Thousands of refugees sleep in tents, waiting to receive a permit to travel to Athens; women suffer from dehydration while the children re-enact the treacherous journey from their war-torn home countries to Western Europe. A special report from the Greek island of Kos.
Text and photos by Oren Ziv and Irene Nasser
KOS, GREECE — Syrian children are playing in the water on the beach in front of the police station. The beach is occupied with tents and wooden shacks where refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan sleep every night. Afraid to get any further away from the police station, their entire stay on the island revolves around an attempt to move on to the next stage of the journey.
At first glance it seems that the children in the water are simply playing around, trying to cool down from the heat. A few of them are wearing life jackets that have been strewn on the beach from trips made across the sea. Suddenly one of them yells out, “Help me! Help me!” Some of the other children are floating on wooden planks that have been packed with life jackets to keep it afloat. They are swimming toward the boy yelling for help. It is difficult to understand what is happening but they are reenacting their journey to the island — replaying the same scene they endured only a few days earlier. When the waves carry them to the shore, they push the wooden planks back into the water, grasping onto them with everything they can.
The sun sets and one of their aunts comes to the beach and calls one of the boys back to their tent. Wael, a 10-year-old boy from Syria, runs back to the tent where his family is staying. His father is nicknamed Turki and is a refugee from the Syrian Golan Heights. He tells us about how they reached Greece: “We spent two hours in the dinghy until it was ripped. Water began to fill it and it started to sink. Only a small portion remained afloat. That’s where we put the kids. Every else held on to a rope that was wrapped around the boat.” He quietly adds, “We saw death staring us in the face.”
“We spent almost two hours in the water until we were rescued. I have six children. At some point one of them slipped from my grip and at the last minute I was able to grab him before he drowned.” He tells us what many other refugees have about the smugglers on the Turkish shore, ”They just don’t care about our lives. We paid 1,200 euros per person. The children were half price.”
His son Wael, who was playing in the water minutes before, is now on the sidewalk near the family’s tent on the main strip of the town. Volunteers from across Europe are handing out toys. “I was afraid that I would drown,” he says and then suddenly goes silent and stares off. The smile that was on his face disappears. “We were just playing now, we were trying to make a strong dinghy that would not sink.”
Thousands of Syrian refugees on the Greek island of Kos have been waiting for days outside the small police station, hoping they will soon receive a permit that will allow them to take the ferry to Athens. From there they hope to continue their journey through the Balkans and on to Western Europe.
Foreign journalists here are also waiting. Right before dawn they head out to the beach, hoping to get a snapshot of one of the dinghies packed to the brim with refugees coming from Bodrum in Turkey.
Just over six miles separate mainland Turkey from the European Union in the part of the Kos that is close to Bodrum. The journey is considered safe and short compared to traveling from Libya to Italy. But only two weeks ago the world was shaken by a photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who washed up on the shore Bodrum after he drowned on his way to Greece.
The boy’s death and the photographs that went global have impacted the way authorities on both sides of the shore act. Over the past week, the Turkish Coast Guard boats have been monitoring the shore and preventing dinghies packed with refugees from leaving. Anyone who actually managed to leave was quickly pushed back to shore. Two weeks ago more than 750 refugees arrived in Kos per day. During the past week only about 100 to 200 arrived daily.
“We were sent back twice. Only on the third try did we managed to cross,” a Syrian refugee from Idlib told us. He was standing in line at the police staion in Kos, waiting to receive a permit. “There were 100 of us on the boat. Each one of us paid 1,200 euros and children were half price. The smugglers don’t see us as human beings. We are just money to them.”
A Greek Coast Guard ship along with an Italian Frontex boat (the EU agency that manages the cooperation between different national border guards) monitor the waters every night. They save any refugees whose dinghies have run out of fuel or have started to sink.
As a cheaper option, smugglers have begun sending dinghies with electric motors. Often the battery dies mid-journey. Smugglers also send the refugees alone, with no one to steer the dinghy to safety. (Refugees who are often not experienced sailors are often forced to make sure it arrives safely.) This past Monday, the Coast Guard rescued 44 Syrian refugees who were found in a dinghy meant for 18 people. When they arrived at the port, a Greek Coast Guard officer tried to explain to them that they must go to the city and return at night to register for a permit.
A Syrian refugee who was brought to the port asked us where the camp was. He was surprised when he heard that there is no such thing, and that refugees are sleeping in the street outside the police station, on the boardwalk, and in the heart of the tourist area in Kos. A local hotel owner explained, “We will only understand the impact on tourism next year. Whoever reserved a hotel this year will not cancel the vacation. But after what the news shows, we are concerned that next year no tourists will come.”
Every day local police officers hang a list outside the police station of those who have received permits. Inside the station only six police officers have been given the task of processing the paperwork and issuing the thousands of permits. The anger and frustration outside mounts. Spontaneous demonstrations break out near the police station on a daily basis. In total there are only 16 police officers in Kos. Most of them are here to patrol and guard the station.
Roberto Mignone, the field coordinator of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kos, told us, “We offered the authorities that we will conduct the interviews with the refugees. But according to Greek law, police are those who are in charge of this task. We also offered to pay the cost for the transport and expenses of more police officers to be deployed to Kos. The mayor refused.”
“The main problem is that the mayor refuses to allow us to set up a registration refugee camp. Without a piece of land and authorization from him, our hands are tied… Many people think that the United Nations has the upper hand over countries. But we are bound by their laws.”
Mignone explained: “They even refused to let us bring portable toilets. Many of the women are suffering from dehydration because they have no access to toilets so they are afraid to drink water.” He told us that he himself went around to local businesses offering them 1,000 euros per month to allow refugee women and children to use their toilets. No one agreed. We asked him how many UNHCR members are on the island. “Five,” he said. One fewer than the number of the Greek police dealing with permits.
Volunteers from various European countries hand out food and clothing every night on the island’s promenade. A German activist that came to join a group called “Kos Solidarity” explained that many locals and tourists have been helping and volunteering. But right-wing activists from Golden Dawn, the Greek xenophobic fascist political party, have attacked both activists and refugees right in front of the police station twice in the past week. Journalists were also beaten; the police stood by and watched.
The majority of refugees from Syria arrive in Kos with enough money to survive and make the journey to Europe. But it is still the beginning of their journey, and the money they brought — wrapped in plastic bags and tapped to their bodies so they don’t lose it at sea — disappears quickly. One of the restaurants on the beach has put a sign outside with a menu in Arabic. A shawarmeh sandwich costs three euros. Another place sells tents for 24 euros each.
A Syrian refugee from Aleppo complains that he has been here for 11 days. He registered himself and his family at the police station but their permits have yet to be issued. Many of those who arrived after him are already in Athens. “Every day I have to spend at least $150 on food and a hostel. I am not sure how long I’ll have the resources to stay here. We still have a long way ahead of us,” he said with a mix of frustration and desperation.
On the boardwalk across from the police station we hear yelling in Arabic. “Free sim cards. Free sim cards!” A mobile phone company saw the financial potential and sent a young, Arabic-speaking man of Syrian origin to Kos. Along with two other young saleswomen he walks around and offers free sim cards with pre-paid plans. The package includes 60 free minutes to Syria and a half gigabyte of data. Phone data capabilities are essential for refugees on this journey. It allows them to stay in contact with those ahead of them and pass back information to those following in their footsteps. They talk about which routes to take, where to sleep, and where thieves and danger might cross their paths.
We meet a man as he steps off the Greek Coast Guard boat who left the ISIS-controlled Syrian city of Deir el-Zour only a few weeks ago. He quickly unwraps a pack of passports and phones wrapped in plastic. His brother-in-law takes one of his phones and calls their family back in Syria: “We’ve made it to Greece.” An Iraqi refugee who was also rescused from the same boat shows us a selfie he just took as his feet touch Greek land and a video he filmed on the boat over from Turkey.
Monday afternoon was full of movement. An overnight ferry was heading to Athens that same night, and many of the refugees were preparing for the 12-hour journey. The ferry, just like everything else on the way to Western Europe, is not free: refugees have to pay full price. A British television crew following the refugees on their way to Western Europe complains that they weren’t able to get tickets for a sleeping cabin because of the high demand.
An hour before the ferry departs, the refugees heading to Athens pack their few belongings and stand in line. Greek Coast Guard officials check their paperwork before they board. A female Coast Guard officer complains that she hasn’t had a day off since May. “I pity the women and children, but this is too much. Everyone complains about how Greece is treating refuges, but we’re working around the clock to process their requests.” But her frustrations soon turn to conspiracy theories. “Turkey’s plan is to send as many refugees as possible to here so that Europe is filled with Muslims and they can start a war,” she says with full confidence.
As the ferry sails out, a group of Pakistani refugees sit on the boardwalk eating dinner. They watch the ferry leaving in envy.
Later that night a group of 50 Iraqi refugees demonstrate outside the police station, chanting, “Iraq! Iraq!” One of them tells us that they’ve been in Kos for more than 10 days. And while Syrians have been receiving permits, they are being left behind. “We’re not animals. They have to pay attention to us as well. Our country is also war torn.” Eight of the 16 police officers who are stationed in Kos are standing in front of the demonstrators. It seems that neither side wants a clash. But at 11 p.m. the police officers are tired of the situation and begin to push the refugees, beating them with batons, forcing everyone to run away. The police didn’t make an attempt to arrest anyone, they probably already had too many problems on their hands.
On our last morning we waited on the beach at dawn, waiting for boats packed with refugees to come in. We were never the only ones. The beach was strewn with evidence of the arrival of refugees — life jackets, broken paddles, and various discarded items were strewn across it. A few boats were still there. Locals, who also discovered a potential money making scheme would also come to the shore before dawn to hunt for dinghies and engines. They would collect them before we would even make it to the location, and sell them off. We met one of them on one of our morning outings. He never told us his name but was very open. Standing there with binoculars and a flashlight he explained, “I’m unemployed. I live at my mother’s house so she gives me money for food and cigarettes. I bought the binoculars at a Chinese store in the city for 15 euros.” He recommended that we buy a pair as well so we can spot the boats from afar. “Listen,” he told us quietly, “I was offered a job in Miami. A very high salary and a house as well. But I refused. Look at all these Muslims coming here to the island. And you want me to leave?!” He then got in his car and drove off toward a different beach.