I have recently visited the island of Kos which, due to its close proximity to Turkey, has received an influx of refugees. Those in Kos are part of about 230 000 refugees that have arrived in Greek islands (of a total 350 000 entering Europe) so far this year. Those making the route through the Eastern Mediterranean are mostly Syrian – with some Afghans and Pakistanis.
In the past Europe could rely on the Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s government to stop refugees reaching Europe. The European Union (EU) turned a blind eye to its inhumane practices towards those fleeing devastation, safe in the knowledge that someone else was dealing with the problem. However, during the Arab Spring Qaddafi’s regime was defeated and Libya was thrown into chaos – making it easier for refugees to move beyond its shores.
Further, the Arab Spring led to the civil war in Syria which resulted in over half its entire population fleeing the country. Three million of these have been in Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, mostly in overcrowded, under-resourced and unsanitary camps. Amnesty International claim 40% of the camps in Lebanon lack adequate shelter. The EU, United Stated and Kuwait have given millions of dollars towards the camps but their contributions are short of the $5.5 billion the UN claim they need. So rather than rot away in disease and hunger-rife camps many are choosing to make the dangerous journey to Europe.
While in Kos I saw many refugees. The stark contrast between the holidaymakers and the refugees was shocking. The refugees were living in makeshift tents just a few meters away from people buying fancy cocktails at beach side bars and doing water sports.
There were a number of charities at work. I saw the Red Cross, UNHCR and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). I also met two English women who had come independently to help refugees; they had spent the day in the police station sorting out the registering of refugees and dealing with individual complaints and the next day they planned to return home for more money. However, none of the refugees were begging – in fact, my father tried to offer a family some money and they turned it down.
Much of the aid distribution happened at the Police Station which meant there was often a queue of refugees there. I noticed the press were taking photographs there. It occurred to me that these photos would give an inaccurate impression of the island, showing crowds of refugees in a small space. The fact that many media outlets chose to take photographs at that spot rather than of less dense, but far more representative groups of refugees may speak to the image they wish to create of the crisis. It is interesting how this links to coverage of the crisis more generally, many have often portrayed the refugees as a “terrifying, faceless, countless mass”.
Of course, that’s not to say the Greek government isn’t struggling. MSF’s Stathis Kyrouthis said the situation is Greece is dire, claiming “I have worked in many refugee camps before, in Yemen, Malawi, and Angola. But here on the island of Kos, this is the first time in my life that I have seen people so totally abandoned”. Similarly Human Rights Watch say Greek reception centres lack sufficient food and health care and are severely unsanitary and overcrowded – so much so that they may breach international law. Germany responded to the massive pressure on Greece by suspending the Dublin Regulation and considering the majority of applications from Syrian applicants – however no other country has yet to do the same.
The general attitudes of people on the island are varied. A number seemed to resent the refugees; one man said Greece had enough problems without having to deal with refugees as well. There were also instances where shopkeepers were seen chasing refugees out of shops. However, others have reacted differently. One man said the refugees have made him count his own blessings. While, one graffiti artist has rebelled against the idea of the refuges being illegal – writing all over the town: “No one is illegal”.
So Kos like the rest of Europe is divided. In Britain many have called on the government – through a petition gaining over 400 000 signatures and protests – to take more refugees. However, others are against such action – for example a counter petition has raised over 100 000 signatures.
The problem with some of these anti-refugee arguments, like the anti-immigration arguments more generally, is that they thinly disguise racism behind claims of limited resources. For example the counter petition in the UK claims “Foreign citizens are taking all our benefits, costing the government millions!” The main problem with these arguments is that they rely too much on the assumption that more immigration must inevitably be bad for a country’s resources. Economically, most studies discredit the claim that immigration is economically detrimental. While others note that increased immigration doesn’t necessarily result in increased costs to the country through benefits. For example, a University College London report found that immigrants generally “put in more than they take out”. This may also be true of refugees. In fact, in an ageing population – where the proportion of people at retirement age is higher than those at working age – an influx of working age people is a good thing. Freedland noted the economic benefits Germany will receive by accepting 800 000 refugees and letting them work. So the limited resources argument may be based in mistaken (and often racist) stereotypes of those arriving rather than fact.
Many of these anti-refugee comments have also been overtly racist. The twitter accounts @BestoftheMail and @DMReporter found comments on the refugee crisis “fantasised about how … to kill” refugees, “rejoice[d] in their death” and compared them to pests, dogs or filth. As a social experiment, they used direct quotes from Nazi propaganda but replaced “Jew” with “immigrant”. They found that these Nazi quotes were overwhelmingly positively received – gaining hundreds of “up votes”. Unfortunately, this does not surprise me, having seen similar post on my own news feed – for example one claimed the refugees could be murders or rapists and said that it is up to Europe how to move their “smelly bodies” round the continent.
Kos shows the struggles of governments at the periphery of Europe, the spin of the media, the acts of charity and the divided attitudes that have come to define the refugee crisis. Through selfishness and lack of united action in areas such as Kos, Europe is allowing refugees to die.