Tensions rise in Greek fishing village that welcomed migrants

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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Eighteen months into Europe’s refugee crisis, tensions have surfaced on the Greek island of Lesbos.

It wasn’t so long ago that the islanders there were being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize for their welcoming of refugees. But income from tourism, on which many islanders depend, has plummeted this year, and hostility towards refugees, and to the volunteers helping them, has only grown.

From Lesbos, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Skala Sikaminia, a small fishing village in northern Lesbos. A tranquil dawn is about to get busy.

The first raft of the day has been spotted about five miles away. Volunteers from Refugee Rescue, an Irish charity, are scrambling to help. The raft is intercepted by a coast guard cutter after leaving Turkey’s shore and entering Greek waters.

FATHER CHRISTOFOROS, Orthodox Priest: When it comes to the fact that many of these people arriving are Muslims, we are supposed to love everyone.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Waiting for them is Californian orthodox priest father Christoforos, who has lived in Lesbos for 15 years.

At a time when Europe is becoming increasingly anxious about the influx of Muslim refugees and economic migrants, Christoforos doesn’t waver from his creed.

FATHER CHRISTOFOROS: Theologically, we are supposed to see every human being as God. And how we treat that person is how we treat God. This a sacred ideal to love the foreigner. It is the exact opposite of xenophobia. This is something which is sacred.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Mission accomplished, 55 souls saved, including 15 women and seven children, most from sub-Saharan Africa.

MAN: I thank God I’m here. I’m so afraid.

MAN: We spent like four hours to reach Greece territory. Right now, I’m feeling cold.

MAN: Right now, I’m feeling cold. I’m not feeling right now.

WOMAN: I’m feeling proud of the people I meet. I’m proud of them. Thank you plenty, plenty.

MAN: My life is in danger. That’s why I come here. My life is at risk. I’m running for my life.

MAN: You warming up now? We will get you in 10 minutes. We will get you into the camp and you will get some dry clothes.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Where are you from?

MAN: Comoros.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The Comoros Islands?

MAN: Yes, Comoros Island.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But that’s a paradise.

MAN: Yes.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Why have you left a paradise?

MAN: It is a paradise, but it’s very poor. It’s very poor.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Like most other Greek communities, Skala Sikaminia has endured seven years of economic hardship, but the selflessness of the Nobel-nominated villagers is one of the reasons why Refugee Rescue is based here.

Coordinator Baz Fischer.

BAZ FISCHER, Coordinator: There have been tensions in other places, definitely. And if we can, we’d always like to bring them here. If every village down the coast was like here, it would make things a lot easier.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This footage was shot by activists at the nearby port of Petra in the summer, as local people blockaded the jetty in an attempt to stop the coast guard from transferring refugees in front of their tourist beaches.

As a result of alleged intimidation, including vandalism of their vehicles, volunteer groups avoid Petra and Molyvos five miles away. With its magnificent 15th century citadel, Molyvos is the architectural jewel of Lesbos and is almost entirely dependent on tourism.

But according to Mayor Athanasios Andriotis, income was down by 70 percent this year, as vacationers stayed away because of the refugee crisis. He acknowledged there was some tension.

ATHANASIOS ANDRIOTIS, Mayor of Molyvos (through translator): The people are annoyed and worried about the future because this situation seems to be becoming permanent. And it’s one which is no good for the people of Molyvos, nor, unfortunately, for the refugee migrants who come here.

MALCOLM BRABANT: There are some people who say that the coast guard has not been allowed to drop people in Molyvos because there is such hostility.

ATHANASIOS ANDRIOTIS (through translator): The figures here for tourism have dropped to almost zero because of the refugee issue. This can’t go on. They have to understand that, OK, they have arrived here, but they have to go somewhere else more secluded to disembark.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The consequence is that it takes longer for the coast guard or volunteers to take migrants to ports where they will be accepted.

This angers British volunteer and Lesbos resident Eric Kempson, who we first met 18 months ago and have since encountered on several occasions. He and his family have repeatedly been threatened because of his outspoken pro-refugee stance.

ERIC KEMPSON, Volunteer: This is very dangerous. We are going to lose people. You could see, it took so long to come here, and they’re sitting on the boat, they’re soaking wet, they’re freezing cold. The temperature is close to zero.

When you have a few people holding two towns to ransom because they don’t want refugees in there, this is absolutely disgusting, absolutely disgusting. People are going to die here this winter because of these few people.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Dimitris Drakolias has been on the receiving end of anti-migrant hostility. He runs a hotel in the small resort of Petra. Local hard-liners blockaded the village and whipped up an Internet campaign after he agreed to provide temporary accommodation for 22 refugee children.

DIMITRIS DRAKOLIAS, Clara Hotel Petra: People got afraid that we were supposed to bring refugees here and stay for three — two, three, four months. It’s a very uncomfortable situation. Nobody came up to me and do anything, but I can understand that they didn’t like that that I hosted 20 kids inside the hotel.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Did you feel intimidated?

DIMITRIS DRAKOLIAS: A little bit. A little bit.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The hotelier says the Internet campaign was orchestrated by a tourist organization called The Other Aegean.

We arranged an interview with The Other Aegean’s chairman, Nikos Molvalis, who only wanted to discuss the tourist industry’s 70 percent losses and other problems.

We have been talking to the owner of the Clara Hotel, who says that your organization was responsible for blockading the place to make sure that refugees didn’t turn up there. Can you explain that, please?

WOMAN: He doesn’t want to talk about that.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Why don’t you want to talk about that?

WOMAN: Because he’s already answered the question.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Off-camera, Molvalis claimed to have intervened on behalf of the refugee children. Otherwise, he said there would have been bloodshed.

FATHER CHRISTOFOROS: This is not true.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The tension troubles Father Christoforos, who believes some of the volunteers don’t fully understand the plight of the islanders.

FATHER CHRISTOFOROS: I see people are affected. And I understand why they are affected. Their pocketbooks hurting and they want to find somewhere to put the blame.

But at the same time, a lot of these same people will not only blame the refugees or the organizations, but they also blame the government just as much for not doing more.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The numbers of people arriving on the islands are just a fraction of the thousands that were landing daily when the crisis was at its peak.

But there is a steady trickle, and, slowly, slowly, the islands are filling up again. There’s a serious shortage of accommodation for these people. And there’s genuine concern here that Europe’s deal with Turkey will break down, and once again the islands will be inundated with refugees and migrants.

The influx increases the pressure in Moria, the overcrowded and tense camp in the south of the island visited by the pope earlier in the year. Frustrated migrants, angry at conditions and the time it takes to process asylum claims, have, on occasions, set fires inside the camp.

A Muslim charity has established a feeding station just outside Moria, claiming the camp caterers are cheating the residents.

MAN: Food in Moria, they recook it three times, two to three times. This is what they say. It’s not eatable. And they say it’s dirty.

MAN: Moria, no good. Here, good. We want freedom. Here, the food delicious, and Moria not delicious.

MAN: Moria is like a jail. Not good. And the situation is really bad, really a lot of problems, calls — every day fight, every night fight.

MAN: Fire. Fight.

MAN: Fire. A lot of problems.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Not everyone is enduring spartan conditions. Along with 200 other vulnerable people, five members of the Nikzad family are living in a holiday hotel run by the Catholic charity Caritas. Sahil is desperately missing regular school. But in three months, he has made good progress with English.

SAHIL NIKZAD, Afghan Refugee: In Afghanistan, the Taliban, I can’t go to school because explosions, a bomb. We want to go to some good place, good country, because,there, we learned — we go to school. We have a good home.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Every new arrival who survives the perilous crossing shares the same ambition. As the numbers mount, their chances of success diminish.

The warm welcome of Skala Sikaminia goes cold as soon as they leave the village. The buzzword in Europe is deportation, especially after an Islamist terrorist used a truck to kill 12 people in Berlin.

This year, more migrants than ever before died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Yet still they come. Father Christoforos may be a lighthouse, but much of Europe wishes that his beam would be extinguished.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Lesbos.

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