Kos is one of the Greek islands closest to the Turkish coast and receives hundreds of Syrian and Afghan refugees every day, a heavy burden for a country already ravaged by economic crisis.
KOS — Elie, a 19-year-old from Syria, is still numb from the frigid waters as he tells us his story. "Between risking death at sea and certain death in Syria, my choice was made," he says.
The raft he arrived on here in Greece left Turkey just a few hours ago, packed with more than 60 migrants, most of them Syrian. When the coast of Kos was in sight, he dove into the water to guide the raft toward its destination.
The smuggler who arranged the refugees' passage abandoned his charges long before the arrival at Kos. Having already pocketed 1,500 euros per passenger, he and an accomplice fled on a jet ski just before entering Greek waters, returning to Turkey for another smuggling mission.
"At that point, we had to take care of things ourselves," Elie says. He is finally on European soil, on this tiny dot of land at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
Recovering from his second crossing attempt, his teeth are still chattering from the chilly waters and the stress of his escape. Eight days ago, his first endeavor was foiled by a Turkish rescue operation.
"Europe has closed its borders and opted for a military response to the migration crisis," says Sia Anagnostopoulou, a Greek lawmaker for Syriza, the anti-austerity left-wing party that rose to power in January's Greek elections.
Elie is still alive thanks to the Turkish coast guard, who pulled him from the sea after his raft capsized. "I still have nightmares about what happened," he says. "There were around 60 of us in the boat, and some of us didn't even know how to swim."
Walid was among those who doesn't know how to swim, but he survived. His leg was hurt in a bombing. "Now I can't walk without a cane," he explains. He also arrived in Kos this morning, along with dozens of other migrants from Syria, Senegal and Mali.
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In Kos — Photo: Simon
Now that they've reached their destination, they all lie in wait at the former Captain Elias Hotel, two kilometers from the port. During the worst years of the economic crisis in Greece, the owner was forced to give the hotel up to a bank. It's now in a state of disrepair, the neon sign at the entrance broken and the garden littered with dying palm trees. The mayor of Kos took over the hotel to turn it into a center for the unending stream of shipwrecked refugees.
According to the UN, more than 42,000 migrants arrived in Greece by sea in the first five months of 2015, up from only 6,500 during the same period last year. The Greek government reports that 10,500 migrants landed on the Dodecanese islands alone in the first three months of this year, more than triple the 2,860 recorded in the same period last year. Local authorities are struggling to deal with the soaring influx and have yet to open any dedicated processing center for the refugees. Captain Elias resembles a slum more than anything else.
Where to go from here?
Sitting on the ground or strewn on foam mattresses used by hundreds of exhausted souls before them, the migrants try to recover some energy before continuing their journey. They have no access to electricity or hot water at Captain Elias, where the windows are often kept shut, and they must pay for their food. Hit by the economic crisis, some local restaurants see the migrants as an opportunity to earn some extra income by selling snacks. In the mornings, a van stops by the hotel to sell coffee, hot dogs and sandwiches.
"The food isn't very good, but we are hungry," one young refugee says. "Soon we will have better." Everyone here knows that Kos is an essential step on the path to a better life in Europe, and their arrival here affords them some hope.
"After fleeing Syria with my parents and my sister in June 2013, I wanted to continue my schooling in Lebanon, but I couldn't obtain the necessary documents," Elie explains. "Instead I worked as a bartender for a year, getting paid in cash. My brother is an engineer in Niger, and he sent me some money so that I could get by. Here I will get the right papers, and eventually I'll be able to go to Sweden, where my other brother lives, and study."
He's interrupted by the police, who have come to take the migrants' fingerprints and record their names and nationalities. In about 10 days, they will get their residency permits, with the Syrians allowed to stay for six months and the others for just 30 days.
The door to Europe
The precious documents are distributed at the local police station, a relic of the Italian occupation located near the port. Every afternoon the police list the names of the successful asylum seekers. As the names appear on the board, a line of hopeful refugees forms in front of the station. Before departing for Athens, the successful ones must spend one last night in Kos in the station's central courtyard, without food and at the mercy of the scorching sun.
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Kos' agora — Photo: Mindaugas Danys
A police officer yells at a migrant in broken English, "You on the list?" The man had misheard his name, and before he can walk away the officer pushes him so violently that he almost falls to the ground.
"Fever, muscular problems, influenza, exhaustion and depression are the main medical issues we see in the migrants," says Dr. Apostolos Veizis, chief of Doctors Without Borders in Kos. "The Dodecanese islands are completely devoid of any structures to deal with the refugee crisis. There is almost no medical, psychological or food aid for them here."
Further complicating their operations is the local authorities' lack of preparation. "The policemen and government officials in Kos are completely unqualified to manage such an urgent situation," the doctor says. "Greeks, especially out here in the islands, aren't used to seeing so many foreigners like Afghans and Africans. They're used to tourists, not those in need of help."
The Kos mayor has been equally hostile to the refugees. According to Greek journalists, he said the migrants won't receive even "a single glass of water" from him.
The migrant economy
Shopkeepers in the town center try to avoid broaching the topic with visiting tourists. But the influx of migrants has its advantages for local businesses. A restaurant owner mocks his colleague, saying his restaurant is empty as usual, but he now sells snacks to the refugees.
In the middle of the low season, even hoteliers recognize that the migrants' presence helps them to fill their otherwise empty rooms. The more affluent ones opt for the Hotel Oscar, which is full this time of year.
"As usual, we will raise prices when the high season begins July 1," says the hotel's receptionist. No one knows where the new arrivals will stay. "We expect the number of arrivals to increase," Veizis says. "As long as the war continues, people will flee."
They will travel to Kos in search of a better life.
By now, Elie is nearly in Sweden. "I thought I would be welcomed in Europe, that I could study," he says. "Instead I'm in a camp for migrants. I have no idea when I will get my papers, and I still don't have the right to go to school."