When will it end? More deaths of refugees in the Aegean

On 5th May 2014, two boats carrying migrants sunk off the coast of the Greek Island of Samos. At least 22 people drowned and another seven missing. They are just the latest victims of Fortress Europe. Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones watched the tragedy unfold on Monday morning.


On Samos Island we watched another tragedy unfold before our eyes on Monday morning. From our workplace we looked over a calm sea where at that very moment refugees were fighting for their lives. Two small rubber boats full of refugees sank about 1-2kms from the shore. At least 22 people were killed and a lone helicopter was scouring the sea looking for a further seven missing as we wrote these lines. Given the tranquillity of the sea and the lack of wind it was hard to believe that the weather had played a role in this latest tragedy.

Among those killed were nine refugees fleeing Syria. Over 3,000 refugees came to Samos last year and the majority are from Syria. They, like our friend Wasim, whose family died on Samos last summer, are looking for safety and the chance to build a new life free from terror. Yet as on Monday, too many refugees find that last step into Europe to be both dangerous and expensive. The hundreds of un-named graves on the islands of Samos, Lesbos and Chios are just one testament to the dangers. There are many more bodies which never make it to the shore.

That such highly vulnerable people seeking refuge and safety are compelled to travel in small rubber boats at high cost is entirely due to the inhumanity of the EU policies and practices with respect to migration in general and refugees in particular. In these matters Greece patrols its borders and deals with the refugees in accordance with EU directives and sentiments. The expectations are clear and simple. Keep the borders strong. Keep the refugees out. Give no welcome. Treat those who get through as criminals so to dissuade others from coming. Do nothing, absolutely nothing which encourages refugees to think that they can expect help when they arrive in Europe. This is precisely mirrored in the funding. The EU Commission allocated €227,576,503 for Greece to keep refugees and migrants out from 2011 until the end of 2013; but only €19,950,000 to assist their reception during the same period.

For those of us who are European all this is being done in our name. Is this what we want? Are we really so cruel? These are nothing less than crimes against humanity. Why do we allow this to happen?

Today we stood with our neighbours looking over this latest tragedy. They were crying. They know what they are seeing should never be allowed to happen.

We also know that over the years the Greek state and some of its key agencies have taken to their border control work with relish. We had the sobering experience of having a taxi driver in Athens who had no shame in telling us that the happiest days of his life was his time as an army conscript on the borders with Albania where as a sniper in the special forces he could shoot Albanians trying to get into Greece. The fact that most of the refugees coming into Greece are Muslim and often black draws on deeply sedimented prejudices which fuels the violence of the state and its agents. None of the statements above can be disputed. For the past 10 years endless reports from Amnesty, Médecins Sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch, UNCHR, parliamentarians from across Europe, and countless other groups and NGOs have been documenting the abusive violence of the Greek state and its officers. The weight of the evidence is overwhelming. It is beyond dispute. But nothing changes.

The silence of the powerful across Europe to these ongoing crimes is more than passive complicity. It is nothing less than a green light. We won’t stop you from doing what is needed.

So we can expect nothing from those quarters unless the people in massive numbers begin to say ‘enough’; no more. If we say nothing, if we do nothing, we too are complicit in these crimes.

In the meantime the beaches of beautiful Greek islands, such as Samos, Lesbos, Chios and others are being stained with blood. And just behind the beaches these islands have built and run detention camps for those who make it. These are places of agony, sometimes torture and an almost total absence of humanity. Perhaps the Greek state will shift its policy when it realises that just as people don’t wish to spend their holidays in Belsen, they will have the same revulsion about coming to Greece and its islands. But don’t hold your breath.

Other victims of Fortress Europe are closer to home. At Harmondsworth Detention Centre, near Heathrow, one of Europe’s largest migration prisons, over 150 prisoners occupied the main courtyard and began a hunger strike on Friday 2 May. Hunger strikes have now spread to three other detention centres in the UK. Details, including the statement by the prisoners, are available here

Many thanks to Sofiane and Chris for allowing us to repost their article, originally published here.


  1. Yesterday, we were able to meet and talk to some of the survivors. Here is what we wrote last night:

    We have just come back from the ferry as we were told at the Detention Camp on Friday that it was likely that the survivors would be travelling to Athens today (Sunday). They were indeed at the port and for the first time we managed to talk with some of them on the ferry. It takes just over an hour for the ferry to go from Vathi to Karlovassi and this is the time we had with them.

    It was a very distressing experience for us to meet the survivors many of whom were clearly in deep shock. It was also awful that in order to get on the ferry you had to pass within 50 metres of the boat in which most of the people lost their lives. It is simply lying on the dock with a bit of tape round it. Why did they have to confront this? Why hasn’t the boat been either moved or covered?

    The survivors we met were from Syria and Somalia. The Syrians seemed to have experienced the greatest trauma in terms of loss of life. The young guy who lost his mother and sister (who was 7 months pregnant) was very upset and angry. He didn’t want us to talk with him nor the group sitting with him. He said there was no help to be had; nobody helps them. It was hard to listen to his despair, although completely understandable. We did talk to a Syrian man in his early 20s from near Aleppo who spoke English and he was telling us how awful it was in Syria. Just horrifying. He asked how could they be forced to travel in this way when they were only trying to get away from a terrifying war. In terms of the tragedy he said the fibre glass motor launch (not a yacht in that it has no mast or sails) faced big waves which flooded the boat and it was 2 big waves one after another which turned them over. There was a second smaller boat with them and we couldn’t work out what happened to that except that it sunk. The guy and his friend who were driving the boat were both arrested. They didn’t escape as some have suggested.

    What really shocked us was that the survivors were in the sea for 3 hours before they were rescued. Given how near they were to the land and the fact that the police/army/frontex always seem to be around on this part of Samos (using thermal cameras) looking for refugee boats coming over at night it seems strange that help took so long to arrive. Then there is the matter of the cruise ship which was first on the scene.

    The young Syrian talked of being very cold and some got hypothermia and could recall little of what happened. He on the other hand could remember he said, every minute. The cruise boat – he described it as a big white tourist ship was circling them. It was the first on the scene. He said they were shouting for help and some swam to the ship but there were no ropes or ladders. The cruise boat did not lower any life boats to rescue people. This is shocking. So they were in the water until the ‘police’ boats arrived and pulled them out. He said they watched people die during this time. This at the very least suggests there are some serious questions to be asked of the cruise boat. But we didn’t talk more as they were too upset and angry.

    The group of 5 Somalian men had not lost any of their friends and relatives and were more open to talk. It was they who told us the men in charge were arrested and also said they were not very competent in handling the boat. We wondered in fact whether the drivers of the boat were also refugees who were offered a free ride on the grounds that they could drive a boat. But this is speculation. What is not speculation is that they each paid $ (US) 1,000 to make the journey.

    Nobody said much about the camp or how they were treated. These people are really in shock but we are not sure that they will get much more help now they are out of the camp. None of them wanted to stay in Greece and all said they would be looking to move on as soon as possible.

    Apparently, the survivors were told not to speak to anyone. We suspect that this normal practice in these circumstances.

    We are especially concerned about the well being of the Syrian survivors. We can’t stress too highly that their release from the camp does not mean that they are going to be in a better place. Athens for many refugees can be a cruel place where without adequate resources they are forced to live on the very margins and are highly vulnerable to many forms of exploitation.


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