News Daily Spot: Refugee crisis: as Kos reaches out, strain of helping begins to show

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Refugee crisis: as Kos reaches out, strain of helping begins to show

Source: TheGuardian
Out of the fog they come, first as apparitions and then shadows: people in overloaded boats and dinghies. A few hours later, from the bow of the Maria Star – the tourist ferry that crosses the sea every day to Turkey from Kos – the mechanic Manolis will often get a bird’s eye view. “At times these waters can be full of them, little people in little boats shouting ‘help,help’,” he says. “The coastguard rescues those that capsize but really there seems no end to it.”
About 850,000 men, women and children, most from war-torn Syria, are expected to make similar voyages this year and next. The United Nations refugee agency has warned that this figure is likely to be a conservative estimate. At least 366,000 have already sought refuge in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean, with growing numbers electing to go via Lesbos and Kos, the Greek islands off Turkey’s picturesque shores.
On Kos, an estimated 1,000 pitch up every day, their number inflated by ever more migrants joining the influx from Asia.On Lesbos it is closer to 1,500 and climbing.
On both isles it is now the prone bodies of newcomers, many huddled in foetal positions in flimsy, low-lying tents, that fill ports, streets and shores. In Kos town, they lie along the beach, under the great walls of the castle of the knights of St John, in corners where they might get some shade. And when they go, more come.
Few islanders ever thought that this would become the frontline of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. Amid rising tensions, the strain is beginning to tell. Last week, under cover of darkness, more than 100 young local men charged along Kos’s neon-lit seafront, beating migrants and refugees. In Lesbos, street fighting has erupted, with baton-wielding riot police clashing repeatedly with Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis all desperate to board ships for the mainland and continue their journey north.
In both cases, sympathy and solidarity is being tested. At what has been the height of the holiday season, at a time of enormous economic hardship for ordinary Greeks, local infrastructure has buckled under the pressure.
“In Kos we speak from the soul and then from the mouth,” says Stefanos Graviaras, a moustachioed, soft-spoken man in his sixties. “Please write [that] we are not against these people, our heart reaches out to them, but our only industry is tourism and tourists aren’t happy,” he sighs, impatiently waving a hand. “They want peace, peace of mind. How can they have that with all of these tragic figures lying around everywhere?”
Altruistic volunteers have begun to pour in. From 5am every day the Boat Refugee Foundation, a Dutch charity, works its way through the central boulevards of Kos town, distributing water, toiletries and food.
“The need is so big,” says Jolanda Kromhout, who, joined by her sister Nelleke, a nurse, has decided to spend her annual holiday on Kos with the charity.
“The authorities are doing what they can but they clearly can’t cope,” she says, as a seven-year-old Syrian girl, cradling her newborn sister, snaps up clothes from the boot of a rented car. “A lot of tourists spontaneously stop us in the streets, they ask us what they can do. They really want to help, too.”
With local services stretched to breaking point, international agencies have increasingly called for emergency relief to be stepped up. Kos, alone among the islands most affected by the influx, still lacks a registration and reception centre, with harassed police officers – the only officials permitted to process refugees – working around the clock to try and keep up.
So rudimentary are state provisions that refugees without the means to stay in local hotels arrive to find no access to shelter, sanitation, food or medical care. “What we have seen is totally unacceptable,” says Vangelis Orfanoudakis, coordinating work on the island with the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières. “The only help they get is from NGOs and local solidarity groups because local authorities are dead-set against a reception centre for fear that it will be a pull factor and lure even more.”
Islanders are the first to say they are appalled that a journey costing €15 (£11) for anyone holding the right passport on pleasure boats such as the Maria Star, costs at least $1,500 (£970) for those who don’t, with passage almost always in unseaworthy vessels.
But patience is also wearing thin. Shopkeepers, who depend on package holidaymakers, complain that business is down by half – a dramatic effect of the surreal coexistence of tourists and refugees. “Tour operators are telling all their clients that it’s dangerous and they shouldn’t stay out late,” says Theofilos Samaras, who sells books and magazines in Kos’s old town. “It’s terrible. We only have a window of a few months and sales are right down.”
Under the weight of the sheer numbers, even clerics are now openly grumbling and, tapping into the natural propensity of Greeks for conspiracy theories, have begun to talk of “dark plots”.
“Why is it that Kos and Lesbos are suddenly the two main entrances to Europe? Is it because this is aimed at the further dissolution of our country economically?” asked Papa Vassilis, his heavily perfumed presence attracting a swarm of bees as he stands outside the island’s ornate cathedral. 
“I’ve asked parishioners to cook lentils for them because they can’t only survive on bread and macaroni but their behaviour has offended us,” he says. “They have even urinated all around the great plane tree of Hippocrates, the place where the man himself taught medicine to his pupils. They have to go!”
The Greek government, expediting what has fast become a huge evacuation exercise, laid on more cruise liners this week to transit arrivals to the mainland and lessen the burden on the islands. On Wednesday, 8,500 people were moved from Lesbos alone, according to local representatives with the UNHCR.
But aid workers worry that this is only the beginning. Across the sea, in Turkey, an estimated 1.9 million Syrian refugees have yet to move from camps many no longer want to be in.
Seated on Kos’s seafront, taking in the young men freshly arrived on dinghies and boats, Roberto Mignone, the island’s UN emergency coordinator, shakes his head in disbelief.
In 23 years of working with refugees in war zones around the world, he has never seen “anything, anywhere, quite like this”, he says. With autumn’s arrival, he worries about the next phase of the crisis – winter – when the winds pick up, the waters turn and the incidence of boats capsizing inevitably grows.
“As an EU country, you would assume there was a capacity to deal with this but in reality everyone is overwhelmed,” says the Italian, whose cigarette intake has tripled in the past month. “What is important is that we come up with a contingency plan for any scenario – and that is going to be a big challenge not just for Kos or Lesbos, or any of the other affected Greek islands, but all of Europe.”

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