‘Here is nothing special’: Snippets from Samos

Two weeks is a long time on such a fevered island as Samos. The sights, sounds and stories could each fill a book, I’m sure, but I’ll have to content myself with reporting these snippets that I don’t have time to do justice to.

~

After I left Samos, a friend sent me a short text message concerning the distribution of open cards that saw 700 people transferred to the mainland. ‘Did you know that during the big transfer they actually broke up families?’ she asked me, rhetorically. ‘Half the family would be on the list and have five minutes to pack. If the dad was on the list and he wasn’t there, they just left him.’

~

I met a young man – let’s call him Aarash – a 17 year-old from Afghanistan who grew up in Iran. He came to Samos alone and was excited to show me the ‘house’ that he had just finished building with the help of resourceful friends made at the camp. It was a wood-frame shelter stapled with tarpaulins.

Minors aren’t given any money to survive, so rely on kindness and solidarity. He was given a sleeping bag by an NGO and a mattress by the camp. Older refugees who’d taken care of him used some of their money to buy tarpaulins and wood.

Four people will sleep on that mattress, but it’s a significant upgrade from the flimsy tent they had been living in for the past few weeks.

Aarash goes to an NGO-run school in the town and learns English, Greek and German. They feed him breakfast and lunch, so he doesn’t need to rely too much on the revolting food handed out at the end of a long queue by the camp authorities.

~

There is one doctor for 6000 refugees on Samos – medical, not psychological. Not everyone has flesh wounds; most of the scarring is on the inside.

~

One founder of an NGO on Samos told me that, while grassroots organisations like his ‘want to go out of business’, the big, transnational NGOs are already planning their budget for 2021 – ‘they need to stay in business’, he says with disgust.

~

I met a 27 year-old man whose ‘Greek age’ is 17. It’s a calculated gamble on his part: if at his interview they accept that he is indeed only 17, then he is will be classified as an unaccompanied minor and put on the priority list for transfer to Athens.

Without giving away too many details, this man’s home country is in Africa; he stands little chance of getting refugee status if the authorities discover his real age.

In the meantime, however, as a 17 year-old, this man does not get the financial support that older asylum-seekers receive; he lives by volunteering for the Samos NGOs and gets food in return. He has chosen short-term penury in the hope of longer-term advantage.

He looks 27.

~

‘Here is nothing special’ – the words of an Ethiopian woman, looking around at the disgusting camp and reflecting on why she bothered coming to Europe.

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The Oldest Warzone

The two most shocking stories I heard while travelling came as a pair, one from each side of the Aegean border.

The first I heard from a Turkish volunteer in Izmir. This was her friend’s story and she prefaced the whole by saying that she was only repeating the otherwise unbelievable – and barbaric – tale because she trusts her friend absolutely.

The two friends volunteer for a small organisation in Izmir that tries to help refugees integrate into Turkish society. It started as a place where refugees and locals could come together to cook and eat a meal. Now they also distribute warm clothes during winter and help refugees navigate Turkish bureaucracy. Just last week, for example, the volunteers helped a Syrian boy enrol in a local schools, something that his parents couldn’t have done alone.

Recently, the friend accompanied a pregnant Syrian woman when she went to hospital to give birth. The birth was a success, but afterwards she was presented with a piece of paper to sign. The new mother couldn’t read the paper written in Turkish, of course, but she was pressured to sign anyway.

It was a medical consent form for the surgeons to strip her ovaries and render her infertile.

After repeating this story, and repeating her incredulity that it could possibly be true, my Turkish friend averred that the hospital’s reported behaviour was totally unethical. But she also said that it was understandable, from both a financial and moral stand point.

Turkey isn’t a rich country and childbirth costs a lot of money that the government cannot recoup from penniless refugees. But my friend also told me that many refugees in Izmir live on the streets, or in hotels and apartments that are barely inhabitable. There is little enough money to feed themselves, let alone extra mouths. It’s irresponsible to have kids in this situation, my friend cried. It is not right.

It was my time to repeat a story I’d heard a few days before in Samos. There might be other reasons that a refugee needs pregnancy and childbirth.

Two months pregnant and travelling alone, a Syrian woman arrived on Samos and was taken to the hospital for a check up. At the hospital, it was discovered that this woman had been raped during her journey to Europe. The doctor told her that, because of the rape, she was entitled to have an abortion.

The woman refused. Thanks to her pregnancy, she explained, she would be placed on the ‘vulnerable persons’ list and given priority for transfer away from Samos to the mainland. No one wants to stay for long in the filth of Samos. Pregnancy is the closest a human being here can get to a free ticket out of the camp.

These rules are made with the noblest of intentions, I’m sure, but their side effects are barbaric.

As a topper to this story, I was told a third by an Ethiopian woman in the Samos camp. She had a friend who had been transferred to Athens because she was pregnant. Tragically, after she arrived in Athens, she had a miscarriage. With no baby, the authorities tried to transfer her back to Samos.

I should say that these stories are uncorroborated, but they raised little more than an eyebrow when retold to local volunteers who have heard too many, too similar.

Women’s bodies are history’s oldest warzone: a millennia-old war fought between state and self over who has the right to new life – in all senses.

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Fire on Samos: Engineered Catastrophe (AYS Special)

It’s said that the Greek islands are where time stands still. The waves and the shore, the sun in the sky, old men in the plateía, the stars. Well, time certainly doesn’t stand still on Samos any longer.

Over the past two weeks, refugees, activists, volunteers and townsfolk alike have been rocked by a series of convulsions that have created what one long-term volunteer described to me as, “the toughest conditions I’ve ever seen on Samos”.

Samos is one of five designated refugee ‘hotspots’ across the East Aegean, the liquid border between Turkey 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.

The hotspot system means that refugees arriving on Samos are stuck here until their claims have been assessed — a process that often takes a couple of years. But, with more people arriving on the island than leaving, the system is heading inexorably for failure.

The official 2011 census put the population of Samos Town at 6,251. The most recent figures from Aegean Boat Report for the town’s refugee population is 6,458 — with 599 arriving in the last week alone. Meanwhile, the official capacity for the refugee camp is just 648 (yes, that’s not a typo — six hundred and forty-eight).

With a camp almost ten times overcapacity and a refugee population to match the town itself, life in Samos is tense. Everyone is fed up.

The Camp

The official refugee camp and the informal ‘jungle’ shelters that surround it are pitched precariously on the steep slopes above the town. Conditions are predictably awful; a pattern for refugee accommodation repeated so often across Europe that it’s at risk of sounding ‘normal’.

There aren’t enough tents to go around, there aren’t sufficient toilets, showers and sanitation, there isn’t electricity or lighting, there are no kitchens or cooking facilities, and nowhere near enough drinking water taps. Normal.

Over winter, Samos gets more than twice the rainfall that London does. The downpour turns the hillside camp into a mudslide. Worse. Outside of the official camp, there are few (if any) toilets: 6,000 people with little choice but to shit and piss wherever they can. Every winter, the refugees’ cheap tents are washed away on a tide of mud and piss and shit.

The recently elected mayor of Eastern Samos, Giorgos Stantzos well knows these problems. But the people I spoke to in the town were far from certain that their leader was helping to solve them. In fact, some thought he was creating conditions that would lead to catastrophe.

The Attack on NGOs

On Samos, there are a dozen or so refugee support organisations who do almost all the work necessary to give refugees 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 local Greek authorities, led by Mayor Stantzos, turn a blind eye.

At 9.30am on Friday 11 October, representatives of every branch of local government — the mayor’s office, the police, the health service, the fire department, building regulators and the tax office — marched en masse into the offices, kitchens, warehouses and schoolrooms of the various refugee support organisations on the island.

Do you have this certificate? Do you have that invoice? Where are this man’s papers?

These organisations, funded by hundreds of small-time donors like you and me, face the threat of gargantuan fines upwards of €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?

It was an overwhelming display of power. Not, you’d have thought, the actions of an administration that wants the best possible care for the refugees in their fiefdom.

The Catastrophe

Then, last Monday 14 October, a fight broke out in the queue for food at the camp. The usual story: frustration exploding into violence over long waits and crappy meals. Three Syrian men were stabbed in the fight and taken to hospital.

That night, Afghan and Arab refugees started throwing improvised ‘gas bombs’ at each other. The fire department were called, but, according to eyewitnesses, stood idly by as the fire ripped through the camp, turning tents and shelters into ash and making hundreds homeless — even more homeless, if it is possible, than they were before.

The police told refugees to abandon the camp and go down into the town, where they were looked after by — who else? — the NGOs who’d been the subject of such official hostility only days before.

And the Mayor? His response was to close the schools in the town. One Samos resident I spoke to was furious at his actions: ‘What message does that send to people? “Be scared!”’

Mayor Stantzos didn’t start the fight and he didn’t start the fire. He only inherited this Herculean, Sisyphean and certainly thankless task in June, just as refugee arrivals were rising again.

The Mayor is very careful to point the finger of blame for the disaster at the Greek government and the European Union. But by shutting down the schools and launching a bureaucratic assault on grassroots refugee support NGOs, he is at least contributing to an atmosphere of catastrophe.

And perhaps, when neither Athens nor Brussels will listen to anything but the most lurid headlines, a catastrophe was exactly what the island needed.

Everyone saw how last month’s deadly fire on Lesvos resulted in quick transfers to the mainland. Is it any surprise that some might see chaos as their only chance for peace?

The Hunger Strike — and Open Cards

In the days after the fire, refugees from Africa started blockading the food distribution in the camp in protest at — well, in protest at just about everything.

On Saturday, the blockade was broken when the camp authorities started handing out the precious ‘open cards’ that would allow some refugees — mainly single women and families — to leave Samos and travel to Athens and the mainland.

Grimly, the catastrophe has ‘worked’.

The distribution of ‘open cards’ — they’re actually just stamps on refugee documents — is a step forward. Migration ministry secretary Manos Logothetis has said that, by the end of this week, 1,000 people will have been transferred off the island. On Monday, 700 refugees did indeed leave Samos — but on the same day 200 arrived on boats from Turkey.

This is what passes for good news on Samos. The reality is that even the transfer of as many as 1,000 people only rolls conditions back to how they were in March, beyond the point when aid groups were already warning of a “humanitarian disaster”.

The reality is that life on the mainland is rarely much of an improvement for most.

Every time I visit the margins of the union we’ve created, my opinion becomes ever more certain: there can be no resolution to this crisis until Europe implements a sensible policy of open borders and freedom for all to work.

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Samos: Open Cards and Protests

Listen on Substack.

It used to be said that the Greek islands were a place where time stands still.

The waves and the shore, the sun in the sky, old men in the plateía, the stars.

Well, time certainly doesn’t stand still on Samos any more. It’s only 24 hours since my last audio from the island, and already I have news.

After a food blockade that lasted since the fire on Monday night, this afternoon the authorities started handing out the precious ‘open cards’ that would allow some refugees – mainly single women and families, mainly African by all accounts – to leave Samos and travel to Athens and the mainland.

Meanwhile, at the seafront, a group of Arabs are now protesting: where are their ‘open cards’?

An hour ago, I went down to have a look. A thin line of police stood in front of a banner the Arabs had unfurled.

We demand the European Union and the United Nations save our children.

The sun sank into the sea. I took some photos and started to record audio.

Then I was pulled away by police. They asked for my passport and told me to delete the photos, not only from the photo gallery, but also from the ‘recycle bin’.

(Luckily, my phone is old and slow so I was able to restore them minutes later.)

The distribution of ‘open cards’ – they’re actually just stamps on refugee documents – is a step forward. The news is going around that by next week 2,000 people will have been transferred off the island.

And this is what passes for good news on Samos. The reality is that even the transfer of as many as 2,000 people only rolls conditions back to how they were in February when aid groups were already warning of a “humanitarian disaster”.

Weirdly, the photos that I later took of the Frontex banner were self-censored by my phone. Who knew Sony were so left-leaning?

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Audio: Samos Refugee Protest

You can now listen to my first audio update on Substack.

I wish this first edition could be more fun, but this morning I was at a demonstration led by hundreds of refugees from Africa and Afghanistan.

They were protesting the deplorable conditions at the Samos Vathí refugee ‘camp’ and in particular at the injustice of being trapped on the island.

All everyone wants to do is leave. But instead we have politics.

Thank you for listening – please do let me know what you think. Do you like audio? Would you like more? Should I stop saying ‘and, erm’ all the time?

Much love,
dc:

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As Predicted: Fire on Samos

A week is a long time in politics, especially when that politics is throwing gas bombs at your tent in a refugee camp.

On Monday morning, I wrote an email to The Guardian.

I thought they might be interested in the news that I shared with you last Friday: that the mayor of Samos seemed to be engineering the conditions for a catastrophe by putting unbearable pressure on the international organisations who are supporting refugees with food, shelter, clothes, education, entertainment and legal advice.

The final line of my email to the International Desk was:

While refugees on Lesvos have at least the sympathy and support of the island, on Samos the mayor is bent on pushing the situation to catastrophe: a riot, a fire – anything to make Athens and the EU take notice and do something.

That night, after an earlier dispute in the long queue for food, Afghan and Arab refugees started chucking gas bombs at each other. A huge fire ripped through the camp, turning tents and shelters into ash and making hundreds homeless – even more homeless, if it is possible, than they were before.

I couldn’t help but send what was admittedly a pretty snarky follow-up email to the heretofore silent International Desk:

Huge fire in Samos refugee ‘jungle’ tonight, hundreds evacuated and homeless. Maybe someone will take notice now!

Silence at the International Desk. Well, I guess no one died and something kind of similar happened a few weeks ago on Lesvos, so…

~

Correction: On Wednesday, The Guardian published this piece about the Turkish military ‘push’ into Syria, which contained the following brief mention of the fire on Samos:

On Monday a fire broke out at an overcrowded camp above Vathy, the port town of Samos, after inter-ethnic clashes.

‘Inter-ethnic clashes’. Really?

Factually not inaccurate, but this throw-away line does no justice to the events of the past two weeks.

Worse, this kind of journalism perpetuates the narrative that political decisions – international, national, local – have no effect on how human beings like you and I behave.

This ‘no effect’ narrative is easy. It’s easy to simply put the fire down to ‘inter-ethnic clashes’. Far too easy. Lazy you could almost say.

~

In October 1963, Bob Dylan wrote a song about a boxer who died as a result of injuries sustained during a bout earlier that year.

‘Who killed Davey Moore? Why and what’s the reason for?’ Dylan asks, as the referee, the angry crowd, his manager and the gambling man shrug their shoulders and pass the blame.

The last to pass the blame is ‘the boxing writer’, who points the finger squarely at Davey Moore’s opponent.

An easy narrative. It’s easy to simply pin the blame on a foreign boxer who ‘came here from Cuba’s door’. Far too easy. Lazy you could almost say.

~

What is my narrative, then?

Who can blame refugees for fighting over food when the food always runs out before the whole of the two-hour queue has been served?

Who can even blame the mayor for cooking up the conditions for catastrophe, when nothing else has convinced the EU to put an end to this barbarism?

There is only one practical solution to this crisis: open the borders and let these people work.

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw that this was the only practical solution. She was not supported by the rest of the EU, and now has been compelled to fall in line with our other so-called ‘leaders’ and join them in refusing these people justice.

Which is all a bit of a shame because a recent report found that the million or so refugees who came to Germany in 2015 have been ‘integrating’ into society faster than expected: around 400,000 are already employed. This is better than past migrations, such as after the Balkan conflict in the early 90s, and particularly impressive given how difficult it is for Arabic speakers to learn German, let alone start a new life in the country.

But the ‘open borders’ narrative is not so easy. It makes it hard to answer the question I’m often asked: ‘What can we do?’

In short: we can give our time and/or money, either directly to the grassroots refugee organisations who are supporting people on the ground, like those here in Samos; or we can use our elevated European status to advocate for the only just political solution: open borders.

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Samos: Tales of Shutdown

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.

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