An idyllic Greek island becomes the new frontier for African migrants
Hazardous journeys end in small but perilous voyage from Turkey to Samos
Helena Smith in Samos
Monday December 3, 2007
For two days they huddled together in a bobbing dinghy, keeping close to the shore and waiting for the storm to die down. When the waters had calmed, Ali the Tunisian smuggler began to row, taking the overladen boat out into the night across the narrow straits towards Greece.
For Medhani Zegebria, who had walked from Eritrea to Sudan, flown on an illicit student visa to Turkey and been beaten and detained, this was the moment that all 12 Africans had dreamt of – the last lap on a very long journey to the Promised Land.
“I thought Europe, freedom, better life,” said the broad-shouldered soldier, remembering how the lights of the Turkish coast gradually receded and the salt air stung his lips. “We had all been in the boat for so long, the sea had been so rough; we were scared.”
Zegebria and his fellow Eritreans were lucky. In the dawn mist, after hours of rowing, the remote Greek island of Samos appeared. Evading Greek navy patrols, the exhausted group slipped into a cove. Within hours, the 26-year-old was ambling through Samos town, bereft of identification but intent on acquiring his first European document by surrendering himself to the police as another economic migrant.
“When we arrived at the beach we ran off in different directions,” he said. “We had paid Ali $1,000 each. The dinghy was in a very bad way. It had lots of little holes and none of us knew how to swim. But those of us who didn't have oars used our hands and we prayed to God that Greece would come.”
As improved policing has seen the number of illegal boat migrants decrease in the western Mediterranean, here at the eastern edge of Europe, Greek authorities have found themselves confronting a soaring flow of humanity with an estimated 50,000-plus illegal immigrants sneaking into the country every year.
Clearly overwhelmed, officials have begun to speak of a “war”, detaining migrants in overcrowded, makeshift reception centres before dispatching them with deportation notices to Athens. From there, they invariably head west, to the port of Patras and on to the rest of Europe. “While the number has been halved in countries such as Spain and Italy it has tripled in the eastern Aegean,” said Martin Baldwin-Edwards at Panteion University's Mediterranean migration observatory.
“Turkey and Greece are now without doubt among the primary transit routes for illegal migration to the European Union.”
Increasingly, it is the two-mile wide, wind-whipped stretch of sea between Samos and the Turkish coast that has become the focus of people smuggling operations. Despite fierce storms as many as 60 tiny vessels make the journey nightly, according to locals.
Few know this better than Angela Hatzimichali, who is among a growing band of concerned citizens to have set up support groups for the refugees on Samos, Chios and Mytilini – the three Aegean frontline islands. “It started as a trickle of mostly adult men,” said the activist, whose group is based in Samos. “Now, it is a non-stop stream of people. For the first time, I am seeing pregnant women and hundreds of unaccompanied children risking their lives in vessels that are just not seaworthy.”
On beaches and in deserted coves, the hulks of broken boats stand as testimony to these odysseys of hope, indicating where the lucky ones came ashore. But local cemeteries are filling up too. Drownings are on the rise, often, say human rights groups, as a result of heavy-handed coastguard patrols chasing exhausted and terrified migrants out of Greek territorial waters.
Last month, the German-based refugee rights group Pro Asyl accused the Greek coastguard of “systematically” endangering migrants' lives by going so far as to puncture rubber dinghies to keep them at bay. Recently, there has been a surge of burials of unidentified immigrants, whose bloated bodies are found washed up on the shores.
“We try to give them dignified funerals but frequently it is nameless plaques, not headstones they are buried under,” sighed Samos deputy prefect Nikos Zacharis. “A Somali family came from England to collect the bones of one young man but if that doesn't happen, and they remain a number, they do end up being destroyed.”
In northern Greece, on the River Evros bordering Turkey, deaths have also proliferated amid reports of emigres straying into minefields – sometimes encouraged by smugglers who supply them with wire cutters, saying Europe is on the other side of the fence.
But neither the inherent perils of such journeys, nor grim tales of Greek xenophobia at journey's end, have served to put illegal migrants off.
Across from Samos, up past the resorts along the Turkish coast in Izmir, hundreds of Europe-bound men, women and children pour in daily from Istanbul, a focal point for illegal migration from the Middle East.
It is here that Medhani Zegebria, the Eritrean, headed to secure a passage across the straits. And it is here among the malodorous cobbled streets and five-dollar hotels of the city's Bamane district that Hiwot Tadessa and her six-week-old daughter, Gizma, have also joined the flow.
“I honestly thought I was in Italy when I arrived because that's what I was told by the seamen who brought me from Libya,” said the Ethiopian. “I paid them $1,500 for that boat ride. I never wanted to give birth in Izmir. I never wanted to come to Turkey,” she continued as other African migrants, who had suffered the same fate, nodded in agreement. “They say the sea journey to Greece is dangerous and that there are lots of patrols, but I will try to go. My relatives in England are waiting for me and in Greece I hear you can go with trucks to Europe.”
The influx has, it seems, taken Turkey by surprise but as in Greece not everybody turns their back on human suffering and cheerful volunteers distribute pots of food and loaves of bread.
But the burgeoning flow and Turkey's failure to staunch it has also renewed bilateral tensions. In recent weeks, Athens has accused Ankara of dodging its international obligation to repatriate migrants who set out from its shores.
Speaking to the Guardian, the Greek foreign minister, Dora Bakoyiannis, said: “Turkey has to do much more so that these people are protected because they are playing with their lives. Clearly they are willing to take any route to get into [the EU], and at the end of the day, these are Europe's borders that Greece is guarding.”