Shreds of human sense: refugees and us on the Greek isle of Samos

I love my family, but most of the best Christmases I’ve ever spent have been without them, usually overseas, doing something I never expected to be doing. You get my drift. Right now I’m working with Samos Volunteers, on the island of Samos, that lies close to the coast of Turkey. Which explains the number of refugees arriving here by boat from Turkey almost every day. The photo above is one of the landing points, a pretty little beach of pebbles at the bottom of a very steep hill overlooking cliffs.

Smugglers in Turkey charge refugees – and economic migrants – from $500 to $1000 per person for the crossing, which for a non-refugee costs €35. The crossing can take anything from 3 – 7 hours: I’ve met individual refugees who tell me they’ve swum from Turkey to Samos. I can’t verify this: but I can tell you the whiff of desperation amongst the refugees here, and stories of what individuals have endured that are verified, make you want to howl.

Whose fault is this? Aside from the global political tide turning against refugees, and the EU Trust Fund pumping millions of Euros into the Sahel to stem the flow of migrants, based on fear of extremist ‘Jihadis’ migrating via Libya, the Greek government has also been roundly criticised for its sluggish response, especially its Ministry of Defence, accused of withholding funds designated for refugees. I see the results of these every day in front of me: uncollected rubbish festering all around the camp – along with barely functioning toilets, lack of clean drinking water, basic sanitation including water for people to wash with (never mind women menstruating or injured and disabled people), and virtually no psychological services for many deeply traumatised people, including women who have been raped on their journeys here, and in and around the camp itself. There is one sole psychologist working at the camp. It is December 27th and refugees are walking round Samos Town in flip-flops because, they lost their shoes on the boats.

I can’t apologise for the depressing tone of this blog: this is the reality of refugee policy at  human level. So far in my stay here I’ve met refugees, and some migrants, from Congo (DRC), Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Mali, Gaza, Eritrea, Iran, Cameroon, Guinea, Pakistan, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Nepal, Kuwait and Somalia. Each person has their own story, some are migrating from poverty, others fleeing death threats, or ISIS.

A few have been arrested whilst in Samos, and imprisoned, having signed forms in Greek they didn’t understand at all. It’s hard to convey the intensity of working here, the satisfaction of being part of a wonderful, but limited, humanitarian response, the emotions of hearing details of stories you cannot un-know afterwards, and the conflict of how you tell people here how hard it is to get from here to where they really want to go.

The unfortunate truth is that refugees arrive here faster than they are transferred to the mainland by UNHCR. So numbers in the camp keep growing. Refugees and migrants will continue arriving here, for many different reasons, including tyrants in countries like Cameroon (where the President, now in his 37th year of office, is guilty of horrific human rights abuses), smouldering long term conflicts (AKA Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq) and long-term poverty and lack of employment (like Mali). My own opinion is that most people who arrive here have a bit of money (it’s very difficult to get here without some money), and a few have quite a bit of money. By the time they leave, for most their money has run out.

Just two days ago, I was at the Samos ferry terminal saying goodbye to several people who been working as Community Volunteers at our resource centre, and who were being transferred to Athens by UNHCR. As we waved them off on the quayside, I watched them and other individuals and families walking towards the huge ferryboat carrying suitcases and black bin-bags (or refuse sacks) of belongings. Most of them will be transferred to hotels with decent facilities on the mainland, but which are 3 hours outside Athens. And there they stay until the next step of their asylum process. Their lives suspended again.

These refugee policies have to change, not only because there’s so bloody unjust, also because they’re so bloody ineffective. Two years ago, the first time I travelled to Samos, there were 1,200 refugees in the sole refugee camp here. Now there are 4,500 and people arriving every couple of days. And the death toll is rising: proportionally, more people are dying en route to Greece than back in 2015, because they are taking more risks.

Just before I came back to Samos, I did some fundraising and raised £1500, for Samos Volunteers. It is a drop in the ocean, but looking around me every morning, it’s amazing what a drop can do. Have a look at our website: Happy New Year from here!





















Why Samos is still the real story of 2018

Samos tent city outside the refugee camp

After a funky few months based in Cambridge (for those who’ve never been it’s very middle England, full of bicycles  and wealthy looking students) I am off on my travels again: this time to Samos, an Aegean island in southern Greece, separated from Turkey by the mile-wide strait of Mycale. The local population of Samos is about 33,000 people. But, this has swelled to almost 38,000 people, because of some 4,700 refugees and immigrants now living in the island refugee camp. They come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gaza and a dozen other zones of conflict. The majority are refugees, some are economic migrants: all of them living in miserable conditions, crammed into a hillside camp originally constructed to house just 700 people.

This is not the fault of the local Greek authorities. They have been left to deal with the fallout of disastrous, and shameful, EU policy towards refugees, which has essentially (with the notable exception of Germany) been to abandon their (legal and moral) obligations to offer sanctuary to those fleeing wars and conflicts. The human impact of these EU policies are the daily lives of refugees on Samos, and many other Greek islands. There are now so many refugees on Samos that families have resorted to sleeping outside the camp, on the wet ground, under trees. Recently the authorities even ran out of tents.

I first travelled to Samos two years ago, in the summer of 2016, to work with the brave and visionary Samos Volunteers  who  have been supporting these refugees for the last three years. Whilst I was there, we distributed clothes and hygiene kits in the camp, and set up a range of informal activities for adults and children, alongside refugee volunteers from the camp itself. I defy anybody to meet a Syrian family who have lost everything, offer them second-hand donated clothes, including underwear, and not feel deeply ashamed of the way our governments treat other peoples. And heartbroken at what individuals endure in wars.

I’m going back to Samos at the end of this month, to spend the winter working with Samos Volunteers again: this time in a resource centre the volunteers have set up, just a few hundred metres up from the camp. The Alpha Centre is a hub where the refugees can get hot drinks,  access informal education classes, and most of all feel welcomed. It’s  also the only place in Vathy where they can wash their clothes for free, so wear clean dry clothes. Which is surely a question of human dignity.

I have launched a one-woman fundraising campaign, to support the work of Samos Volunteers, and especially the resource centre, especially at this time of year as the weather becomes colder, and people need this warm shelter on a daily basis. Please understand, these funds are not for my own expenses (I’m covering all my expenses myself) – they are to support refugees who have nowhere to go as they wait to be ‘ processed’ by EU member states. Some refugees have been stranded on Samos for two years.

Please contribute if you can, and what you can. Please also share this appeal and most of all please look at the Samos Volunteers website and see for yourself the wonderful work they are doing.

I’ll be blogging from Samos, with updates and stories in the lead up to Christmas, so do stay in touch.

Louisa X

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