By Chris Jones
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Fortress Europe on Samos island: a Greek tragedy

This article is over 15 years, 10 months old
When British academic Chris Jones, acclaimed for his writing on radical social work, went to live on a small Greek island he discovered that he was living on a frontline. He reports on the plight of desperate refugees who risk their lives to escape to Europe, and the reaction of the community.
Issue 326

There are now two significant groups of people travelling to the Greek island of Samos, which lies close to the coast of Turkey. One group is known as tourists or travellers. They come here conventionally from many parts of the world either on the summer charter planes or the ferry boats. They spend most of their time on the beach and rarely have any contact with the authorities. The second group also spends time on the beaches and in the sea.

Unlike the tourists and travellers they are refugees and arrive through the year and land on the beaches during the hours of darkness. Unlike the tourists their travel to the island has been much more costly, at around £450 for a place in an inflatable dinghy which brings them across the two to three kilometres of sea which separates Samos from Turkey. Unlike the tourists they do get entangled with the authorities, and an alarming number die or are injured getting to the beach. The figures are never accurate, as so many bodies are not recovered, but the Samos police chief claims that 24 bodies were found on the beaches or in fishing nets last year. Local activists think that is a gross under-counting.

Samos is on the borderlands between “fortress Europe” and Turkey. It is the closest of all the Greek islands to the Turkish mainland. The narrowest gap, also the most hazardous in terms of sea conditions, is just 1.2 kilometres. The smugglers can cross with their human cargoes in less than an hour. And over the past 12 months there has been a marked increase in their numbers. In 2007, 4,469 people were detained on Samos compared with less than 1,500 the previous year.

The authorities on the island are overwhelmed. Until six months ago all the undocumented arrivals were detained in an old building in Samos Town that had formerly been a police station and before that a tobacco warehouse. It was said to accommodate 200 but numbers up to 500 were regularly held. The conditions were horrendous – an offence to human dignity according to the United Nations representative in Athens. There was massive overcrowding, and the building was wholly incapable of dealing with the summer heat or the damp and cold of winter. Toilet and bathing facilities were completely inadequate, and plaster was falling from the walls and ceilings. There was one pay phone in the yard.


The Samos authorities feel they have been let down by the Greek state and by the European Union (EU). This is a longstanding complaint which in part has roots stretching back to the bloody civil war in the late 1940s and the subsequent succession of right wing governments through to the 1970s. Samos and its neighbour Ikaria (both in the same local authority) have long been associated with communism and as such have been deliberately neglected by the central state. This is especially the case for Ikaria. Both islands are very much on the periphery of Greece in many senses.

But it is geography and world politics that have thrown the spotlight on Samos. An island that would wish to be known for its nature and rich flora, for its beaches, and for its association with the mathematician Pythagoras, is now becoming infamous for the way it treats the refugees. In the past 18 months there have been at least two highly critical visits and reports on the situation. One was from a German charity, which was alarmed by the hopeless manner in which the Greek authorities were processing refugees. The second was from an EU commission that had similar concerns arising from the extremely low approval rate (0.61 percent) for asylum seekers. This is the lowest approval rate in the EU. We now await a third report from a Norwegian human rights group.

Samos is a gateway into the EU. With a population of less than 35,000 and high levels of poverty, dependent on tourism and to a lesser extent farming, it is not a place where refugees seek to settle. The population itself is not diverse and non-Greeks stand out. Once they have made it to the beaches the refugees are easily picked up and processed. There is no multicultural urban environment in which to disappear, although local people are sympathetic to their plight. The tabloid press in Greece, no less than their counterparts in Britain, peddle stories about the country being overwhelmed by refugees and undocumented people who are out to steal jobs and livelihoods. On Samos these stories have little purchase.

For older people like our neighbour Katerinio who is in her mid-80s, the plight of the refugees reminds her of the time when she escaped the Nazi occupation of Samos. Like the refugees of today, she and her parents left during the night and with eight others rowed over to Turkey with nothing and depended entirely on the kindness and humanity of strangers until they arrived in the Greek refugee camps in Gaza and Egypt. Many hundreds from Samos did likewise, so the people now arriving from wars – Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia and Eritrea – who make up the majority of the refugees here, are retelling a familiar story. This was well reflected in our small farming village when three young Eritrean men walked the four kilometres up the hill from the sea in December. They were immediately taken into the coffee shop, fed and provided with dry clothes while they waited for the police. All over the island local people are responding to the needs of the refugees and insist on direct contact as they have no trust in the police or the coastguards.

But Samos is not a good place to land. First there is the sea crossing which, while not long, is perilous in terms of sea conditions and currents. Then there are the Greek coastguards who police the waters. The local commander responsible for Samos sees himself at the frontline of Greece’s (and Europe’s) defence and talks of the refugees as being an underground Islamic infiltration of the country.

The coastguards are especially harsh in dealing with the young men who make up the majority of the refugees. All the reports on Samos contain accounts from young men who have been assaulted and in some cases tortured by coastguards. These allegations compelled the government to instigate an inquiry but nobody expects much from that. It was also revealed that the high-speed coastguard patrol boats try to prevent the refugees from landing either swamping their dinghies or by driving them onto tiny uninhabited islands that dot the passage between Turkey and Samos. In both cases, it is left to fishermen either from Turkey or Greece to carry out a rescue.

Those who make it to the beach are picked up and taken to the detention centre where they are detained for 30 days in the first instance. Since December there has been some improvement with the opening of a new purpose-built centre. But welcome as that might be, there is just one part-time lawyer and one part-time social worker on hand to offer any assistance in the centre. Language is a massive problem and an ad hoc system which depends on a local shopkeeper who speaks some English is wholly inadequate. These factors feed into the Greek state’s refusal to process claims for asylum.

It would seem that Samos is typical for Greece as a whole. Firstly the refugees are hassled and messed about – to treat them as humans would only encourage more to come, according to one coastguard – and after at least 30 days are let out to make their way to Athens or Patras (for the boats to Italy) and on into northern Europe. Because the refugees prioritise getting out of detention they fail to realise that without asylum status they have no legal future in the EU and are made exceptionally vulnerable. The Greek authorities do virtually nothing to correct this situation, which explains why so few of the over 60,000 refugees each year they “handle” are approved.

Under the governing protocols, the EU insists that claims for asylum have to be handled at the points of entry into the EU. So if refugees leave Greece without their asylum being processed they will simply be returned to Greece for processing and deportation. This is why the Norwegian and German refugee charities are concerned that they find themselves dealing with people for whom they can do little because they have passed through Greece.

The Greek state is hollowed out by privatisation, neoliberalism and extraordinary levels of corruption. We can expect few new resources to go to the proper and humane treatment of refugees. There is also resentment in Greece that the wealthier northern European countries such as Britain, Germany and France, which don’t have borderlands, press the poorer Mediterranean EU states to police fortress Europe with little or no financial support. From the standpoint of the local authorities on Samos it is inconceivable that they have the capacity to manage the human consequences of US and European imperialism and militarism.

For many in the north of Europe, the Greek islands evoke charm, tranquillity and beauty. But for some at least, including Samos, Chios and Lesbos, they are sites where the rhetoric of fortress Europe is played out with brutal consequences for those seeking to escape wars not of their making and who find not safety but new horrors and inhumanity.

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