At the start of the tourist season this summer, the top results for a Google search that combined the words “Greece,” “refugees” and “islands” were articles in the British press about which parts of the country are most affected by the ongoing refugee crisis. More than a million refugees streamed into Europe in 2015, the vast majority of them — 885,000 — via Greece’s Dodecanese islands near Turkey, or what the European Union’s external border agency, Frontex, calls the Eastern Mediterranean route.
Lesbos (also called Lesvos), Samos and Chios have seen the largest number of arrivals since the beginning of 2015, and around 8,000 more refugees have passed through smaller islands further south, including Leros, Kos and Symi.
Temporary holding centers managed by the Greek government have been set up on the islands to process the refugees, but the centers are understaffed and the camps and housing are often squalid. As refugees wait for months to be processed — a first step before they can be resettled elsewhere in Europe — tensions have built up and, in some cases, tipped into violent confrontations, putting refugees, locals and aid workers in danger.
Pledges from other EU member states to take in some of the 57,000 persons stranded in Greece have fallen far short of what’s needed to ease the burden. The total number of pledges so far would allow just 11 percent of the target of 66,400 refugees and asylum-seekers to be relocated by September 2017. France (2,570), Romania (772) and Portugal (730) are the top EU member states in terms of relocation pledges.
And the migrants keep coming. What the EU calls “disorganized, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows” to Greece were supposed to be eliminated by a deal struck earlier this year with Turkey, and for a while, the number of arrivals was down. But the dangerous crossings of the Aegean have ticked up again, following the failed coup bid in Turkey. In the margin of its weekly report, the UNHCR keeps a running tally of arrivals in the EU by sea — nearly 263,000 so far this year, mostly to Greece (162,000) and Italy (101,500) — with over 3,100 dying at sea.
It used to be that under EU rules, refugees arriving in Europe would have to apply for asylum in the member state they first entered. That put undue strain on countries to the south, such as Greece and Italy, and east, such as Poland, which in the early 2000s took in thousands of refugees from Chechnya. The EU’s Dublin Regulation, which establishes this rule, was revised in 2013 to add new criteria for evaluating whether someone will be granted asylum — and where they can file their application. But many governments within the bloc have balked at the idea of becoming home to hundreds or thousands of refugees, leaving frontline countries like Greece to shoulder the burden of this massive influx of humanity to its shores (also see cover profile).
Besieged by Crisis
All of this is happening as Greece tries — not very successfully — to pull itself back from the brink of economic collapse. After seven years of austerity measures and several multi-billion-euro bailouts, one in four Greeks under the age of 25 is neither working nor in higher education, and nearly half of Greeks aged 25 and under are unemployed, according to Greek and EU statistics. The overall unemployment rate — around 23 percent — is the highest in the European Union and nearly equal to the jobless rate in the United States when the Great Depression was at its peak.
Once-generous pensions have been slashed along with wages, while taxes and social charges have risen. Small business owners are going off-grid to stay afloat, operating out of apartments, working for cash only and not paying taxes, perpetuating a vicious cycle of tax evasion for which the country is notorious.
Tens of thousands of Greeks are homeless. In the Thissio neighborhood of Athens — at the foot of the Acropolis, amid a plethora of restaurants and nightlife — an elderly man who sold antique coins from a fold-up card table in a street market by day simply covered up his wares at night with a plastic sheet and slept in the chair he’d sat in all day. Much like the refugees who have been stuck in Greece since the Balkan states slammed their borders shut, many Greeks have nowhere to go but the dusty streets of Athens or Thessaloniki. They also have little hope that things will get better any time soon.
“It’s hard for Greeks. They’re having a hard time with their economy and not getting what they need, but the refugees are the focus of everyone’s attention,” said Norman Hering, an Irish-American psychologist who, around 18 months ago, sold his house in California and moved to Europe, where he eventually ending up volunteering at the Skaramangas refugee camp in Athens.
“And yet, you don’t get a lot of complaining from Greeks,” he added.
A German volunteer working in the port of Piraeus near Athens said Greeks “see so many organizations bringing money and help for the refugees, but they’re suffering, too.”
“We need to mobilize for the Greeks, too. They shouldn’t feel like second-class citizens in their own country,” said the volunteer, who did not give his name.
To some Greeks, and even to an outsider not looking far below the surface, the refugees appear to have it good. Many are housed in camps or prefabs provided by the government. The Greek Army provides them with meals. They get free medical treatment. But scratch the surface a little and the story changes. The official government-run refugee camps are massively overcrowded, and living conditions in them are appalling. There have been reports of refugee children being sexually assaulted inside a camp near Thessaloniki. Tensions are seething. And there are unconfirmed reports of scurvy in the unofficial refugee camp set up in Piraeus, caused by a lack of vitamin C because of the poor quality of the meals provided by the Greek Army.
Arrivals Flood Port City
Last winter, 7,000 refugees were camping in Piraeus, the port from which, during the summer, ferries carry happy tourists off to idyllic island holidays. The numbers of refugees were swelling daily — “500 and 500 and 500 more,” said Krista Vitsoroglou, a former dentist who owns and runs the popular Rakadiko Stoa Kouvelou restaurant, tucked away on a nondescript street a stone’s throw from the port.
The military and faith-based groups were trying to provide enough food for all the refugees, but they were overwhelmed. So they turned to local restaurateurs — including Vitsoroglou and, according to her, the Michelin-starred chef at Varoulko Seaside — and asked them to help.
The chefs all agreed to do their bit. “I was cooking the whole winter — 100, 150 portions, as much as I could, which I gave to NGOs for distribution,” Vitsoroglou told The Washington Diplomat. “There were 1,800 portions given by restaurants during the winter every day. This stopped when the military started giving food to people. They told us there was no need for us to give food any more.”
On a hot Wednesday evening in the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the army-supplied iftar dinner comprised macaroni and cheese. Nader Hassan, a refugee from Aleppo who has been trying for months to be reunited with his son and sister in Germany, offered three portions of untouched army rations to a volunteer.
In her restaurant office, Vitsoroglou said she had “heard from people in the port that they were not content, the food was not good and there were some cases of food poisoning because of bad storage.” So she and others again sprang into action.
Vitsoroglou gave space on the rooftop of Rakadiko to a volunteer group from the U.K. Every day in June, the rooftop kitchen was cooled by large fans and a translucent tarp set up to soften the sting of the southeastern European sun. There, volunteers from Germany, Norway, Poland, Spain, the U.K. and U.S. chopped onions, lettuce and tomatoes and put six dates into plastic bags for the refugees.
“We make 1,500 wraps for refugees in the port every day,” Vitsoroglou said during a break from running the restaurant, which remained open to customers even as the volunteers busied themselves making meals for the refugees. “Every wrap we make has cucumber, tomatoes, carrots inside, and we make something like hummus or falafel or baba ganoush so they get something they like.
“We’re trying to give them the vitamins they need because I heard that cases of scurvy were found in the port. As a doctor I haven’t heard of scurvy anywhere in Europe for the last two or three centuries, and hearing that scurvy has reappeared in Europe, in my country, is a real disaster.”
The wraps are handed out at the same time as the army rations. Hassan ate his wrap, but not the mac ‘n’ cheese. In northern Greece, refugees protested in the street outside their camp in a suburb of Thessaloniki after Greek police prevented volunteers from a Danish NGO from delivering fresh food to the camp. The refugees ended their protest when the police agreed to restore access to the camp for the NGO.
Prisoners in an Asylum
On the island of Leros, the “hotspot” — the suggestive name given to the centers set up at the request of the European Union to register thousands of refugees streaming into the country — is located on the grounds of the island’s still-functioning mental hospital. Refugees live in close proximity to patients at the hospital. Families with children, unaccompanied minors and the elderly are housed at Pikpa, set up decades ago as a school for children with severe learning disabilities and run today by volunteers from the Leros Solidarity Network (LSN), with support from Greek authorities and UNHCR.
Bob Grove, a senior policy advisor to Mental Health Europe, described conditions at the mental institution and Pikpa after he visited Leros in 1987, six years after Greece joined the EU: “People in grey rags shuffling around wired compounds, naked men being fed by staff in gumboots … the naked women’s block with people strapped to beds, apparently comatose. The visit to Pikpa was, if anything, worse. There were three stories to the building and it was clear that no one ever left their section. The youngest children were confined to the top floor either naked or in pajamas, with those who were immobile in bed and many who could walk strapped to the beds to prevent them from doing so. Three meters above each child’s bed was a soft toy nailed to the wall.”
In 1989, after articles were published in the British press and documentaries aired on British TV, Leros became an “internationally known scandal,” according to Grove.
Today, Leros is once again in need of an urgent fix. Some 700 refugees are sheltering on the island. Their one wish seems to be to leave.
“They don’t want to be here. They’re stuck here. They’re prisoners,” Anna Karanikola, a teacher on Leros and an LSN volunteer, told The Washington Diplomat.
In July, the refugees’ frustrations boiled over into violence at the hotspot. It was a far cry from last year, when around 5,000 people arrived on the island aboard makeshift rafts and inflatable dinghies. Then, many of Leros’s residents — though not all — opened their homes and hearts to the refugees.
“People were coming into our homes, having showers. They were sleeping in our beds, we were washing their clothes,” Karanikola recalled. “But there were some who were stirring up trouble. Restaurant owners were charging 10 euros to charge a phone or 5 euros for a sandwich. When the riots happened in the hotspot, some of the people who made a lot of money a year ago off the refugees’ misfortune were the same ones who were stoking the violence, beating up some of the refugees.
“I don’t like to talk about it — I feel ashamed by it. It’s a very small minority,” she said.
When UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, asked Karanikola if she would give the refugees English lessons, she didn’t hesitate to throw open the doors of her private language school and kindergarten.
Today, around 30 refugees take language lessons at Karanikola’s school, and the UNHCR has extended her contract — an indication that the U.N. does not expect the situation in Greece to be resolved any time soon.
But the warm welcome from people like Karanikola, or the sheets and bedding at Pikpa, paid for by a local judge, are not enough to convince the refugees to stay on Leros. Some are lucky enough to have been relocated or reunited with family members already settled in another EU member state. Others simply try their luck and leave Leros for the Greek mainland. A Yazidi woman did just that days earlier, taking her four children and heading to Athens by ferry, Karanikola said.
“I heard that they’re sleeping in the street. Many of the refugees think things will be better in Athens, but they’re not,” she said.
Volunteers in Greece come from all walks of life. French volunteer Elsa Terenzani quit her job in Berlin to come to Greece and help refugees. Polish student Julia Slupska was a member of a debate club at the university in London where she is studying, when she came to the realization during a debate about refugees that instead of “talking about how bad refugees’ lives are, I could be doing something concrete about it.” So she packed her bags and headed to Greece.
Some of the volunteers are staying days, some weeks and others indefinitely. The Khora NGO, founded by a group of young people from Britain, recently negotiated the lease on an eight-story building in Athens, which they are converting into a day center for “refugees and anyone who needs it,” Khora’s Tom Joseph said. The center will offer free food, legal support, education, sanitation and medical facilities to Greeks, Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others.
The building sits well with many Greeks’ philosophy of treating refugees humanely.
“I don’t think, ‘What are we going to do with these people?’ I just think they’re here, they’re people, they’re living with us,” said restaurateur Vitsoroglou. “With Greece’s situation, there are no jobs for these people. So we need to feed them, we need to give them schools, we need to make them feel just a little comfortable until maybe the borders will open.”
The German volunteer working in the rooftop kitchen at Rakadiko said he gets the impression that the EU authorities are deliberately making the process of resettlement in Europe difficult for refugees, even though, under an EU directive, refugees and other persons of concern have the right to family reunification.
One time, he said, he was asked by a Norwegian NGO to urgently come to the German Embassy to serve as a translator. “There was a young man there, who was already living in Germany. His wife had arrived in Greece with two young kids and she was pregnant. The problem is that the German Embassy here said that appointments for family reunification are only available by email and the next appointment was not until next February. If the man were to wait until then, his wife will have the baby in the camp. And the papers that he filled in to reunify the family will no longer be valid next February.
“In Germany,” he added, “the [Berlin] Wall came down in 1989. Now, the EU is building a new one: Frontex, fortress Europe and security fences.”
Hering, the Irish-American volunteer at Skaramangas, said, “The longer I’m here, the more I see how little is being done” to end the refugee crisis.
“I’m a pretty positive, hopeful person and I always think things are getting better, and they are. But it’s such a painstakingly slow process and I don’t see the EU really contributing,” he said.
“So how long is it going to take to resolve this? I think it’s going to be years.”
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.