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Seeking Refuge: On Greek isle of Kos, better life still feels distant for migrants

Hundreds of refugees, mostly from Syria, are stranded in makeshift camps without electricity, toilets, or even running water. The recent surge of people has overwhelmed Greeks, whose economy is already in crisis.

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    Three Pakistani Migrants walk on the beach of the Greek island of Kos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey in a dinghy, on June 2.
    Petros Giannakouris/AP
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This is not what Mahmoud expected to find when he arrived in Europe.

The young Syrian is from Deraa, where the uprising against the regime first began in 2011. But those peaceful protests long ago gave way to war, and Mahmoud fled the violence this year.

Now, on Kos, a Greek island better known for cheap package deals for European vacationers, he sits in a grimy abandoned hotel, without electricity, running water, or toilets, along with hundreds of others. The glow of his mobile phone illuminates the small room he shares with his friends Ahmed and Mo’men.

“We thought we were going to a civilized place.” Mahmoud gestures around him. “Not this.”

The peak season for migration is just beginning, but the Greek islands just off the coast of Turkey are already in crisis. Mahmoud, Ahmed, and Mo'men, who asked to be identified only by their first names, are just three of the tens of thousands of people – many of them refugees – who have arrived on the Greek islands in the first five months of this year. The influx is overwhelming Greece, which is mired in economic crisis and has no funds or capacity to offer food, shelter, and medical care to the flood of arrivals.

Record numbers of migrants and asylum seekers have been arriving on Europe's shores this year, fleeing wars, violence, and poverty in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 103,000 people have arrived by sea so far this year.

The Greek islands alone have received more than 42,000 migrants – six times the number of people who arrived in the same period last year. About 17,640 people arrived on the islands in the month of May alone, according to Greece's Coast Guard, and that surge is likely to last through the peak migration months of June through August. The majority of the people arriving in Greece are from Syria, but many Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Somalis, and other nationalities are among them.

Southern European states like Greece and Italy have urged northern European countries to help deal with the flood, but with limited success so far. A European Commission plan to settle 40,000 asylum seekers throughout the European Union, has met with broad opposition from member states.

Stuck on Kos

In the meantime, migrants continue to flood into Greece.

Here on the island of Kos, Turkey is plainly visible across a 2-1/2-mile channel. Smugglers on the Turkish shore fill boats – usually small rubber dinghies – with dozens of people who pay around $1,000 each for a place, and point them toward the island. Some land on the beaches here, while others are brought to shore by the Coast Guard.

Once they arrive, many are in for a rude awakening. Kos has no reception system where authorities perform medical screenings, identify vulnerable people, and provide shelter and food while registering the arrivals. Even on the islands that do have such a system, they are vastly overcrowded and overwhelmed.

The surge of people in the past two months created such a backlog in registration that some were forced to wait up to three weeks in miserable conditions before being allowed to travel onward to the mainland. To alleviate the crush, last week Greece began allowing Syrians with passports who arrived on the islands of Kos or Lesvos to travel on to Athens without first registering with police.

Most arrivals do not want to stay in Greece, where the financial crisis means there are few jobs and little assistance offered to asylum seekers. Those who have enough money pay 10 to 15 euros a night for a hotel while they wait for their papers. But the many who can't afford a hotel sleep on park benches, on the ground, or at the previously abandoned hotel.

Mohamed Ayoub, from Pakistan, has waited 12 days. “I just wish they would treat us like human beings,” he says, decrying the lack of cleanliness and food at the camp. He says his trips to the police station to inquire about his status were fruitless. “Police take an attitude with us, and nobody gives us an answer. I don't know what to do with myself.”

'The needs are so many'

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) provides medical consultations at the camp and at the police station and distributes blankets, towels, and hygiene kits. The organization is also working to set up showers, toilets, and tents at the camp, as well as to reconnect electricity to the abandoned hotel.

All of these services are filling a gap left by the absence of the Greek government. The situation on the islands “is beyond us," says Tasia Christodoulopoulou, Greece's alternate minister for migration policy. "We're struggling to deal with the situation ... as best we can.”

In the meantime, some Greek citizens are also trying to help. Eirini Tigka is a doctor who works in Kos, and she comes to the abandoned hotel nearly every day with food and clothes she has collected from donations or bought herself. On a recent day she brought several boxes of children's clothes. Police would not let her enter the camp, so a crowd of Afghan mothers holding babies and toddlers gathered around the trunk of her car outside to sift through the clothes to find the right sizes.

Ms. Tigka wants to organize locals to provide more help. "The needs are so many,” she says. 

But she has had difficulty motivating anyone else to action. The economy of this small island depends on tourism, and some locals are worried that the presence of refugees in their town will hurt their livelihood.

But if some don't want them there, the asylum seekers and migrants themselves are eager to leave as soon as possible. “I don't want to stay here. I need to leave this country,” says Tumbula, one of those waiting at the police station. From the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said he had been waiting for his paperwork for two weeks. “We are suffering very much here. Just give us our papers and let us leave.”

[Editor's note: The original subhead overstated the number of refugees without water and electricity on the Greek islands.]

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