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Kos, Greece Travel report on the visit by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons

Kos, Greece

Travel report on the visit by the Council of Europe’s
Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons

and 25 October 2015, Kos, Greece

Despite worsening weather conditions, some 50,000 refugees have arrived on the Greek islands in the eastern Aegean since mid-October. Of those, 21% are children and adolescents under 18.

According to figures from Pro Asyl, 562,355 people have reached Greece via the Mediterranean since the start of the year. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says that more than 3,200 have died during the crossing. The number of unreported cases is likely to be much higher.

As a member of the Council of Europe and in my function as the Council of Europe’s rapporteur for Syrian refugees in Europe, I was part of a delegation from five European countries that visited the reception facilities for refugees on the Greek island of Kos. We spoke to refugees, aid workers and local authority representatives. The aim of the delegation’s visit was to get an idea of the situation for refugees on the island and to work out concrete proposals for fundamentally improving their situation.

-          Insights into individual stories –

One of the most pressing questions for many refugees was why there was no legal way of entering Greece and/or other EU member states from Turkey: “We pay €1,300 per person for the short, dangerous journey and risk our lives in the process. The crossing was the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life,” said an older Iraqi woman in a voice choked with tears. She had fled IS with her husband and son, and wanted to get to Dublin, where her daughter is studying medicine: “We want safe entry into Ireland, where we plan to apply for asylum. We do not want to take the dangerous Balkans route. Please give us this chance,” she said, pleading with us.

A young Syrian woman who had survived when her boat capsized but lost all her papers had been on Kos for a month. “I’ve got no money and I’m scared that I’ll end up on the street,” she said.

Another Syrian woman who had survived a boat accident with her small child wants to go to Norway, where her brother lives. The young woman did not know where her husband was. One day he just did not come home. She fears that he is dead.

A young Afghan woman from Ghazni said that the Taliban were everywhere and that this was why people were fleeing: “If things weren’t so unstable and if the Taliban weren’t killing so many civilians, I wouldn’t have fled,” she said, determinedly. She told us how she spent eight months in Iran during her escape. Because she was badly treated there, she decided to flee with her child to Turkey and then travel on to Kos. She, too, pleaded with our delegation to allow refugees to legally leave Afghanistan and enter a safe country. 

-          Meeting with the UNHCR and non-governmental organisations –

Doctors Without Borders has been operating on Kos for the past year, and is the only organisation providing medical aid. The organisation criticised the lack of capacities, saying that the problem means it still cannot systematically examine all refugees. The NGO described refugee health as becoming increasingly worse, partly as a result of the precarious food situation. Apparently, this has come about because the food being given out by NGOs and volunteers contains an average of just 1,000 calories.

Doctors Without Borders, as well as the other NGOs, are extremely concerned about the rapidly dwindling financial resources, which could be exhausted in about four weeks. One Dutch NGO, for instance, is currently spending about €25,000 per month on supplies for the refugees. The NGOs are covering many costs for impoverished refugees, such as tickets for the ferries to Piraeus (€45 per person).

KOS Solidarity is a group of about 50 Greeks from Kos who have been looking after refugees on the island for many years without receiving any kind of financial support. The group now hands out things like dry clothes and blankets to the newcomers as soon as they get off the refugee boats.

The group is highly critical of the local authorities. In summer, for instance, the authorities housed over 1,000 refugees in a stadium with no water or food supplies, no sanitary facilities, and no plans for providing shade. KOS Solidarity says that this type of “internment” did not last long because there was such a big protest against the inhumane conditions.

Overall, the state and local authorities were criticised for not supporting the NGOs and volunteers.

We heard, for instance, that the toilets were not connected to the local sewage system. Even during the summer, when thousands of refugees were in the town, the authorities apparently provided neither toilets nor showers, which meant that people were forced to endure an unbearable situation.

All NGO representatives stressed the urgent need for a refugee centre with weatherproof accommodation. They pointed out that the weather was getting steadily worse, and that the small, unheated and often leaky tents in which many people were sleeping were not capable of withstanding the increasing cold and rain.

Another issue that received criticism from all NGO representatives was the detention of unaccompanied refugee minors. Apparently the minors were placed in prisons “for their own safety”, partly because no other suitable accommodation was available. We were told that the UNHCR had only become responsible for the unaccompanied minors a few days earlier.

At the time of our visit, there were officially no unaccompanied refugee minors on the island.

Meetings with the mayors of Agathonisi, Leros, Kalymnos, Rhodes and Kos –

Agathonisi is a small island close to Samos and Turkey. It has 150 inhabitants. Since February of this year, 22,175 refugees have reached the island. About 300 to 400 arrived every day and were taken to one of the larger islands within 24 hours. Three employees from the port administration, a police officer and the mayor are responsible for managing the situation. Since there is no doctor on the island, the mayor requested one, along with other support staff, from the Greek government. Athens rejected his request, referring to the current financial situation. The mayor also mentioned the large number of people who had drowned, and to the associated burial costs, which were and still are being borne by the municipality.

Leros has 8,000 inhabitants. A total of 30,000 refugees have arrived on the island since the start of the year. Numbers reached 2,500 per day at some points in the summer.

Doctors Without Borders provided toilets that the local authorities connected up to the sewage system. The organisation also set up an electricity supply. The mayor criticised the state for not offering any support for transporting the refugees to other islands, and for making the municipality shoulder the costs.

In order to stop or limit people entering Leros illegally, the island recently entered into a partnership with Didim – the Turkish town from which most refugees set off for Leros.  In particular, the partnership is designed to help exchange information about how many refugees in Didim are likely to travel to Leros.

As part of the discussion on the so-called hotspots, the Greek government has approved the construction of a reception centre on the island that will be able to house between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees.

Kalymnos has 16,000 inhabitants. Roughly 15,000 refugees have reached the island since the start of the year. The island has accommodation for a maximum of 50 refugees, which means that the four transfers to Samos per week are not enough. The municipality is paying for the transfers. 

The mayor of Rhodes, Mr Chatzidiakos, strongly criticised Greek and European refugee policies and stressed that there was no strategy. He criticised the EU for paying €3 billion to Turkey, while giving Greece just €472 million in support. Apparently the Greek government will be given a further €32 million to help care for the refugees.  Mr Chatzidiakos is calling for those funds to be passed on to the islands receiving the highest numbers of refugees, rather than to the Greek government in Athens. He also wants refugees to be allowed to travel directly to EU countries from Turkey because this will avoid the dangerous route across the Mediterranean, during which people drown every day.  This humane solution would, says the mayor, also deprive unscrupulous trafficking gangs of the foundation of their business, which is currently earning them millions.

The mayor of Kos, Mr Kyritsis, said that claims by NGOs about unaccompanied refugee minors being imprisoned were pure propaganda. He explained that the police only took the young refugees into police stations to ensure their safety, as there was no other accommodation available for them at the time.

Mr Kyritsis vehemently rejected the idea of a hotspot on Kos, as he fears that it would attract even more refugees. The mayor estimated the refugee-related costs to his municipality at €1.2 million. However, he did not provide any details as to how he reached this figure.

The pictures of refugees on the streets of Kos, which have been seen around the world, have done enormous damage to the island’s image. As the fourth-largest tourist destination in Greece (up to 1 million tourists per season), Kos lost €7 million in 2015 as a result of 178,000 bookings being cancelled.  So far, bookings for 2016 are down by 40%.

Hoteliers have described this figure as extremely concerning because a slump of that size would be a serious threat to Kos’ economy if it did actually materialise. The hoteliers’ association says that the negative reports about the refugee problem on Kos are largely responsible for the cancellations, and so asked the members of our delegation for help. The association said that correctly reporting the actual situation in Kos was of paramount importance – and that this type of reporting should also make it clear that traveling to Kos is perfectly safe and that the island remains one of the most beautiful holiday destinations in the Aegean.  It also stressed that many of its members had given food to refugees and that they always welcome all those coming to the island. Most of the hoteliers were in favour of a reception centre with decent accommodation so that the refugees would no longer have to sleep on the streets.

-          Conclusion –

Overall, the situation for refugees on Kos clearly violates their human rights. Despite the suffering and this catastrophic human rights situation, which has escalated largely because of a lack of financial resources, the EU has so far done much too little to intervene and help in the current humanitarian crisis.  In fact, the EU member states are lapsing into national policies that serve their own interests – and the EU, with its plans to construct the so-called hotspots, is continuing to finance an inhuman refugee policy. Instead of each country accepting its fair share of people according to its capacities, border controls are being introduced and fences are expanding. Despite implementing a few, largely cosmetic measures, those responsible are shutting their eyes to the current challenges concerning refugee policies and are continuing to choose isolation and deterrents over solidarity and human rights.

Furthermore, the trip made it clearer than ever that Greece, in its position at the outer edge of the EU, is being left alone and is overwhelmed – not least because of the catastrophic economic and social situation in the country. Greece can neither guarantee a refugee and asylum policy that complies with human rights, nor provide protection and adequate resources for its own civil servants. Greek fears about the decline in the tourism sector – the only branch of the economy that is in good working order – must be taken seriously. The people’s solidarity with the refugees must not be put at risk, and the suffering of one group must not be played off against the suffering of the other.

For a long time, refugees were mainly being cared for by volunteers, who themselves had to contend with the most adverse of conditions and were also being left high and dry by local and national authorities and by the EU. NGOs only began helping a few months ago, and are also providing the volunteers with financial support. In closing their eyes to this disastrous situation and not showing solidarity by helping, those responsible are riding roughshod over international refugee and human rights conventions, turning European values such as solidarity and human rights into empty words, and allowing current policies to seriously break down and undermine the human right to asylum.

The only possible way to respond to the catastrophic (human rights) situation facing refugees in Greece is to open the borders and create legal entry and escape routes for people fleeing (civil) war, persecution, misery and distress. Those who have fled must also be allowed to choose for themselves which country they would like to live in.

-          Thoughts –

During my trip, I often asked myself what it would be like if thousands of refugees arrived on the islands of Sylt or Rügen. I have enormous respect for the Greek people, who are largely looking after the refugees themselves – be that on the islands, in Athens, in Thessaloniki or at the Greek-Macedonian border. Without their tireless support, the situation would be even worse for the refugees, since the Greek state and the EU have, for the most part failed.