Kos, Greece: ‘There are no bombs here, but we are dying every minute’
Kos is a small Greek island just off the coast of Turkey, its shores easily visible from the tranquil tourist beachfronts. When we explained to the islanders that we were visiting to interview refugees, they quickly opened up about their own experiences and interactions. They described the summer of 2015, when they said sometimes hundreds of people arrived each day, traumatised, disoriented and tearfully grateful to have made it to Europe. It was surreal to picture such desperate arrivals in such an idyllic setting, and easy to imagine that such an influx must have felt shocking and overwhelming for Kos’s population of just 30,000 people.
The island’s only refugee camp is in Pili, a small town inland, far from anywhere that might deter tourists, but also far from basic services for the camp’s occupants. We were not granted access, but our interviews with Yemeni refugees living there quickly established that conditions were dire in the camp.
'Yemenis have lost their lives, their property, their dignity and their souls'
Unlike many of the people we interviewed in Berlin, those we spoke to on Kos had all left Yemen very recently, panicked by the chaotic fog of war. And in contrast to the 252,000 new internal displacements in Yemen that IDMC recorded in 2018, these asylum seekers had been forced to, or had to the resources to, escape abroad. Many had fled direct threats to their lives, others for fear of forced recruitment. Some were less clear about their precise reasons for leaving, but said: “Yemenis have lost their lives, their property, their dignity and their souls.”
Ahmed, a father of four, had worked in one of the barely functioning hospitals in Sana’a where he helped to provide life-saving first aid to a wounded government official. The Houthis were quick to find out, and when they did he had to flee so quickly that he left two of his children behind with their grandparents. “I could never in my life imagine …” he murmured before trailing off into silence.
Aisha was nursing her four-week-old baby girl when we met her. She had fled neither the war, nor the cholera epidemic, the famine or Yemen’s crippled economy. Rather she had fallen in love and become pregnant, and her father had set out to kill her and her partner for their transgression. In the early days of her pregnancy, and alone save the smugglers her partner had paid for, she made her way through Houthi checkpoints, across the border into to Saudi Arabia and then on through Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
It took her more than a month to make her way across Turkey by bus and on foot, and when she reached the Mediterranean coast she took the final leap of faith – the sea crossing to Europe. She clutched her belly as she recounted her terror when the boat broke down midway. They were stranded for six hours until the coastguard found them and brought them to Kos.
Now she lives in a tiny two-room apartment, which she shares with two other nursing single mothers from the Horn of Africa. Her main preoccupation, apart from her baby’s health, is the whereabouts of her partner, whom she had not been able to reach since she left Yemen. “I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, and he doesn’t know if the baby is a boy or girl,” she managed to say before breaking down in tears and ending the interview.
'There is no humanity in this camp'
At a cafe next to Pili camp, we spoke to dozens of people with the same message. Life in the camp was unbearable. Designed as a transit centre with a maximum capacity of 700 people, it was housing more than three times that figure with more arrivals on the way. The container units with two bedrooms and a shared bathroom were in high demand, and many of those we spoke to had not been given a place when they arrived. Instead they had to forage in the nearby forest for wood and bits of blanket and other materials to build tents.
These makeshift shelters house whole families, many of them with small children. Some are near streams of open sewage, overwhelmed by the stench, unbearable heat and mosquitos. When asked about his health, one young man retorted: “I don’t have any issues now, but I soon will have from living like this.” Violent skirmishes regularly break out among the camp’s stressed inhabitants, leaving mothers with children in particular feeling uneasy and unsafe.
Some of those with health issues had been unable to get the assistance and support they needed. An Iraqi man had died the day before we arrived, some reported, waiting for an ambulance that never came. Ahmed, the father who left two of his children with their grandparents in Yemen, had stolen away from the camp to tell us about his two-year-old son, who had needed heart surgery in Istanbul en route from Yemen. Now sleeping on a mat in the dirt and heat, the toddler was in need of follow-up care in Athens, a trip for which Ahmed was still waiting travel permission.
Another woman told us that her main concern, like many others, was the rotten and inedible food they received. “I kept my three boys alive in Yemen, a country in famine,” she said. “Now they are starving in Greece.” Her boys sat next to us nibbling snacks, visibly undernourished.
Mahmoud came to speak with us on behalf of his heavily pregnant wife, whom he said had received the wrong medication and had been vomiting blood. He showed us footage he had taken of open sewage and piles of rubbish in the camp. “How can a pregnant woman live like this without getting sick?” he asked. “They are making a new cholera epidemic. Is this really Europe?”
Some of the people we spoke to felt the conditions in the camp were so bad that they were contemplating escape; Mahmoud’s pregnant wife had even threatened the unimaginable of going back to Yemen, reasoning that “in Yemen at least we had a place to live. There are no bombs here, but we are dying every minute.”
The way Europe treats the refugees and migrants seeking safety on its shores will of course affect the decisions they and others take. For some it may mean a premature return to the conflict they fled, likely back to a situation of internal displacement, as has been seen in other cases. Others may be deterred from leaving a life-threatening situation in the first place. Unfortunately, these may be politically desirable outcomes in many quarters, but at what moral cost?
With a defeated shrug, Mahmoud said: “All I want is the basics for my family. Safety, health and education. I know there is humanity somewhere in Europe, but there is no humanity in this camp.”
This blog series is part of a broader project researching the relationship between internal displacement and cross-border movements along the displacement continuum, based on research with the Migration Governance and Asylum Crises (MAGYC) consortium and IDMC’s Invisible Majority thematic series. In case you missed it, read part one from Berlin here. Coming soon will be stories from Djibouti and a thematic discussion of internal displacement issues in Yemen.