First thing this morning, I read an article in the Daily Mail about British tourists on the Greek island Kos who complained about asylum seekers ruining their holidays and turning the island into a “disgusting hellhole.”
I have just returned from Kos, where I met with asylum seekers who crossed by boat from Turkey to Greece. Let me tell you something about hellholes.
I spoke with men, women, and children fleeing war in Syria and pervasive violence and persecution in Afghanistan. Nour, a young Palestinian from Syria, fled for fear of the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS). “They kill people, cut heads, harm us psychologically. Once, I was walking at night and I stepped on something, grabbed it to see what it was, and felt some kind of hair. It was a head. That’s why we left.” Mubarek left northern Afghanistan with his wife and three young sons because of the threat of the Taliban: “Every day the Taliban take people and children for suicide bombings. I was worried about my sons.”
I also heard about the grim conditions on Kos. There is no reception facility, so police take migrants and asylum seekers to an abandoned hotel with makeshift beds, limited running water, and no electricity. Others sleep in tents provided by Doctors without Borders, while still others are left on the streets.
Believe me, migrants and asylum seekers want to leave every bit as much as the intolerant British holidaymakers want to see them go.
On Tuesday, about 1,000 migrants and asylum seekers awaited police processing to get the necessary documents to travel onward to Athens.
Jad, a 24-year-old Syrian, has been living rough on the streets for the last 10 days. “I’m trying to figure out every possible way to leave here. I can’t handle sleeping outside anymore.”
Nour, the Palestinian young man, told me a restaurant owner sprayed pesticide on him and his brother to force them to move away. As I was interviewing a group of Syrians near the police station, a shop owner came and shouted, “Go away, you are bothering the view of my tourists. Go back to your countries.”
There’s a lot Greece needs to do to set up a functioning reception system on its islands in the Aegean. The European Union as a whole should support Greece more to ensure adequate shelter, food, and basic healthcare to those arriving at Europe’s door. Yes, the reality of refugee suffering can dampen holiday fun. But these refugees have fled from one hellhole to another, and tourists should gain some perspective on – and hopefully show compassion for – these people who aren’t on the move seeking rest and relaxation, but rather to find refuge.