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2 February 2016 - Observations from Kos

by Skerlida Agoli, 2 February 2016

In September 2015, I visited Kos under the “Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat” research project. As I entered the town, more and more tents appeared along the beach. Walking towards the police station, the crowd was getting bigger.

Beach in front of the police station

Image 1: Beach outside the police station

In the absence of a first reception facility, migrants and refugees reaching Kos were spread around the police station. Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis were mainly placed at the small square under the bridge of the old castle. On this particular location, you could mainly find families staying in small tents, that either they bought themselves or were provided to them by volunteers and NGOs.Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were residing at the park of an archeological site, some sleeping in tents while others were spending their nights in makeshift lodgings of old mattresses and cartons. Wet clothes were spread across the bushes to dry in the sun. A mobile clinic run by Doctors without Borders was also located in this park.

Living in the park

Image 2: Living in the park

Outside the police station, people were waiting in lines to be called for fingerprinting, while the newly arrived were trying to be informed on the applied procedures. Depending on the number of arrivals that day, the scene outside the police station seemed usually chaotic. Migrants and refugees originating mainly from the Middle East and Africa, arrive in Kos by crossing to the Greek island from Bodrum, Turkey. Travelling in rubber dinghies equipped with engines or sometimes even with wooden paddles, the journey can take from 3 up to 7 hours. Those who can afford a safer way to reach the Greek shores, reach Kos in what they call a “touristic boat” (big wooden boats or small yachts), paying up to 3.000 euros per person.

The main disembarkation point in Kos is Psalidi, a quiet beach 5 km away from the center of town. Arrivals have to walk up to the center in order to reach the police station. In early September, when I arrived in Kos, the registration process was taking place by the Greek coastguard and Frontex, on temporary facilities located on the port. The registration began at midnight and would continue to the early hours of the morning. Separated in long queues according to the country of origin, the migrants and refugees were registered by the available personnel, sometimes with no interpreter present. After having their photos taken, they received a small piece of paper with their names and the registration number. The registration location is not open to the public so I was not allowed to go closer to the long queues.

At the port

Image 3: At the port

Around 3 in the morning, you could see the volunteers gathering at the port- many locals but also foreigners, coming mainly from Britain and Germany. Some flew to Kos exclusively to volunteer with Solidarity Kos, while others were just tourists offering their assistance to migrants and refugees arriving on the island. Organized in shifts, the volunteers would wait for the registration to finish and offer the basics to those who just arrived- dry clothes and food. With the local authorities unable to cope with the unprecedented number of arrivals, assistance was offered by international organizations, non-governmental actors and volunteer networks. Cars organised by Solidarity Kos arrived in front of the police station every day at noon, providing food and clothes. Most would queue in front of the cars and receive what they needed while others, too embarrassed to line up, would patiently wait in their tents for the volunteers to distribute the necessary.

Living at the police station

Image 4: Living at the police station

As local authorities openly refused the establishment of a first reception facility on the island, refugees and migrants in Kos were left to the hands of the volunteers and non-state actors, completely unprotected by the worsening weather conditions or the intrusive cameras of reporters and tourists. The lack of political will to assist with the management of the arrivals became even more pronounced when, in mid-September, migrants and refugees were not allowed to be physically present in the town’s squares. A private security company was even hired to guard the small square between the police station and the castle. By September 18th, all the migrants and refugees were obliged to stay at the beach in front the police station and the port.

Under the BridgeUnder the bridge II

Image 5: Cordoned off areas to prevent tents being set up

Finding people interested to participate in this research turned out to be a difficult task, especially in the beginning. Most of the people I met could not speak English while others were mainly suspicious of me being a reporter. After reassuring them that I was a researcher and explaining them the goals of this project, they immediately felt more comfortable and willing to talk to me. After I had spent some days on the island, and as I became familiar to them, sometimes they even searched for me: a friend had just arrived and wanted to share their story. Some felt more comfortable to talk on the spot, usually outside their tents or a quiet location on the beach. Others, seeking more privacy, would follow me to the town’s quiet cafes.

Fleeing war and persecution, or in other cases, poverty and harsh living conditions, migrants and refugees arrive in Kos, without having any information about prevailing conditions on the island. Even after the arrival, the level of information on the legal procedures they had to undergo remained quite low. By the time of my visit in Kos, there were no actors providing any official information to migrants and refugees arriving on the island. That is why the main source of information was by word of mouth, with information shared by co-nationals already located in Kos. In some cases, whole families would wander on the island without having any idea on where to go to, what kind of procedure they should follow or what kind of policies applied to them.

Despite the difficult living conditions in Kos, those I spoke with were most distressed by the lack of organization or the lengthy procedure of registration and screening. As priority was given mainly to families and Syrians in particular, others felt even more marginalized by the authorities in Kos and the way they were treated upon arrival to the EU.

Imagining Europe as the land of freedom, safety and respect to human rights, many migrants and refugees arriving in Kos had no specific destination country in mind. And while in Kos, the rest of the journey was still unclear.