CBC in Greece

Tear gas fired as tensions flare on Greek island of Kos over refugee 'hot spot'

Residents of the Greek island of Kos fear that its designation as one of the country's five refugee 'hot spots' will act as a draw for fleeing asylum-seekers, while scaring away tourist dollars.

Under heavy EU pressure, Greece was supposed to have 5 processing centres set up and running by Monday

Anti-hot spot protesters in Pyli marched as close as they could Sunday to an old military camp earmarked to be one of Greece's five migrant-processing centres. They were stopped by riot police who fired tear gas on the crowd. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Things feel all askew on the Greek Island of Kos.

For one thing, the locals are all listening to music from Crete. Far more serious though is the slow-burn current running through the place when it should be all boarded up in contented hibernation for the winter months. 

If you'd been out walking near the village of Pyli this past weekend, you'd have caught a whiff of tear gas in the air mixed in with all the wild thyme that grows in the surrounding hills.

Riot police guarding an old military camp earmarked as one of Greece's five island refugee "hot spots" clashed Sunday with about 1,000 angry islanders demanding access to the building site.

This hotelier named Moses says people on Kos have sympathy for the thousands of migrants who've landed there. But he says the refugee crisis has me​​ant a steep decline in the island's tourism sector, the mainstay of its economy. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

"Greece has 3,500 islands and they could have chosen somewhere else," a man named Moses said at the start of Sunday's march. "Not in Greece's third touristic destination, which is also an important income for the country itself."

Moses moved to Kos from Athens to escape the country's economic woes. He bought a hotel that he says is now chronically underbooked.

Heavy reliance on tourist dollars

Kos makes its living on tourist dollars and the promise of problem-free sandy beaches and fish dinners. Last summer, residents say 1,000 refugees were turning up on those same beaches every day.

Islanders uneasy about being seen as unsympathetic to people fleeing conflict could, fortunately, fall back on the tourism board to confirm pending doom if the registration centre is finished. 

"The travel agencies did inform us that it's going to be a disaster if we are going to have a camp in Kos," said one of the march organizers.

It was a familiar refrain and briefing notes had clearly been passed around. At least three people asked me if France would be expected to put a "hot spot" on the Riviera. 

Adding to the sense of an island upside down is the fact that there's hardly a refugee to be seen these days.

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      A cluster of tents set up near the ancient tree marking the spot where Hippocrates was said to have tutored his students looks almost deserted. The mayor's office says there are currently about 100 asylum-seekers on Kos and most quickly move on to the mainland. 

      The slowdown can't be attributed solely to weather. Further north, the island of Lesbos is still receiving far more. But smugglers' networks tend to shift based on the activities of both the Greek and Turkish navies. 

      More than 70,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Greece since the New Year. And islanders fear that Kos's designation as a hot spot will act as a draw. 

      Missing the EU mark

      Under heavy EU pressure, the Greek government was due to have five processing centres set up and operational by Monday. It missed that target. 

      Here on Kos that's at least due in part to local opposition. Residents have put big boulders on the road to block supply trucks from reaching the campsite and they dug up other access roads with bulldozers.

      The EU push is to have asylum-seekers fingerprinted and processed as soon as they reach Greece — and not just encouraged blindly onto the next destination. 

      Re-location centres on the island would help the EU fufil its pledge to relocate 165,000 people from Greece and Italy to other parts of the EU. Only 500 or so have been moved so far. 

      The deputy mayor in Kos Town, David Gerasklis, admits there's a fair bit of "not in my backyard" on the island on this issue. But he's also convinced Athens' plans will turn the island into one big migrant detention camp, not a streamlined processing centre. 

      "It's going to be a total destruction of the island's economy as a whole," he said during an interview in his office overlooking the port in Kos Town. 

      This is a makeshift refugee camp near the main port on Kos. Only a small number of refugees are currently staying on the island but 2015 saw a record-breaking number of arrivals, as more than 800,000 migrants landed in Greece after crossing the Aegean Sea. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News)

      He and others here are sensitive to claims that the protests that have sometimes verged on violent against the hot spot are connected to the far-right, anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn. But he insists that's not the case. 

      "Kos is a very safe place and also we don't have any kind of connection with far right, with racism and abuse of all these people … we're just trying to make things better for ourselves and also for these people."

      It's certainly not difficult to find the racist contingent if you look for it. A young café owner told me flat out he wouldn't serve migrants, even if they had money.

      'Already enough pressure'

      People's fears over the impact of the refugee crisis on the state of the economy are not to be downplayed. Greece, after all, remains in the midst of an austerity program imposed by the EU and the country's international lenders.

      George Chartofilis runs a refugee charity called Kos Solidarity. He's in favour of the hot spot idea, saying that people's tempers are fraying and that dignified, safe accommodation for the migrants is in everyone's interest.

      The mayor’s office says there are currently about 100 asylum-seekers on Kos and that most move quickly on to the mainland. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

      "We cannot know how this year's summer will develop. There is already enough pressure on the locals. They feel they are being squeezed by the presence of the refugees and migrants. A negative vibe has been established." 

      Perhaps everyone needs to remind themselves of one of Hippocrates' more famed declarations: "Make a habit of two things. To help. Or at least to do no harm."

      It's a good message, too, for European Union leaders, due to review Greece's progress on refugee-registration centres at a summit later this week.

      About the Author

      Margaret Evans

      Europe correspondent

      Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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