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'Kos desperately needs a refugee camp'

Publisher: Deutsche Welle
Story date: 20/09/2015
Language: English

Tragedy has struck again in the Aegean Sea, with dozens more dying this weekend in the attempt to reach Greek islands. But for those who reach the islands, the adversity – and the journey – certainly doesn't end there.

Sunday's feared accidents in the Aegean Sea come after a week in which dozens more people drowned trying to reach Greek islands from Turkey. Valerie Stahl von Stromberg is a German photographer, who, for months, has been helping refugees on Kos.

DW: What do the refugees do when they arrive in Kos?

Valerie Stahl von Stromberg: Usually the procedure of arrival happens quite quickly. People get off the boat, gather their things, and the refugees start making their way walking around the coast – not really knowing what they're doing or what's going to come next.

Around four out of every 10 refugees have just enough money to stay in cheap hotels that cost around 16 euros per night. But all the others that don't have the financial capabilities end up camping on the streets – on cardboard boxes, under trees, anywhere where they can sleep.

Do they have food?

Neither the government, nor any international aid organization is handing out food. This means that the local government does not want to give out food, and the international agencies and organizations – such as the UNHCR – aren't allowed to give out food. And they're not even allowed to set up a camp here.

How have the people living on Kos reacted to the surge in migrant arrivals?

It's pretty much 50-50 at the moment, and the attitudes are heavily influenced by the mayor's reaction to the refugees. The people who follow the mayor haven't been informed about the benefits of showing solidarity to the refugees. The mayor has taken a stance against the people who are arriving on the island. He's not letting them stay – he's not building them a camp – he's not giving them food – he's not giving them anything. The only thing he's done was to connect four toilets that are placed in the city, but those toilets have already been disconnected.

And the people who live here on the mayor's side are very confused with regard to how to react to the refugees. They feel that they should be very reluctant when it comes to giving anything to them, especially the migrants who are not from Syria.

How many refugees are on the island right now?

This week there were around 2,000 refugees on the island.

We understand that you are trying to help them get by. Can you tell us more about that?

We started everything in May, giving out clothes and diapers and baby food and pita bread and tomatoes, and we increased the amount every week. Back then there were 6,000 refugees. Until now, no other organization apart from ours is giving out warm meals.

It is very important to figure out what these people really need. The island gets bombarded with clothes that they simply don't need. There are hundreds of kilos of clothes that have been given, and they end up in the garbage.

What these people really need right now is jackets, shoes and warm food. You have to focus on what is actually needed, and it's only possible to work as an aid organization if you are there.

Do the refugees want to stay on the island?

Nobody wants to stay here. Nobody. They need 54 euros to buy a ticket to Athens. And right now there are about 600 people stuck on the island.

How do they survive?

From our food – and from the food that other local aid groups provide for them.

How many people have you helped so far?

Well, right now we give warm meals to about 1,000 people every day. And we have special cases where we see that they've been here for many days and aren't able to get a boat ticket to Athens. We also talk with them and try to provide psychological help.

Where are you getting the money for this?

From donations – primarily from Europe. We have a Facebook account and we also have a website with a paypal link.

For me, it's a mystery why nobody is more politically involved on a European basis in Kos. But it seems like the local bureaucracy doesn't allow it.

What do you mean by that?

It seems like the local political level has more power than the EU political level. The mayor simply is not allowing the UNHCR to build a refugee camp.

Have you been able to talk to the mayor?

Yes.

What did he say?

He asked me if I would like a mango juice.

A mango juice?

Well, we spoke, but he evaded all of our questions.

Valerie, what do you think is going to happen to all the people stuck on Kos right now?

It seems like now as the registration procedures have been sped up, with more support arriving from Athens in the form of registration police, it seems like more people are leaving the island than there are people arriving. But we spoke to the Coast Guard this week, and they said that religious festivities in Turkey have put the traffic on hold. There will be more people coming.

With the cold soon to set in, the problems will become much bigger. Realistically, there needs to be a camp set up here. Because there will always be around 400 people on the island – in the future.

Valerie Stahl von Stromberg is a German photographer who has been on the island of Kos for the past five months providing assistance to refugees. Her NGO can be reached at: kosrefugeesneedyourhelp.com.
 

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