Sun, Sea and Refugees

I see Greece is in trouble again. If it’s not money trouble, it’s these pesky migrants cluttering up the place. So I’d like to paint a sympathetic picture of the place I visited for the first time exactly one month ago. You can judge whether I manage it.

I’d already been catching the ferry over to the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp on a more or less monthly basis since Summer 2015 to try and help out where I can: Giving out sleeping bags, sorting clothes, building wooden shelters. Each time I go something has changed (watch this space to hear the latest) but in general, if I’m honest, I’ve grown so used to seeing face after face of tired-looking men just waiting… waiting… waiting… that it seemed inevitable that I’d travel somewhere else in this ‘refugee crisis’ where there was a greater sense of urgency. I looked up ‘Syria’ on a map.

I considered its next-door neighbour Turkey, but my timing was all off. That week would be when they’d start receiving migrants back from Greece who’d been deported under a new EU deal. I had no idea if it would work, and it turns out neither did they. I hear they did deport 300 people from Athens, but then realised many of them were extremely vulnerable Syrians who should never have been moved in the first place but hadn’t been properly processed. The whole deal is in tatters again anyway now the Turkish PM has gone.

It seemed sensible, for a short trip for which I might need a bit of training and/or support, to go somewhere unlikely to be in a state of flux. I scanned left and saw blue on the map. The Aegean sea.

How many photos and stories had I seen and heard about people trying to cross this bit of blue on my screen, broken up by the scattered islands of Greece? I imagined the tourists in cruisers, the rich in yachts, the poor in ships, the destitute in rubber dinghys. It’s not hard for me to imagine the laughs of honeymooning couples with cocktails, the sobs of scared families packed on boats already full, the shocked shouts and splashes of people falling suddenly, the thrashing of desperate limbs in salty water, the silence.

But if I had no choice but to cross this in perilous conditions, if I were looking for the closest possible refuge from the chaos of a war-torn region, which European landmass would I head for? Where would I go if I were a refugee?

“Maybe the island of of Kos is the place you are looking for,” an online guide told me, “a breathtakingly beautiful island, the home of Hippocrates,where the rich history, the numerous monuments, the sandy beaches and the natural beauties will enchant you.”

I booked a ticket.

My journey to Greece was not so arduous, the usual indignities of RyanAir aside. My lodgings in the tourist centre of Kefalos served me the traditional fare of slightly underdone egg and chips, and by the next morning I was eagerly clambering over a nearby hill to seek out fresh olives and mythological wisdom. Instead I found these:

Kos-lifejackets.jpg

There’s nothing particularly unusual about seeing old life jackets on a beach, I told myself. Perhaps they washed up after a group of British jetskiers, drunk on Ouzo and bravado, unstrapped themselves and threw their lifejackets into the sea. But it didn’t seem a particularly British thing to do. And there were no watersports outlets nearby. In fact there was nothing much nearby. The beach was deserted and my BnB seemed to be the only one open in the area. The tourist low season seemed particularly low.

The life jackets reminded me why I was here, and up I went to the other side of the island to join Kos Solidarity. A warehouse in the middle of busy Kos town itself, it seemed staffed by mostly international volunteers. The core group welcomed the ad hoc visitors – myself, an American couple, some German lads, an English girl – with smiles and coffee, before efficiently delegating the women to sort and pack away winter clothes and whisking the men away to other warehouses where they could move boxes of Summer clothes into a truck and bring them back to base. Refugee chic was having its seasonal change, and it was based on practicality.

kos-warehouse

As I folded jumpers, and listened to the in-house bitching about all the supporters who liked the Facebook page but never turned up, I asked about the bigger situation. There were four ‘hotspots’ in Greece, none of which were on Kos. Camps they were not, I was emphatically told, because in camps you could come and go freely. These were detention centres. If I had come to support refugees, it seemed I had badly chosen. Despite being only 3 miles from Turkey (or ‘Asia Minor’ as the tourist site had called it) there was no ‘hotspot’ here. Why?

“Because of the fascists,” I was told matter of factly by a blunt-talking Greek woman who spoke English with a New York accent. “There were protests, demonstrations… no-one wants one here. Even the Mayor is a fascist.”

This perhaps might explain why myself and my fellow dusky companions had been greeted with frozen glares rather than smiles by policemen on early morning beach runs, barmen when we entered a suddenly quiet bar, shop attendants when we stopped to buy bread. Had I really come to the most xenophobic Greek island? Well done me.

In the evening, at 5 o’clock promptly, we went over to the closest thing Kos has to a refugee camp. Sometimes, I was told, extra refugees come down from the hills where they are hiding because they know there will be a distribution at five. Sometimes, Kos Solidarity goes to the prison to do a distribution, although I was confused as to why they would go to a prison and also why, on the day I was there, the police had forbidden them to come with immediate effect and for the foreseeable future. It all seemed a little strange…

At 5 o’clock promptly a line was waiting for us. Huge, clean, white UNHCR tents stood proudly under willow trees. There were no more than 60 people in total. It looked a bit like a rather pleasant Christian holiday camp.

Then I realised I couldn’t see any lights, hence no electricity. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any sources of water anywhere either. I suppose I should have realised that something was up when, along with the belts, trousers and t-shirts we distributed in our shining white ‘Kos Solidarity’ hi-vis gilets, we were also giving out food parcels. And unlike I had seen from time to time in Calais, no-one turned anything away.

The migrants in Kos seemed mostly of Pakistani origin, different to Calais which has sizeable Afghan, Eritrean and Sudanese populations. One resident spoke flawless English and translated to the Taiwanese cameraman who was covering the refugee crisis for TV. “Why do they want to turn us back here?” He was angry about the EU deal. “Why not turn us back earlier, like in Iran? Why do they wait until we get all the way here, and then turn us back?” The pleading tone in the voice of this man who, moments earlier, had spoken to me of his studies in Pakistan with firm dignity, was a little uncomfortable to hear. He was being reduced to begging. The Taiwanese cameraman rallied the troops to repeat what they had said in one quick soundbite: “One, two, three: OPEN THE BORDERS!”

kos-camp.jpg

The final piece in the Kos puzzle was placed there accidentally, through some local migration of my own. My feet seemed to take on their own life as they explored the dark cobblestones near the port one evening. Moonlight and shadows played with each other through the trees, the narrow lanes, the cafes of tourists and the groups of intense-looking young people in the town of Kos. I wandered aimlessly, looking and walking, walking and looking. Something seemed strange. I felt instinctively drawn to a building that had a large wide open door and a light shining out on to the shiny cobblestones. Without hesitation, I walked up the stairs and into the light.

A large atrium greeted me. I walked forward and saw doors around the edges of the corridors around me, apparently leading to offices. In the wide open space beneath me I saw a couple of men in white shirts talking and standing next to… what were those… offices too? Deep down below the offices seemed to have their windows covered in grills… but they looked darker than the other offices… there was no glass on the windows… why were there so many people inside…?

They were cells. We were in the place Kos Solidarity had been told not to come to any more. We had walked straight into the belly of the beast. Immediately, we tried to take some photos, but the phone battery was dying. There was no time! These are the snaps we got:

We saw two or three cells. They looked small, maybe the third of the size of a British school classroom. In each, I saw about 10-15 people. They were all darker in complexion than the men in white shirts. A couple looked up at us but said nothing. Perhaps they knew that we did not belong here either.

Kos Solidarity told us that periodically the police clear away the small camp, without warning, sometimes in the middle of the night, and put those the find there in prison. They have told UNHCR and other NGOs that any migrants found – for example, the Afghan family found wandering lost and confused by the port in the middle of the night whilst I was there – are to be brought straight to the prison. All NGOs, including UNHCR, have refused to cooperate. The plan, once the migrants become prisoners, is to send them back to Athens. They were supposed to send them back to Turkey via the new deal but I don’t know what will become now of any prisoners the Kos police still hold.

The rushed photography was interrupted by the approach of a fat man whose white shirt was straining under the pressure from his sweaty belly. He spoke to us in Greek with indignant authority. He spoke in Greek. I smiled at him like a puppy with special needs. “Hello!” I beamed. “What are you doing? What do you want? Who are you?” I cocked my head and did my best gormless tourist impression. “We were just looking around! It’s really nice in here! I LOVE the architecture!” He did not seem impressed.” This is a police station.” I gasped. “Ohhhhh! Wow, sorry! I thought it was just, like, a civic building?” He did not blink. “You must go now.”

The big wide door shut behind us. We heard the lock turn.

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