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With everything that goes on at Westminster it can be very easy to get caught up in the day to day minutiae of debates and votes. Sometimes we need a reminder of the bigger picture. I got that last week when I met with one of my constituents, Gica, who spent time volunteering in Samos last year.
Gica volunteered with refugees and the situation she described is appalling. And worsening. The refugee camp on Samos was set-up by the Greek army for about 800 people. There are now 7,500 refugees living in the camp.
The camp has no sanitation. It has one doctor. A local baker provides translations.
Gica described a situation that is ‘beyond breaking-point’. People are trafficked to Samos – it’s the first point of Europe they reach, usually by dingy. It takes years for asylum papers to be processed. One part-time court is responsible for processing all asylum applications on the island.
Gica shared with me the blog of another volunteer, Giulia, and I share it, unedited, with you below. Please take the time to read it. I’ll continue to raise these matters with the UK government and if you want to help you can find out more here: https://samosvolunteers.org/
22 December at 08:01 ·
[Disclamer: very, very long post on the unbearable situation on Samos. It's been 4 years since the first time I came here. We are reaching breaking point, and we need help.]
Samos feels like a cruel social experiment somebody engineered to test the limits of humanity.
Take a small, quiet and friendly town. No crime, everybody knows each other, nobody locks their doors. Then start having refugees coming through daily. No government, no big NGO, nothing. Locals step up and for months and years take the burden on themselves.
They distribute food, clothes, arrange deliveries from friends all over Europe. They sacrifice their families, money, and time to help. Because it’s the right thing to do and no one wants to see people suffering.
Months pass by, and the EU-Turkey deal comes into place. The army and Greek government are officially in charge, and locals think they can finally catch a breath.
However, the transit camp, meant for people to stay a few days in, becomes a hotspot.
Month after month more people arrive, and few transfers happen. The living conditions in the camp deteriorate. Containers are full, so big tents get set up inside.
People start being stuck here for 4, 5 months without knowing what will happen to them. They start to despair. In the meantime, a few incidents start happening in town.
Some breaking-ins, a few women being harassed on the streets, property damage.
Samians start getting scared. How long will these people stay? How many can we take?
But still, most of them understand that it’s only a few bad apples. They try to go on with their normal life.
Months pass by, and more and more people continue crossing. Not many get transferred.
So more tents inside the camp.
And when that’s full, people start setting up tents outside the hotspot. The authorities don’t provide anything at arrival. They just say “go find a place to stay”. Services start being ever more stretched.
One doctor, one psychologist, not enough people at the asylum office.
More people come. People start building makeshift shelter and tents outside the camp.
Asylum seekers, including families, get stuck here for a year, a year and a half. More people come with serious medical and mental health conditions.
The hospital is overwhelmed. There is only one pediatrician to cover all the cases. She keeps going, sacrificing holidays and working around the clock. There is only one psychiatrist in the hospital, and no child psychiatrist. Conditions in the camp deteriorate. The psychiatrist gets attacked. The hospital makes referrals for medical transfers to Athens for many sick people who can’t get treatment here. HIV patients, patients with muscular dystrophy, patients who have serious heart conditions and on and on. But not many get transferred soon enough.
More incidents and crime happen in town. More burglaries, more drunk people getting aggressive, more damage to property. The police is overwhelmed, so is the court.
And again and again, more people come, very little transfers. Conditions get worse in the camp, people struggle to access basic services such as food and water.
And we get to this summer.
When Syrians and Kurds start crossing in the hundreds. In June, the camp had 3500 people. Now, it’s 7500.
35% are Syrians, and 22% Afghanis.
It’s been now 18 years of war in Afghanistan, no child born there hasn’t seen war.
The camp now has about 400 children here alone, including kids as young as 10 years old. 30% of the camp population is children.
The whole hill surrounding the camp is filled with tents and makeshift shelter.
And still, one doctor in the camp, one guardian for unaccompanied minors. Most people live in the jungle, with no electricity or showers. Surrounded by snakes, rats and scorpions.
Crime in town goes up. Refugees break into summer homes and take everything, including removing all the flooring made of wood, so they can create shelter for themselves.
Samians don’t recognize their town anymore. They are scared for their children, who are no longer allowed to walk around by themselves. They don’t go on holiday because they don’t know what they will find when they are back.
Friendships of 20+ years get destroyed. Some locals work in the camp or for some NGOs in town, and get into endless arguments with their friends and neighbours.
Police and coast guard are overwhelmed. People living in the camp are desperate. Every time a ferry comes to Samos there are at least 50 people trying to smuggle themselves in, hoping for a chance to regain their freedom.
It’s impossible to arrest them all, do all the paperwork, and take them to court. At the same time, they can’t let them on the ferry.
So they often push and beat them, hoping they won’t do it again. Is this right? No. It’s not. But that’s the only move they have.
Locals mostly see the riots in town, all the burglary and damage, and people drunk on the streets.
They don't see much of the children, the sick people, the 9 months pregnant women living in the camp, the fathers, the children alone here, the men who try to keep peace in the camp.
Refugees only see locals screaming at them, pushing them, not allowing them to sit in their restaurants.
They don’t know anything about the local women cooking lunch for 800 people a day for 8 months back in 2015. They don’t know about the group of locals who used to wake up at 5am every morning to prepare breakfast for the whole camp. They don’t know about all the volunteer divers who saved countless lives at sea, and recovered so many bodies.
Everybody has been trying, in their own way, to get the government and European Union to do something.
Refugees have been protesting every week for months now, whether it’s in the camp or in town.
Most NGOs have met with countless journalists and started advocacy campaigns. We even filed criminal charges against the hotspot management and tried to take the matter to the European Parliament.
Locals took it to the streets multiple times to ask for decongestion. The mayor went on any possible news channel to talk about the situation and ask for immediate action.
When the government announced plans of building a close camp for 5000+ people, anyone who held a position on the island threatened resignations. Didn’t matter what political area they were from. And still nothing.
We all keep trying, and nothing happens. When the State fails to provide safety and justice, citizens feel like they are on their own. Samos has been left alone for the past 5 years, and it has now reached its breaking point. Everybody, from refugees to anyone working in the camp, from the locals to the NGO workers, is on the verge of a breakdown.
There is a documentary called “For Sama”. It was shot by a Syrian woman who filmed her life throughout the war in Syria. At one point there is an airstrike, and a child gets killed. The mom rushes to him, shakes him and says “wake up, wake up, you need milk”.
The director keeps filming. Then the woman turns to the camera. You would expect her to scream “what the hell are you doing??”. Instead, she screams on top of her lungs “film this!! People need to know!!
Greek government and Europe, everybody on Samos has been screaming for years. We can’t take it anymore. When will you hear us?
Time is running out for many of Edinburgh's small businesses. Today I've written to the Chancellor asking for additional emergency assistance for our hospitality sector through the COVID-19 epidemic.