keep a live their souls and their friends to reach the safe harbour of the Greek beaches.

There is often a great tragedy here as they come close to the Greek beaches when the Greek Coast Guard approaches to rescue them. Just to see a young refugee driving the boat is enough for the coastguards to accuse and arrest him, without any question, of being a smuggler. These officials take him to the nearest prison where he starts another timeless journey of despair and torment.

One of the prisoners told me that “ this is not a prison but a centre of education on how to use drugs and how to trade in them .You can easily get the amount of drugs you want through people working for the Greek police and prison officers whose main task ought to be to protect the prison and the prisoners.” They are never held to account for their actions.

Another added that “the prisoners are thrown in prison without even knowing what they are accused of and without even being asked for their names and where they come from. I spent more than a year in jail without anyone asking me one question or giving me one minute to defend my self “.

Greek prisons seem like an operating theatre where bodies are cut up even with the heart pumping blood and the soul in pain.

It is strange to be the saviour of the refugees so we do not drown in the middle of the Aegean Sea and then to be considered a criminal who should be in prison for up to 45 years! and he does not even know if he would live a quarter of it or not. In other words we can say that for some young Syrians who do not have enough money to give to the smugglers they have two options either to die in Turkey or to die in drug and addiction prisons in Athens.

I was shocked by news that I heard from many young refugees in Athens’ prisons that there is one judge on one of the islands who gives every one of the refugees who had been caught driving a boat carrying refugees to the Greek beaches at least 45 years sentence without any discussion or mercy .They told me she did this in retaliation for the spirit of her brother who had drowned in the Aegean Sea.

I do not know how to describe fully my feelings when I heard about the availability of drugs and addiction in Athens. Today I can tell you very clearly that there are many young refugees (20 -40 years old) who are rich in talents and energy who at a time when the world needs them are dying and suffering in the worse way in prison.

This is a tragedy which needs to be known. But if you know and keep silent then that will be an even greater calamity.

Can you imagine that Greece this great beautiful country once seen as the home of Xenios Zeus, the ancient god of foreigners and hospitality and which is still considered a paradise by many people,now has on it’s land so many cruel places.Greece for too many people especially refugees is now experienced as the capital of death, drugs and suffering where the the embrace of Xenios Zeus has long disappeared.

صوت الحجارة فضاحاً فا أنصتوا له لعلكم تعلمون.
ما كاد أن توقف صوت بكاء حجارة سوريا مخبرة عن آلام البشر التي تحتها حتى سمع صوت أحجار اخرى تتألم.

أسوار سجون اثينا تستصرخ وا ظلماه
فآلاف اللاجئين السوريين في سجون اثينا بلا تهمة و لا إدانة،فمنهم من ركب البحر مجبورا و منهم من شق البحر خائفا و مزعوراً من تجار البشر و منهم من لم يكن له حولا و لا قوة

الكثير من الشباب السوريين قد زحفوا إلى الأراضي العثمانية هربا من الحرب في سوريا فهي اقرب ارض يستطيعون من خلالها العبور الى أوربا ولكن و كمان يعلم كلكم بأن تجار تهريب البشر و حلفائم من جنود العثمانيين يأخذون من اللاجئ السوري كل ما يملك على حساب بقائه على قيد الحياة ووصوله الي اقرب نقطة من أوربا

و بُعيد تلك الرحلة الاشبه برحلات الموت تأتي المرحلة التالية و هي مرحلة الموت الحقيقة التي شرطها الاساسي هو عبور بحر الموت( بحر ايجة) و قبل الموت هناك سكرات، وسكرات هذا الموت هي التعامل مع تجارها

يخضع الشباب السوريين للكثير من المخاطر بتعاملهم مع تجار البشر في تركيا لأنهم معرضون للسرقة و القتل و الاغتصاب و أبشع أنواع العذاب لمجرد انهم سوريين على أرض عثمانية
و يطلب منهم مبالغ كبيرة من الأموال فمن يملك و يسلم يصعد رحلة الموت و من لا يملك يُطلب منه ان يقود القارب و يحمل في وزره حِمله و حِمل كل أصدقائه في عرض البحر و ان يواجه و يصارع الأمواج و حده بلا ذنب و لا شفقة .

هناك الكثير من الأمثلة على هذا من الشباب السوريين الذين قد جُبروا على قيادة القارب المطاطي لمجرد عدم امتلاكهم المال الكافي، و منهم من كان يملك المال الكافي لكنه لم يجد الكفاءة المطلوبة في سائق القارب الذي قد اُرسل من قبل المهرب فما كان منه إلا أن أخذ مكانه و حاول أن يحافظ على سلامة روحه و أرواح أصدقائه لكي تصل إلى مرسى الامان على الشواطئ اليونانية .

لكن الفاجعة الكبرى ليست هنا بل هي على الشواطئ اليونانية او قبلها ببضعة أمتار وذالك عندما يقترب خفر السواحل اليونانية لمساعدتهم او إنقاذهم ، فالمجرد ان يُرى اللاجئ الشاب يقود القارب يُتهم وبلا اي سؤال بأنه مهرب و من تجار البشر و يأخذ إلى اقرب السجون و تبداء معه رحلة الخلود إلى الياس و عذاب الدنيا و الآخرة.

فا السجون اليونانية هي أشبه بمراحل تشريح جسدٍ لا زالت الروح تنبض فيه و لازال القلب يضخ فيه الدماء .

كما قال أحدهم من داخل إحدى السجون ” إنها ليست سجون بل هي مراكز للتعليم على كيفية تعاطي المخدرات و الحشيش و الإتجار فيها فهناك تستطيع بكل سهولة ان تحصل على كمية المخدرات التي تريدها عن طريق أشخاص تعمل لصالح الشرطة اليونانية التي مهمتها الأساسية هي حماية السجن و المساجين او حتى محاسبتهم ”
كما أضاف آخر ان السجين يُلقى في السجن بدون ان يعرف حتى ما هي تهمته و بلا ان يسأل حتى عن اسمه و من اين أتى و انه قد أمضى هذا الشاب أكثر من سنة كاملة داخل السجن بلا ان يسأل سؤال واحد و بلا أن يُعطى دقيقة واحدة للدفاع عن نفسه.

و من العجيب أن يكون منقذ الاجئين من الغرق في وسط بحر ايجة مجرم و يَحق عليه السجن لمدة خمسة و أربعون عاما و هو لا يدري إذ كان سيعيش ربعها ام لا و بصيغة اخرى نستطيع أن نقول بأن الشاب السوري الذي لا يملك المال الكافي لكي يعطيه لتجار البشر في تركيا له إحدى الخيارين إما ان يموت في بحر ايجة غرقا او يموت في سجون
المخدرات و الإدمان في اثينا .
أثار غضبي خبر قد سمعته من الكثير من الشباب الذين في سجون اثينا بأنه هناك قاضية في إحدى جزر اليونان ، تعطي لكل شب قد ساق قارب يحمل الاجئين من تركيا حكم لا يقل عن خمسة و أربعون عاما بلا ايي مناقشة او رحمة و ذالك انتقاما لروح أخيها الذي قد اماته القدر غرقا في بحر ايجة.

فإن كنتم تدرون فتلك مصيبة و إن كنتم لا تدرون فإن المصيبة أعظم.
لا اعرف كيف اصف شعوري فيما سمعت من أحد المساجين في سجون المخدرات و الإدمان ان هناك الآلاف من الشباب الذين عملهم الأساسي هو طلاب جامعات و علم و مدرسين و منهم الأطباء و منهم المهندسين وووو الكثير من المسميات الجميلة و الصفات الرائعة التي يحتاجها هذا العالم اليوم و لكنهم اليوم جميعهم تحت مسمى واحد وهو مدمنون مخدرات ( بفضل السجون اليونانية ) و يسيرون في طريق واحد ( طريق الياس و الهلاك)
هل تستطيعون أن تتخيلو ذالك بان اليونان هذا البلد الجميل العظيم الذي حمل راية الحب و السلام على مر العصور و الذي يعتبر جنة النجاة للكثير من الشعوب ان يكون على أرضه تلك السجون المخيفة او بصيغة اقرب الى الواقع تلك الغابات المظلمة؟

استطيع اليوم ان اخبركم بان الآلاف من الشباب السوريين الذين تتراوح أعمارهم بين ٢٠ و ٤٠ و الذين يزخرون بل مواهب و العلم والفكر و الطاقة التي نحتاجها و العالم كله يحتاجها يموتون اليوم بأبشع طرق الموت و العذاب و التي هي المخدرات و الإدمان و الياس في سجون اليونان بلا ذنب و بلا سبب ، و بدون ان يملكون خيار واحد للحياة .

اهلا وسهلا بكم هنا اليونان عاصمة الموت و المخدرات بعد أن كانت عاصمة الحب و السلام.

Moving Stories




Just over a week ago Abshir, from Somalia, was transferred from Samos to a mainland refugee camp at Nea Kavala in northern Greece. He was part of around 350 refugees taken that day from Samos as part of the Government’s attempt to ease pressure on the massively overcrowded camp in Vathi. All of them left on the ferry to Athens and in Abshir’s case with some others, he was bussed north. In all a journey of nearly 24 hours. No food or drink provided.

Abshir was very nervous about this move. He did not want to leave Samos. After 5 months this shy gay young man from Somalia was at last feeling more comfortable. UNHCR had recognised that it was not safe for Abshir, on account of his sexuality, to stay in the camp which led to the Greek NGO, Arsis, funded by the UNHCR, to provide him with a single room in a modern shared apartment. It was not five star but it was a million times better than the tent he had in the jungle around the camp. He had access to a shower, washing machine, kitchen, wi fi; he had his room and he was warm and dry. As he grew in confidence he made some close friends and started Greek language classes, again funded by UNHCR. He was also making plans to create a small business.

If Abshir refused to move he would lose his monthly UNCHR allowance and his accommodation. Without any family support or other sources of regular income he felt he had no choice. So his focus shifted to finding out what he could expect when he got to Nea Kavala and to ensure that his case papers were transferred. Basically he was told that he need have no worry and that he would continue to receive the appropriate care although he would be need to be patient as they had many people arriving in Nea Kavala, especially from the frontier islands of Kos, Lesvos and Samos.

Since arriving in Nea Kavala Abshir has been living in a tent. He has one blanket. Most nights he is cold. He sleeps on the floor.

Abshir’s Tent

The tent sits on stones so the floor is uncomfortable. It has no electricity, no furniture, no wi fi access, no cooking facilities. The meals are basic and he can’t eat them as they give him a bad stomach pain. Hours are spent in lines – for food, for the showers, for the toilet. The water is heated by solar panels so in the early mornings the water is cold. This is when Abshir showers as there is no line. The laundry is overwhelmed and gives priority to established residents. He tells me that even if could find a way to wash his clothes he would have to sit and watch them. There is so much hardship in the camp that nothing is secure. Already he has had milk and bread and some money taken from his tent. Many people are very hungry he said. The only consolation is that he is alone in the tent, but he has been told that this could change at any time as new refugees arrive.


Nea Kavala Camp




The camp which is home to over 700 refugees is isolated. The few facilities on offer are provided by a Danish NGO which is UNHCR funded. UNHCR and the Asylum Service have no permanent presence in the camp. Neither do any lawyers. So when they make their twice weekly visits they are overwhelmed. Absher has met with the lawyers who told him that he would have to wait. They did tell him however, that his papers had not yet arrived.

There is a supermarket around 20 minutes walk from the camp and the nearest town 45 minutes on foot.

Abshir is not alone in finding the camp a bad place to be. On April 10th an ayslum lawyer came to meet all those who were recently transferred with Abshir from Samos and to give them some sense of what they could expect with respect to the asylum process. They were told that they would need to be patient as their papers had not yet arrived from Samos. This came as no surprise to Abshir but what was more noticeable was that of the 350 who came together from Samos less than a 100 were at the meeting. According to Abshir, there was so much anger and disgust at the conditions in the camp – sleeping in tents, cold, terrible food, no electricity, its isolation and more – that those who could were leaving. Heading for the border, or to Athens, or to Thessaloniki, leaving behind those such as families who could not move so easily. And this is what they told the asylum lawyer when he asked why there were so few of them at the meeting. There was much anger in particular over the cutting of their UNHCR allowances from 140 to 90 euros a month on account that they were now being fed in the camp and no longer were responsible for their own food. The lawyer’s response was that he had nothing to say about the conditions they were complaining of as he was only responsible for the asylum process. But he urged them to be patient and not to demonstrate because if they did the police would certainly come in and jail them.

One can only wonder how many of these 350 would have boarded the ferry in Vathi at the beginning of April if they knew what was waiting for them?

A little over a week ago Abshir had his own room in the town centre of Vathi……..


At the same time as Abshir was being moved from Samos, Saad was moved from his apartment in Athens. In both instances they were given no choice. In Saad’s case he was moved by Praksis, a Greek NGO funded by UNHCR to provide housing for vulnerable refugees.

Alongside Saad there were two other refugees each with their own room. Most importantly, the apartment had a decent sized sitting room where Saad’s friends would meet to talk, to smoke shisha and to pass the time. There was also a balcony and all the bedrooms were furnished with wardrobes and cupboards. And over 18 months they had made the place into a comfortable home adding rugs, chairs, couches (most of them from the street) and pictures and photos on the walls.

Saad’s Living Room

Saad’s bedroom

Now Saad and his co tenants are in an apartment with just 2 rooms, no sitting area, no balcony, and no furniture. It is in poor condition.One of them has created a tent in the lobby and now sleeps there so Saad has his own room. Currently he has a bed and 12 boxes and bags with his belongings. Nothing else. Praksis told him that they can give them nothing more and that they should be happy not to be living out on the streets.

Kitchen in new apartment

Saad and his co-tenants are furious with Praksis both with respect to what they have done and how they have done it. They say they can do nothing but Saad refuses to accept this and plans to appeal directly to UNHCR. As he said, at the end of the day he may get nowhere but he is determined that they should at least realise what they have done is inhumane, cruel and unacceptable.

Saad has been with Praksis long enough to know how to contact them. This is not a common experience for refugees as most of the agencies involved in the lives of refugees have developed a range of practices and mechanisms which make direct contact with someone who might know something about your case almost impossible. This was why Abshir was so concerned to ensure that information about his case should be transferred to Nea Kavala as he knew that once away from Samos, all the contacts he had made there would no longer be available to him and he would have to start afresh in the new camp. He has no named contact person and there is no continuity in his case management. This is the most common experience for all the refugees here.

Neither Saad or Abshir were given any clear reason for why they had to move. Neither were asked about how they felt and above all no choice. In Saad’s case the Praksis workers knew that the 3 refugees hated what they were given and that all are very angry. But no alternative is offered nor is there any attempt to work together to find a better place. It’s Praksis or nothing. As it stands at the time of writing, Praksis has now agreed to look for a more suitable apartment for the three of them but none of them is expecting much.

Living Space and Survival

Many issues are highlighted in these two stories.

Firstly, the powerlessness of the refugees over where and how they live. Their needs and voices are simply ignored. Refugees are given little or no notice whether it is moving house or moving off an island. Abshir and Saad had 5 days notice. As I write, the minster for migration is on Samos for a few days and he has just announced that when he leaves at the end of the week he will be taking hundreds of refugees with him on a Greek navy boat. I wonder if the refugees affected have been told yet? ( 494 refugees, all classed as vulnerable, were taken by a Navy ship to Athens on April 13th.) The casual way in which the agencies act in moving refugees without any negotiation or discussion; a complete disregard of their needs and circumstances reveals (once more) the fundamental lack of solidarity and respect for refugees.

Secondly, there is no sign that the authorities grasp or understand the critical importance of place (home, locality,) for refugees as they wait for the asylum system to process their applications. In Saad’s case, he has been in Greece since October 2016 and in Athens for over 2 years waiting for his final interview in June this year. As with thousands of other refugees his ability to survive these months where his life is virtually stopped has been down to his friends. In Saad’s case his apartment became part of a network of places where friends could meet and in many cases find a bed in an emergency. His home has been crucial to his well-being. This has now been taken away from him.

Abshir has his asylum interview scheduled for January 2021. As far as he knows he could be in Nea Kavala camp for 2 years.

Thirdly, these stories challenge the widely held view that refugees are better off being moved to the mainland from the camps on the frontier islands. It would seem that many assume that the conditions there would [must] be better than Samos.

There are simply no reservations to the mantra of de-congest the frontier islands of refugees. It is a mantra shared across the political spectrum and voiced by virtually every refugee agency/NGO in Greece. Here on Samos no questions are asked about where and what happens to the refugees who are moved. Of course no one asks the refugees what they think.

But there is no innocence to de-congestion. The authorities and the NGOs know very well that what awaits many of the refugees on the mainland will mark no improvement in their lives and may very well be worse than what they have left behind on the islands. But they say nothing to those leaving and do what they can to stop people from refusing to leave.

There is also a madness to de-congestion. In the week Abshir left with 350 refugees for Athens – heralded on Samos for relieving the pressure on the camp – a similar number of new refugees arrived. It is like watching a child trying to empty a bath whilst the water continues to pour in.

The camp in Vathi is an outrage. No argument. But then you are drinking tea with a 34 year old refugee from Gaza who has beautifully painted and fitted out the recently opened Banana House, a new refugee space, in Vathi. In the process of drinking tea he shows the photos of his tent in the jungle around the camp. It is amazing. From the outside it looks as desperate as all the other tents and shelters clustered amongst the olive trees. But! Inside his home made cabin under the trees he has created a place of wonder and comfort. It has a floor, carpets, store cupboards on the wall, a fire place, and a small kitchen area. He lives there with his wife and daughter. The man is a genius. There are many others maybe not as talented but who have created some comfort in such extreme conditions. They and not the authorities have done this. It is theirs. For many, their resilience as refugees rests on these kinds of activities and the spaces they create for living, meeting and talking; passing time as best they can as they wait. All these factors make arbitrary removals highly disruptive and damaging.

Without doubt after being detained on Samos being moved to the mainland carries more than the scent of a new freedom. For some their detention on Samos has been for up to 2 years and all have been on Samos for months. So it is with some hope they leave the island for the mainland.

But the way in which these movements of refugees – big and small- are managed makes them problematic and flawed. When it suits, major NGOs amongst others will draw attention to the trauma of refugees and in particular the psychological damage to refugees from being corralled in disgusting camps as on Samos. But what of their compliance in the cruelties such as moving people from their homes without notice or discussion. Silence. Where in this one part of the refugee experience in Greece does one get a clear sense that refugees are human beings with all our individual and paradoxical dimensions? Nowhere. Watching the refugees who are being moved off on the ferries is like watching sheep being herded. It is dehumanising.

Sometimes small individual stories take us to much bigger issues and in so doing reveal much especially illustrating the impact of macro policy and ideology on lived daily experiences. Abshir and Saad’s stories are such examples. For as they share their experiences we see just how pernicious and damaging is the European insistence of placing deterrence at the very centre of its refugee practices at least with respect to the kinds of refugees that come to islands like Samos. (It does not apply to those with wealth and who are offered ‘golden’ visas and the like.) As we see every day on Samos, deterrence allows no space for humanity; for dignity and respect. Deterrence does not allow for compassion and care. It is the very opposite of solidarity. And for the refugees the consequences are lethal at worst and distress at best.

(With thanks to Abshir and Saad. Your photos are great too!)

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 (

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, 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!

Samos Island Notes January 2019

The Camp and the Tents to the side amongst the olives. January 2019


🌑 The past few weeks have seen Samos island drenched by days of winter rain storms. Most of the farmers are happy. Winter soaking keeps Samos a green island and is essential if the fruits, vegetables, olives and vines are going to flourish in the hot summers. But for thousands of refugees both in the camp and in their tents and shacks in the olive groves around the camp, it is nightmare time.

🌑 I am consumed with frustration and anger. For the past 5 or 6 winters the refugees on Samos have faced catastrophe. Every winter there are no preparations. Every winter! I am reminded of a conversation with Medicin Sans Frontiere when they first came to Samos. The project leader thought Samos was one of the worst places he had been to, because unlike many of the other places he had worked in which had nothing due to war or natural disasters, Samos did have existing resources and facilities that were desperately needed by the refugees but were not made available. This conversation took place over four years ago and NOTHING has changed. This month thousands of human beings have been freezing and soaking in tents and shelters, living in a swamp when there are schools, halls, hotels, army bases ……standing empty. 3 weeks ago the central government asked the local authority to release some of its vacant buildings to provide emergency accommodation during the bad weather. Such are the strained relations between the central government and the frontier islands that it came as no surprise when they refused this request.

🌑 I for one don’t know how some of these people who control these resources can sleep at night.

We have just been through 36 hours of continuous thunderstorms. Non stop lightning and thunder with incessant rain and hail storms that left a covering of ice 5cm thick within minutes. Not the best conditions for sleeping but near impossible when you think of the people in the camp. So many questions which often boil down to what the hell has happened that allows for such unnecessary cruelties to take place in our midst.

🌑 In the midst of all this I see Oxfam’s latest report on Moria Camp on Lesvos getting coverage. I wonder how much that cost them to tell us the bleeding obvious? Why do they persist with these reports when they must know they have no impact?

On January 17th the British newspaper, The Independent, revealed some of the interim findings of the independent commission looking into Oxfam’s appalling record on sexual misconduct. It included the following statement; “The Commission has heard multiple staff raise concerns of elitism… racism and colonial behaviour… sexism, rigid hierarchies and patriarchy that affect relationships among Oxfam staff and between Oxfam staff and its partners and program participants.” From our experience on Samos it is clear that such characteristics are not restricted to Oxfam.

🌑 Yesterday afternoon the rain stopped. People flooded out of the camp. Driving back to the village that evening I saw that the children’s play area on the Samos town sea front was bursting with young children and their families, playing, relaxing and talking.

Refugee children playing in Samos Town

It was wonderful to see especially after days of misery and was a great illustration of the resilience of the refugees and the importance of friendship and kinship in surviving their confinement on Samos. I was reminded of the words on a card I had just bought; “Between me and insanity are my friends”.

🌑 The main form of communication between the Camp authorities and the refugees is through a public address system. It is through announcements over the tannoys scattered through the camp that people learn of their appointments as well as general camp issues. Those camped out in the woods can’t hear, neither can those who are out of the camp. Many announcements get missed unless you have a friend who can message you when they hear your name called out. If the call involves an interview appointment and you miss the meeting because you never heard it then you go to he backof the queue.

One can’t help but think that many would not have heard the announcement on Friday 11 th Jan 2019 which said that the water in the taps was not safe to drink and that they should now get their drinking water from a tank close to the fence. This is camp life on Samos.

🌑 Yesterday, gave a lift to a young guy. Turned out he was a refugee from Morocco and he was 10 km into his 40 km walk back to the camp in Samos town. He was coming from Karlovassi where he had hoped to get on to the ferry and escape from Samos. His Syrian friend managed to get on under a lorry but in the end he didn’t try. He said that the problem in Karlovassi port was the presence of Albanian smugglers who were telling the port police who was trying to escape. He said that the smugglers wanted all the refugees to use (pay) them to get out. This is the first time I heard this and I wonder at its truth. But what can’t be denied is that refugees are constantly at risk of exploitation and especially when it comes to arranging escapes from Samos. There is a significant business in supplying false travel documents and arranging transport.

🌑 Shelters of all shapes and forms now come right down to the road leading to the top gate into the camp. It is an extraordinary sight. A complete jumble of almost interconnecting structures with layers of blankets and plastic and nylon covering to keep out the rain and cold. Anything that can add to their ‘comfort’ is used. You would be lucky today to find an empty wooden pallet in Samos town as they are much prized as flooring as is cardboard. It is impossible not to marvel at the ingenuity amongst this chaos. As in all recent previous winters on Samos so many of the refugees will get through because of their own efforts.

🌑 Hamid and I counted over 120 cars parked along the road into the camp at 9.30 am on Wednesday. Both of us asked the same question. What are all these people doing in the camp?

🌑 12 minors arrived on Monday. All came from Egypt. There were no injuries despite the weather and all the minors were accommodated in a minors’ shelter. Recent weeks have seen a surge in arrivals from Egypt. This week UN officials have been meeting with the Egyptian government to see how they can moderate/stop the flow of refugees into Europe and out of Egypt. But experience of refugee flows on to Samos would suggest that there must be specific factors which explain the recent influxes of both Gazians and Egyptians.

Thursday January 17th was beautiful. Full sun all day and calm seas. It has not been like this for weeks it seems. Not surprisingly it saw 3 boats arrive with over 110 refugees. Even in good weather crossing over from Turkey in January is very cold.

🌑 Open Doors, the grocery store has now been open for 2 months. It has been one of the very few positive developments for refugees on Samos for some time. The shop is always busy. Supplies are coming through from Athens on a regular basis as the ferries and winter weather allow. The store room which was initially thought to be adequate is not sufficient so on almost every ferry from Pireaus there is a least one pallet for the shop, often more. No sooner restocked then depleted. And when winter storms halt the ferries there are shortages until service resumes. The low prices and the range and relevance of the food stuffs has made life a little better for many. But it has fast become more than a shop. From the moment of its opening the shop has embraced its users especially in asking what people want to find in the shop and then going out to find the stuff. This alone changes the relationship between the customer and the shop. There is a tangible sense that the shop is with them and claimed by them. It is a place that sells things that they have chosen and want. It is cheap. It is a place to go and be welcomed, a place to look for help, a place to laugh, a place where children can be indulged (the sweets are very cheap). And of course it rarely closes during the day.

🌑 For some months the mayors of the frontier islands have been campaigning that the lower VAT rate which is applied to these islands be allowed to continue into 2019. On the last day of December, central government agreed to the extension, to be reviewed every 6 months. But to the fury of the mayors, central government has now formally linked refugee numbers in the island hotspots to the VAT rebate. Quite simply, if the hotspots continue to be overcrowded the VAT relief remains. If not it will be removed.

🌑 In the middle of December, the minister for migration promised to remove 2000 refugees from Samos by December 20th. Nothing happened. At the same time, the minister promised that by February 2019 the camp would be moved away from Samos town. Of course nothing is happening.

🌑 In Samos town there are 2 Western Union and 2 MoneyGram offices where refugees can both receive and send money. One of the regular, daily sights in Samos town now are the queues of up to 50 people at each of these offices. They wait for hours to be seen to. There are so many dimensions to the refugee business and money sending is just one other. According to Bloomberg Businessweek “ immigrants, and refugees—the uprooted—are Western Union’s people, and right now we’re living in Western Union’s world. The UN counts 244 million people as international migrants, up 40 percent since the turn of the century, and 65 million people as forcibly displaced, the largest number since World War II. The World Bank estimates that $575 billion was sent in remittances last year, the majority from wealthier to poorer countries. That figure dwarfs the sums sent globally as foreign aid, and Western Union is the biggest player in the market, with a 13 percent share. It operates in more than 200 countries and territories, transacts in 130 currencies, and champions the idea that the free flow of money and people across borders ultimately benefits everyone. (June 16 2017)

🌑 Hamid a close friend from Aleppo has returned to Samos for 2 weeks to see his partner. A year ago he was fighting for his life in the mountains of Croatia and Bosnia as he made his way, on foot, from Athens to the Netherlands. On two occasions when he was caught by Croatian border guards he was dumped in remote forest areas in the snow covered mountains. On the last occasion he and his traveling companion went five days without food and shelter. They survived in part by burning their clothes. One year on, Hamid now has asylum in Holland. He has a passport. He is now free to travel without fear. Why was he and thousands upon thousands like him forced to suffer?

🌑 So on into 2019 which for so many will be another crappy year.

Shit for the Refugees and Shit for Samos. How Much Longer?

In the first week of December 2018 a delegation drawn from 11 groups including political parties, commercial organisations, hospital workers, and the Mayor of Samos, traveled to Athens to meet with Dimitris Vitsa, the minister responsible for refugees. Sadly, but inevitably refugees had no presence. The very people who could speak with direct experience of the problems confronting the refugees on Samos were excluded. (It should be noted, that this broad based delegation included a few groups and parties that are generally sympathetic to the refugees.)


Some of the delegation in Athens. As is common here mainly men!

The coverage on Samos of the visit inevitably highlighted the problems which were threatening to ‘overwhelm’ Samos and made life ‘unbearable’ for the residents of Samos town who had to live with the Hot Spot. With over 4,000 refugees on the island all of whom are either in the Camp (1,895), in tents around the Camp (2000) or in rooms and houses in the town(235), the situation was unanimously seen by the delegation as untenable. Now that the rains have started the squalor of the camp has deepened. There is no escaping the reality of the Samos camp as a place of nightmares. According to Vivi Michou, Director-General of the European Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs, the camp on Samos is now worse than Moria on Lesvos (Ekathimerini, Dec 2, 2018) It was she said fast becoming a bomb on the verge of explosion.

The purpose of the visit was to press the government to act without delay. First to ‘de-congest’ the island by moving refugees off Samos to the ‘hinterland’ or by deportation. Second to close the Hot Spot in Samos town and to relocate it in a place away from a significant local population. But this event was also distinguished from earlier meetings between Samos representatives and government minister by the expressions of open frustration and distrust in central government. ” Let me remind you that the last time we visited the then competent minister Mr Mouzala..we had no result. Let me also recall the promises of the current minister when he visited the island and in the press too. No effect” (Nikos Katsarakos, Deputy Chief of Staff, Samos, Samos Blog 4th December 2018) .Patience is exhausted. The meeting was held in a context that encouraged uncompromising accounts in which some important truths were masked as the entire focus was on the threats to Samos coming from the refugees and the presence of the Hot Spot in Samos town.


It is generally the case that most of the discussions of refugees on Samos are poorly informed and largely evidence free. The absence of refugee voices is significant and cuts out an important source of information and allows for the unchallenged emergence of a taken for granted common sense about the ‘problems’ we face with refugees on Samos. But it is a common sense which distorts and simplifies and is not accurate. First there is NEVER any acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of refugees are kept in Samos town. Travel out of the town and around the island and you will see no refugees. They have no presence in peoples’ minds or places. It is Samos town which has the ‘problem’ (if there is one) not the island. This factor alone exposes the popular myth that the island’s core tourism business has been badly hit by the presence of refugees. All the main tourist centres of Samos are virtually refugee free. Indeed this past year has seen a significant increase in tourist arrivals and activity and further growth is expected for 2019.

Equally widespread is the myth that in Samos town “everyday life is unbearable for the locals; life is worn out”. And who would know better than Christodoulis Stefanadis, ‘the renowned professor of cardiology at the University of Athens’ who wrote the above after a short visit to the island. This is the quality of the evidence which is commonly trotted out. We never hear from the shop keepers or coffee shop owners where refugees spend their time and money; we never hear from locals sitting in the platia or by the sea who watch the refugee families and children promenade and pass their time; we never hear the voices of people who welcome the vibrancy the refugees bring to the town, especially in the winter months. Nobody talks about the normal every day human inter-actions between refugees and locals and the absence of stress on the streets.

Such silences not only misrepresent what is actually happening but contributes to the one dimensional perspective of the refugees as PROBLEM, and in the case of Samos THE problem. But in truth as more at last are coming to realise, the problems on Samos are not the refugees but the incompetence and criminal behaviours of the responsible authorities. As the Samos mayor pointed out Greece has to date only spent 37% of the 1.6 billion Euros allocated by the EU to the government. No shortage of resources can explain why the camps are such overcrowded hell holes.

Across the globe there are cities and states which are recognising and welcoming the contributions of refugees and migrants. In these places, refugees are seen as a positive social force with the potential to contribute significantly to their new societies. As I write the Global Forum of Mayors has been meeting in Marrakesh. Some 100 people from city authorities – mayors and officials from Quito to Kampala – took part in the gathering, which discussed how to meet the needs of both refugees and migrants. Fillipo Grandi head of UNHCR in addressing the Forum said: “We are full of admiration for all the mayors who have taken up a different kind of narrative to hostility and xenophobia. I really commend you for your courage and staying the course in crafting a more effective and principled approach to the refugee crises.” (emphasis added) UNHCR News, 9 Dec 2018).

This is exactly what is required in Greece and on Samos. A different kind of narrative to the single lens approach of viewing refugees as nothing other than a problem which sustains current inhumane and sterile policies and practices. And as long as Samos remains a frontier island of Fortress Europe, it will continue to receive refugees. Refugees have been coming for decades if not more. With climate change and continual warfare there is every reason to believe that the flows of people seeking life will grow. It will not go away.

More immediately the on going adherence to the 2016 EU/Turkey pact locks Greece into maintaining the frontier islands as the principal centres for processing refugees and migrants coming through Turkey. The EU has not shifted its position that it does not want a repeat of 2015 with thousands of refugees moving through the islands and on to mainland Europe with virtually no delay. The frontier islands have a crucial role in this strategy as detention places to manage the refugee flow into this part of Europe. Although formally acknowledging the human rights of refugees, the EU practice is critically influenced by an ill-informed belief that deterrence plays a role in reducing refugee arrivals. And as the liberal use of fences and razor wire at the camps vividly convey these are not designed to be places of comfort and care. Likewise, the indifference of the managers to the scale of garbage throughout the camp is equally graphic in its message that refugees count for little.

There is a pressing need for a fundamental re-think about the future for both Samos and the refugees if we are to stop the endless stumbling from crisis to crisis; always too late; always insufficient and always mired by incompetence and organisational chaos and not the least lacking in intelligence. And who suffers most? The refugees. It is patently obvious what there is now is a disaster and indefensible.

Random evacuation of large numbers of refugees has long been practiced as refugee numbers overwhelm the Hot Spot. The latest announcement made during the recent visit to the minister that the government will remove 2,000 refugees from Samos by December 15th illustrates that this default strategy stays in place. There is a total absence of any consideration for the refugees who find themselves being up-rooted with virtually no notice to be bundled on to a ferry. Many refugees whilst not happy to be detained on Samos are very wary about being transferred, especially those with young children. The poor conditions of thousands of refugees in Athens are well known amongst the refugees and it is a plight they are desperate to avoid. There is now a significant number of refugees living in Samos town who have the papers to leave Samos but refuse to do so preferring to fight for their asylum on the island rather than in Athens.

That it is highly unlikely that such a large number of refugees can be evacuated in such a short time will further reinforce the lack of trust locally in central government. As the Samos Blog observed on December 13th since the minister’s promise to remove 2000 refugees by December 15th a total of 30 refugees had left Samos with 304 new arrivals in the same period. It is also more than likely that already stressed relations will completely break down when the government also fails to deliver on its promise of last week, that it would shut down the camp in Samos town and move it to a more remote location away from the islanders. This, the minister announced would happen by February 2019. The deadline seems impossible. Just 2 days ago the authorities were advertising for land to rent stating that there was no public or army land available in a suitable place for a new Hot Spot! It will be interesting to see what response there will be as it is going to be a brave Samian who will offer their land for a new camp.

The assessment that the Hot Spot as a bomb ready to explode is almost certainly correct. In the 12 years I have been involved with refugees here I would say that this has been my opinion also. For all my 12 years the camp has been to put it simply, a hell hole. There are no good years. And for all those years despite occasional eruptions there has been no explosion of the sort we all anticipated. Why not? This is such an important question. Nobody now denies that conditions in such camps as in Samos and Lesvos are disgusting, inhuman and cruel. Many are increasingly expressing their shame that Greece is now known for some of the worst refugee camps in the world. But still no explosions on Samos; yet.

There is no single explanation, but in the case of Samos at least, the close location of the camp to the town centre is a significant factor. It acts as a pressure release. Within minutes of leaving the camp you are in the town, amongst the shops and platias, with a long sea walled promenade. It is where you can feel human again, not just from being out of the camp but also from being in a place free from arbitrary death or danger. And with open eyes the evidence is before you as you watch groups of friends or families strolling along the streets, sitting on the sea wall, talking, laughing, listening to music; people relaxed and relaxing.

Refugees fishing in Samos town.
John Doukas Photography

The town also offers resources not available in the camp and above all it houses the island’s main hospital which again is within walking distance. The hospital is a major and much used resource by the refugees.

Despite being the disaster it is, the Hot Spot is the biggest employer in Samos town and on the basis of UNHCR allowances alone, the refugees bring into Samos around 4 million euros a year most of which is spent in Samos town. None of these economic factors come into consideration in part because those shouting the odds have immersed themselves in the myth that the people of Samos town are all overwhelmed, living in fear and basically existentially challenged.

The decision to move the Hot Spot out of Samos town is precisely what one might expect from an approach that lacks intelligence and is driven by myth and prejudice.

Without question Samos town has been changed by the refugee presence. The ethnic mix here has been transformed in a short span of years. In 2006 you would be hard pressed to see a black face anywhere on the island. But this is no longer so for Samos town. On warm evenings the sea front is full of refugees from so many countries. It is an extraordinary and beautiful sight but also completely new for the people here.

How people come to terms with such huge unanticipated changes in the places they live is influenced by many factors but for sure the unrelenting negativity and myth making that refugees attract, especially from those with some kind of power, status or authority does nothing but hinder how people come to see the refugees. If all you hear is that refugees are a problem because they bring crime, illness and disease and possibly terrorism it is hardly a surprise to find that many want to see them gone. There is no nuance in these accusations and certainly no evidence provided in many cases. No one feels the need to note that the overwhelming number of criminal charges against the refugees here concern irregularities with their papers and not against the people and property of Samos town. Similarly with disease and illness refugees are left living in a health catastrophe created and sustained by the authorities. Such basic necessities as an adequate water supply to the camp have not been secured despite it being an issue for over 10 years. Refugees are appalled by the squalor of the camp and scared of the health risks they face 24/7. It is a filthy and dirty place in which people with so little try their best to survive.

Incompetence and Impunity

Here on Samos there is a long history of doing things badly and then doing nothing about it. We have expensive road improvements which within three years crumble and are then abandoned. We have a beautiful swimming pool which has been completed for over a decade and never opened. We have sewage works which have never been used. We have a collapsing hotel on the waterfront which has remained deserted for 12 years or more. We saw the sea front of Samos town paralysed for 3 years as a major new sewage system was installed in an attempt to get rid of the foul odours which dominated the town during the summer months. Millions spent, and lives and business disrupted. But the smell remains. But it is not just incompetence it is the impunity which comes with it that is so significant. There seems to be no consequences for doing a bad job. Whenever and wherever incompetence combines with impunity bad things happen. This is clearly the case with the camp.

It is ridiculous for example that the role of the municipality is so limited when it comes to the management of the camp. It has no automatic right to enter, each entry has to be officially processed and agreed with the camp administration. Despite being responsible for waste on the island, with respect to the camp this is limited to the provision of a few large wheely bins outside the main entrances. Even this is contested. For unspecified safety reasons the camp administrator had two of the bins removed. The municipality has asked the ministry for permission to increase the number but has as yet after 3 months no response. According to Athens Voice (11 December 2018),

“The municipality of Samos has done a project funded by the European Union and the European Commission to provide water to the hot spot, drinking water, that is, in the € 300,000 category, which has been properly implemented. However, according to the mayor, the municipality does not know how it is being utilized within the CTV, as it needs a special permit to enter the reception centre. ‘We are only responsible for waste management and water supply and nothing else, we have called for government intervention to amend the regulation to be beneficiaries in order to do things, but there is no progress. Even for simpler things, like to put two televisions, we needed a month.’” So why is it that there are only 2 sources for drinking water in the camp and virtually no functioning toilets? Outside under the trees with the hundreds of tents there is no water and no toilet provision. Is it surprising to see the bottles of urine littering the place?

The consequences of such gross incompetence and mismanagement are not hard to see:

(These photographs are from Vice and published Dec 11 2018 under the heading Photographs from an Unknown Hell: Samos Refugee Camp).


It has taken far too long but there are now clear signs that some at least have shifted their focus from the refugees as potential carriers of disease to a focus on the camp as being responsible for the public health threat facing Samos. One early indication was the action taken last month by the regional Governor who issued a public health notice on the Camp administration demanding immediate action on cleaning, water supplies, food quality and hygiene and toilets. The notice gave 30 days for the camp authorities to solve these problems otherwise an order would be issued to close the camp. Nothing happened. The Governor’s intervention was not allowed. The conditions raised by the Governor were not challenged, only the procedure. Now a large health group of various interests with the Samos Bar Association are taking similar action for the same reasons. Here are some extracts from their (long and detailed) statement, addressed to Vitsa (the minister) and Maria-Dimitra Noutsikou the Hot Spot administrator, which illustrate a welcome refocusing of the problem away from the refugees to those with power and responsibility:

“Your indifference in dealing with the immigrants on Samos and the unfortunate delays in the asylum processes results in the deprivation of the refugees, their mental exhaustions and their incredible suffering as they live in miserable conditions and many of them are mentally and physically ill…

Beyond doubt indirectly by your policy, actions, omissions, and unlawfulness, you are raping the refugees since the majority want to leave the island; and you destroy the city of Samos where the inhabitants live in fear, uncertainty and insecurity….

Until today, despite the appeals and outrages of the local community, the agencies and the Municipality of Samos, despite your promises, statements and letters on de-congestion , your excuses, staffing problems you and your camp administrator have done nothing….failing to observe and enforce immigration laws, failing to ensure safe living for the immigrants, and responsible for environmental pollution, uncontrolled dumping of waste and sewage sludge… with dangers of infectious diseases including tuberculosis. The sanitary bomb might not have exploded yet but with the sloppiness and indifference you show to the refugees the chances are many. ….

It is our intention to request the intervention of the Prosecutor of Samos because we believe that your actions, acts and omissions in the performance of your duties in the management of the refugees constitutes criminal offences.” (from Samos Blog, Dec 9, 2018).

Concluding Note

It is impossible to predict how these events will unfold. We can say with certainty that the commitment to remove 2000 refugees in order to relieve some of the overcrowding in the camp will not happen, as promised by tomorrow. Although there will certainly be a significant evacuation before too long. But as the flow of arrivals albeit smaller than in the summer continue such measures are always short term. As for possible prosecutions there are many reasons to think that they will not materialise if past actions are  a guide. The central government has shown no hesitancy in changing the law if it feels the need, as it did in overturning the ruling of the supreme court a year ago when it declared that Turkey could not be automatically assumed to be a safe place to deport all refugees as intended under the EU Turkey pact. Likewise the attempt of the regional governor to use the law to enforce some basic health and hygiene standards was thwarted by administrative fiat. It is very clear that central government has given considerable powers to the hot spot managers who seem free to act as they wish without any accountability locally. It can be expected that the government will continue to protect the managers. But the naming of names and looking more clearly for reasons why the Camp should be such a humanitarian disaster feels like a step in the right direction.

But these are but small steps. Until there is a fundamental shift in perspective about the refugees and their needs and an end to the negative mythologising of refugees there will be no positive change. Yet Samos could gain so much if it was prepared to follow the example of the mayors and cities represented at the Global Forum in Marrakesh last week.

We live in hope!