MILLER: A far-flung paradise for sun-starved northern Europeans – Dutch, Germans, Brits. Kos, is one of a group of remote islands closer to Turkey than to the Greek mainland – so close you can see the Turkish coastline from the shore. More than a million tourists flock here each year and that on an island with a population of just over thirty thousand.
But this year, the pleasure seekers have company, part of a wave of migration overwhelming Europe. Every night they set sail from the Turkish coast in flimsy rubber boats. One or two thousand land on Kos every week. Some are asylum seekers. Others are economic migrants, fleeing poverty and a lack of opportunity.
They emerge from the Aegean waters exhausted and disoriented. These men from Pakistan don’t even know where they are.
MIGRANT: “What is the name of this place?”
MILLER: “Kos, Kos Island, Greece. You know it’s Greece?”
MILLER: “This is your destination?”
MIGRANT: “We don’t know really. We don’t it’s Kos... it’s Greece… or it is whatever. But we just know that it’s a safe area for us. First we have to dry our clothes and we have to find any place to stay and take a rest because you know it’s not a very easy journey. So we spend a very hard time in the sea”.
MILLER: “What was hard about the journey? Was it rough seas or what was so hard?”
MIGRANT: “The motor was not working in the sea and we start on by our hands and then we tried to make again a motor, so in the middle of the sea it would start again and then we started again our journey”.
MILLER: “So using your hands?”
MIGRANT: “Yeah we used our hands”.
MILLER: Within minutes the men have disappeared into the night.
MIGRANT: [gives the thumbs up] “Greece-istan!”
MILLER: Leaving behind the unmistakeable signs of a migrant crossing. [rubber boat left on shoreline] It’s out here that you get a real sense of just why so many people are trying to make this crossing. From Turkey just here to Greece it’s just a few nautical miles at this point and that’s tantalisingly close for the many, many thousands of people who want to get to Europe and that means that night after night, they’re going to continue to try and cross this small stretch of sea.
It looks safe enough, but migrants have drowned off the Greek Islands and the people of Kos know they too may soon bear witness to such tragedies.
IOANNIS MISPINAS: [Harbour Master, Kos] “Unfortunately I’m afraid that it is a matter of time before lives are lost because the numbers are significant and they’re getting higher every day and we’re talking about sea. It’s a difficult and dangerous passage whatever it takes. I’m afraid that the mathematics will be against these people”.
MILLER: Just another day in the new life of the Kos coastguard.
MIGRANT BOAT: “Where are we going?”
COASTGUARD: “Over here… Greece”.
MIGRANT BOAT: “Greece, are you sure? You promise? We have children here. We have children”.
MILLER: They come as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan, but most, like the people on this boat, are from Syria.
COASTGUARD: [migrants all trying to scramble off boat onto Coastguard boat] “Watch out, sit down!”
MILLER: Each has a story to tell. Each has paid dearly to come here. Among them Rana, a paediatrician from Aleppo.
“Are you hoping to bring your children?”
RANA: “Yes of course. I do that for them, not for me of course. I’m old enough to, to do anything but they are too young”.
MILLER: “What age are your children?”
RANA: “They’re safe now in Turkey awaiting for me”.
MILLER: “And what age are they?”
RANA: “One is 15 and one 8”.
MILLER: “Which country do you want to end up in in Europe? What are your plans?”
RANA’S COUSIN: “Where do you feel safe in Europe?”
RANA: [very upset] “It’s the first time, I get apart from my children. It’s the first day. We’re always together”.
RANA’S COUSIN: “That’s enough okay. You okay?”
RANA: “No problem. Any country please”.
RANA’S COUSIN: “Stop... stop crying”.
RANA : “Any country we safe again... we will be safe again... together again... family again”.
MILLER: In the last few months the work of the Coast Guard has changed from patrolling the ocean to conducting back to back search and rescue missions.
“What kind of emotional toll does the work take on your staff?”
IOANNIS MISPINAS: “The work is quite demanding, there is stress and it’s twenty four seven. But I don’t think that there is a more important task than saving lives and this is exactly what keeps us going because it’s a significant burden for everybody”.
MILLER: Night after night they fish migrants from their rubber boats and bring them to shore. No sooner has one boatload been processed, than another pulls into port. Here a group of around forty men, women and children – mostly from Syria.
GREEK SOLDIER: (addressing group of migrants) Who speaks English... good English? I need a person who speaks good English.
Mohamad, a sound engineer from Damascus their unlikely leader, selected for his superior English skills.
COASTGUARD: [to Mohamad] “Please whoever has passport keep it in his hand, okay? Tell them”.
MOHAMAD: [to group] “Whoever has a passport hold it in your hand”.
“I’m so pleased. Thanks God, well I can’t believe myself now. I can’t believe myself that I am in Greece finally. This is our second trial”.
MILLER: The Turkish coastguard thwarted Mohamad and his friends’ first attempt to cross to Greece. Punishment – a night in open air confinement back in Turkey. A day later, no problem, the smugglers arranged another boat. This time the group made it into Greek waters before being picked up.
MOHAMAD: “This is a dream came true for us. In Syria, you know in Syria it’s not human at all. They treat us in Syria, not like animals, animals are better than us and I don’t want to tell you any story about Syria, but believe me it’s hell now”.
MILLER: Once the formalities are over at the port, it’s onwards to the Captain Elias, an abandoned hotel serving as emergency accommodation for the migrants.
MOHAMAD: [to group] “We have to walk two and a half kilometres. They are going by car and we are going to follow. We are going to the camp. We will walk three in a row. Walk in line and stay close to each other. I’m on my own. I’m the lead singer if you please”.
MILLER: There is no official reception centre for migrants on Kos. The Captain Elias is as good as it gets. The local council says it has no money to fund anything better – Athens even less so. A strange protocol dictates nevertheless that each boatload officially processed at port, is brought here to this unofficial accommodation. After that they are left to fend for themselves.
MOHAMAD: “How can we get food and clothes?”
OFFICER: “You buy food”.
MOHAMAD: “We can go outside?”
OFFICER: “Yes, of course”.
MOHAMAD: “For food, for accommodation, sleep”.
OFFICER: “Sleep here”.
MOHAMAD: “We’ll take a look. We’ll take a look inside. You can smell… oh very nice place. This is a lobby… apparently. This is a bar”.
MILLER: “So Mohamad, what do you think?”
MOHAMAD: “I don’t know. If there are some clean rooms then maybe we can stay, but I don’t think so. We are trying to get out of this”.
MILLER: “Does everyone in the group have money to pay for accommodation?”
MOHAMAD: “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Some of them may stay here for free”.
MILLER: In the first half of this year, 68,000 migrants arrived in Greece by sea. So many, that Greece has now overtaken Italy as the preferred route into Europe. It’s making things hard for islands like Kos, which survive on tourism.
MALE TOURIST: “You are here on a holiday to relax and well you don’t really want them roaming around near your sunbeds and if they just act as a guest that’s all fine but you know you don’t want them staring at you or bothering you or asking you for money, begging”.
FEMALE TOURIST: [telling group of migrants] “Don’t block the road. Don’t block the road. It’s for tourists, OK?”
MILLER: It’s a difficult balancing act for the Mayor of Kos, George Kyritsis.
GEORGE KYRITSIS: “The tourist who arrives here wants to see a different image. When he’s suddenly confronted with people who are tired, exhausted, dressed in clothes drenched in sea water and is suddenly faced with that sort of image, it leaves him with a very bad impression and perhaps a sadness”.
MILLER: Most migrants will leave these shores, hoping to settle in northern and western Europe. For now they’re Greece’s responsibility – another burden on a country that’s flat broke. The Syrians we meet at the port have decided to pass on the Captain Elias. They can afford to pay 35 US dollars a night to share a room at a local hotel.
Mohamad the sound engineer, Yamen a dentist and another young man they met on the boat, Azar a pharmacist have spent their first night in Europe. Middle class Syrians turned asylum seekers by a war they want no part of.
MOHAMAD: “If we had a formal way to go to Europe I wouldn’t think of going this way. I tried – I tried and tried and tried – no visa, they will not accept.... like for example the Norwegian or the Swedish embassy, they will not, even if you pay money, if you say that I am a millionaire, I have a million dollars or a million something”.
MILLER: He wouldn’t talk in detail about why they left Syria. They’re too worried it might endanger their families who are still there.
“I know you don’t want to talk about the politics but just give me a sense of why you felt you had to leave Syria”.
MOHAMAD: “I did not want to be a part of this war at either side. I don’t like people fighting and.... maybe for a good cause or maybe for not a good cause, but I don’t see fighting your brother as a good cause”.
MILLER: We’re trying to get to what we think is a migrant boat. We’ve been tracking it for about half an hour now. It was coming this way, but it now looks as though it’s turned and it’s going into shore. It looks pretty small, like maybe only a few people on board.
In the end it was three men in a boat. A fourth made up for the lack of a motor [man swimming behind pushing the boat]. Behind them an odyssey, in front of them the Greek army. They came ashore just metres inside a military base. Freedom would have to wait a little longer.
GREEK MALE VOLUNTEER: [walking into cafe] “Good morning guys! How are you?”
GROUP OF GREEK VOLUNTEERS: “Good morning”.
MILLER: At a café on the edge of town, a newly formed group of local volunteers is doing what the government says it can’t afford to – providing for the migrants.
“Do you think you have to do this because the Greek Government can’t?”
KONTESSA OIKONOMIDI: [Volunteer] “Well not only because they can’t but in any case I do it. Yeah, I think that we have to do it. It’s really important to have something to eat every day. Just... nothing more, nothing less”.
MILLER: The group encourages local businesses to give leftover food which it then distributes to the migrants.
GREEK MALE VOLUNTEER: “There are many, they say. The new ones – there are about three hundred of them”.
GROUP OF GREEK VOLUNTEERS: “Oh! Do we have enough?”
GREEK MALE VOLUNTEER: “If we have a problem, it’s one portion each. If we have bread…”.
GREEK FEMALE VOLUNTEER: “Do we have bread to cut?”
MILLER: “Is it a little bit ironic that people here when times are so tough here, that you are giving from yourselves?”
KONTESSA OIKONOMIDI: “Yes, but that’s also a really nice thing because you see that people in worst situation that you are. So we have to think about people, we have to be more kind to each other”.
MILLER: Some tourists are also pitching in.
WOMAN TOURIST: “I know that the people are staying in this hotel and I pass by and yesterday the people they say, they are so hungry and they need shampoo and they need a toothbrush and then I decide I go to the supermarket and I buy some things for them and I bring it here to the hotel. When you see sometimes the sadness in the eyes, you know it’s terrible”.
MILLER: Among the recipients today another Muhammad – this one from Pakistan. Unlike his Syrian namesake, the factory worker from Lahore is making do at the Captain Elias.
MUHAMMAD: “Basically this is not a good place but… we haven’t any choice because this is the only choice for refugees and migrants - those coming through the ocean - because they haven’t money… enough money. You can’t sleep on the roads, on the parks, because you don’t know anybody. You haven’t relatives here, you haven’t friends here. This is a totally strange country for you”.
MILLER: All roads soon lead to the police station where the migrants hope to get the registration papers that will allow them to travel on from the island. The document lets them stay in Greece for between one and six months as illegal immigrants. After that they could face deportation if they haven’t claimed asylum, moved on out of Greece or gone underground.
MIGRANT GROUP: “Good morning”.
MILLER: “Good morning. Good thank you. Looking for Mohamad”.
MIGRANT: “Is everybody. All the Muslim people. Everybody’s Mohamad”.
MILLER: [laughing] “Yeah, yeah many more Mohamads”.
You can escape war, but not Greek bureaucracy. Each boatload of arrivals is processed together and Mohamad and his friends must gather together everyone in their group.
MOHAMAD: [to man] “I counted them, including the children. 13 plus 23”.
YAMEN: “Impossible. I counted 38 with the children. I counted three times”.
MILLER: A task complicated by the fact that some people are not who they say they are.
MIGRANT TO MOHAMAD: [who is trying to make a written list of his group] “I forget my name”.
MOHAMAD: “I don’t remember. I don’t know”.
MIGRANT TO MOHAMAD: “I forgot my name”.
MOHAMAD: “If you have forgotten, how should I know? Mahmoud? Not Mahmoud Kafi?”
MIGRANT TO MOHAMAD: “No, write Mohamad Mahmoud”.
MILLER: “Are you a bit stressed Mohamad?”
MOHAMAD: “Kind of”.
YAMEN: I was in the office now, in the police now. They told me when you arrived here? I told them the date and the number of the group, after two minutes she come back to me and say okay all the group should come back tomorrow eight thirty”.
MILLER: “It’s an appointment for your group”.
YAMEN: “Yes it’s an appointment”.
MILLER: “But you’re not happy?”
MOHAMAD: “We’re kind of disappointed”.
MILLER: “Why did you have hope in the way she said it, that it would get resolved?”
YAMEN: “Yeah, yeah. She was smiling”.
MILLER: A very confused picture down here. We’ve had a lot of people coming up to us and saying how do I get my passport back? How do I get this registration paper with which I can travel to Athens - and then almost like some desperate lottery goes on behind me, where a man comes to the front gate... he reads out a list of names. These are the people who are going to get their papers and are going to be able to leave Kos which is what this group really desperately wants to do.
Today Muhammad from Pakistan has hit the jackpot.
MUHAMMAD: “At least we get the paper after 14 days. I’m very happy to get a paper and will go for my big journey and good luck. Do you pray for us? We shall be successful, inshallah”.
MILLER: It’s been an epic journey for Muhammad, from Lahore through Iran and Azerbaijan to Turkey, where he worked illegally for six months to make the 600 US dollars smugglers demanded to put him on a rubber boat to Greece. All that’s left to do now is buy a one way ticket to Athens. One step closer to his goal of a life in France.
MUHAMMAD: “These are new pants. I will take these pants to Athens. These are my old pants. I will take these now. Now I am free. Now I have chances because in front of me is the whole of Europe. I have lots of opportunities and, inshallah, I will do something better for myself”.
MILLER: The desperation of the migrants means big business for smugglers. While a spot in a small rubber boat can set you back around 600 US dollars, the going rate for a larger boat is almost double that. No one ever meets the king pin in this lucrative racket – just a shadowy middle man – and there’s a smuggler every step of the way.
“And what now, what happens when you get to Athens?”
YAMEN: “Smugglers... yep”.
MILLER: “The smugglers will get you a passport?”
YAMEN: “Yeah, it’s a similar passport - similar to my face – but a different name, too. And you go to the airport, show them the passport and there’s a flight, ticket ready, everything”.
MILLER: Some arrive here without any identification papers at all. Others are using fake ID. For those who can pay, this too can be easily acquired through smuggler networks. Greek authorities have little way of knowing just who they’re letting into Europe.
MOHAMAD: “If they want to choose what people are immigrating they should do a formal way. Not this way. This way you’re taking a blind sample of people and they’re just paying also the mafias, and paying the smugglers to go. So whoever can pay a thousand dollars can go to Europe, and this is bad. I saw this from the trip. We met very bad people in our trip and also we met very good people”.
MILLER: They come on a cheap rubber boat and leave on the imposing night ferry to Athens. This too now part of the ebb and flow of daily life on Kos.
MOHAMAD: “Now of course we feel better and we feel happy to get the papers”.
MILLER: Yamen has already made contact with the smuggler in Athens. He’s been told a fake passport will cost him at least 550 US dollars.
YAMEN: “I just sent him my photo and he say okay there is a passport waiting for you”.
MILLER: Azar can’t afford the smuggler’s fee and is planning to join the thousands of migrants attempting to leave Greece by foot, marching through Macedonia and Serbia with the goal of slipping into another EU country.
AZAR: “I think the next step is harder than the last step”.
MILLER: “This was the easy bit, getting to Greece?”
AZAR: “That’s what I mean. Getting to Greece was the easiest step I guess”.
MILLER: And so the cycle begins again. Another boatload of Pakistani men is plucked to safety. Fate, luck and sheer determination have brought them this far. They will need all of that and more to realise their dreams of a better life in Europe.
UPDATE: Mohamad and Yamen bought fake passports and are now in Germany.
UPDATE: Azar walked north out of Greece and is now in Sweden.
UPDATE: We have been unable to make contact with Muhammad.