Face-to-face with refugees’ reality on Tilos

Nick’s taverna, overlooking the backyard of the Tilos Police Station, was the first to feel the impact of the boat people but the ripples were still spreading their way through Greece when our island holiday came to an end. Nick has a nice menu, and a charming wife, raised in New York, who does the front-of-the-house chatting. But nobody wanted to order Mythos beer and souvlaki of local lamb while trying not to catch the eyes of the desperate people in the police compound. We moved up the seafront a little and ate there instead – swapping scraps of information, misinformation and rumor about the Tilos Incident. It began on Monday, September 13, while some of us were enjoying a beach barbecue in a little bay called Aghios Sergios, a few turns down the coast from Livadia, the port and main town on Tilos, which is situated between Kos and Rhodes. A gale was working up and Captain Stelios got us all back aboard the little boat a bit ahead of schedule. Unnoticed by the slightly tipsy tourists, a handsome yacht flying a Turkish flag was slipping into Tholos Bay, next door. It would not have been an unusual sight anyway. Turkish boats are part of the Aegean Islands’ touring industry. But this one stayed. Did it beach or was it scuppered? The difficulty of proving either is just one of the complications the lawyers will now be considering. Anyway, the crew were picked up by another Turkish boat and 123 people were left on the beach, under the thorny mountains of Tilos, with a story that they had been heading for Italy. Like everything else they said, nobody knew what was truth and what was script. But it was clear they had gambled everything on a very long shot at a new life. The resident population of Tilos is only about 300 in the winter – and 450 in the summer, when the island hosts up to a thousand tourists at a time. Most are couples in middle-age and older, looking for what Greek islands used to be. At the time of the landing, for one reason and another, we had all been left under the eye of one burly young policeman, Fotis Stergiou. Some of the boat people made their way to Livadia and turned themselves in to him. By nightfall, most of them were waiting in his compound for whatever the fates had in store, while the rest were getting showers and a bit of floor space from local hoteliers. Later, the coast guard picked up a Turkish boat and brought it in with five men who are now awaiting trial in Rhodes. I first heard the story while shopping for a snorkel and sunscreen and it played out against a backdrop of well-heeled British, Germans, Scandinavians, Australians and city Greeks, doing much the same – some of them pausing to take souvenir photos of the packed police compound and the impounded Turkish boat. After a couple of days, the boat was stripped of all fittings and a number of visiting yachties upped anchor and left, for fear of something similar – although the word was that local lads had simply been looking for some Turkish compensation for what the boat had imposed on Greece. The other boat was later rescued and brought in for a more official salvage operation. The refugees said they had paid between 4,000 and 6,000 US dollars a head, down to the babies, in Afghanistan, Palestine and Pakistan, to get into Italy. They started out on trucks and met up in Turkey, which is on the horizon from Tilos. According to the Greeks, the tightening of EU borders has made their islands, with their thousands of miles of uninhabited coastline, the new way in for people from all over Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. And Turkey, while lobbying to join the EU, is turning a blind eye to the fact that it has become the jump-off point. The Tholos Bay landing was a dramatic first for Tilos but the same thing is happening almost daily on one island or another. A detective from Rhodes, shipped in to help make the case against the Turkish sailors, said his prefecture had picked up 25,000 illegals in the past five years. Patmos, with a population of 2,000, had 2,500 of them at one point last summer. Symi is another favorite. According to the police, the smugglers – and their customers – know that EU bureaucracy, added to UN agreements, will mean that the refugees cannot be simply sent back. Back to where would be the obvious first question, of course, and enough on its own to keep lawyers in stalemate. The Tilos refugees carried no documents that were of any use to the Greek authorities. In the course of trying to deal with people-dumping, the EU has imposed a regulation known as the Dublin II, which makes it more or less impossible for Greece to send refugees anywhere else. As the receiving country, it is its job to deal with illegals and they can be sent back to Greece if they manage to find their way into any other member country. On Tilos, with the assistance of a UN lawyer and an interpreter from Kos, and police and immigration from Rhodes, the boat people were fingerprinted, photographed and given a piece of paper recording the circumstances of their arrival and the names and birth dates they had given, for what they were worth. The Greek documents amounted to deportation orders, which would take effect in 30 days unless the refugees had by then got themselves in line for asylum – which the Greeks will be very reluctant to give them and which no other country will consider while they are Greece’s responsibility. Meanwhile, after three days of officialdom, they were free to go. That meant to go across the road to the Tilos harborside – the only way out. The children – about 50 of them – went paddling and swimming or scraped up a few cents to play games in the local Internet cafe. The men cadged cigarettes. Some of the women begged. But mostly they stayed in the police yard, where they received some food and access to a toilet and sorted through bags of clothes and bedding donated by locals. Like the tourists, the Greeks were torn between resentment and sympathy. But with an eye on the frissons going through their paying visitors, they wanted to keep the situation contained. The refugees said one of the Turks had most of their remaining money. They complained that Greek papers would not get them anywhere outside Greece. Italian papers would have been better, they reckoned, although it was hard to understand how. They were a mixed bunch – including a gentle family of nine, an affable Afghan teddy boy with sideburns and a studded belt and a dangerous-looking character with a shaved head who nearly started a fight in the police compound on the Wednesday night. Officer Stergiou faced him down. On the Friday, the island’s doctor and mayor, Tasos Aliferis, got all the males bussed out for a soccer tournament, on a precious square of Astroturf in the heart of Tilos, which lightened the mood. Meanwhile, he was using his influence to arrange free rides to Athens, where it might be possible to get lost in the crowd of marooned illegals. And at 4.30 a.m. on the Sunday morning, the ferry doors closed on 101 of the boat people. The rest remained, although they were evicted from the police compound with a bit of shouting and pushing from locals who had stayed up to assist. They were still there when we left, a few days later, squatting in an empty house and living off charity arranged by the local council in return for a bit of litter-picking and other odd jobs. Even the poor UN girl, worn weary by the hopelessness of one batch of similar cases after another, said Tilos had been surprisingly good to them under the circumstances. But they will be arrested if still there when their 30 days are up. As we left, the best guess was that they would try to get to Rhodes, a headquarters of spivvery, where they might get hold of false passports. Everyone agreed the law was an ass and the situation was a mess and it was time the rest of the world gave it some more thought. Chris Benfield is a journalist for the Yorkshire Post in England and recently returned from a holiday on Tilos.

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