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Last Resort: Witnessing the Migrant Crisis on Kos Island, Europe's New Frontier

The Greek island of Kos is a popular vacation hotspot, but thousands of migrants and refugees are also stranded there in terrible conditions. VICE News visited the island in June.

by Milene Larsson
Jun 24 2015, 3:20pm

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

At 5am on a June morning, agitation spread among a group of journalists gathered on Lambi beach outside the Aqua Blu Boutique Hotel — a short drive from the main town on the popular Greek vacation island of Kos. 

A small, overcrowded migrant boat could just about be made out on the horizon. Just a few yards from a private beach club's straw parasols, deflated dinghies, life jackets, and shoes were scattered around in the sand, gradually being obscured by the wind and waves.

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

After drifting further up the coast, the eight men in the inflatable boat tried to steer it ashore, paddling fervently. One of them jumped out to drag it in and they all waded to land, their belongings in plastic bags swung over their shoulders. Confused by the cameras and smiling nervously, they shook the journalists' hands and answered their questions. "We're from Pakistan, we came through Turkey and then here to Greece."

They said they'd spent 10 hours at sea. Turkey was visible in the distance and the ferry ride there takes just 35 minutes. Yet these men had traveled in the dark, with only with paddles to steer their path through the waves. They wanted to know the direction to the hotel where they'd heard migrants were welcome. 

They were referring to the derelict Hotel Captain Elias, now serving as a temporary emergency "camp" as there are no migrant reception facilities on Kos. A Greek journalist pointed out the way, explaining it was a 15-minute walk. The men distrustfully marched off in the other direction.

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

Kos is one of the Greek islands on the new frontier into Europe. Frontex, the external border agency of the European Union (EU), has recorded more than 50,000 irregular border crossings on the Eastern Mediterranean route — from Turkey into Greece, Bulgaria, and Cyprus — since the start of 2015.

Frontex spokeswoman Ewa Moncure told VICE News that 90 percent of these entries were recorded on the Greek islands and that the majority of the people are Syrian but there are also Iraqi, Pakistani, and Afghan migrants. Moncure pointed out that just halfway through this year this route has already seen more than double of 2014's 44,000 crossings. Kos alone has received more than 8,000 of these arrivals since the start of 2015, almost 3,800 of them in May alone.

A main reason for the unprecedented influx to the Greek islands, according to Moncure, could be Operation Aspida (shield), the 2012 reinforcement operation at the Greek land border with Turkey, which was once a main gateway into Europe. Aspida involved the construction of a seven-mile border fence and the deployment of an additional 1,800 border guards.

Watch the VICE News documentary, Migrants Stranded on Kos: Europe or Die

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Neighboring Bulgaria, which subsequently saw a vast increase in migrants and refugees when this border was sealed, copied the Greek tactics and built its own barbed wire fence along a 21-mile stretch of its own border with Turkey where most migrants crossed.

On Kos, the hordes of package tourists from countries such as Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden are warmly greeted. Those who arrive on the island irregularly, fleeing conflict or poverty, however, do not enjoy the same friendly welcome. Nor does the international media reporting on the migrant crisis, whose presence is making local business owners and authorities nervous that the coverage could tarnish the island's image and jeopardize tourism, the main sector of Kos's economy.

The situation here has hit European headlines, spearheaded by a controversial Mail Online article at the end of May, which featured holidaymakers complaining about migrants sitting outside restaurants and watching them eat, and has been shared 67,000 times. The coverage reportedly led to a 52 percent drop in searches for Kos on vacation site Trivago.

Between 100 to 300 migrants and refugees arrive on Kos everyday and gather outside Hotel Elias early in the morning. After seeing the conditions inside, with no running water, electricity or working sanitary facilities, many turn around. A group of Syrian men in their 20s and 30s, appalled by the dirty mattresses and how hundreds of people, many unwell, were forced to fight for every inch of space, told VICE News: "We'd rather sleep outside or find a hotel that will let us stay four people in a room."

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

Omar, a 21-year-old Syrian who lives inside the derelict building, said that many initially leave the Elias to try their luck in cheap hotels, thinking they will only have to stay on Kos for a couple of days to register with police and get their legal papers. He told VICE News that he also believed this so spent his money on food and hotels. 

Omar explained, however, that "now, 21 days later, I still don't have my papers and I was forced to come back here because I can't afford to stay anywhere else."

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

His friend, Alim, who shared a small room with Omar and 10 other Syrians, told VICE News how he was only recently released from one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's underground prisons in Damascus. Alim said he was arrested at the age of 19, suspected of supporting the opposition, and locked up, naked, in a cell with 200 other men and tortured daily.

"Once they caught me praying and a guard beat me and wanted me to repeat after him that there was no greater god than Assad. When I refused, they hung me from my feet for two days and then put me in solitary confinement for 48 days. I nearly lost my mind," he recalled. Alim explained that a Lebanese man who had spent 30 years in the prison had taught him English.

Related: The Building Blocks of Fortress Europe: How EU Policy Is Failing Record Numbers of Migrants

Alim was lucky, however. After two years in prison he was released, under the pretext of being summoned to court and facing a life sentence. He managed to escape Damascus to Aleppo, and from there get to the Turkish border.

None of the migrants and refugees VICE News spoke to wanted to stay on Kos. Yet they couldn't leave the island without first receiving legal documents registering them for temporary stay in Greece. These papers would allow them to continue their journey, first to Athens, and then often onwards to other European countries. The long waiting time for the documents is apparently due to a lack of police resources on Kos.

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

"Greece's financial situation is not helping the matter," Buziotas Sotiris, the press officer on Kosfor Syriza, Greece's governing party, told VICE News. "The basic services that cope with migrants, such as the police and the coastguard, are understaffed and all this makes the problem worse. Greece and its economy can't handle this huge influx of refugees."

Sotiris blamed Kos Mayor Georgios Kyritsis for inadequate reception facilities on the island, and said that the local government was in charge of water and electricity. When we asked Kyritsis about the situation, the mayor defensively replied: "I dare you to come and see if there is in fact no electricity in the camp." He backtracked when we told him we'd seen it first hand, then continued: "Nobody can have water for free. Nobody can have electricity for free. It's not my obligation, it's the government's responsibility."

Related: Storming Spain's Razor-Wire Fence: Europe or Die (Episode 1). Watch here

Aside from a Greek coastguard officer keeping watch outside the Hotel Elias to make sure no reporters entered with cameras, the authorities on Kos were not present at the camp. There was no food distribution or any efforts to attempt to meet the minimum EU standards for refugee reception. The desperation of the residents became apparent when local citizen initiatives arrived with clothes and food that had been collected from people willing to help.

When a truckload of bread and cheese wasn't enough to feed everyone, frustration spread in the line of hungry people and fighting broke out over bags of old shoes and bed sheets. An Afghan father of two came up to us, pointing to Hotel Elias: "This is our camp. There's no toilet, no light, no electricity, nothing. Nothing. I don't know how we can live here."

Photo by Alexia Tsagkari

Despite the people involuntarily stuck on the island waiting for papers, Kos seemed far from inundated by migrants. Some tourists at the harbor observed the hundreds of Syrians and Afghans patiently waiting for news of their papers outside the police station. A Dutch couple told VICE News they'd come down to see the refugees that the media had been talking about. "We feel sorry for them but don't know how we can help them," they told us.

Tourists who were less interested those fleeing Assad's regime and the Islamic State kept to the resorts where they could enjoy familiar comforts and commodities like Tylösand — not the IKEA sofa range but a beach club — a popular haunt for Swedish holidaymakers. The tourists on Kos seem perfectly content, while migrants and refugees are stranded for weeks in inhumane conditions.

Follow Milène Larsson on Twitter: @milenelarsson