KOS, Greece — Every now and then, Nikos Grivas walks his German Shepherd along the sea and down to the police station in Kos to give the refugees a good scare.
“Not to bite,” says the tall, tanned, brawny Greek. He would never set the dogs on people waiting for their papers to leave Greece, he promises. “Just to scare.”
And even then, Grivas emphasizes, he’s only ever paraded his dog around migrants, or shoved them, or hit them, or “beat the s— out of” them when it’s absolutely necessary. If they’re blocking traffic, for instance. Or if they’re hurting business, say. Or if the police are asking around for them, maybe. Only in these, the most egregious of circumstances, Grivas says, will he use force or the threat of it.
Grivas is one of a group of 25 to 30 men who regularly stalk around the island’s main police station. There, they either break up fights or pick them, depending on who you ask. If you ask Grivas, the group is made up of “normal locals.” If human rights observers are asked, the men are neo-Nazis. Whatever Grivas is, whatever the group is, some of them — angry, vigilant, and organized — say they’re not only protecting locals; They say they’re also protecting Syrians.
Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 14 of this year, 158,456 people from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa have arrived on Greek shores by sea. They experience the Aegean the same way. They’ll experience the island slightly differently. As global attention finally focuses on the scale and horror of the Syrian refugee crisis, arrivals are frequently divided along national lines by the authorities, by Greek citizens and even by the arrivals themselves. What has emerged is sometimes perceived as a de facto caste system, with “official” Syrian refugees getting limited preferential treatment compared to those who are on the move for as many reasons as there are migrants.
Persecution isn’t limited to a single nationality, and fleeing persecution can be one reason among may to leave, so many new arrivals feel that their needs are being unfairly neglected. It’s causing problems.
Last week, things got ugly down by the police station, as they often do. Amnesty International reported that on Sept. 3 a group of 15 to 25 people used bats to attack people who were waiting for their papers. A server at the restaurant beside the station says that locals shouted, “Respect to refugees! F— the rest!”
Syrians, said the server, are the only refugees on Kos.
That would make Said Afzal, 29, one of the rest. The skinny but sprightly man from Pakistan speaks multiple languages and laughs with his head back, eyes shut and mouth wide. He and Waris Khan, his Pakistani friend, roommate and travel companion, argue about who’s more handsome. But they agree that they want to get off this island, that it’s unfair that they’ve waited for 10 days while some Syrians have come and gone sooner, and that they’re not scared of the mob.
Some locals set firecrackers off near the police station while migrants and refugees wait for their papers. Just to scare. Afzal and Khan don’t mind much.
“Not afraid because these are normal things for us. If you hear the big big bombs [in Pakistan], it was nothing. It was just firecracker. You know children, firecracker and Christmas?” Afzal asks. “So we are enjoying our Christmas here!” Head back, eyes shut, mouth wide.
“We have seen a lot of things,” says Khan, 25. But though the men are moving together, they’re moving for different reasons. Khan’s father died of heart problems, so the family needs money. He dreams of getting it for them by opening a hotel overseas and sending the profits back to Swat, where his family is and where he says the Taliban have destroyed the economy.
But Afzal says he needs to bring his wife to a doctor, in Germany if he ever gets there himself, because she’s paralyzed from the waist down. It’s the one thing he can’t laugh about.
“I pray for her, because I loved her so much, and I love her also now,” he says.
Afzal loves his kids too. His own, but also the ones he taught. The English teacher was scared for them when the Taliban started dropping notes at his door.
“I was teaching to girls. So many times [the Taliban] are warning us, ‘You are man, you should teach to men, do not teach to girls,’” Afzal says. “But I still taught them!”
Afzal says he’s from Khyber Agency, a Federally Registered Tribal Area where the school enrolment rate for girls was reportedly 16.3 per cent in 2014.
“In the front of your home [Taliban supporters] are putting papers. Two times, they give me papers. They said, ‘Do not teach them. If you teaching them, you will be responsible for yourself.’”
Afzal isn’t teaching anyone anymore. After sharing a room in Istanbul for a year, he says, he and Khan now share a fetid twin mattress in the back of an abandoned hotel at the end of town. The Captain Elias Hotel was built for about 100 guests; it now houses hundreds more from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and sub-Saharan Africa. Men lie around what used to be the hotel bar. Women stoke fires in what used to be the hotel garden. Garbage fills what used to be the hotel pool. And Afzal and Kahn reside in what used to be a hotel kitchenette.
Of course, Syrians sleep poorly in their little blue tents on Kos, too: under a bridge, along the water, in parks. They’re attacked, too. They’re neglected, too. Some are sworn at on sidewalks. Others are shooed out of restaurant bathrooms. And when those with money try to book a room, they’re occasionally told the inn is full.
But Syrians, recognized as refugees by the European Union as they’re all affected by war, do have some priority treatment in Greece. On August 15th, when Greece provided a chartered cruise liner to take Syrians from Kos to Athens, the Kos pier was tense. As the ship boarded Syrian refugees — and only Syrian refugees — Iraqis sat outside chanting, “Enough! Enough! Enough!”
Across the island that week, small groups of Afghans and Pakistanis protested the preferential processing of Syrian refugees, skirmishing with police and with one other in the dust and heat outside of the police station.
On Aug. 18, the day the ship departed carrying thousands of Syrians off to the Greek mainland, a member of the Hellenic coast guard, who was not authorized to speak with the media, said the boat created more problems than it solved.
“The other [non-Syrian] guys are saying, ‘What about us? We are sleeping in the street, and blah blah blah,’” said the coast guard member. He says that many migrants and refugees tried to push their way onto the boat too when they weren’t allowed on.
The national divisions among migrants isn’t just a problem on Kos, though. It is becoming an issue throughout Europe and North America.
“Any sort of priority should only be based on need, not on nationality,” cautions Furio De Angelis, UNHCR representative in Canada.
Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, is concerned that the global need won’t be met. He says that safe countries have a responsibility to offer protection to Syrian refugees in addition to other refugees, not at the expense of them. He notes that while huge numbers of refugees have fled Syria recently, many are also increasingly fleeing sub-Saharan Africa. And he and refugee advocates fear that Canada’s announcements of resettling 10,000 more Syrian refugees actually means resettling 10,000 fewer refugees from other dangerous areas.
“Syrian refugees should not be played off against other refugees,” Neve says.
Over in the Aegean, the Greek coast guard member acknowledges that Syrian people need his help. But he doesn’t want to extend that help to Afghans, Iraqis, or other groups that the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees identifies as vulnerable.
“I want to keep the guys that are running from the war, Syrian guys, and tell the others to go home. Back to Islamabad, back to Baghdad, back to wherever they come from,” he says.
But men like Afzal and Khan don’t want to go back to where they came from: some for fear of persecution, some for fear of poverty, and many for a complex mixture of political fears and economic needs that act as push and pull factors, propelling them away from one dangerous, impoverished place and toward a safer, more affluent one. These men go back to the police station, each day, hoping to get the papers that will let them move on to the next place that doesn’t want them.
“I think I will never be back,” says Afzal of Pakistan, checking the list for his name again.
Meanwhile, Nikos Grivas will keep coming by the station too, urging the police to use German Shepherds, not batons, when confronted with restless refugees. Dogs do a better job weeding out the others from the Syrians, he imagines: bad migrants are afraid of dogs.
“They’re worse than animals, some of them.”
But in a couple weeks Grivas will return to the Netherlands, where the Greek man says he’s lived for the past decade, raising police canines. Grivas would love to stay on his home island, but this immigrant has dogs to train.