A deluge of despair

In the last nine months, close to 11,000 illegal immigrants were intercepted by the coast guard as they tried to enter Greece through the eastern islands that lie close to Turkey. Some are dumped on islets by smugglers using super-fast boats that can cover the distance from Turkish waters to Greek territory in five minutes, before heading back to safety, leaving the Greeks to pick up the burden of human misery shivering on the Aegean’s bare rocks. Others arrive aboard small inflatable dinghies, paddling for their lives across the treacherous straits. Many are lost in the crossing. At least 69 have been confirmed dead so far this year – with the last 18 washing up near the northern port of Alexandroupolis and Turkey’s Dardanelles strait in the last few days. Even if we do not count the dead, this flood of people is a tragedy of great proportions. The immigrants are mostly young men who saw no hope in their home countries. Sometimes they are accompanied by women and children. All of them are in search of a better life. There is no way of knowing how many pass the Greek authorities undetected on their westward odyssey. Just as no one knows how many die on the journey from their home to their final destination, whether death finds them in the minefields and mountain passes near home, on the roads of Turkey, in the Aegean at the hands of reckless smugglers or in the employ of unscrupulous employers. (Remember the 19 Chinese immigrants who drowned while picking cockles in England’s Morecambe Bay in 2004…) It is not only the hardship, exploitation and danger that the immigrants face on their long journey to a better life that is the stuff of tragedy; the strains faced by societies on the migration routes are equally dangerous. This is becoming all the more evident in Greece, from remote islets to the heart of Athens and Patras, the port that is the gateway to the West. Although the state has gradually (belatedly) begun to shoulder its responsibilities, building reception centers at Samos in the east, Evros-Kyprinos in the north and Laconia in the south, the 1,000 or so people who can be housed there are less than 10 percent of the annual influx. The authorities are overwhelmed. The social fabric is stretched to ripping point. Initial feelings of hospitality are followed by despair at the overwhelming number of immigrants and the lack of means to sustain them. The islet of Agathonisi, with its 150 inhabitants, has had to cope with over 4,000 migrants so far this year. It cannot continue to do so. On nearby Patmos, one of the richest islands because of its high-class tourism, a makeshift reception center functioned in a defunct disco. Now no more migrants are welcome on the island where St John saw his vision of the end of the world – leaving Agathonisi to deal with the deluge. When the migrants are taken to Athens and served with deportation papers, they are abandoned to their fate. As Athens Plus has reported in past weeks, they then fall prey to all kinds of organized gangs who fill the vacuum left by an absent state. There is no easy solution to the problem. But that is precisely why the local, regional, national and European authorities have to find ways to protect those who have fallen into their charge, screen them carefully and repatriate those who are not refugees. The alternative is more despair and, before long, violence, which will breed further despair and chaos.