‘F— the rest!’ On Greek island of Kos, a migrant caste system has emerged, with Syrians at the top

KOS, — Every now and then, Nikos Grivas walks his German shepherd along the sea and down to the police station in Kos to give the refugees a good scare.

“Not to bite,” says the tall, tanned, brawny Greek. He would never set the dogs on people waiting for their papers to leave Greece, he promises. “Just to scare.”

And even then, he’s only ever paraded his dog around migrants, or shoved them, or hit them, or “beat the s — out of” them when absolutely necessary. If they’re blocking traffic, for instance. Or they’re hurting business. Or police are asking around for them, maybe. Only in these, the most egregious of circumstances, Grivas says, will he use force or the threat of it.

He is one of 25 to 30 men who regularly stalk around the island’s main police station. There, they break up fights or pick them, depending on who you ask. If you ask Grivas, the group is made up of “normal locals.” If observers are asked, they are neo-Nazis. Whatever Grivas is, whatever the group is, some of them — angry, vigilant, and organized — say they’re not only protecting locals, they’re also protecting Syrians.

Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 14, 158,456 people from Syria, , Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa arrived on Greek shores by sea. They experience the Aegean the same way. They’ll experience Kos slightly differently.

As global attention finally focuses on the scale and horror of the Syrian refugee crisis, arrivals are frequently divided along national lines by the authorities, Greeks and even by the arrivals themselves. What has emerged is sometimes perceived as a de facto caste system, with “official” Syrian refugees getting limited preferential treatment, compared to those who are on the move for as many reasons as there are migrants.

Persecution isn’t limited to a single nationality. Fleeing persecution can be one reason among may to leave, so many new arrivals feel their needs are being unfairly neglected. It’s causing problems.

Last week, things got ugly down by the police station, as they often do. Amnesty International said 15 to 25 people used bats to attack people who were waiting for their papers. A server at the restaurant next door says they shouted, “Respect to refugees! F— the rest!”

Shannon Gormley/Ottawa CitizenShannon Gormley/Ottawa CitizenMigrants lie on mattresses inside the Captain Elias Hotel in Kos, Greece.

Syrians, said the server, are the only refugees on Kos.

That would make Said Afzal, 29, one of the rest. The skinny, but sprightly man from Pakistan speaks multiple languages and laughs with his head back, eyes shut and mouth wide. He and Waris Khan, his Pakistani friend, roommate and travel companion, argue about who’s more handsome. But they agree they want to get off this island, that it’s unfair they’ve waited for 10 days while some Syrians have come and gone sooner, and they’re not scared of the mob.

Some locals set firecrackers off near the police station while people wait for their papers. Just to scare. Afzal and Khan don’t mind much.

“Not afraid because these are normal things for us. If you hear the big, big bombs, it was nothing. It was just firecracker. You know children, firecracker and Christmas?” Afzal asks. “So we are enjoying our Christmas here!”

“We have seen a lot of things,” says Khan, 25.

But though the men are moving together, they’re moving for different reasons. Khan’s father died of heart problems, so the family needs money. He dreams of opening a hotel overseas and sending the profits back to Swat, where his family is and where he says the Taliban have destroyed the economy.

Shannon Gormley/Ottawa Citizen Shannon Gormley/Ottawa Citizen Waris Khan, left, and Said Afzal are Pakistani migrants who are in Kos, Greece, awaiting documents that would allow them to to continue on their journey.

Afzal says he needs to bring his wife to a doctor, in Germany if he ever gets there himself, because she’s paralyzed from the waist down. It’s the one thing he can’t laugh about.

“I pray for her, because I loved her so much, and I love her also now,” he says.

Afzal loves his kids too. His own, but also the ones he taught. The English teacher was scared for them when the Taliban started dropping notes at his door.

“I was teaching to girls. So many times are warning us, ‘You are man, you should teach to men, do not teach to girls,’ ” he says. “But I still taught them!”

He is from the Khyber Agency, a federally registered tribal area where the school enrollment rate for girls was reportedly 16.3 per cent in 2014.

“In the front of your home are putting papers. Two times, they give me papers. They said, ‘Do not teach them. If you teaching them, you will be responsible for yourself.’ ”

Afzal isn’t teaching anyone anymore. After sharing a room in Istanbul for a year, he says, he and Khan now share a fetid twin mattress in the back of an abandoned hotel at the end of town.

Shannon Gormley/Ottawa Citizen.Shannon Gormley/Ottawa Citizen.Said Afzal, far left, checks the tree outside the police station in Kos where officials post the lists of migrants who will receive papers allowing them to continue their journey.

The Captain Elias Hotel was built for about 100 guests; it now houses hundreds more from Pakistan, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa. Men lie around what used to be the bar. Women stoke fires in what used to be the garden. Garbage fills what used to be the swimming pool. And Afzal and Kahn live in what used to be a kitchenette.

Of course, Syrians sleep poorly in their little blue tents on Kos, too: under a bridge, along the water, in parks. They’re attacked, too. They’re neglected, too. Some are sworn at on sidewalks. Others are shooed out of restaurant washrooms. And when those with money try to book a room, they’re occasionally told the inn is full.

But Syrians, recognized as refugees by the European Union as they are all affected by war, do have some priority treatment in Greece.

On Aug. 15, when Greece provided a chartered cruise liner to take Syrians from Kos to Athens, the Kos pier was tense. As the ship boarded Syrian refugees — and only Syrian refugees — Iraqis sat outside chanting, “Enough! Enough! Enough!”

Across the island that week, small groups of Afghans and Pakistanis protested the preferential processing of Syrian refugees, skirmishing with police and with one another in the dust and heat outside the police station.

On Aug. 18, the day the ship left carrying thousands of Syrians to the Greek mainland, a member of the Hellenic coast guard, who was not authorized to speak with the media, said the boat created more problems than it solved.

“The other guys are saying, ‘What about us? We are sleeping in the street, and blah blah blah,’ ”  he said. He says many migrants and refugees tried to push their way onto the boat, too, when they weren’t allowed on.

The national divisions among migrants isn’t just a problem on Kos, though. It is becoming an issue throughout Europe and North America.

“Any sort of priority should only be based on need, not on nationality,” cautions Furio De Angelis, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees  in .

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, says safe countries have a responsibility to offer protection to Syrian refugees as well as other refugees, not at the expense of them.

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He notes while huge numbers have fled Syria recently, many are also increasingly fleeing sub-Saharan Africa. He and refugee advocates fear Canada’s announcements of resettling 10,000 more Syrian refugees actually means resettling 10,000 fewer refugees from other dangerous areas.

“Syrian refugees should not be played off against other refugees,” Neve says.

Over on Kos, the Greek coast guard member acknowledges Syrians need his help. But he doesn’t want to extend that help to Afghans, Iraqis or other groups the UNHCR identifies as vulnerable.

“I want to keep the guys that are running from the war, Syrian guys, and tell the others to go home. Back to Islamabad, back to Baghdad, back to wherever they come from,” he says.

But men like Afzal and Khan don’t want to go back to where they came from: some for fear of persecution, some for fear of poverty, and many for a complex mixture of political fears and economic needs that act as push and pull factors, propelling them from one dangerous, impoverished place toward a safer, more affluent one. These men go back to the police station, each day, hoping to get the papers that will let them move on to the next place that doesn’t want them.

“I think I will never be back,” says Afzal, checking the list for his name again.

Meanwhile, Grivas will keep coming by the station too, urging the police to use German shepherds, not batons, when confronted with restless refugees. Dogs do a better job weeding out the others from the Syrians, he imagines: bad migrants are afraid of dogs.

“They’re worse than animals, some of them.”

But in a few weeks Grivas will return to the Netherlands, where he has lived for the past decade, raising police canines. He would love to stay on his home island, but this immigrant has dogs to train.

About Shannon Gormley, Postmedia News