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Image: DW/L. Scholtyssyk

Protests against EU refugee hot spot on Kos

Barbara Wesel / cc
February 15, 2016

Greece's prime minister has promised that refugee reception centers on some islands would be ready in time for this week's EU summit. But some residents on Kos are protesting. Barbara Wesel reports.


Before he retired, Dionysos Pikos used to rent out mopeds to tourists on the island of Kos. His T-shirt bears the word "Oxi," Greek for "No," in this case deployed against a "hot spot." Greece's government has pledged to build a registration center for people seeking asylum in the European Union on Kos. Pikos doesn't seem to have the attitude of a right-wing extremist or member of the fervently xenophobic Golden Dawn party; he presents his opposition to the hot spot as merely pragmatic. "Ninety-five percent of our income here is from tourism," he said. "Personally, I don't have anything against the refugees - we've even given them food - but up to now, without a hotspot, there were only ever a few hundred of them on Kos. If we build one now, though, there'll be far more because they'll stay here longer. And what are we supposed to do with these poor people? Where are we supposed to put them? The island is small: We don't have the space."

Pikos is a representative resident of Pyli: not outwardly xenophobic, but also not prepared to accept a hot spot just 10 kilometers from the island's namesake town of Kos.

"We'd like them just to stay a few hours with us, get their papers and then be taken straight on to the mainland," said Antonis Chatzimichalis, a hotel owner. "Kos is one of the most important tourist destinations in Greece. If we have a hot spot here, it'll be a disaster." He's worried that tourists will be put off - that they won't want such a camp in their holiday resort. He also believes that refugees would be held there longer than the government is telling people that they would.

On Friday the European Commission gave Greece three months to correct 60 cited flaws in the way the country has dealt with refugees who transit en route to the European Union's wealthier nations. These include the hot spots for registering refugees, which were agreed on last autumn and which Greece has repeatedly pledged to create, but which have so far failed to materialize. At the moment only one hot spot is halfway functional, on the island of Lesbos. Centers had been planned on five islands, and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras promised that they would all be ready before this week's EU summit. The army has been brought in to help. Construction should now be swift.

Leaders have presented hot spots as key to securing the European Union's external borders. The idea is not only for refugees to be reliably registered and their fingerprints recorded in the EU-wide Eurodac system, but also for so-called economic migrants from countries such as Pakistan, Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa to be separated immediately from the refugees whose asylum claims are deemed to be legitimate - people fleeing war in Syria, for example. For this to happen, though, people would have to be fenced into camps, held against their will, and so far hardly any European government has publicly declared itself amenable to this idea. The residents of Pyli, however, believe that such plans exist and are going ahead without their knowledge.

Solidarity is the name of the small group of local helpers who had distributed food and clothing to refugees on Kos last summer. Since then, the UN's refugee agency has arrived and the provision of aid has been professionalized. Last August and September, about 500 people were arriving every day. At the moment only about 100 do. The sea is rough, and people die almost every week in the straits between the Greek islands and the Turkish mainland. One hundred and thirteen people died in January - the highest monthly total so far.

Yorgos Hartofilis set up Solidarity. He believes that the number of refugees arriving on Kos will increase again in spring. "If the hot spot can take in, say, a thousand people, and they're sent to Athens within a couple of days, we have no problem with that here," he said. However, he added that the EU must decide how to "distribute" the people afterward. Hartofilis doesn't want to believe just yet that the prospect of an EU-wide joint refugee policy has failed. He holds the local mayor primarily responsible for the politically heated atmosphere on the island. The mayor, he said, is claiming that tourism would be badly affected by refugees.

A line of police stopped the protesters in their tracksImage: DW/L. Scholtyssyk

Anti-refugee cacophony

During a recent protest, Deputy Mayor Michalis Chatzikalimnios accompanied demonstrators from Pyli to a roadblock on a hill outside the village. Police armed with batons and shields stopped the crowd short of a former army base that is hurriedly being converted into the island's disputed hot spot. "The people don't trust the government and the way it's dealing with the crisis," Chatzikalimnios said. He believes that the hot spot definitely won't just serve as a registration center but will soon expand into a prison camp for 20,000 people. Why else, he asked, would the government need a 40-hectare (100-acre) piece of land? "All the pressure from the EU is what worries us," Chatzikalimnios said. "Because, if it closes the borders, the refugees will be stuck here until there's somewhere they can be sent back to." Some European countries are pushing for the closure of the border between Greece and Macedonia. That news has already reached the village of Pyli.

"I don't want a hot spot on my island," a man from Pyli yelled into the crowd. "I really don't want it, damn it!" the man added. "All the Pakistanis and Africans - they can send them to the Turks! They're all just illegals who've been smuggled in."

The people around him only fanned his fury. "We want to keep our race pure," the man said, which indicates that he's probably a supporter of Golden Dawn. There are quite a few of those in Pyli, and on this day they were trying to incite the locals to break through the police barriers.

The day's protests would ultimately pass without serious incident. Some demonstrators scuffled with the police, who pushed back and used tear gas on the crowd. But the mood wasn't heated enough for a proper fight. "This government must be removed!" a woman yelled. "But it's our own fault," she added. "We elected them." She also said she wanted Greece to close the border with Turkey immediately and leave the European Union.

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