Last Monday, a new report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) revealed that more than 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year alone, making Europe the world’s most dangerous destination for “irregular” migration.
Over in the Aegean Sea, boatloads of refugees – mostly fleeing war-torn Syria – also attempt to make the perilous journey to safety. Here too, many of them die, but since mid-June, more than 1,100 migrants have found a temporary haven on the tiny Greek island of Tilos.
Situated in the Dodecanese cluster in south-eastern Greece, just 14 miles (22 kilometres) off the coast of Turkey, this picturesque island is home to 830 residents and only three policemen, making it an almost risk-free option for smugglers making a lucrative business out of trafficking Syrians.
“They didn’t tell us on which island we would land,” says a refugee from Damascus who wishes to remain anonymous. “But we are very happy to be here.”
The fee for the boat ride varies from €2000 to €3000 (US$2500-US$3800) per person. From Marmaris, in Turkey, the migrants are packed into leisure-type vessels and dropped off in Simi, Rhodes and other islands of the region – a development the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes as “unusual” because of the relative absence of migrants on these islands in the past.
According to official statistics, during the first eight months of 2014 more than 23,200 people illegally entered Greece via Turkey – a surge of 213 per cent compared to the same period in 2013.
But for those who end up in Tilos the bitter experience of the sea crossing, nicknamed by survivors as “the trip of death”, is quickly superseded by the genuine care of a small but dedicated group of volunteers.
“This is not Athens,” says Greek shop-owner Elena Pissa to an assembly of 103 Syrians and two Afghans who disembarked in Tilos on the afternoon of 26 September. “You are in Tilos. And here in Greece you don’t have to be afraid because you are protected.”
Hearing this statement, the crowd breaks into applause for the energetic volunteer who has been coordinating the efforts to compensate the state’s inability to provide basic necessities for newly arrived migrants.
Using her own car, Elena runs several errands around town and delivers clothes collected through donations around the country. Armed also with sleeping bags from the UNHCR, the people who arrived wearing rags and sometimes walking barefoot are better equipped to resist the powerful gushes of wind that smash against the Panagias Politissas monastery, where they are hosted.
“I didn’t know what refugees were,” Elena tells Equal Times. “But I can’t close my eyes when I see their condition. They flee war so we are obliged to help them. And now we are very organised.”
Another volunteer, 67-year-old retiree Nikita Morfopos, is the main cook of the Syrian community. With a daily budget of €5.87 (US$7.45) per person provided by the Hellenic state, Nikita prepares breakfast and two hot meals every day. “I just like helping” he says modestly. “And I love the people.”
Ironically, law-enforcement authorities in Tilos do not possess a boat. To pick up the migrants from the various landing points, police officer Hzistofozos Giannakopoulos says he must borrow one from a friend. The same person also lends the police his camera for the compulsory mugshots.
“I don’t have time to do anything else,” laments Giannakopoulos, whose daily routine since June has consisted of processing the refugees’ fingerprints and documents.
Both the municipality and the UNHCR have praised the work of the volunteers, recognising that without it the situation in Tilos would have been nothing short of a disaster.
“In Tilos it’s better than in the other islands because of the community’s involvement” says Arianna Vassilaki, senior protection associate at the UNHCR office in Athens.
The mayor Maria Kamma, who has been instrumental in helping the refugees with their smooth transition on the island, tells Equal Times: “I am proud of my citizens. But this should not be their responsibility. The public authorities are supposed to handle this situation.”
She admits that the presence of asylum seekers during the tourist summer season stirred tensions on the island. Especially when, at first, the refugees were housed in a local school. But now that they stay in a monastery outside the port village of Livadia frictions have subsided.
Many of the Syrian refugees arriving in Tilos are highly skilled and educated members of the country’s middle-class. Several of them, including women, are engineers or economists. One is a dentist, a young man from Qamishli was four years short of specialising in neurosurgery, while another one speaks fluent Chinese.
Despite the ordeal they went through to get to Tilos, these Syrians claim it was worth the risk. “There is no future in Syria,” says one salesman from Daraa. And when asked why they left their country, most of these refugees sigh and look down, as if the answer is too obvious to even whisper.
Mustafa, a 31 year-old travel agent from Aleppo left his wife and young daughter in Syria. He plans to reach the Netherlands, request asylum, and bring his family over. “It’s all I care for. I didn’t want to leave Syria but I had no choice. Sooner or later, I would have been killed.”
A 63-year-old professor of Arabic, who didn’t want to be named, came to Greece with his wife, brother-in-law and 12-year-old son. His three other older children also left Syria and are living in Algiers. “My son knows the name of every single rifle, bomb and fighter jet. This is not normal,” says the professor. “At night, he can’t sleep without holding my hand. ”
As he and other men discuss the political situation in Syria in a cramped smoke-filled room of the monastery, the young boy tells his tearful mother about his dream of reuniting his family. Like all the people interviewed, this family hopes to return to Syria one day.
But for now, they just want to go “somewhere safe”.
Once all their fingerprints, photos and identities have been registered in Tilos, the Syrians get a six-month notification to leave the country. They then embark on the first ship to Athens, where few will stay longer than a couple of weeks.
Either through fake documents, car rides or bribery, many will reach their final destination – favourites are Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany – before seeking state-protection. They all know that, as Syrians, their asylum claim bears high chances of success.
A European first
Despite its remote location, Tilos is not far enough to escape the long-reach of austerity.
When the municipality first cried out for help, they were turned down for budget reasons. “Merkel” says the mayor with a grin, reflecting a common resentment against the German Chancellor, perceived as the main driver of Greece’s tight fiscal measures.
The UNHCR in Greece has also called for a more structured response to the refugee issue on the Dodecanese islands.
But even if first-reception centres could be built with European funds, the main issue remains the hiring of staff. Under pressure from its international creditors, the Greek public sector has stalled the recruitment of civil servants, making it impossible for potential centres to be run effectively.
“In the meantime” says Vassilaki, “there should be ad-hoc solutions to cope with the situation, because the support from the local community cannot be the only answer.”
However, this could soon change under a joint collaboration between the municipality, two state ministries and the IOM. The project, which will consist of accommodation as well as medical and sanitary facilities, will be able to house 100 people at a time and will provide the asylum seekers with a more comfortable shelter than the monastery.
“It will be strictly humanitarian, for anybody rescued at sea” Daniel Esdras, director of the IOM in Greece, tells Equal Times.
No date has yet been set, as the project is waiting for funding from the European Union. Esdras asserts that, if created, this facility would be “a first in Europe.”
Back at the port of Livadia, the Syrian refugees are getting ready for the 15-hour boat ride to Athens. They seem reinvigorated after three days spent on Tilos, and say they are not worried about their future, now that they have “made it” to Europe.
As the ship pulls in the harbour and the Syrians line up in a single lane, they wave their last goodbye to Elena, the tireless Greek volunteer, and simply say “thank you”.