Desperate Refugees Flood Europe's Shores and Borders

Desperate Refugees Flood Europe’s Shores and Borders

By Jessica Slote

All summer long, a daily tidal wave of refugees washes up on Europe’s shores and borders. Not a day goes by without more headlines, stories, “incidents,” and arrivals. As the European Union struggles to craft a common policy for dealing with this humanitarian crisis, the numbers of desperate people arriving and seeking help are staggering and there is no end in sight.

The British Economist speaks of ‘a ring of fire’ that is erupting on Europe’s periphery: the Ukraine, West-Balkan, Iraq, Syria. Also of course, many African countries are imploding, spewing forth a stream of desperate refugees: Eritrea and Libya among others. The disastrous, failed policies of decades, the blind eye turned to corruption in the name of “development,” the decades of neglect are bearing their sad fruits. As Malcolm X said, “The chickens come home to roost.”

I spent seven weeks visiting friends and family in southern Italy and in Germany (Cologne and Berlin). No one is unaware of the situation; no one is unaffected. Below is a random collection of personal experiences, daily headlines from European papers, statistics, comments, grassroots initiatives and a few photos.

On a one-week holiday in Palinuro on the Mediterranean coast, a constant stream of undocumented people crisscross the water’s edge carrying heavy loads of wares on their backs: dresses, wraps, hats, bikinis, toys, fans, radios, hair pins, sunglasses, and every imaginable beach accessory. Unlike the practically-naked vacationers, these merchants wear hats, long sleeves, long pants, and shoes to protect themselves from the merciless sun. Occasionally they rest—in the shade.

My friend, Paola Costa, an architect and teacher from Naples, conducted informal interviews with some from whom we made small purchases.

One man from Morocco said he was here 12 years, but remains undocumented and cannot visit his family and children. He carries a huge structure on his shoulders with the goods hanging off it, only his legs visible from outside. He said he wanted permission to work here, but it was like a lost dream. Paola asked him about ISIS. They are all killers, they destroy the real spirit of Islam, he said sadly.

Paola Costa Photo Credit: Paola Costa

Jess Slote Photo Credit: Jessica Slote

Another man from Morocco complained about the influx of people from Syria. "Italy is finished, there is no more space. They are all coming here. They think they can become rich, but it is no longer like that.”

A Senegalese man named Lamine told us he works all summer on the beaches, but he goes to Naples by bus to buy his wares. He enjoys the community of immigrants in the city where he has friends. “Here, I only work and sleep.”

As the sun goes down, and vacationers get into their cars and drive off to restaurants and holiday apartments, the beach merchants can be seen on the shoulders of the roads, walking or biking to their own accommodations somewhere.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNCHR): “Since 2013, the region has witnessed a sharp increase in the numbers of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean. In the first seven months of 2014, over 87,000 people arrived in Italy by sea, with the two largest groups coming from Eritrea and Syria. In an effort to reduce the risks of such journeys, in October 2013 the Italian Government launched the Mare Nostrum Operation, which has rescued over 100,000 people. Increases in arrivals have also been recorded in Greece and Spain.”

This operation is now under the auspices of the European Union, renamed Triton, with international ships monitoring the sea and responding to small crafts with refugees. Rescue operations continue daily as small open boats drift in the sea, overpacked with men, women, and children, some locked below deck, without food or water, who have paid large sums to traffickers for the chance to arrive on European shores. Often the boats are abandoned by the traffickers and left to drift; overloaded boats often capsize. and hundreds have drowned this summer alone.

ethiomediaphoto credit:

The headlines of past weeks are eclipsed by the headlines of today:

Friday, August 28. “Libyans protest against smugglers after up to 200 drown off coast.” “Hundreds of residents on one of Libya’s most notorious people-smuggling hubs have staged an anti-smuggling protest after the discovery of up to 200 corpses in waters close to the town.”

Friday, August 28. “Hungarian police arrest driver of lorry that had 71 dead migrants [men, women, and children) inside.”

Wednesday, Aug. 26. “Bodies of 50 migrants found in hull of boat rescued off Libyan coast.”

Weds, Aug. 26. “Refugees allowed into Italy after threat to drown babies.” About 1,000 refugees, mostly Kurds, were rescued in international waters in the Mediterranean. When the coast guard pulled up, they saw parents dangling infants over the side of the boat and threatening to let go if the rescue ships approached any closer. Parents only relented when they were assured that they were in Italian waters and would not be sent back to the port from which they sailed. About 400 men, 200 women, 361 children were taken to Red Cross Centers in Sicily.

In addition to the sea route of migration, hundreds of thousands migrate by land through Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary. Hostile governments have mounted efforts to contain and keep them out.

Wednesday, August 26. “Break for the border: Thousands of migrants storm police lines and leap over razor wire to reach Macedonia from Greece.” Macedonia closes its border with Greece, declares state of emergency. Families kept waiting 48 hours in open with no food or water. Crowd 3,000 strong smash through security lines. Many children are caught in the violence.


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Hungarian soldiers are building a fence on the border with Serbia to keep out the flood of refugees. Bulgaria has taken in thousands of refugees, “but they don’t want to stay in Bulgaria,” Elena Jandova, theatre director who lives in the capital, Sofia, reports wryly. “They want to move on.” Bulgaria itself faces an exodus of its own citizens, fleeing corruption and the plundering of their own country.

The zeal of many migrants is Germany, the European country that has taken in the most refugees. Upon arriving in Germany, asylum-seekers are dispersed, given temporary refuge in cities and town all across the country.

Every German town and city, is struggling to process and find services and housing for this flood of people, placing them in tents, old schools and container villages where they are often isolated from the local population and face threats from Neo-Nazis.

Refugees in Heidenau near Dresden (East Germany) faced three consecutive nights of violence from Neo-Nazis that local police struggled to contain. Chancellor Angela Merkel, visiting the shelter for asylum-seekers three days later, vowed “no tolerance” for violence against refugees; she was booed and called a “traitor of the people” by anti-migrant protesters.


More than 800,000 additional refugees are expected to arrive in Germany by the end of this year. In Berlin alone, “On every workday, at least 250 people submit an initial application for asylum at the reception center in Moabit. The officials don’t manage to process all of them; the line in front of the brick building has been growing longer for weeks now. On some days, more than 2,000 asylum seekers stand waiting.“ Many wind up sleeping in the parks with their families and children as they await the next day, and the hope to be processed. German citizens volunteers hand out „soap, chocolate bars and cartons of juice inside and outside of the asylum agency.“

Thousands more are gathered in the French port of Calais where they hope to jump on trains travelling through the Chunnel (English Channel tunnel) to get to Britain. Here they face police actions, and the dangers of riding the rails.

A recent article (“Number of refugee arrivals to Greece increase dramatically” August 18) from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees ( gives some sense of the magnitude of the problem.

  • In July, 50,242 people, mostly fleeing the conflict in Syria, arrived in Greece compared to 43,500 for the whole of last year. The total number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece has now reached the 160,000 mark.
  • The latest figures compiled by UNHCR show the number of sea arrivals from 1 January 1 to August 14, 2015 to be 158,456.
  • Last week alone nearly 21,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece, almost half the total number of arrivals in all of 2014.
  • The majority of last week's arrivals were Syrians (16,997 people or 82% of the total), Afghans (2,847 or 14%) and Iraqis (582 or 3%), confirming that the overwhelming majority of arrivals are likely to qualify for refugee status."
  • The latest figures from Greece bring the total number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean this year to some 264,500, including 158,456 to Greece, approximately 104,000 to Italy, 1,953 to Spain and 94 to Malta.
  • In Italy and Malta alone, some 10,000 unaccompanied and separated children have arrived during the first nine months of the year.

Vacationers on the Greek island of Lesbos this summer reported beaches littered with abandoned life jackets and tube boats from the daily arrivals.

michel Photo credit: Michel Wiegandt

While the governments of Europe struggle to cope, many individuals and grassroots organizations are stepping in to help. The scale of these initiatives is tiny compared to the magnitude of the problem; nonetheless, many citizens want to help and are stepping up to the plate with innovative projects. Here are just a few of hundreds:

In Napoli, a friend, Nadia, for her birthday, asked friends to bring, instead of presents, food packages for refugees. Together they delivered the food to Eritreans camped out under a tree near the central station. In conversation with one man, Nadia said he spoke of a totalitarian regime in Eritrea that staggers the imagination: no constitution, no judicial system, no civilian economy, only mandatory indefinite military service. “Like George Orwell,” Nadia said. According to The Guardian, “up to 5,000 flee [Eritrea] monthly.”

The Grand Hotel Cosmopole in Augsburg offers accommodations to guests with and without asylum. A collective of artists, organizers, craftsmen, and activists, it is inspired by the work of Joseph Beuys (“We have to take responsibility for a creation process that is beyond our capacity.”) and Bertolt Brecht (“Carefully I’m testing my plan… (If ) it is grand enough, it is unachievable.”) The Grand Hotel brings together refugees, local people, visiting artists, and hosts events such as the recent Peace Conference. The group worked with the city of Augsburg to take over and renovate a former home for the elderly, vacant for about 5 years. www.

Berlin performance group Open Space PerformUnion participated in the Grand Hotel Cosmopole’s Peace Conference in August with a piece called, “White Color Guard,” working with the theme: “Every flag is a border, and borders kill.”

presse Photo credit: Presse Augsburg

A group called “Refugees Welcome” poses the question: “Why shouldn’t refugees in Germany be able to live in shared flats (or other normal housing situations) instead of mass accommodation?” The website pairs people with space in their homes with refugees seeking housing, a kind of airb&b for refugees. The group also puts refugees in touch with organizations that help them pay the rent.

A similar initiative in England met with fierce opposition from the government, which threatens citizens who offer housing to asylum-seekers with five years in prison.

The website lists a myriad of initiatives for getting involved and helping refugees in Germany.

It is impossible to understate the magnitude of this crisis, and the suffering of these displaced people. Sigrun Reckhaus works with refugee writers and journalists for the Heinrich Böll Haus in Cologne. At the moment, she reports, most are Syrians. “They come here with nothing. Nothing,” she says.

According to The Migrants’ Files (, Europe spends billions of euros a year to keep migrants out. Meanwhile, the group estimates that over the past fifteen years, “refugees have paid a staggering 16 billion euro to travel to Europe.”

The Migrants’ Files collects data and follows the money of this industry spawned by border security policy, identifying four leading European arms manufacturers who receive the lion’s share of the contracting. The industry includes: 1) software identification systems (fingerprinting, scanning); 2) hardware: drones, boats, and walls; 3) the bureaucracy required for deportations.

Though the American press reports on the situation intermittently, it fails to report daily on the daily crisis, failing to convey to Americans the immediacy of this humanitarian crisis, and the crisis of the countries taking in these waves of people displaced by war, brutal regimes, religious intolerance, and crushing poverty.