The island, the refugees, and the yachts

Submitted by AWL on 16 October, 2019 - 9:05 Author: Jean Lane

I started coming to Symi, a tiny Greek island in the Aegean, closer geographically to Turkey than the Greek mainland, 30 years ago.

Missing a few years in the middle, I resumed coming five years ago. In these five years, the island has seen many refugees being washed up on its harbour side; mainly from Syria plus some from Afghanistan, Iraq, and sub-Saharan Africa arriving from Turkey just across the water.

Although there was consternation on the island from residents who themselves were suffering the effects of the collapse of the Greek economy, the response to the refugees was (and continues to be) sympathetic; collections made, stories shared and gifts especially for the children. Other islands roundabout were and are similarly affected due to their proximity to Turkey — Kos, Leros, Chios, and Lesbos which is only 9km from the Turkish coast. (Symi is 26km).

This year there were more refugees, sitting on the shaded steps leading up the hillside from the harbour which is used by the ferries from Athens and Rhodes.

These men, women and children, about 500 according to local estimates, are the latest in a constant and growing stream of people from war torn and impoverished countries who are making their way to Europe and the North in search of asylum and a better life. Many have experienced terror, hunger, and danger, including rape and torture along the way.

Symi, I imagine, is still experienced by them as a welcome temporary haven from the journey that has brought them this far. They are met by border patrols and customs police for sure, but they are given shelter from the beating sun and provisions necessary for life. Some are seen in the local shops and tavernas and seem to be accepted there.

On the other side of the harbour, which is used by local fishermen incongruously bobbing beside the yachts of the immensely rich who follow the sun around the Med whilst gambling on the world’s stock markets, a new boat appeared last Tuesday. Called, appropriately, Open Arms, it was a Barcelona-based rescue boat which searches for and rescues migrants drowning in the sea. especially between Turkey and Lesbos. (

As far as I can tell, Open Arms was asked to leave the harbour side, because it sailed round the headland into the next bay where it anchored. That afternoon my partner and I witnessed a small cavalcade of motorcycles and cars returning from around the headland having shouted at the rescue boat to leave the island.

Open Arms did leave. That was the first time I have witnessed such a thing happening on this gorgeous and hospitable island.

Over 10,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece last month according to the UNHCR, making Greece the main point of entry in 2019. Almost 80,000 reached the EU between January and October 2019; over 45,000 of them via Greece, 38,000 of them via the islands from Turkey. This is more than Spain (24,000) and Italy (8,000).

Earlier figures are: 2018 just under 141,500; 2017, just over 185,000; 2016, just over 373,000; 2015 over 1 million.

The reduction in numbers between 2015 and 2018 were due to a deal between the EU and Turkey in which the EU agreed to pay €6bn to Turkish refugee charities in return for a Turkish crackdown on people-smuggling. But now the figures are rising again and reaching crisis point, Greece recording the highest weekly arrivals since spring 2016. In August this year 8,000 people got to Greece by sea, up from 5,000 in July.

Now the UNHCR estimate that 80,000 human beings, seeking escape from war, terror or poverty, are stranded in Greece, including 4,100 unaccompanied children.

Overall, since 2013 almost 20,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe.

On Sunday 26 September, thirteen women drowned and eight children were missing after a boat carrying fifty refugees from sub Saharan Africa capsized off the coast of Sicily having travelled from Libya via Tunisia.

In August, 9,000 refugees were detained in Moria, the refugee camp on Lesbos. The figure in October is 13,000. The facility has a capacity for 3,000 people.

There, on Sunday 29 September, a fire broke out in a container in which an Afghan woman burned to death leading to riots. This is one of many fires, according to NGO workers there, who say that in 2016 a woman and two children died in a fire.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) spokeswoman Anna Pantela says that they are operating over capacity in Moria, seeing over 100 patients a day. They have two medical practitioners. MSF state that 40% of those on Moria are children. “Every week the same children come to us with the same illnesses, diseases directly related to their living conditions. We are constantly at breaking point”.

Astrid Castelain of UNHCR states that “the situation has become critical with further arrivals affecting security, health and hygiene in and around the camps”.

MSF blame the EU-Turkish deal and the Greek and EU governments which are responsible for the containment of people in intolerable conditions. After the fire and riot on Lesbos, the Greek government hastily said they would transfer more people from Lesbos and nearby islands to the mainland. The former mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, however, said that “decongestion measures are not enough. You move more to the mainland and others come” and went on to forecast an “explosion”.

On 7th October over 700 vulnerable refugees and migrants, 500 from Lesbos and the rest from other islands, including those we witnessed on Symi, were taken by ferry to the mainland. If Galinos is correct, Symi island can expect a further influx shortly.

The small demonstration directed at the Open Arms rescue boat after the last batch of refugees had been moved on is perhaps an expression of helplessness and powerlessness at this continuing and growing humanitarian disaster.

However, such feelings are open to manipulation by the populist far right, giving them a racist language. With comments such as: “they are economic migrants not refugees”; “they push their children to the front”; “they throw their rubbish into the sea”; “they are dirty”; etc., some people’s anger is pointed in the wrong direction; away from the governments and corporations responsible for the war, poverty and human misery experienced by half the world, and towards the victims themselves or those trying to help them.

The only possible effect of such an action could be to heighten the anti-migrant feelings of local people, or to boost the political fortunes of those who peddle them.

Hopefully, most people on the island will be able to separate out their feelings of helplessness from the actual, visible manifestation of it washed up on their harbour side. This is, after all, a seafaring community. The idea that sailors and fishermen and women would leave people to drown, or expect others to do so, is unthinkable.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the harbour, the floating palaces, dripping with dirty, filthy money, made from the very poverty, misery and displacement of human beings, provide a glaring contrast to the constant stream of washed up humanity opposite.

Capitalism in stark relief.

• Quotes from: Guardian 8 October, 19 August, 30 September; 10 October;

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