FROM BOAT TO BOAT: Kos and the Refugee Crisis

Part 1: The Arrival in Europe 4am. It’s only a few metres away but while you can hear the Aegean Sea lapping against the sand,…

Joe Mulhall

Part 1: The Arrival in Europe

4am. It’s only a few metres away but while you can hear the Aegean Sea lapping against the sand, you can’t see it. The light of street lamps and hotel signs across the water in the Turkish holiday resort of Bodrum do nothing to lift the pitch dark of the beach. The only light comes from a solitary flashing beacon at the end of a small peninsular, which is itself at the end of Kos. It flashes once; pauses; then flashes three times in quick succession. This is the target – the point at which the boats aim.

The occasional spluttering of an outboard motor, a cough or some garbled speech in the distance is all that breaks the night’s silence. With such limited visibility it’s impossible to tell if the sound is coming from small refugee boats or the larger Greek and Turkish Coast Guard vessels that patrol the four-kilometre channel between the two countries. A rickety and rusted jeep crawls slowly along the road that runs parallel to the water and, from time-to-time, veers onto the beech with its lights off.

Three hours pass with no sign of a landing. I had been told most of boats arrived between four and six in the morning, but I’d seen nothing and heard very little. As the sun rose around 6:50am, light flooded the Aegean Sea and then the land. As visibility improved the image of white sandy beaches that I had envisaged from the holiday brochures was quickly dashed. The stony shore was strewn with the detritus of months’ of migration. Slashed rubber boats, paddles and dozens of lifejackets vied with the usual assortment of bottles, cans and plastic bags. Red Yamaha lifejackets lay strewn everywhere.

Just as I was about to give up and walk to the nearest hotel a small boat appeared on the horizon, seeming to head for a point on the other side of the peninsular. Through the long lens of the camera the image slowly grew to reveal a small rubber dingy, crammed with eight men in buoyancy vests, desperately paddling towards the shore.

As soon as they hit land things moved fast. The exhausted men, some in just their underpants, jumped into the surf and pulled the boat ashore. The jeep that had been patrolling hours earlier suddenly reemerged and three men jumped out. Without even acknowledging the newly-arrived migrants two detached the boat’s outboard motor and carried it away, followed by the third man dragging the boat. Before the passengers had caught their breath the local vultures had made off with their spoils.

‘Do you know them?’, I asked one.

‘No. No idea’ he replied.

The migrants then emptied a bag of clothes onto the sand and began to change. A single plastic carrier bag was their only luggage. They lit cigarettes and pulled out mobile phones. Some called ahead to friends who had already made it to town, others called home to tell of their safe arrival. While one or two of them smiled most simply looked tired and relieved.

The outboard motor had packed in not long after setting off, leaving them with no option but to paddle the rest of the way across. The journey had taken between three and four hours. One said he was: ’Very tired, very tired.’ His journey had started in Pakistan ten months earlier and he was finally in Europe.

‘Why did you leave Pakistan?’ I asked.

‘No work’, he replied, ‘no electricity.’

This was a story that would cut little ice with those handing out the immigration papers in Kos Town.

With the Pakistanis now walking along the road towards the town, I slowly followed the beach back towards the beacon. By now large ferries, cruise liners and tankers were visible, cluttering the narrow crossing. Then, the unmistakable spluttering sound of an outboard motor could again be faintly heard. A small fibreglass fishing boat, no more than four meters long and a few wide, came into view. Unlike the other vessels pottering along the coast this one was heading straight for the shore, a small Turkish flag fluttering off the back.

As it ran aground people started to jump into the water. One of the men returned to the boat and carried a young girl no older than seven or eight onto the beach. The girl’s mother then followed. There were 11 people in total, hailing, they said, from Syria, Iraq and Palestine. It had been a cramped crossing.

‘We were told it would be a big boat,’ explained one of the Iraqi men, as he fired off dozens of pictures of himself and his friends. It seemed the people smugglers rarely delivered their side of the bargain.

Before everyone was even out of the water the ‘vultures’ again arrived on the scene, pushing past everyone and grabbing the boat to make sure it didn’t float away.

A balding man with a bulbous paunch waded out and held the vessel. His accomplice was a much slighter, older man, sporting a baseball cap. He rounded on the migrants: ‘Give me the key, where is the key?’ he asked. The new arrivals simply ignored the Greek boat snatcher. Some were busy making phone calls and taking excited selfies to mark their arrival in Europe. The Syrian group however, a lady with her daughter and two young men of around seventeen, were much more subdued. One, a teenager in jeans and a blue polo shirt, looked visibly upset and nervous.

‘Where is the key?’ the local asked again, this time with a hint of frustration. One of the Iraqi men stepped forward and explained in broken English that they didn’t have the key. The smugglers, who had charged everyone €2,600 (even for the child) had simply turned the boat on, pointed it in the direction of Kos and pushed it out. Had the engine cut out then they would have been stranded, floating in the Aegean with nothing but a small paddle and the hope of being rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.

Two more locals, one man and a woman, arrived to help with commandeering the boat. The man was much more demanding, ordering the migrants to offer up the key. All they could do was explain again that they had no key to give. The young Syrian boy would later explain how he was shaken by the affair, convinced he was about to be assaulted. He even claimed he saw a gun strapped to the hip of one of the locals (I admit I didn’t see it).

After just five minutes on the beach the migrants dropped their lifejackets and began the two-hour walk up the coast to Kos Town to register with the police. They had made it to Europe. One journey was finished and the next one was just beginning.

Part 2: Life in Kos

‘The extremists are cowards. They did nothing when there were a hundred Iraqi men. They only attacked when it was just us. Most of the aid workers were women.’

Roberto, head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) mission on the island, was explaining the scenes that played out at 11pm a few days earlier. There was a stand off between the police, dressed in blue and green fatigues and armed with batons and riot shields, and a hundred or so frustrated Iraqi refugees.

Sensing the tension Roberto had pulled a blue United Nations (UN) vest out of the thigh pocket of his cargo trousers – ‘It’s like my superman cape’ he said – and placed himself, arms outstretched, between the police and the Iraqis. It only bought the refugees a few seconds of time as the police proceeded to charge regardless, batons waving, to disperse the crowd.

Watching the events unfold was a crowd of roughly 30 local extremists, too scared to properly attack the Iraqis head on but happy to jeer from behind the police. Once the Iraqis had fled the extremists turned their attention to the small group of local aid workers at the scene. ‘They hate them more than the refugees. They think they’re traitors’ said Roberto.

As the police watched, the baying crowd began pelting the aid workers with whatever they could find to hand. An ice cube brushed the side of Roberto’s face just millimetres from his eye; at that distance and speed ice is no different from a stone.

Events like this are rare but not isolated. Not long before my visit, local racists had attacked a migrant tent under the cover of darkness, kicking and punching the Iranian family inside. Amnesty International has reported seeing a group of 15-25 ‘local thugs’ attacking refugees with bats while shouting ‘go back to your country.’ Worryingly there is unconfirmed talk of possible future attacks: one rumour says that local extremists are waiting for the bulk of tourists to leave the island before mounting a purge of the remaining refugees. Of course the truth of such talk is impossible verify.

It is for such reasons, as well as sanitation needs and administrational concerns, that the UN is so desperate to set up a properly organised camp on Kos. Unfortunately the local authority, led by an uncooperative mayor, has thwarted and blocked all attempts to do so. ‘We have the tents ready in Athens but we aren’t allowed to bring them over’, said a UN representative. One long-experienced aid worker said he had never faced such an uncooperative and obstructive local administration.

The lack of a formal camp has forced migrants to build their own ad-hoc sites in and around the centre of Kos Town. The result is at times deeply surreal, with the jarring juxtaposition of the picturesque marina – with its expensive motor yachts and holiday cruisers – right next to temporary tented villages. Holidaymakers dine alfresco and sip cocktails just metres from the long lines of hungry people queuing for bread.

Since the beginning of the crisis this small island has received more that 35,000 refugees and migrants – that’s more than the whole local population. At its peak the island held 9,000 migrants at once. Thanks to tougher controls in Turkey and some improvements in registration, this has dropped to around 2,000 at a time.

The numbers coming ashore each night varies, as does the number with papers that head to Athens on the overnight ferry. The night I spent on the beach I saw some 400 people arrive.

While the numbers have dropped from their high, the situation on Kos is constantly changing and increasingly complicated. The bulk that have successfully made the crossing have been Syrians fleeing the war. One lady, when asked why she had fled with her son from her home in Damascus, replied in broken English: ‘Terrible. Because of war. Everybody, everywhere, blood. Everywhere destroyed. I don’t know how to explain more. Terrible.’

As a moderate Muslim she said was especially scared of what might await her if ISIS – the so-called Islamic State – took control. ‘If they saw the tattoo on my arm they would cut it off,’ she shuddered.

While she camped among the cluttered, cramped and uncomfortable tented village that lined the road and sat under bright street lights that made sleeping difficult, it was not common to see that many other Syrians living on the street. Many of those in Kos came from middle class backgrounds and were wealthy enough to make the journey to Europe rather than having to flee to refugee camps in Iraq, Turkey or Lebanon. As such most can afford to stay in local hotels. The women and child I saw climb off a small boat in the morning were dining next to me that evening and staying a few doors down in my hotel.

However, this current migration crisis extends well beyond the borders of Syria. Also well represented in Kos are Iraqis, Iranians, Afghanis, migrants from numerous African countries, and in ever increasing numbers, Pakistanis. This is where things get complicated. While a majority passing through the island are fleeing conflict or oppression there are increasing numbers of economic migrants, too.

Whilst the Syrians are usually processed within a few days, Pakistanis can be left stranded on the island for weeks at a time. One man, who had been waiting in the sweltering summer heat for 15 days, said he had fled violence in Kashmir (the province fought over several times between India and Pakistan).

‘Every day I go to the police station,’ he explained. ‘All Pakistanis. All day wait at the police station not give me papers. Other people go, Syrian, one day, maybe next day they get papers. Only Pakistani people is big problem. […] If I have no problem why I come here to Greece?’ Despite not getting papers he was one of the lucky ones. He talked of how his friend died making the journey over when his boat sank. ‘There is no safety, you give $1015 dollar in Turkey, that’s it, no safety.’

Sadly those least able to economically support themselves, often the Pakistanis or Africans, are the ones stranded on Kos for the longest. Many are left to sleep on the beach with nothing more than a cardboard box for shelter. Others have taken refuge in what has been nicknamed ‘the jungle’, a tree-covered area strewn with boxes, mattresses and tents huddled around fire pits. The lack of adequate sanitation means you smell ‘the jungle’ long before you see it.

This prioritisation of some migrant groups over others means it is not uncommon for those from other countries to claim they are Syrians, hoping to be waved into Europe. Some are more convincing than others. One man, seeing my camera, rushed over to tell me of his horrific ordeal in Syria and to bemoan the slow processing of his papers in Kos.

‘I thought I had arrived in heaven but it turns out I am back in Hell’, he raged. But something wasn’t right. He spoke with a thick Eastern European accent, perhaps Albanian, and when questioned it became clear he didn’t speak Arabic. The heart-wrenching story of war and struggle was no doubt true. It just wasn’t his.

‘I’ve got my papers!’ A 16-year-old boy, dressed in donated Union Jack shorts, ran over to me beaming and excited. ‘I’ve got my papers! Yes! I have my papers and tomorrow I will go to ferry to Athens.’

He was an Afghani who had lived in Iran and left his family to travel to Europe with his brother. Each day refugees like him crowd round boards holding lists of those who have received papers to go onwards. Those who spot their names are elated, while those who don’t trudge off dejected, perhaps contemplating another night sleeping in a tent on the hard concrete pavement.

Each evening, as the sun sets, the lucky ones head to the port clutching these new papers. The scenes at the ferry terminal are a mix of elation, excitement, nerves and for one woman, desperation and hysteria. Holding her two-year-old child tight to her chest as she stepped off the gangway onto the Blue Star 2 to Athens, she fainted. Hurriedly she was seated in a wheelchair and taken off the ferry. As she came around, she burst into hysterical crying, shrieking with desperation. ‘Take me back. I have to get to Athens. I have to get to Athens. Please. Take me back.’ No amount of pleading would get her back on the boat. She had missed her chance and would have to wait for another day.

As she wailed the ship’s foghorn sounded, the huge metal ferry doors began to rise and the ropes slid into the water with a plop. The giant ship pulled away, its passengers crowding onto the open deck under a billowing Greek flag. Tomorrow, Athens beckoned. They had arrived on Kos in small rubber dinghies, perilously crowded and often paddling for their lives. Now they were leaving on a towering ship, ready to begin the next phase of their long journey to a new life.


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