Migrants, refugees still flow to Greek islands' shores

Half buried in the fine yellow sand of one of this Greek island's most popular beaches lies one of the few signs of the drama that has played out over the past year: The remains of two torn and deflated dinghies by the water's edge.

Far from the spotlight, local residents, aid groups and government officials have struggled to deal with an unprecedented wave of refugees and migrants reaching the shores of Chios from Turkey, which lies four miles away at its closest point. And with few signs of a let up, authorities are bracing for another potentially brutal year.

Even during the winter, overloaded dinghies continue to arrive in droves on Greece's eastern Aegean islands, halting only when the sea is too rough. The crossing is brief but perilous, and hundreds have died. Six bodies were recovered off the coast of nearby Samos island earlier this month.

Chios, an island of 50,000 residents, saw the second-largest number of arrivals in 2015, behind its northern neighbor Lesbos, where about half of all asylum-seekers landed. Although the islands of the eastern Aegean have been on the migrant-smuggling route for more than a decade, numbers were minimal until recently.

In 2014, about 6,500 people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa reached Chios. Last year, the figure skyrocketed to nearly 120,000, with the flow increasing dramatically in the last few months of the year.

"It was something completely different from the previous years, and the previous years were something completely different to what would be normal," said Chios Mayor Manolis Vournous. "It is something extreme, it is something abnormal. And we mustn't get used to this abnormality."

Vournous doesn't hide his concern over what the coming year will bring.

October, November and December each brought about 20,000 people to the island, accounting for about half of the year's total, he said. "This doesn't allow me to think the flow will lessen in the next few months."

The mayor has welcomed plans for one of the European Union's "hotspots" to be set up on Chios to help in registering and fingerprinting new arrivals. Although such processing already takes place, the hotspots will have more EU involvement in identifying those who can be sent to other EU countries under the bloc's relocation scheme and those deemed economic migrants who will face deportation.

Last year's dramatic surge left authorities scrambling to house, feed and provide basic care for the thousands who had survived the dangerous sea journey and were anxious to move north through the Balkans to more prosperous European countries.

"In the last year the increase was incredible," said Commander Christos Fragias, deputy head of the coast guard on Chios.

"Nobody was prepared to deal with all these people who arrived in 2015," Fragias said. "When you have such large flows, some duties that we have as the coast guard couldn't be carried out because the priority was to deal with the migrants."

Still, Chios has weathered the storm remarkably well.

The island has largely managed to avoid the chaotic scenes of refugee protests and mad crushes outside registration centers that have scarred islands with far fewer new arrivals. On Chios, a system is now in place that aims to process new arrivals as quickly as possible, provide safe and clean temporary shelter and allow them to quickly move on.

This success is primarily due to the close cooperation among local government, police, coast guard, aid groups and volunteers. Weekly or even daily coordination meetings are held to iron out any difficulties before they become full-blown problems.

But getting to this point hasn't been easy.

Joe Cooper, head of the Chios field unit for the U.N. refugee agency, took up his post at the end of October, just as the influx of new arrivals surged.

"That was a kind of nightmare period. It rained as well — slashing rain," Cooper said as several hundred people who had arrived that morning waited to be processed at the registration center, their wet clothes drying by space heaters dotting the cavernous former leather tanning factory.

"It was a mess, but what was clear even then was the political will, just the humanity of the authorities here and the desire to help people."

The municipality opened up stadiums for people to sleep in, while volunteers stepped up to help increase capacity in a tent camp hastily set up in the town's park to accommodate the overflow.

"Everyone really came together," Cooper said.

Local residents have also stepped up to help.

In the nearby village of Karfas, 62-year-old Despina Kalaitzidaki joined her neighbor, Giorgos Myrisis, a 72-year-old retired merchant marine captain, in setting up a volunteer center to hand out dry clothes to those arriving soaked from their sea journey.

"We saw their anxiety. We saw their longing when they arrived. We saw them kneeling and kissing the earth because they managed to arrive alive and didn't drown," said Kalaitzidaki. "They were suffering. They were hugging. All this cannot leave you indifferent."

With winter arriving and the tent camp in the park clearly inadequate, the municipality cast around for a solution. They came up with an ingenious idea — build a camp in the dry moat of Chios town's medieval castle. The space was free, it was in the town center yet tucked away from the bustle of daily life and it allowed easy access to the nearby port for ferries.

The 800-person camp began operating in November, complete with prefabricated houses reserved for the most vulnerable such as unaccompanied children, the disabled, women traveling alone or with young children.

"It's not somewhere that would be acceptable to spend six months or a year living, but for what people use it for, which is to spend a night or two, it's safe, it's clean and it's warm and they can have a shower and volunteers bring food," Cooper said.

Among those staying at the camp one recent night was Issam Boukamer, a 22-year-old amateur boxer from Libya who made it to Chios after he and another 57 people were rescued by the coast guard when the dinghy they were crammed into began taking on water.

Boukamer, who speaks French and taught himself English by watching videos, dreams of reaching Germany, where he said he wants to work and study French literature.

"I want just to live in peace because in my country there are many terrorists and many problems," he said, describing aerial bombardments and attacks by the Islamic State group.

But other countries along the route have closed their doors to the flow. Macedonia, on Greece's northern border, now only allows those from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to cross.

Boukamer is unfazed.

"We must try. There's nothing impossible, you know? We were living a hard life, and this is not hard for me," he said. "I have a goal, I must achieve it. I have a dream."