by Erin Wright
Some come from the north, some from across the Atlantic, and all are made to feel welcome. Even as the belt tightening continues throughout a Greek archipelago in financial extremis, visitors keep flocking in. Most are tourists, and they are greeted with open arms by desperate Athenian and local officials.
As PBS tour guide extraordinaire Rick Steves explains, “the financial crisis — while making life difficult for most Greeks — is a boon for budget travelers. Hotel prices are down, the normally warm Greek hospitality has ratcheted up a few notches, and roads outside of Athens are essentially traffic-free, as higher gas prices have caused locals to cut down on inessential driving.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that “Greece is expected to attract 20.6 million international visitors this year, with 26.7 million expected by 2025, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.”
But one might notice that missing from this discussion are visitors from the myriad lands to the south of Greece. That’s because , for the most part, they are not tourists but refugees — and decidedly less welcome. And, as such, a much smaller group of people (an estimated 125,000 since January) has officials on Kos and other Greek isles in the South Aegean Sea feeling overwhelmed.
For the migrants, Kos is but a way-stop on a journey fueled by desperation and buoyed by hope. Many have crossed the narrow channel from Turkey while fleeing a civil war in Syria that has cost 320,000 lives in four years.
Their destination is further north, in other European countries. They know all too well that, once there, they will have to find whatever work they can, master a new language, and scrimp and cling together while trying to make a home in a social climate increasingly hostile to newcomers. Yet few have any intention of settling down near Kos’ seductive white-sand beaches and crystal-blue waters — or, for that matter, anywhere else in Greece, a country that they can see is struggling to defeat its own demons.
So, if they’re not staying, what’s the problem? Why are they being denied the famous Greek filotimo, described by Steves as “literally love of honor but usually meant to connote openness, friendliness and hospitality”? Well, like everything else in Greece nowadays, it seems to be all about the numbers.
According to some reports, the 125,000-plus to have literally come from the sea onto Greek territories this year mark a more than 700 percent increase over the same period last year — and are more than the total that entered the country in 2013 and 2014 combined.
As is happening in other similarly inundated areas, such as Calais, France, and Lampedusa, Italy, the migrants cannot move on to the next leg of their journey towards a (hopefully) better future until local officials have certified their status as refugees. But their sheer numbers on Kos and neighboring Lesbos have left authorities swamped. With the processing backlog immense and staff thinned by mandated budget cuts, some 5,000 migrants find themselves stuck on Kos.
Then again, they at least have made it that far. The fact that there have been hundreds of confirmed migrant deaths since 2012 while crossing into Greek waters has grabbed the attention of the United Nations Refugee Agency, per Al Jazeera. The agency’s director of Europe, Vincent Cochetel, expressed shock over the squalor in which the migrants are living and condemned how little assistance they have received from Greece and other European countries:
In terms of water, in terms of sanitation, in terms of food assistance, it’s totally inadequate. On most of the islands, there is no reception capacity. People are not sleeping under any form of roof. So it’s total chaos on the islands.
He added that in those towns and cities where the banks were shuttered as officials struggled to hammer out a bailout plan, migrants found “nothing waiting for them.”
As for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, he continues to pass the buck (or the euro), insisting that the beleaguered Greek infrastructure simply can’t absorb the number of migrants pouring in and that if anything is to be done, it will necessitate the intervention of other European Union nations.
And so the crisis appears to have reached a critical mass reminiscent of New Orleans in 2005, when thousands of residents rendered homeless by Hurricane Katrina were herded into the Louisiana Superdome, which quickly turned from refuge to nightmare.
The New York Times reports that on Wednesday, Kos police, under orders from elected officials, charged through parks, beaches and public squares where migrants had set up makeshift camps, rounded up the foreigners and locked at least 1,000 in a soccer stadium overnight.
The sweep sparked massive resistance, to say the least. Police riot squads were brought in from the mainland to help keep order, The Times reports, while Doctors Without Borders chronicled the dismal conditions awaiting the migrants inside the stadium: sweltering heat and little to no access to water, food or bathroom facilities. To Doctors Without Borders spokeswoman Julia Kourafa, this was the Superdome fiasco all over again:
People are exhausted and hungry and frustrated. We see people fainting. We see people with medical problems because of the situation. There [is] not enough water or toilets. There is no provision for food.
Next stop for the bruised, dazed and understandably confused migrants: a ship chartered to serve as a floating processing station, The Guardian reports. It fits up to 2,500 and will allow for speedier decisions on the immigration status of those marooned on their island, said Kos officials, who no doubt, are thirsting for the carefree summers of yore, when soccer stadiums and seaside hotels drew a more carefree — and lucrative — crowd, and neither migrants nor officials found themselves at sea as to what the future might bring.