Refugees, Kos and Greek Tourism
As my colleague was suggesting the British PM and his opposition counterpart should take a holiday to Greece to witness the solidarity and compassion of the Greek people towards refugees, I was boarding a flight with the rest of my family to the Greek island of Kos. Spending a week on holiday in the small coastal resort of Marmari, you could be forgiven for not noticing that, a) Greece was in the midst of a financial crisis and b) the island has been host to more than 7000 refugees this year (UNHCR.org). However, a short twenty minute bus ride to Kos town reveals the true extent of both issues and the juxtaposition of the two extremes facing Greek people.
Having booked the family holiday a year in advance, family members turned to me in the weeks leading up to our much anticipated trip to dispel the rumours which the British tabloid machine was churning out on a daily basis. As someone who seeks to interrogate humanitarian issues, my questions were more focused on how the Kos islanders were coping with their country’s financial woes whilst managing the humanitarian situation of desperate refugees seeking relief from conflict.
After our visit to Kos town, which receives the majority of the refugees to the island and also houses a large number of tourists, I can make two main observations. First, what struck me most was the positivity of the Greek people. Tourism is obviously key to the country’s development, in or out of the EU. Whether at a cafe, bus stop, shop or tourist attraction, the hosts were friendly, helpful and enthusiastic and this did not just extend to the British tourists but Scandinavian, Belgium and German alike. This surprised me; I had feared there would be animosity to German tourists due to the portrayal of their role in the recent financial negotiations in the Greek press, but no, this was not the case.
In response to the hundreds of migrants camped out in the former moat of the medieval fortress, the Greeks displayed no less favourable behaviour to the mostly Syrian refugees. I observed one Greek street seller purposefully remove a No Camping sign from an area where some refugees had decided to settle and, although it was obvious to the observer who were the refugees, the local cafes and shops did not differentiate between the tourists sitting outside or the refugees huddled next to their establishments. The ticket seller at the fortress explained to me that the refugees had only been there a couple of days and that they were fine. I suspect she meant she felt fine towards them rather than their situation was fine. Their situation was far less from fine, having just the clothes on their back, very little in the way of food and, as far as I could see, no sanitary provisions.
This brought me to my second observation in Kos town. In the little port less than 100 metres away from the refugees makeshift camps were docked a good number of super yachts. The inhabitants were sitting on deck eating their lunch with a direct view of the Syrian refugees. The stark contradictions were evident; the local economy needed the extraordinarily rich (and normal) tourists to keep businesses running, yet their wealth emphasised the complete destitution of the refugees who had to rely on others for relief. The decision to flee from conflict cannot have been an easy one, especially as recent reports show that some have come from professional backgrounds in their country of origin. It must be hard to watch the yacht holiday makers enjoy the sun whilst you have to sleep in a second hand tent in an unbearable 41 degrees Celsius without running water nearby.
In spite of the huge financial burden facing ordinary Greek people, my recent holiday has demonstrated the solidarity and compassion existing on this island. However, I have also questioned the social injustices of the broader global political economy. As tourists, celebrating a family event, where was our contribution to Kos crises? Were we helping by contributing to the tourist industry or were we perpetuating a problem of global inequality, diverting much needed resources from the refugees for our personal enjoyment? While there are many complex questions that demand further interrogation, what I can say at this time is that the Greek islanders demonstrated humanity and strength which should be an example to us all.
 In total, Greece has received 124,000 refugees and migrants this year up to the end of July (UNHCR.org).