Thursday 27 October 2016

Special Report: A human tide of misery is still washing up on Kos beaches

Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30

Garda Damien McCarthy and Garda Ray Wims bring food to Syrian migrants in Kos
Garda Damien McCarthy and Garda Ray Wims bring food to Syrian migrants in Kos
Pakistani men after their boat landed on Kos
A dilapidated vessel that sank as it arrived at the port of Kos with refugees on board
A refugee warms up after making it to shore.

Almost close enough to touch, a ribbon of bright glittering lights stretches out across the horizon. The dark body of water, waves crashing on the beach, lies between.

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It seems impossible to think they will risk it tonight.

But soon enough, an urgent shout goes up: they are here - and the human faces of the European migrant crisis stand before us on a winding, sandy road in the amber dimness of the street lights, almost frighteningly real and vulnerable, soaked to the skin, trembling and gasping, having been thrown up on the beach just moments before.

They are a group of eight Pakistani men, some painfully emaciated after their long trek across land and, now, sea.

With towels and blankets draped across their bony shoulders, it's not much of an exaggeration to say they are the living manifestation of the bronze sculptures commemorating the Irish famine victims that stand on the Dublin quays.

The flimsy, rubbishy outboard engine, supplied to them by the smugglers for their equally flimsy rubber dinghy, had broken down midway - a regular occurrence - and they had to paddle the rest of way with their hands, against the strong current.

The waves had been six feet high at times.

One person had a cheap blue and yellow paddle but it would have been no more use than a child's toy spade.

These are the lucky ones.

After their six-hour ordeal in the frigid sea, they were so exhausted they could barely communicate - even if they'd had more than a smattering of basic English.

And yet, they whisper "thank you", "very kind", as they urgently snatch woolly hats and almost weep in gratitude for a bottle of water, a banana or an orange.

All the debate against their presence - the sinister black market preying on human misfortune; the semantics between refugees and migrants; the arguments that Europe cannot afford this influx and that the Pakistanis are not 'proper' migrants in the same way that the Syrians are, wither away, redundant, as we see them here, face to face, having paid an astronomical sum of money to risk their life on this 10km stretch of the Aegean sea.

These arguments for another forum are completely arbitrary when real men, women and children wash up on a Greek holiday resort in October on a night which has grown chilly even by our standards.

Photographer Mark Condren and I have come to Kos to flank Garda Damien McCarthy (37) and Garda Ray Wims (39), who are here to volunteer on a personal basis for a week, feeding migrants and handing out vital supplies for those just off the boats.

Damien, from Drogheda, Co Louth, is attached to Pearse Street in Dublin, while Ray is on his own in a one-man station in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.

Both are fathers and it was the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach near Bodrum, in Turkey, that sparked this trip. "Once we saw that picture, that was it. We raised a bit of money to buy supplies and got some baby slings and came over," said Damien.

They had only arrived last Saturday night when they heard a baby of around seven months had been washed up on a nearby beach.

"We were there a couple of hours later and the area was not even cordoned off - no sign of what had happened," Ray said.

They work tirelessly through the night and well into the next afternoon, buying basic food items and distributing them.

Their gift of a Wendy house for traumatised Syrian migrant children staying in a local guesthouse was ecstatically received by the kids - and their tearfully grateful mothers.

Kos is just one of the back doors to Europe and, once here, it is clearly nonsense to expect the locals to stem the tide of humanity driven relentlessly to these shores by a need to escape, and powered by a criminal underbelly of human traffickers. It is impossible - because this is a highly lucrative business.

The smugglers charge €2,500 each for a place in a speedboat which should seat seven but into which 50 are crammed. Or else they pay €1,250 for the Russian Roulette of a rubber dinghy, which should never be put out to sea but in which 10 people are terrifyingly squeezed. In a rare gesture of 'generosity', babies go free.

They charge an additional €30-€40 for a counterfeit 'Yamaha' life jacket. I pick up a discarded one on the shoreline. It is waterlogged and clearly unsafe.

Five boats arrive during the night, with some migrants forced to walk miles to the town in bare feet.

But they are elated. They have made it here alive.

Morning breaks and Kos reverts once again to off-peak tourist resort. Sun loungers are arranged to look out serenely towards the glittering Aegean and across to Bodrum. One holiday destination to another.

A watchful coastguard on patrol midway is the only outward sign of this apparently unstoppable crisis.

Irish Independent

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