“Bring us refugees. We have enough space to host them.” Panayiotis Nikos, director of the Greek first reception service for migrants, could not believe his ears when the mayor of Tilos made her proposal.
“This invitation is mainly for families that have applied for asylum in Greece,” Mayor Maria Kama-Aliferi told Kathimerini, adding, “I have informed all the relevant authorities.”
Tilos, a small island in the southeastern Aegean, is not a popular destination for traffickers shipping migrants and refugees from the Turkish coast to Greece. What boats do arrive on its shores usually do so by accident or when traffickers try to evade the coast guard patrols around the bigger islands.
“From late 2013 until 2014, about 3,000 people arrived here,” said the mayor of the island, which has 780 permanent residents. In 2015 the inflow eased slightly, though in July Tilos saw 687 arrivals, in sharp contrast with islands such as Lesvos, which see thousands of arrivals a day.
The island was surprised by its first wave of refugees and migrants last year but its reaction was immediate.
“Anyone who had a boat would sail out and look for boats that needed assistance. Elderly women rushed to buy baby formula and volunteers cooked up meals in the huge pots used for church feasts. We opened up the Monastery of Panaghia Politissa, as well as the island’s hotels to the refugees,” said Kama-Aliferi.
Many were taken into people’s homes. “How can you allow an infant of 20 days old to sleep outside?” she pondered in disbelief.
Finding solutions in the winter was relatively easy, but it became exponentially harder in the summer months, when the island population swells to an average of 2,500 people due to the arrival of tourists or locals returning for the holidays.
The mayor is looking for a long-term solution that will work all year round and is in talks with the relevant authorities to open a model center of humanitarian aid on a plot of land that has been ceded to the municipality by its owners. For the time being, an abandoned military camp that belongs to the island’s metropolitan church has been fitted with showers, toilets, solar water heaters and a laundry room, and can accommodate up to 100 individuals at a time. The islanders also make frequent food donations.
Meanwhile, Kama-Aliferi has also managed to secure funding from the Solidarity Now network so the island can purchase a bus and an off-road vehicle to collect refugees landing on its shores, as well as first-aid kits. The funding will also allow it to hire the staff needed to run the reception center.
“The island has benefited from this situation,” she says. “We always felt that we kept getting the short end of the stick because we didn’t have a doctor, a teacher or a lot of other services and activities enjoyed by other islands. But when we see people facing such difficult circumstances, we realize that life is the ultimate gift.”