ABOUT SAMOS: Samos is an island ruled by legend and beauty. Everything around the virgin landscape is made of colour and light. Each step one takes is a revelation. [Visit Greece]
ALSO: Samos is one of five designated refugee ‘hotspots’ across the East Aegean, the liquid border between the Middle East and the European Union.
These ‘hotspots’, which also include the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos and Leros, were created in 2016 as holding pens for people wishing to claim asylum in Europe. This means that refugees arriving in Samos are stuck here until their claims have been assessed – a process that often takes a couple of years.
RESIDENT POPULATION OF SAMOS TOWN: 6,251 (2011 Census)
REFUGEE POPULATION OF SAMOS: 6,085 (Aegean Boat Report, 11 October 2019)
Refugee population numbers are always difficult to get right: the Aegean Boat Report figures are slightly higher than the official UNHCR count. Local NGOs estimate the figure to be even higher, with perhaps as many as 7,000 refugees on the island.
The difficulty comes because, when refugees receive a second refusal to their asylum application, they dare not renew their protection documents in case they are picked up by the police, and so they are missed in official counts.
But they are still here. And still they arrive.
Last month alone, 2,124 more people arrived on Samos from Turkey. The numbers of new arrivals have more than doubled compared to September last year. [UNHCR]
MAXIMUM CAPACITY OF SAMOS REFUGEE CAMP: 648 (six hundred and forty-eight, IOM)
The refugees on Samos predominantly live in and around the refugee camp, on the hillside that overlooks the island’s main town. A few are able to rent accommodation in the town, but most live in shelters and tents pitched on the steep slopes.
The steep slopes.
As I write this email to you, the sun is shining on another bright October day. Like me, you probably have a strong image in your mind of the Greek islands in summer: vast blue skies and a sun that bakes. In summer.
The Samian winter – which runs from the end of October until mid-April – is perhaps mild by British standards (although British standards do tend to assume a house and central heating).
But the rain.
We had the first sighting last Friday. A storm broke while I was leaving Ikaría. The wind blew, the rain gushed, local Greeks ran for cover, children screamed, and the power cut out for several hours.
Over winter, Samos gets more than twice the rainfall that London does. The downpour turns the panoramic refugee camp into a mudslide. Worse. Outside of the official camp (population 700), there are few (if any) toilets: 6,000 people with little choice but to shit and piss wherever they can.
Their cheap tents are washed away every winter on a tidal wave of mud and piss and shit.
On Samos, there are a dozen or so refugee support organisations who do almost all the work necessary to give these people some hope of a future on planet earth, let alone in Europe.
There are organisations that offer legal advice; others that hold language classes in Greek, English, German, French, Farsi and Arabic; some that cook and serve food (the less said about the food provided by the camp the better); others that put on fitness classes for kids and adults.
These solo volunteers, grassroots organisations and larger NGOs exist only so long as the Greek authorities, including the camp administration, shrug their shoulders or turn a blind eye.
I won’t repeat what has been said to me, but I haven’t yet heard a single good word said about the leader of the camp administration. It is fair to say that none of the grassroots organisations have any kind of a relationship with the people that run the camp.
When I arrived last week, all the volunteers I spoke to told me that the local authorities were trying to shut down all the refugee support NGOs, harassing them with spot-checks from the mayor’s office, the police, the health service, the fire department, the building regulators and the tax office.
Today it happened.
Starting at 9.30am this morning, representatives of every branch of local government marched en masse into the offices, kitchens, warehouses and schoolrooms of all the refugee support organisations on the island. It was an overwhelming display of power.
Do you have this certificate? Do you have that invoice? Where are this man’s papers?
I will have to leave you on a cliff-hanger, I’m afraid. As I write, an emergency meeting of NGO coordinators is taking place. Right now, people who are only trying their best to help are licking their wounds and comparing the size of their fines.
These tiny organisations, funded by dozens – hundreds – of small-time donors like you and me, are under threat of gargantuan fines up to €10,000 for the slightest infraction – a missing invoice for tomatoes or a building certificate they didn’t realise was (or has mysteriously become) necessary.
Needless to say, the cost of such fines would be unbearable. Then who will teach Greek, English or German? Who will show a path through the asylum labyrinth? Who will feed the hungry?
For the past two months, volunteers at one community restaurant have fed around 550 refugees every day, serving a free lunch to the camp’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, disabled, and pregnant and breast-feeding women.
But with the authorities seemingly determined to shut these NGOs down, how long can this restaurant survive? The restaurant founders spent four months getting all the right certificates and licenses to run a kitchen above board. But if the shut-down is not successful today, then what about tomorrow? Tomorrow’s tomorrow?
Then everyone will have to go back to standing in line from two in the morning to get a breakfast of one plastic-coated croissant and a carton of juice.
After today’s assault, perhaps some of the NGOs here on Samos will have to end their operations. Perhaps the crack-down was also intimidation, a message to the EU from a Greek government that has had enough. Perhaps, to some extent, life will go on as before.
This is Greece; we don’t know.