A popular hot spot for European summer vacationers, the Greek island of Kos is now also a prime destination for undocumented immigrants from places like Syria and Pakistan.
KOS — It's 5 a.m. on this Greek island. Along the docks, young British, German and Swedish people stagger and holler to each other after a night spent at a rowdy gathering billed as a "foam party." No one can see that off in the darkness of the sea, exhausted and distraught migrants are approaching the shoreline in rowboats.
Amed Ebdi, 18, is more or less the same age as the drunken tourists we saw just a few minutes earlier taking seaside selfies to post on Facebook. He comes from Kobane, and has arrived at the port of Kos with three heavy books on the Kurdish language. But as soon as he landed, he also posted a selfie. He insists on showing us other Facebook pictures. "Him, he's dead," Ebdi says. "She's dead too. As for him, all his children died. Him, his brother was beheaded by ISIS. I'm keeping all the pictures of the dead people from Kobane I knew. Me, I'm alive."
Of all the Greek islands, tiny Kos is the fourth most popular tourist destination after Crete, Rhodes and Corfu. It's a perfect place for European tourists with its cheap all-inclusive stays and direct charter flights leaving from Kracow, London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.
But located just six kilometers from the Turkish coast, Kos also has become one of the main arrival points for migrants. Kos police chief Georgos Georgakos says so far this year, some 11,000 migrants have landed on the island of 40-by-8 kilometers (25-by-5 miles). "And in the summer, the number grows," he notes. "In June, there were 3,500. We had never seen that before."
The numbers have grown so unwieldy and anxiety so high that police resorted to using fire extinguishers and batons this week after violence broke out in a Kos sports stadium where hundreds of people, including young children, were waiting for immigration papers.
It happened after a Kos police officer was suspended for brandishing a knife and slapping a man identified as a Pakistani migrant.
Coast Guard chief Ioannis Mispinas explains why the numbers have spiked. "Before, smugglers were carrying people on speedboats. It was more expensive, between 2,500 and 3,000 euros. Now it's low-cost. They pile them up into rowboats, with no smuggler, and they have to manage on their own," he says.
Ebdi spent hours and hours on a shaky rowboat launched from the Turkish coast, guided only by his smartphone GPS. The cost was 1,200 euros. By contrast, tourists pay just 30 euros for a cool 20-minute airboat ride.
Mispinas says that there's never been a shipwreck off the shore of Kos, though he does recall around a dozen floating bodies coming from other islands in recent months. The latest was found in early July after the wreck of a rowboat near Bodrum, in Turkey. At the police station and at city hall, officials pretend to know nothing. Scaring vacationers is not an option for local authorities. In Kos, tourism is vital for the local economy.
"As if they disappeared"
Once safely on Kos, the migrants are made invisible. At about 7 a.m., the groups picked up by the coast guard leave from the harbor. Only early bird travelers and locals witness the scene.
"I see them every morning, but then it's as if they disappeared," says Jochen, an Austrian who didn't want to give his last name. "I don't know where they take them."
But the flow of migrants bothers others. Dick Gerrits, a Dutch expatriate who has a shop in front of the police station, is suspicious. "They're like time bombs. Here, in Kos, they're acting nice because they want papers. But you'll see when they show up in your country, in France or in the Netherlands — then, the trouble begins!"
The Captain Elias hotel, an abandoned building well away from the center, is where the newcomers are sent. There is no electricity, only a few water taps and some outdoor toilets. Doctors of the World tents surround an empty swimming pool. It's about 3 p.m., and Kos inhabitants volunteer to distribute extra meals they collect from hotels each morning.
Farhan Khan, a computing engineer, left Bangladesh with his young daughters and his wife. Back in his native country, he had a house and a garden. "And A/C! And to think that today we live in tents and dirt, like poor people," he says. "But I can't go back now. We spent $15,000 to get here."
Migrants with more resources don't stay at the Captain Elias camp. They simply go to the Marie hotel, which is full. Migrants occupy 80% of it. The Turkish hotel manager charges 15 euros a bed, putting five people per room. That's 75 euros a night for a room, a boon for a hotel that was suffering from bad reviews on TripAdvisor.
The Oscar hotel is a bit cozier and also rents its rooms to these very quiet guests from points south and east. Giovanni, an Italian man, had a room next door to migrants. "The most annoying guests are the British who come back drunk in the middle of the night. No one notices the Syrians. They're just like us, actually."
"Enjoying your holidays, kids?"
Wefa, wearing shorts and nail polish, arrived in Kos a week ago. Though she comes from Syria, she speaks only English to her children. "My kids look very Western, don't you think?" she asks. She is preparing them for a new life that she hopes will be in Britain.
When Wefa thinks about the journey to get here, she tears up. But as soon as the children look at her, her face transforms. "You're enjoying your holidays, right kids? They had never seen the sea before, you know. We'll grab some ice cream later."
As in the movie Life Is Beautiful, in which a father creates an imaginary world to shield his son from Nazi horrors, Wefa has tried to protect her children. "In Damascus, I would say that the noise of bombings was fireworks," she says. "When smugglers abandoned us in a forest for a day, I told them we were hiking. And I told them so much about the sea trip that they were excited to take the boat. They didn't even realize it was dangerous."
The children believe the fairytale. "It's nice here. I like the beach," her young daughter says, pausing during a game in front of the police station where her mom waits for the document that will allow them to continue their journey.
Just like tourists, migrants stay on average one week, 10 days at the most, waiting to arrange safe passage to the next destination.
"Where is the best country to go?," Ebdia asks. "Germany? Norway? And to go from France to England, what do I need to do?"
Waiting to leave, migrants, just like tourists, often find themselves doing nothing much at all. Hassan is from Pakistan. Every day, he strolls around the city, peeks in the shops, dumbfounded.
When he arrived in Kos, Hassan saw a drunken tourist getting undressed to dive naked into the water. He notes that his home region in Pakistan is under Taliban control, and women are forced to wear burkas.
"I know that in the West you do things differently," he says. "You know, I had Facebook too."