Aegean island of Leros struggling with migrant influx

LEROS, SOUTHEAST AEGEAN – “Is it true that we won’t be spending another night here?” Ali Wassim, a 26-year-old refugee from Syria, appears skeptical of the coast guard officer’s assurances that his ordeals on Leros, a small island in the southeastern Aegean, will soon be over. After traveling to Greek shores from Turkey, Wassim and dozens more migrants had already spent one night crammed into a Port Authority shed sleeping on wooden pallets, his head resting on the same inner tube that was to have served as a life preserver on the sea crossing.

With eyes swollen from lack of sleep, Wassim shuffles into the Leros Port Authority’s courtyard. “Our boat was like this one, maybe a bit smaller,” he says, pointing to an inflatable red dinghy that had been seized by authorities, now serving as a bed for an exhausted man. “It was about 7 meters long and there were 40 of us on it.”

The young Syrian explains that they had put the women and children – 12 in total – in the middle of the boat and the men on the sides. “The trafficker had promised us a big boat, with wi-fi. He said the journey would be safe. He was a liar,” says Wassim.

Once out in the open seas the previous night, the dinghy hit strong winds that whipped up waves as high as 2 meters. The trafficker had told the passengers to tear the boat as soon as they saw the Hellenic Coast Guard approaching. They didn’t because they were scared for the women and children. The boat was being steered by one of the migrants, who had no navigation skills whatsoever. He was named captain by the traffickers in the coastal Turkish town of Didim and told to head for the Greek island of Farmakonisi, where lights could be seen shining dimly some 6 nautical miles away.

“We followed the light and prayed to Allah that someone wouldn’t turn it off,” one of the other passengers, who preferred to remain unnamed, told Kathimerini.

The brief crossing cost each migrant 1,000 euros – without an experienced captain.

Greek authorities have been intercepting an increasing number of such “shipments” in the eastern Aegean. Arrivals of undocumented migrants on the islands of Leros, Chios and Lesvos have risen fivefold in the first three months of 2015 compared to the same period last year. Indicatively, off Leros, coast guard officers rescued 1,273 migrants (among them Syrians, Nigerians and even Haitians) trying to enter Greece illegally, a number that corresponds to almost 50 percent of total arrivals for all of 2014.

“The amount trafficking gangs used to ask for was from 2,500 to 5,000 euros. What we have seen more recently is them stuffing migrants into inflatable boats, without a guide, and taking as little as 500 euros per person,” says Leros Harbor Master Sakellarios Biliris. Similar trends have been recorded on Chios and Lesvos, according to port authority sources. Another striking fact is that just five traffickers have been arrested on Leros during rescue operations this year, compared to 17 found among 454 rescued people in 2013.

The larger the waves of immigration into Greece, the more acute the problem of accommodating arrivals. On one recent weekend alone, Leros towed in four dinghies. The island was under a state of emergency because of the weather, with hail and strong rain causing floods. Dozens of migrants were placed in the local police station’s detention cells and more than 200 were initially placed in the port authority’s headquarters – one group in the basement, another in the storage shed and a third in the garage.

They waited there until they were taken to the police station to be processed, with authorities trying to ascertain which of the migrants were eligible for asylum. There have been times in the past when minors bedded down in the Port Authority’s conference room, while it has only been a year since the police force was granted a stipend of 5.87 euros per mouth per day to feed detained undocumented migrants.

The women and children in Wassim’s group, all from Syria, were given mattresses and shelter in an old people’s home run by the Metropolitan Church of Leros and located right beside the Port Authority. Among them was a 25-day-old infant, wrapped in blankets, and with its hands in socks to keep them warm.

“The people are on their side. They bring them food and clothes,” says priest Stefanos Kates.

“Leros has long experience in human suffering because of the psychiatric asylum that used to operate here,” he said, adding that the help of the community is not enough and calling for the intervention of the state.

“It was so cold they were shivering. We had to take one man to the hospital. His feet were so frozen he couldn’t move his toes,” says Matina Katsiveli, a retired magistrate and current member of the ruling SYRIZA party, who was handing out dry clothes to the migrants along with other volunteers from the Solidarity Network.

Villa Artemis, a building on the grounds of Leros General Hospital that was once used for the mentally ill and was renovated by regional authorities at a cost of 40,000 euros to be used as a temporary migrant reception center, opened just a few weeks ago after a lengthy delay due to opposition from residents.

After the island’s Port Authority alerted Alternate Minister for Immigration Policy Tasia Christodoulopoulou and the deputy prosecutor for Kos (administrative center of the Dodecanese island cluster) to the problem, the building was opened and took in 75 migrants for one night. They slept on the floor. It has six rooms that can accommodate around 40 people.

The following day it was vacated as the police, short-staffed at best, did not have the manpower to ensure that it was guarded.

Ongoing problem

The increasing numbers of undocumented migrants arriving on the island has been a problem for Leros for several years now. In fact in 2008 it broke the known record for Greece with 3,500 arrivals. Katsiveli and other volunteers have been able to help many of them. She shows us an album of photographs of unaccompanied Afghan children, who at one point numbered more than 100. She talks about births and baptisms of migrants’ children that have been held on the island, and remembers the tragic tale of an Iraqi grandmother who lost her granddaughter at sea. The elderly woman died three days later and the Church agreed to conduct a funeral for her.

It would be reasonable to think that on this island of 8,000 residents there would be some solution to the accommodation problem for the over-9,000 migrants who have landed on its shores over the past seven years.

Decades ago, a number of buildings left behind from the Italian occupation of the island were turned into the Leros Insane Asylum. Since the 1990s, when many of the asylum’s patients were released from long-term confinement, many of the buildings have remained unused.

For a short time from 2002 to 2003, migrants were housed in an abandoned municipal building and fed by the asylum, which had a significantly bigger budget then than it has today. Following local elections and a change in the municipal leadership, however, the building was deemed unsuitable. Migrants were then sheltered in tents and in 2007-10 in the Ara Hotel which was awarded the accommodation tender called by the regional authority. The cost was covered by European Union funding. After the end of the funding period, however, the problem of where to place incoming migrants returned.

The Regional Authority of the Southern Aegean approved the renovation of the Villa Artemis. On February 21, a majority of the municipal council voted against the building being used as migrant accommodation.

“There’s a kindergarten right next door. The people arriving are not given a medical checkup as soon as they arrive, and we don’t know how they will react. And the migrants need a warm place to stay during their brief sojourn on the island,” Leros Mayor Michalis Kolias tells Kathimerini.

He would like to see the reception center located in another building that once belonged to the psychiatric facility that is located outside the port.

Katsiveli believes that the Villa Artemis should be used until a larger, more suitable facility is found.

For the migrants themselves, the issue, as 33-year-old Syrian heart surgeon Abu Mahmud explains, is decent accommodation during their short stay on Leros before they move on. After spending one night on a military base in Farmakonisi and another at the Leros Port Authority, the Syrian refugee was granted a certificate protecting him from deportation for six months. He moved into a hotel on the island, paying 30 euros a night for a twin room.

“I’ve got about 16 refugees, all from Syria, staying at my hotel,” says hotelier Theologos Virvilis. “They are people just like us and they have the money to pay. But the island needs help. It can’t accommodate so many people. Can you imagine what will happen in the summer when the migrant numbers rise?”

The next day Mahmud packed his scant belongings and boarded a catamaran to Kos. From there he’ll take a ferry to Piraeus. “I want to get to Italy. After that, we’ll see,” he says.

Night patrol

Shortly after 9 p.m. we join a six-crew coast guard patrol along the Greek-Turkish border that will last until 7 a.m. Calm seas increase our chances of intercepting a migrant boat. Patrols are conducted all the time, but the Leros Port Authority is short-staffed and officers have to put in several double shifts a week.

The patrol starts without incident until around 1 a.m., when a call comes over the radio warning of a sighting of a boat entering Greek waters near Farmakonisi. Before it makes it over, however, we see a Turkish coast guard vessel intercepting it. This is unusual, according to the officers on our boat, who claim that migrant boats are normally allowed to sail into Greek seas without hindrance. The following night, a total of 79 people from two boats managed to land on the shores of Farmakonisi.

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