Greek island bears the brunt of the world’s migrant crisis
SAMOS, Greece - On the slope of a hill on Samos, the Greek island known for its ancient ruins, colorful fishing villages and sweet muscat wine, sits a crammed migrant camp and sprawling tent city that many consider the most overcrowded and desperate refugee camp in Europe.
Giannis Meletiou, a 60-year-old lawyer, lives at the foot of the hill. The other day, he hopped in his Jeep and drove a couple hundred yards up a narrow winding road lined with crowded tents. He waved at children, who lit up when they recognized him because he often prepares them sandwiches.
Then he drove past the migrant camp, topped with barbed wire and spilling out people, and rumbled past trees that migrants had stripped of their branches and chopped to their trunks for firewood.
He reached his family’s old property, in a field with a view of the sea and snowcapped mountains, and stood above a shin-high rectangle of stone. It was all that remained of the home where his parents took refuge during World War II. The migrants had taken the wooden walls, the windows, the doors and the roof. “Everything,” he said with a shrug.
About 6,800 asylum-seekers are jammed into the camp and fighting the elements in the olive groves and pine woods of the hill. Below is a quaint port town that is home to about 6,200 locals like Meletiou.
Together, the locals and asylum-seekers bear the shared brunt of forces beyond their control — Greek government dysfunction, the cold shoulder of the European Union, the chaos in the Middle East and the geopolitical calculations of Turkey.
And many here fear that this verdant tourist destination — famous as the birthplace of goddess Hera and philosopher Epicurus — is a preview of the future if the continent doesn’t get its act together.
Many in town, like Meletiou, are sympathetic to the migrants’ plight, even as more arrived this summer by boat from Turkey. The town’s mayor, Georgios Stantzos, is an avid scuba diver who volunteered to rescue asylum-seekers and recover drowned bodies at the height of the crisis in 2015.
Recently, though, Stantzos was caught on a cellphone video lashing out at migrants loitering around the main square. He apologized, but in an interview, he argued that the video failed to show an angry demonstration of migrants descending on the square during a children’s Christmas celebration shortly before his outburst.
“I react so that the citizens don’t,” he said, adding that he had pleaded with the Greek government for help as the camp erupted in riots that threatened to scare tourists away on an island that can’t live without them.
But he had come to the “common-sense” conclusion that the government was “sacrificing” his island and others, including Lesbos, where police last week fired tear gas on disgruntled migrants marching to town to protest their wretched conditions.
Outside Samos City Hall, by the curving promenade spotted with gyro restaurants, cafes and tourism companies, asylum- seekers walked with their children and fished in the port. Others came here to video chat with their families because they didn’t want them to see their living conditions and get upset.
“I don’t want them to worry,” said Claude Fotso, 31, from Cameroon, who has been living in the olive grove for three months.