After the drowning of two children in the Aegean between Turkey and Kos, European commissioners have visited the Greek island. Conditions for refugees must urgently be improved, they said. Bernd Riegert reports from Kos.
The sun is high in the sky above Kos, the Greek holiday island only 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away from the coast near Bodrum, Turkey. The refugees are thirsty in temperatures reaching 35 degrees Celsius in the shade. They have been waiting in front of the police station at the harbor for hours.
Members of the private organization Boat Refugee Foundation from the Netherlands distribute small bottles of water. Large clusters of people immediately form around the helpers. People are jostling and pushing but one of the aid workers manages to ease the situation by uttering a few dynamic phrases.
There is never enough for everybody. Refugees depend on donations to cover the bare necessities. There are no toilets or places to wash - only two sawed-off water pipes that have been unearthed from somewhere in the ground.
"Conditions are inhuman," said Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner for migration and home affairs, during his brief visit to Kos. The delegation from Brussels - Avramopoulos and Frans Timmermans, vice president of the EU Commission - have come to spend half a day on the island to see the face of the refugee crisis up close.
There is enough money
The commissioners appealed to the conscience of the mayor, Giorgos Kyritsis, who until now has refused to set up a refugee reception center.
He fears that the refugees will scare tourists away from the picturesque island. But now he's thinking that maybe an old military base can be expanded and used as a refugee camp. Enough money is available: The EU has a budget of 450 million euros ($501 million) in refugee aid funds for Greece alone.
On the evening before the visit from Brussels, neo-Nazis from Greece's Golden Dawn party attacked refugees in front of the police station and beat them up. "There are tensions and minor incidents," said Avramopoulos.
Hazin Mahmoud, a Syrian IT engineer, complains that he's been waiting for seven days for his registration papers and to get his fingerprints taken by the police. "It is totally chaotic and disorganized. Also, the police beat us and use tear gas," he claimed.
The European Union is providing assistance to the authorities on Kos and wants to speed up procedures so refugees can be taken from Kos to the port of Piraeus as quickly as possible.
Right next to the coastal road, refugee children in a makeshift camp play with stray dogs. Curious tourists take some snapshots. The children go swimming in the sea. It's the only way to keep clean and cool.
"The problem, however, is that adults and children use the sea as a giant toilet," explained Hannah Pool, a German student who is volunteering as a Farsi translator during her holidays.
The women have told her that the situation in the camp is untenable and hazardous to health, especially for the small children. "Even after weeks of crisis, local legislators have not done anything. Quite the contrary, they have even closed the few available public toilets."
Moment of truth
"We will not leave Kos alone with the problem," said Commission Vice President Timmermans. He is deeply concerned about the European Union's asylum system, he told DW. "The system hasn't failed yet but it doesn't work properly, either. We are facing a historic moment of truth in Europe," he said.
Syrian refugee Hazin Mahmoud knows he will put up with the camp in Kos. There is no way back to the war zone. "I want to go to Germany because I can work there," he said, proudly showing his staff ID for Damascus University. Mahmoud knows that Kos is only the beginning of a dangerous journey that will take him through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and eventually Germany, where he wants to submit an application for asylum. "Right now, I am homeless, but that will change," he said.
The EU Commission's staff members get on their scheduled flight and will be in Brussels again soon. Mahmoud will take weeks and spend thousands of euros on smugglers to make a similar journey: the EU delegation will only need three hours to get to Brussels. "It is actually a strange feeling," says one of the Commission's delegates.