Can Europe Make It?

Walking in the sun: refugees on Samos island

The issue of making refugees walk 20 or 25 kms in the blazing heat is just one example amongst many that demonstrates the casual cruelties which are routinely inflicted on the refugees who arrive on Samos.

Sofiane Ait Chalalet Chris Jones
4 September 2015

This article was orignally published here.

August in Samos has been exceptionally hot with temperatures often in the mid 30s. Now it is September and there is still no sign of any cooler weather over the next few weeks. For the refugees coming over from Turkey to Samos and the other Greek frontier islands this weather brings mixed blessings. Importantly it means the sea crossings at night are not deathly cold as in the winter months.

On Sunday a packed rubber dinghy sank off the coast. It took four hours to find and rescue the survivors. Some including a 1 month old baby were blue with cold when they were eventually rescued. Had it been earlier in the year she would have died as would have some of the other children with her who were in the sea for so many hours. But on the other hand when they eventually get to Samos the heat and sun becomes a major hazard. The police who are responsible for the refugees make no regular provision for transporting them from their landing places to one of the 2 ports on the island where they are initially processed. Instead they tell them to walk. In this heat it is nothing less than torture.

In making the crossing from Turkey strong bonds often develop amongst those who have been packed into the rubber inflatables. These are not just the result of sharing the agony of the crossing (or the ecstasy of safe arrival on Samos) but also in the hours and days spent in Turkey waiting for the smugglers to get them across. We now hear many stories of ill treatment in these waiting hours and of being forced sometimes at gun point to make long treks through the forests during the night to get to the beaches of departure. Many of the cuts and bruises we now see are due to the falls and stumbles as they make the way to the sea.

Not surprisingly, many of the groups stick together when they land on Samos. In some cases clear leaders have emerged but in most instances the group has simply got to know one another and has a good idea who needs special attention. So when people stop to offer rides it is the refugees themselves who can best decide who is to be given priority. The families with babies and children are obvious to all, but what about the middle aged man with serious cancer, the other with diabetes and so on. It is amazing how much they get to know about one another even when they have only been thrown together for a few days.

These bonds can play a crucial role in their survival and the manner in which they will experience their onward journeys out of Samos and Greece. But just as sharing common threats can build solidarities there are inevitably those who put themselves first and it can be a shock the first time you witness someone taking more than their share and hoarding it in their bags whilst others are left with nothing. Such behaviour needs to be understood as well as being confronted and not subjected to our often simplistic judgements as to a person’s character.

Escaping from hell

Samos is a brief stop on their escape from Syria. It is significant to them because it means that they have got into Europe. One of the first things they want to tell us is about Syria. They know that we know something about Syria but as one older guy from Damascus said “It is hell. You can’t know this hell.” Increasingly Daesh comes up a lot and many of the younger men and teenagers were terrified by what they saw and were escaping to survive. All those we talk with are directly marked in some way by the hell of Syria today. They knew that they had been abandoned in Syria. Their country is being destroyed before their eyes. There is no sign of any effort, from anywhere, to stop the carnage.

Many, but not all, of the Syrians we see coming through Samos are middle class, professionals, university students and graduates. In the past month we have seen a significant increase in young families. There are many more children and babies.

To get to Samos means that they have some resources. But there are wide differences with some having much and many having a little. But generally they are not destitute, yet. We are also now seeing greater numbers being packed into the small rubber dinghies often with tiny engines and insufficient fuel. Frontex over the past month has saved many from boats that ran out of fuel, flooded, or simply crumpled due to the numbers packed in. The refugees are full of praise for the efforts of the coastguards and Frontex which at this time at least is saving people. But the risks are terrifying in getting across to Samos. And through their contacts especially with those that have gone on before them, they know that there are many more dangers ahead as they head north from Greece into Macedonia, then to Serbia and Hungary before getting through to Austria and Germany. But, as we get told time and again, none of this compares to Syria. “We can breath and we can begin to dream of living again.”

Two things stands out each and every day with all the new arrivals. Their determination and how little they expect. Never have we been asked where are the buses which will take us to the port. They know before they arrive here that they will be expected to walk to report to the port police. Many, especially the children are totally exhausted by the sleepless nights waiting to get the boat before the night sea crossing. Yet, despite the heat and the sun and the weight of their sea soaked back packs they walk. And this is what you now see everyday in the mornings along the Samos coast line. Groups of refugees making their way on foot either to Karlovassi or Samos town.

We salute this courage and determination. But why should they walk? Why can’t they use the public buses? There are plenty of buses on Samos and a significant army presence which has many trucks and buses which could be used to pick up the refugees from their landing places. But on Samos, the army to date has been invisible in any humanitarian response to the refugees.

You won’t make us inhuman

The issue of making refugees walk 20 or 25 kms in the blazing heat is just one example amongst many that demonstrates the casual cruelties which are routinely inflicted on the refugees who arrive on Samos. And like all the other examples it has a history as we have noted in earlier articles. It was only this summer that the Greek government amended the law which criminalised giving lifts to refugees in your own transport whether it is a car or a boat. This law was supposed to stop the smugglers but in effect, and we would argue by intent, it was directed more widely at the population as a whole. The premise was simple. Those in power believe that the more pleasant the reception given to refugees the more it will encourage them to come. Make it nasty and they won’t. It is utter nonsense but it has not stopped the authorities from constructing an entire system (both here in Samos and throughout much of the EU) based on making life for refugees as difficult as they can get away with. Including building the Camp on Samos which resembles Guantanamo Bay, from providing no food at the ports, no transport from the beaches, tortuous bureaucratic procedures and of course and critically, providing no safe passage at any stage of their journeys.

In order not to undermine the policy of inhospitality it was necessary to bring the people into line. Threatening them with the loss of their vehicle or boat has had a very negative impact on many people on the island. And still does. That the authorities have not declared that the change in the law has removed this threat has not helped. In fact it seems to us that many of the police themselves do not know the law has changed so they continue to tell us that although they will say nothing and in fact want us to help, we should not be giving rides for example. We are breaking the law! Just a few days a young Syrian told us that he had met this woman from the island and asked her for some water. He told us that she was very upset because although she would like to give him water the law would punish her if she did. It is a fact of life here that many, but not all, are afraid of getting on the wrong side of the police.

But again the sheer weight of numbers is starting to change this. The oppressive laws on ‘illegal hospitality’ had a much greater impact when the refugees were kept out of sight in the Camp. Now they are visible, they are real, walking the streets, gathered in the ports and in some of the bars and cafés. How can you stand and do nothing when you see families with babies and young children walking the roads in the summer heat with no water or food? In these situations the absurdity and inhumanity of this policy is all too obvious and when faced with suffering humanity nearly always wins out whatever the police might say. As one young guy from the island told us as he loaded his pick up with 2 young families, “the police can go to hell. They are not going to make me inhuman!”.

But not for all. Some see economic advantages such as charging refugees 3 euros to recharge their phones, selling on water at high prices, or cheating them on taxi fares. Others, including the mayor of one of the villages which has become a popular landing point continues to rant and rage about the refugees being carriers of disease who should leave the village immediately, on foot, even when babies and young children are involved. In this particular village though it looks as if his position is slowly collapsing as some of his previously close acolytes now distance themselves from his ridiculous rantings.

Joy and despair


Syrian refugees from Kobani celebrate as they arrive on a dinghy at a beach on the Greek island of Kos, after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey, August 10, 2015 (Reuters Photo)

These are constant companions for most of the refugees we encounter. You see it when they land. There is the joy of making it to Europe safely competing with the 3 or 4 hours of terror being packed in a rubber boat on the night time journey to Samos. When they are finally processed and allowed to catch the ferry to Athens you also see their delight and excitement but the knowledge of what awaits them there and especially on the northward journey through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary casts a shadow of fear. Nothing is made easy for them. We can’t help but worry for them when they walk on to the ferries in Samos.

The one thing that seems to be in their favour is the weight of numbers. Cruel and punitive systems require resources if they are to work. With the numbers arriving on Greek islands now running into many thousands a week these systems can no longer operate. So for example on Samos, the majority of arrivals being from Syria are no longer incarcerated in the Camp for anything up to 30 days. They are herded to the ports and there the processing is both basic and quick so they can be moved on without delay. It is becoming more evident daily that Greece and the countries en route to the north are beginning to realise that it is in their interests to move the refugees through their countries as quickly as possible. This has nothing to do with humanity but everything to do with expediency. Thousands of refugees blocked on borders, at railway stations, in city centres, poses innumerable problems for governments especially when they insist on regulation and compliance.

Moreover, despite the attempts of the racists and fascists (as well as governments) to whip up hatred the flow of refugees coming to Europe has revealed a high degree of popular support and solidarity which cannot be ignored. Much of the mainstream media when it does report on this support suggests that it is fragile and that a more reactionary populism of exclusion and control is likely to erupt at any moment. But on Samos, and in much of Greece we have not seen any significant Golden Dawn actions against refugees. We have no immediate explanations but given its racist character and actions and presence throughout Greece its current low profile on refugees cannot pass without notice. Of course there are going to be right wing attacks but we are encouraged that the refugee crisis both here and now in much of Europe is like seeing a garden flower. Here on Samos as on the other frontier islands the economy is in tatters and there is much suffering and hardship. Tourism is vital. Yet time and again we see people wanting to help the refugees even though they know that tourism to the islands is suffering because of the refugee arrivals. From Germany we are receiving many reports that tell us of the mobilisations of thousands of people who are offering direct aid to new refugee arrivals. The scale and sheer imagination of the support from below is inspiring. If we care to look and understand we can see that it is the humanity of the people and not governments in Europe that are now beginning to shift the agenda on refugees away from fences and dogs to welcome and inclusion. Such changes of approach are almost entirely due to the twin pressures of the numbers of refugees combined with a popular humanitarianism.

Look at Kos. Here is a mayor who clearly endorsed a brutal line but within days of footage showing police violence against the refugees and their incarceration in a sports stadium, was seen out on the streets handing out food and water to the refugees. It is not so different on Samos, where the mayor has shown no interest in the refugees. In the past few weeks he has made a point of being seen handing out bread and water to refugees and making more positive statements about the necessity for effective and positive action. Until this week he has consistently argued that the refugee problem is for the central government to resolve. But in a sharp shift of focus Ekathamerini newspaper (Sept 1st 2015) reported that:

“Samos Mayor Michalis Angelopoulous told Kathimerini that the government does not have a plan to tackle the situation and that the municipality would shortly put forward its ideas on dealing with the refugees.“You could, for example, employ the Syrian doctors on some remote [Greek] islands,” he said.”


Samos Mayor : He is the one on the back of the motor bike!

To be honest we have few expectations of authority because as with the majority of the poor in the world we know that there is no justice in the system. This is a profound lesson. To live in a system which does not value the majority of its people and that profits and flourishes on violence and exploitation cannot but have major implications for how we think and how we act. You are wise to have no expectations of the system then you won’t be disappointed. By and large the system gets in your way when you just want to get on with your life. Its “gifts” are rarely freely given without conditions. But if you see a possibility for something you push for it. So we see the refugees applauding the Mayor for his presence at Samos port. They know very well that it is theatre but if it means that they might get things a bit easier this is worth a smile rather than a snarl. In a system which cares nothing for your well being you take what you can, when you can.

Why Germany?

The overwhelming majority of the Syrians coming through Samos want to go to Germany. Ask why Germany and you hear many of them say that it is because they have friends and family there. Then you will hear talk of the possibilities they feel that they will have to rebuild their lives there especially access to education. What you rarely hear is them talking about the welfare benefits they expect to receive in Germany. Many in power claim that “generous” state welfare is a primary pull factor determining refugee choices of destination. This is not what we hear. Rather it is the significant presence of their compatriots which is more decisive. Yes we hear some say that Sweden and Germany for example will help with housing and health but it is what they hear from those who have gone before which is more important in shaping their decisions. Is it safe? Will we be welcomed? Do we have a chance? This is why it is so important that so many people in places such as Germany and now Iceland are offering a welcome. Many of these activities get known and inform the intelligence networks of the refugees. Facebook seems to be the place where much of this information is shared.

As with all significant migrations being with some of your own people in a strange land makes for a much easier move. This Moroccan refugee tells it clearly who when asked why he wanted to go to Belgium said he had 450,000 reasons. This is the approximate size of Belgium’s Moroccan population. He knew very well that it would be this community which would offer him the best opportunities for regaining his life, and not any supposed state welfare provision on offer in Belgium. So as more and more Syrians move into Germany it it inevitable that more will follow.

Such is the devastation of Syria that many of the refugees don’t think they will ever return. This is a big loss and painful to accept.


Last night we talked with 14 year old Abdullah just before he took the ferry with his uncle to Athens. As we teased him about the German football tea shirt he was wearing (was he hoping to impress the German authorities?) he told us that he was not only crazy about football but that he was also a talented player. His left and right foot were equally good and he had scored many goals as a centre forward for his team. We talked as we passed out some fruit and then he whispered that more than any food he would love to have a ball. He needed a ball! His dream was to play professional football in Germany and then to play international football for Syria. A dream maybe. Who knows. But this young lad had something about him. So look out in few years for Abdullah. And we got a ball for him just before he left.

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End Notes

A) Here are the details of the ammended law. The English version is via Google translate!

Νόμος 4332 2015 αρθρο 14

2. Η παρ. 6 του άρθρου 30 του Ν. 4251/2014 τροποποιείται και αντικαθίσταται ως εξής:

«6. Οι ανωτέρω κυρώσεις δεν επιβάλλονται στις περιπτώσεις διάσωσης ανθρώπων στη θάλασσα, της μεταφοράς ανθρώπων που χρήζουν διεθνούς προστασίας, κατά τις επιταγές του διεθνούς δικαίου, καθώς και στις περιπτώσεις προώθησης στο εσωτερικό της χώρας ή διευκόλυνσης της μεταφοράς, προς το σκοπό υπαγωγής στις διαδικασίες των άρθρων 83 του Ν. 3386/2005 ή του άρθρου 13 του Ν. 3907/2011, κατόπιν ενημέρωσης των αρμοδίων αστυνομικών και λιμενικών αρχών.»

Διαβάστε περισσότερα στο Lawspot.gr

Law 4332 2015 section 14

2. Par. 6 of Article 30 of Law. 4251/2014 amended and replaced by the following: “6. These sanctions are not imposed on men rescue situations at sea, transport for persons in need of international protection, following the requirements of international law and to the promotion cases within the country or facilitating the transfer, to the entry order in the procedures of Articles 83 of Law no. 3386/2005 or Article 13 of Law. 3907/2011, after informing the competent police and port authorities. ” Read more at Lawspot.gr

b) Alarm phone

Please note this number if you or any of your friends are making the sea journey to Europe. It could save your life.

For boatpeople in distress at sea and in cases of pushback

00334 86 517161

But an ALARM NUMBER to support rescue operations!

We ourselves cannot rescue anyone, we do not have boats or helicopters.

What to do if you are in distress at sea and pushbacks:

1. First call the coast guards and tell them about your situation of distress.

2. Then call the Alarm Phone. We will make sure that your distress call is noted and acted upon.

3. If you are not promptly rescued by the coast guards, call the Alarm Phone again. We will inform the public media and politicians to put pressure on the rescue services.

We know coastguards act quite differently. There are areas where they do their job well and rescue promptly. But refugees also report that they get pushed back by coast guards or are treated violently. When a distress call is received, we will call the coast guards ourselves, and follow up on their response, making known to them that we are informed and ‘watching’ them. We want to support you in protecting your lives and your right of freedom of movement. See also Safety at sea.

For general information about the situation in certain european countries for refugees – see:

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