Delivered from hell to the cauldron of Kos
Published by The Mail on Sunday (17th August, 2015)
Helen and Mustafa got married almost a year ago – and like all young couples, had hopes and plans for the future. But a few days later, Islamic State arrived in their home town of Kobane and they had to flee for their lives.
Two of Mustafa’s cousins were shot dead as they drove along the street, while three friends failed to escape as the jihadis surged into the Syrian border town with blaring machine guns and black flags.
Last week, the Kurdish couple thought their troubles were over after reaching Europe. They spent £1,500 to be smuggled on an inflatable boat across the short stretch of water from Turkey to the Greek holiday island of Kos.
Instead, Helen, 22, was locked in a football stadium for 24 hours without food, water or toilets alongside 2,000 other refugees. Many fainted in the fierce heat or were treated for trauma after being crushed in the crowd.
They thought they were getting papers to recognise their refugee status, but riot police – overwhelmed by the numbers – pushed them with batons, sprayed fire extinguishers and even used tear gas. ‘I was so scared,’ Helen said. ‘I was pushed into the wall at one point. Now I just want to leave this place.’
One Iraqi student told me it felt like being jailed for the crime of seeking sanctuary from the Middle East meltdown.
These chaotic events reveal how Europe’s migrant crisis has reached boiling point, with tensions rising in a tourist town while floundering authorities across the continent seek to evade responsibilities and ignore the scale of the problem.
They show what happens when a country caught in an economic crisis is at the sharp end of what has been called ‘the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War’.
The result is a broken system in chaos. Greece, like Italy, is the first point of call but does not want these unfortunate people. So families fleeing war are mistreated, while the nation passes on problems of mass migration to its neighbours.
Instead of being fingerprinted, as required under EU rules so they can be returned to their port of entry, thousands of migrants are given temporary travel passes. They should report back to Greek police, but few do so.
Some 124,000 people made that short journey across the sea to Greece in the first seven months of this year – seven times the number last year.
Many more will follow. Up to 800 a day arrive on Kos, a holiday island famed for its beaches. Its population of 33,000 was swelled by 7,000 refugees at one point last week.
This mass of migrants – crowded into tented encampments by beaches, crammed in parks beside cafes and packed on patches of grass outside hotels – mingles awkwardly with tourists enjoying summer holidays.
British couples stroll along the sea front while Iraqi men play cards in the shade and Syrian children snooze on the sidewalk. Turkey can be seen across the water, just three miles away.
At night, tourists walk back to hotels from restaurants and tipsy revellers pour from clubs past families asleep on the streets.
Britons said it was distressing to walk past parents curled up beside infants, their few possessions in bags beside them. ‘I just feel so sorry for them,’ said one woman from Halifax, Yorkshire.
Most are refugees from war, and many have horror stories.
Gheda Moslem, a Kurd, is travelling with husband Yassir, a taxi driver, and three young children. They lived in the Syrian city of Raqqa, now an Islamic State stronghold. ‘You say one thing wrong and they cut off your head,’ said Gheda, 25, whose children suffer nightmares after seeing decapitations. ‘They play with human heads like footballs.’
A few weeks ago, all Kurds were given three days to quit the city. ‘They said we don’t believe in God. We lost everything.’
The family ended up in Kobane, recaptured late last year by Kurdish fighters. But after a suicide bombing by Islamic militants in the town last month, they fled again to protect their children.
They finally made it to Europe last week after two days in a Turkish jail but have no idea where they will go next. ‘I am here for the future of my children,’ said Gheda. ‘All I can do is thank God I am alive.’
So what happens to this tide of humanity washing up on Greek island shores?
Kos seemed strangely ill-prepared, despite months of warnings. Police had to be rushed from Athens to control crowds and speed up refugee registrations; this caused the stadium crush, with only four officers processing thousands.
The previous day I watched as refugees queued for hours to get precious travel documents that permit them several weeks’ stay. Syrian families were allowed in the stadium first, then men – while Afghans and Pakistanis were sent to the police station.
None of the Syrians seemed to be fingerprinted, as intended under the EU’s Dublin Agreement which hands responsibility to member states that accepted an applicant’s entry.
African and Asian migrants told me they had prints taken at the police station – yet more than half the arrivals are Syrians fleeing civil war. Hundreds leave each day on ferries and even flights to Athens.
Kos mayor Giorgos Kyritsis acknowledged that most would disappear across the continent. ‘They do not want to stay,’ he told me. ‘Their desire is to move off Kos and on to Europe.’
Police in Athens say Greece is so broke it cannot afford to cater for tens of thousands of refugees. Officials in Italy – the other main point of entry – also say they should not shoulder so much of the strain.
Most migrants I met on Kos intended to travel to Germany, which last year received six times as many asylum applications as Britain. Others want to reach Sweden, Holland, Norway and Belgium.
Only one person – a 22-year-old Iranian student – said he was aiming for Britain. He told me his father was there. ‘Where, in London?’ I asked. ‘Birmingham,’ he replied.
‘There should be a much more co-ordinated response with a humane reception area,’ said Julia Kourafa, spokeswoman for Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has installed portable toilets. ‘There is space on the island.’
The boss of one beachfront bar opposite scores of camped families said trade had slumped by 70 per cent. Theo Tzegkas added: ‘I feel sorry for them. But if you were on holiday with your family, you would not be happy.
‘This seems to be no one’s fault and everyone’s fault. But this will not be our problem in three months’ time – it will be yours and the rest of Europe’s.’