Migrants and Greeks in Samos share anger and despair

Migrants and Greeks in Samos share anger and despair
By Valérie GauriatApostolos Staikos
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Samos is less than two kilometres away from the Turkish coast and it's one of several so-called "hotspots" for asylum seekers on the Greek islands of the north Aegean Sea.

Ahead of the European elections, immigration is one of the most divisive issues facing voters. In this latest episode of Insiders, we visited the Greek island of Samos, where an inadequately resourced refugee camp is causing suffering and creating tension.

Bridging the divide between islanders and asylum seekers

For the past few years Manolis Mantas and his wife Vasilika, a retired Greek couple, have lived on the frontline of Europe's refugee crisis. Their summer house, which they built on the beautiful Greek island of Samos a few years ago, now backs onto a miserable collection of tents amongst a maze of paths strewn with rubbish. There, asylum seekers and other migrants eke out an existence whilst they wait for their papers to be processed.

Manolis invites us to meet those who he says have become friends. We walk around the house to the garden, where he and his wife hand out cakes to a few children across the barbed wire that separates the camp from the couple's home.

Next to them, an African asylum seeker shows us the pictures on his phone through the fence. "Look at the conditions in the camp, see how we sleep, look!" he says.

In another photo, there is a nondescript meal in its packaging. "This is food? How can I eat this for dinner?"

"It's like we are in hell ... they are blocking us from our future," a friend next to him says.

Vasilika cooks every day for some of the couple’s unfortunate neighbours. Today it's pasta and tuna, a simple gift of charity perhaps, but one that is controversial to many of the islanders on Samos.

"People who help are stigmatized, we are told why you help them, they are sick, they are this, that," she says.

"This man and his wife, they have a good heart and I'm praying that God blesses them, and gives them a long life," says one of the asylum seekers when Vasilika hands over a plate of pasta over the fence.

"In the beginning, everyone helped, almost everyone.. But afterwards, more and more migrants came, and among them there were criminals. So people are scared," Vasilika tells us.

"It's very hard for us," Manolis says. "They are forced to defecate on these properties all around. Things are desperate. There is sanitary chaos. They have destroyed our fence several times. I have a small pension and it is with this income that I struggle to maintain this place."

"If Europe believes in the ideal of equality between states, it needs to deal with this issue. And not let Greece become a huge camp of lost souls."

Samos is less than two kilometres away from the Turkish coast. Its beautiful landscape contrast with the dark realities of the camp. One of the five registration centres, or so-called hotspots, for asylum seekers on the Greek islands of the north Aegean Sea

Nearly 4,000 migrants are piling up inside and around the camp, which was only designed to hold 650 people.

Since the agreement between the European Union and Turkey in 2016, asylum seekers have been banned from entering the continent until their asylum application has been processed.

This can take months or even years.

There's a medical centre in the camp; dozens are queuing at its door. They have heard that the most vulnerable have a chance to be transferred quicker to the mainland.

The only doctor in the centre, Manos Logothetis is clearly overwhelmed when we visit him.

"If you talk to European leaders, they say the crisis is over. Because the influx decreased. Here we didn't see any difference. Because people still come. And moreover, they are trapped here” he says. “The hope goes down the frustration goes up. So it's ten times more difficult, even for us."

The head of the camp refuses to be interviewed. We're only allowed to visit for an hour, and at distance from the shabby dwellings.

We pursue our tour outside the boundaries of the overpopulated centre. Dozens of tents form what the refugees and locals alike have baptised "the jungle".

Jungle woes

Mohamed Malek Kassas escaped the conflict in Syria and arrived on the island 10 months ago.

"We have rats here. Sometimes we see snakes. And like you see there's no water here, no bathroom, nothing because we live outside the camp. It's very cold in the winter and in the summer it's very hot. It's very difficult to live here."

Another camp inmate tells us his story.

"I applied for asylum six months ago and was told the big interview would be in 2021. Can you imagine! 2021!"

We look at his official letter. It says: "date of the interview for the examination of the application, January 13, 2021."

"Does it mean you have to wait here?" we ask.

"I do not know. I've been here for six months, nearly seven. I'm going mad. We don't eat well, we don't sleep well. We live like animals."

Some of the asylum seekers are so despairing of their situation, of living in limbo for months on end, that they just want a decision to be made, even if it's that they're not be given refugee status.

Sabah Al Maliki left Iraq eight months ago:

"I was thrown here, among the insects and the rats... I had skin diseases. My psychological state is very bad. Give me a solution! If I'm not someone who suits their conditions to be a refugee, they can tell me, so that I don't keep suffering, and suffering. They only have to open the door and I will leave Greece."

Seth left the Democratic Republic of Congo where he was threatened.

He leads us to his neatly kept tent, one of many in the jungle; he's spent nearly 5 months there.

"The El Dorado has turned into hell", he tells us. "The place where I told myself that I was going to find real refuge, where all the worries from my country, all the bad memories, the very bad memories, could disappear, it is this place which brings it all back. And even makes it worse. It's sad, really sad. "

The young man's interview for examination of his asylum application is scheduled in a year and a half.

To try and make the best of his time, he goes to the camp's Alpha community centre every day. It's run by Samos Volunteers, one of the charities that help migrants on the island and provides comfort, as well as legal advice, and language courses.

The team has about thirty volunteers from all over the world; about twenty asylum seekers also work in the centre. Only a few locals, such as Alex who works in the tourism business, come to lend a hand. He helps out by teaching Greek, to asylum seekers like Seth.

But helping migrants in Samos has become a sensitive subject with locals.

"People are feeling that nothing is changing with the situation. And they feel neglected by the Greek government and the politicians who are always promising that the situation will change and the refugees will move to another place," he tells us.

"Nobody's willing to help anymore. And the people who are willing to help are seen as people who do not care about the place and the prosperity of the island," says Alex.

Tourism and Refugees

It’s a widespread feeling in the island’s capital, Vathi, which holds some 5000 inhabitants.

The refugee camp, set just metres away from the city centre is becoming increasingly resented by the local population.

Michalis Mitsos is the head of the Samos Bar Owners Association. He says the tourism industry which is integral to the economy of Samos, has taken a hit.

"When people know that around 4,000 to 5,000 refugees from 51 different countries live in the city, some don't want to come and visit. They prefer to go and stay at other places in Samos than to come here," he says.

"All Samians have shown their humanity. In the past five years, we have helped a lot these people who are coming to our island. But it's been a very long time. Five years is too much, and I think this has to change."

Michalis is renovating his summer bar before the tourist season begins. He says it's been burgled 13 times.

"They stole the bottles of alcohol that we stock here for the summer; they stole the whole sound system, the computers, everything they could find and sell."

We ask if he's sure that asylum seekers did this. "Nine times out of thirteen, they were caught on the spot. They were sent to the judge, and they were released an hour later," he replies.

"They also stole from the business next door, and the one on the other side too."

Does he feel let down by the EU we ask? "Yes. The fact that we have refugees and migrants stuck, trapped on four islands of the northern Aegean for the last two years, and they are not allowed to leave for other places in Europe or even Greece, makes all Samians believe that Europe has sacrificed these islands to save itself."

Last April, hundreds of people from Samos gathered in protest during a visit by the minister in charge of immigration, to demand the closure of the camp.

The anger has not subsided.

No mixing in the classroom

We have an appointment to visit one of the primary schools in Vathi, at opening time.

A few weeks earlier, parents' associations had removed their children from the school and several other public schools for a few days, to protest the presence of refugee children.

The head of the Samos Parents' Association explains:

"They face very serious problems in their everyday life. They live in tents next to rats and mice, there are piles of garbage next to them. This raises concern for public health. We say: transfer those kids to proper facilities and then bring them to school," Stamatia Thomasouli says.

"Our kids over the last years see things that are far from the usual. We never used to see wounded children walking without shoes along the road. We were never used to seeing kids coming out of the trash bins," Sonia Paschalaki, another of the parents’ association member adds.

These mothers resent being sometimes accused of xenophobia. A few days before Easter, they have prepared gifts for the refugee children.

"It is a welcome gesture to wish them a good stay during the short time they will stay in our country," Thomasouli says matter of factly. “And they get to know more about our traditions” adds her friend.

"Our daily life has been affected. What we want is for the camp to be moved somewhere else, outside from the city, or to be closed down," Vasilia Vakra, another mother, concludes.

We see the children from the camp arriving at the school, once the Greek children have left. They enter through a different entrance.

Impossible integration

While waiting for their fate to be decided on, the integration of refugees into Samos society is a challenge.

They are not allowed inside many of the city's shops.

We meet the owners of one of the few waterfront cafes where refugees are welcome.

A Syrian refugee, Abed was a fashion designer in his country.

He opened this cafe a year ago. Alongside his Greek associate Ioanna, a Samos native.

"At the beginning, we had some Greek customers, but not from Samos.”, says Ioanna.

“Nobody supported us here. Since the summer season ended, our only customers are the refugees.

Many local people when they pass by the cafe, turn their heads, look at the refugees and nod their head disdainfully. As if they were doing something bad. This is what makes me sad. Very sad”

Abed arrived in Samos 2 years ago. He's still waiting for a reply to his asylum request.

"If they took the decision to send us back to Turkey or to Syria, I will lose everything.”, he says. “Like I lost everything in Syria, I will lose everything again here. "

A few weeks ago, Ioanna and Abed decided to put the café up for sale and leave Samos.

"I could stay if I wanted to. But even if this refugee story ended, and I decided to keep the place, I don't think any locals would support me” concludes Ioanna.

“I could do something else. But I want to go. I would like to do something else in my life… Somewhere else, away from Samos."

Abed has not given up on hope “We started together and we have more ideas, to make together.” he says.

I have more dreams. I have more ideas and I will make it. I think I won't be stopped here. Someday they will accept me."

Voices in the village

The government has promised to close down the Vathi camp soon and open a new and bigger one, a few kilometres away from the capital and near the village of Mytilinioi.

It has made many of the villagers both fearful and angry.

The head of the village, Georgios Eleftheroglou, takes us to look at some graffiti scrawled over a sign on a pavement in the village and tells us what it says in Greek.

"When I said that we didn't want a migrant centre in our area, some people threatened me. Here we read 'Bimba you're next,' meaning they will slaughter me. This shows the division of the people."

Sitting outside a cafe other villagers express a range of emotions, fears and beliefs.

"We do not let them go to the destination they want to go themselves. And we keep them here by force and so they are giving us their misery. I mean, their misery becomes ours," says Alexandros Georgiadis.

"There can’t be people wandering around us without knowing their identity, being uncontrollable next to us while they might be criminals, thieves, rapists," says Eyaggelia Kokaraki.

"We don’t want them here. This is the issue. They can take them wherever they want but here we don’t want them. That’s it," cries Dora Kalogrea.

"We cannot live with those people. They have 800 diseases. If you go to the hospital it is full of black people. It has been said before that they steal, we can’t live with them. We will take the law in our hands," Nikolas Moschonas says.

"Europe has closed its borders, and it is Greece that has paid the price for it.", adds another villager.

"Those Europeans who take and give orders, can’t they understand that the only thing they are going to achieve is the rise of the far right?” concludes the leader of the community.

“Little by little they are pushing us to the extremes. This is what Europe has succeeded in. This is what you should tell them."

Journalist • Valérie Gauriat

Additional sources • Cameraman Yiannis Dimas Video Editor Daniel Derenne

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