Migrants locked in stadium on Kos for nearly 24 hours
Up to 2,500 refugees in Kos were locked in a stadium for nearly 24 hours, after riot police struggled to contain crowds of recent migrant arrivals rounded up from makeshift camps around the Greek island.
On Wednesday afternoon, after being locked inside for about 18 hours, the mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees were fainting at a rate of four each hour, aid workers said.
About 1,000 of the refugees were trapped inside a playground within the stadium complex, with no access to water or shade. A further 1,500 were housed in a separate section of the stadium, with some protection from the sun.
Constance Theisen, a team leader for Médecins sans Frontières, which was providing medical care at the stadium, told the Guardian: “We have unconscious people coming out of the playground area, being carried by their friends and family, every 15 minutes. It is absolutely out of control. Nobody understands the sense behind it, or if there is any [sense] at all.”
One of the migrants suffered an epileptic seizure, the aid group said.
The migrants were originally locked inside on Tuesday night ostensibly to be registered. But, according to MSF, just three police officers were there to carry out the registration, slowing the process down and exacerbating tensions.
At one point the police used a sonic explosion to maintain order, and the MSF team withdrew for safety reasons. “It was becoming a bit uncontrollable, the situation, and there was a complete lack of coordination. It was just the police there, no UNHCR [the UN’s refugee agency], and no security for [our] team,” said Julia Kourafa, a spokeswoman for MSF at the stadium.
MSF returned early the next morning to provide medical assistance, but the refugees remained locked inside. Little, if any, food or water had been supplied by the Greek authorities and refugees continued to faint.
Kourafa said: “This is the first time we’ve seen this in – people locked in a stadium and controlled by riot police. We’re talking about mothers with children and elderly people. They’ve been locked in there after many hours in the sun.”
After roughly 20 hours, officials finally delivered six portable toilets and opened up a room out of the sunlight for families.
By Wednesday evening the number locked up in the playground had dwindled to between 500 and 600. It was emptied overnight.
Tensions were also rising fast on several other eastern Greek islands, where more than 120,000 refugees have arrived since the start of the year – up from about 30,000 during the whole of 2014.
Having made the to the EU, the refugees have been frustrated to find themselves essentially trapped on the Greek islands. Authorities are attempting to register them all before they are taken to Athens and tacitly allowed to move onwards through Europe.
But due to the unprecedented scale of the crisis, Greek police have been unable to process them fast enough, leading to bottlenecks on islands such as Kos.
At times, the authorities have been unable to supply enough food and do not have enough space to house so many migrants, with more than 1,000 new arrivals landing from Turkey every morning. The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, said last week that the country, already battling an economic crisis, lacks the infrastructure to also deal with a migration crisis.
Despite the situation on the islands, many of the 1.6 million Syrian refugees currently in limbo in Turkey are still planning to make the journey to Greece. Mousa, a former English literature student planning to reach Kos by the end of the month, said he was undeterred, despite watching a video of the scene at the stadium. He said he intended to buy a fake EU passport on arrival in Kos rather than register as a refugee with the Greek government.
Mousa said: “I’d still go because, the way I’ve planned it, I’m getting to Kos and then going straight to the airport and off to [another EU destination]. I’m not going to deal with authorities in Greece.”
Much of the humanitarian effort to help the refugees, who are mostly fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan, has been and NGOs. The lack of resources and the slow pace of registration has led to protests and sporadic clashes with police.
Before the migrants were locked overnight in the stadium, Kos police to force back a group who were protesting. Earlier in the summer, the Greek army was forced to keep order and provide extra supplies at a migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, where the civilian authorities had run out of food to feed the residents.
The reported that a dozen extra immigration officers, including Arab speakers, were sent to Kos this week to help speed up the identification and registration of 7,000 mostly Syrian migrants now thought to be on the island.
Two units of riot police have also been flown to the island, national police chief Dimitris Tsaknakis told the paper, while a further 250 regular officers were on their way to Kos and the other eastern Aegean islands of Lesbos and Samos.
The Greek islands are now the main point of entry for migrants seeking to reach by boat. The number arriving there has outstripped the equivalent rate in Italy, which was traditionally the principal gateway for maritime migrants. The arrival rate is still at record levels in Italy, but it has welcomed about 20,000 fewer asylum seekers than Greece so far in 2015.
There are also fears of bottlenecks at the other end of Greece, at its northern border with Macedonia. , blocking the exit route for thousands of refugees hoping to reach northern Europe, and raising the spectre of a more permanent border closure in the future.
MSF’s director of operations, Brice de le Vingne, said: “MSF is very worried about how the situation is evolving in Kos. What was previously a situation of state inaction is now one of state abuse, with police using increasing heavy-handed force against these vulnerable people.
“The great majority of people arriving here are refugees fleeing war in and Afghanistan. The Kos authorities have clearly stated that they have no intention of improving the situation for these people as they believe that this would constitute a ‘pull factor’. But the truth is that people fleeing war will keep on coming whether or not the authorities are trying to stop them from doing so.”
At the time of writing, Kos’s mayor, Giorgos Kyritsis, had not returned requests for comment by telephone.