On the Greek island of Symi, where the clear eastern Mediterranean Sea gently laps onto secluded beaches, a gray warship maneuvers in the main bay while a patrol boat with commandos docks alongside luxury yachts.
Surrounded on three sides by Turkey, this rugged outpost is the front line of Europe’s struggle to get a grip on the mass influx of refugees from war-torn parts of the Middle East and Africa. The island, which has one local doctor and no public toilets, has received 5,500 refugees since March, almost double the total in 2014 and roughly twice its population.
“Every day we try above all to save people at sea,” Vassilis Milathianakis, Symi’s coastguard chief, said this week on the patrol boat as it hummed through the waters beyond the natural harbor that’s the heart of the island. “There are so many incidents, very often two or three a day.”
The drama on Symi – where an Iraqi teenager was killed last month during an exchange of gunfire between refugee traffickers and authorities – underlines how Greece again is the focal point of a crisis that’s threatening to divide Europe just weeks after the country won another aid package to keep it in the euro following a nail-biting political standoff.
With their place in the single currency at least secure for now, Greeks will vote this weekend in the country’s second election in eight months. They will choose a government that can expect no honeymoon at home as the economy sinks, or abroad as European leaders struggle to maintain support for emergency proposals to accept at least 120,000 asylum seekers.
“It may complicate considerably the new government’s efforts to revive the Greek economy if Europe fails to agree on substantial burden-sharing and support for frontline states,” said Thanos Dokos, director-general of the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “It may also boost the far right’s long-term political fortunes.”
Polls show the September 20 ballot is too close to call with SYRIZA led by Alexis Tsipras neck and neck with the New Democracy party he unseated in January. The anti-immigration Golden Dawn, whose insignia resembles a swastika, is projected to retain third place in the election.
“Certainly there will be a small proportion who vote for Golden Dawn because of the problem that has arisen from the migrants,” Lefteris Papakalodoukas, the independent mayor of Symi, said on the balcony of his office overlooking a corner of the port with small fishing boats. “But people are fed up and vote for Golden Dawn mainly as a reaction to the failed policies that we have had for so many years.”
The refugee wave crashing on Europe’s shores has shifted the spotlight from tension in Athens to dinghies in the Mediterranean. While Greece is only a transit route, like Hungary and Italy, the challenges facing Symi resonate.
About 80 percent of this year’s arrivals on the island are from Syria and most of the rest are from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the local port authority. That mirrors the origins of refugees on bigger eastern Greek islands such as Lesvos and Kos, which are also just several miles from the Turkish coast.
The sight of hundreds of refugees living on the Symi portside in the shadow of its neoclassical town houses has hit tourism on the island. It’s compounding the effect of Greek budget cuts that are a condition of international aid and capital controls that were introduced to prevent a run on banks.
Andrew Davies, a former London-based foreign-exchange trader who now owns and runs Symi’s “Old Markets” boutique hotel, has suffered cancellations.
“People feel uncomfortable sitting in a restaurant when there are children sleeping on the streets a few meters away,” Davies said on the hotel’s sun-drenched terrace. “So, yes, there is a fear for the tourist industry.”
Davies set up a charity called Solidarity Symi to help refugees, relying on a network of mainly British expatriates and visitors who he says are “coming together in an almost wartime- like spirit” to distribute food, clothes and medicines.
He says the charity will eventually also support needy Greeks. The declines in incomes, capital controls at banks and refugee arrivals mean locals face a “perfect storm,” he said.
Seham Sleman, 32, from Syria is grateful for the charity. She showed up with her four-month-old daughter and 11-year-old son after the coastguard intercepted the rickety speed boat on which they were being smuggled with about 22 other people. Also on board were her husband and 12-year-old son.
“It was so dark, we couldn’t see anyone,” she said as she left the charity, where handwritten signs in Arabic help identify donated goods. “The Greek police saved us. We were afraid. The sea was rough.”
The family of five and a cousin had left Damascus 12 days earlier. They traveled by car to Lebanon, plane to Istanbul, bus to the Turkish town of Marmaris, another car under cover of night to a beach an hour away and finally a boat to Symi.
The cost for the six of them to reach Symi from Turkey was $16,000, said Sleman. They plan to settle in Sweden, where her husband has a cousin, and the next staging post is Athens.
“I am going to get a safe life, a safe future,” Sleman said in English. With a smile, she predicted that within a year she would be speaking in Swedish.
On the other side of the port, halfway up a steep incline of steps, Eleni Vratsanou puts out plastic trash bags and bowls to use as ashtrays for refugees who camp out next to the neighboring coastguard office.
She also lines up plants and a metal barrier to prevent the arrivals from sleeping right in front of her doorway.
After wishing well a Syrian whom she had gotten to know and who was departing the island, she said the man alluded to Greece’s own difficulties by saying “and good luck to all of you here.”