Watching Them Die In the Aegean Sea: When Will It End?

Refuggees seeking a home in Europe

Editor’s note: This an opinion piece written by two Samos Island residents, as they saw the latest refugee tragedy in the Aegean unfold right in front of them. On May 5th, refugees trying to illegally enter Greece by reaching the island of Samos, saw their boats capsize. 22 of them were found dead, 10 are missing and 36 were rescued by Greek authorities. The refugees were mainly from Eritrea and Syria.

*By Sofiane Ait Chalalet & Chris Jones – On Samos island we are watching another tragedy unfold before our eyes this morning (May 5th 2014). From our working place we are looking over a calm sea where at this very moment refugees are fighting for their lives. The details are confusing at the moment but what is clear is that 2 small boats full of refugees have sunk about 1-2kms from the shore. A cruise ship coming out of Kusadassi (Turkey) has now moved on but for the past 2 hours it has been circling the spot where the boats were lost. It is not clear whether this ship was involved directly in the incident. We have as yet no idea how many refugees were in the boats but we can assume there are deaths and people missing as a lone helicopter is still as we write, scouring the sea. Given the tranquillity of the sea and the lack of wind it is hard to believe that the weather has played a role in this latest tragedy.

It is highly probable that many of those in the boats will be refugees fleeing Syria. Over 3,000 refugees came to Samos last year and the majority are from Syria. They, like our friend Wasim, whose family died on Samos last summer, are looking for safety and the chance to build a new life free from terror. Yet as today, too many refugees find that last step into Europe to be both dangerous and expensive. The hundreds of un-named graves on the islands of Samos, Lesbos and Chios are just one testament to the dangers. There are many more bodies which never make it to the shore.

That such highly vulnerable people seeking refuge and safety are compelled to travel in small boats at high cost is entirely due to the inhumanity of the EU policies and practices with respect to migration in general and refugees in particular. In these matters Greece patrols its borders and deals with the refugees in accordance with EU directives and sentiments. The expectations are clear and simple. Keep the borders strong. Keep the refugees out. Give no welcome. Treat those who get through as criminals so to dissuade others from coming. Do nothing, absolutely nothing that encourages refugees to think they can expect help when they arrive in Europe. This is precisely mirrored in the funding. The EU Commission allocated €227,576,503 for Greece to keep refugees and migrants out from 2011 until the end of 2013; but only €19,950,000 to assist their reception during the same period.

For those of us who are European, all this is being done in our name. Is this what we want? Are we really so cruel? These are nothing less than crimes against humanity. WHY do we allow this to happen?

Today we stood with our neighbours looking over this latest tragedy. They were crying. They know what they are seeing should never be allowed to happen.

We also know that over the years the Greek state and some of its key agencies have taken to their border control work with relish. We had the sobering experience of having a taxi driver in Athens who had no shame in telling us that the happiest days of his life was his time as an army conscript on the borders with Albania where as a sniper in the special forces he could shoot Albanians trying to get into Greece.

The fact that most of the refugees coming into Greece are muslim and often black draws on deeply sedimented prejudices which fuels the violence of the state and its agents. None of the statements above can be disputed. For the past 10 years endless reports from Amnesty, Medecin Sans Frontiers, Human Rights Watch, UNCHR, parliamentarians from across Europe, and countless other groups and NGOs have been documenting the abusive violence of the Greek state and its officers. The weight of the evidence is overwhelming. It is beyond dispute. BUT NOTHING CHANGES.

The silence of the powerful across Europe to these ongoing crimes is more than passive complicity. It is nothing less than a green light. We won’t stop you from doing what is necessary to keep them out.

So we can expect nothing from those quarters UNLESS the people in massive numbers begin to say ‘enough’; no more. If we say nothing, if we do nothing, we too are complicit in these crimes.

In the meantime the beaches of beautiful Greek islands, such as Samos, Lesbos, Chios and others are being stained with blood. And just behind the beaches these islands have built and run detention camps for those who make it. These are places of agony and there is an almost total absence of humanity. Perhaps the Greek state will shift its policy when it realizes that just as people don’t wish to spend their holidays in Belsen, they will have the same revulsion about coming to Greece and its islands. But don’t hold your breath.

*You can follow Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones at, where they often blog about Samos island and Greece.