Unlike many of the people travelling to Samos for a summer vacation, Franziska Petersen wasn’t planning just to relax.
The 30-year-old German client manager for Facebook’s European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, had set out to the Greek island of Samos to meet a group of 20 young professionals who are trying to find new ways to deal with the growing refugee crisis in Europe.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, the number of refugees arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Eritrea has increased ten-fold since last year; over 137,613 people reached Greece by sea in the first seven months of 2015, compared to 14,714 during that period last year.
Most arrive on flimsy rubber dinghies, and manage to reach the Aegean islands or are rescued by the Greek coastal guards.
“Some of the refugees think they just landed in Italy instead of Samos.”
Ms. Petersen immediately saw how disoriented many of the migrants on Samos were.
“I’d be strolling along the harbor and see groups of people arriving from the sea, stripping off their safety jackets and running around aimlessly,” Ms. Petersen told Handelsblatt Global Edition in a phone interview.
“Some of them think they just landed in Italy,” she said.
Ms. Petersen arrived in Samos at the invitation of Paula Schwarz, an entrepreneur from Berlin with a German father, Greek mother and family who owns a house on the island. Ms. Schwarz wanted to gathered together young professionals from start-ups and tech companies from Germany, Greece and South Africa to use their skills to help solve the problems she was witnessing in Samos. She asked Ms. Peterson and others to join a group, Startupboat, to come up with some new ideas.
Ms. Petersen had initially thought she would spend a few hours with Startupboat and spend the rest of the time on vacation, but in the end, the project took up almost all her time.
Startupboat’s first excursion was a dinner and a ride on a boat they had rented for four days to see the situation first hand.
Soon Ms. Petersen realized she wanted to help more and that it was no longer a vacation. “I hadn’t expected it to be so intense and overwhelming,” she said.
Four days after the group met, it launched a website called “first-contact” explaining to people arriving where they were and what to do next. “Many of the refugees have cell phones and can go online to get information about where they are and what to do next,” Ms. Schwarz said.
The website is currently in English only but will be translated into Arabic, Farsi and Pashto in the coming days, Ms. Schwarz said.
But a website alone can’t help the continued flood of refugees; up to 800 people land in Samos every day, according to the island’s mayor Michaelis Angelopoulos.
The group that Ms. Schwarz has gathered together have skills which include design thinking, futurology, conceptional thinking, business planning and IT. It now aims to find ways to address the broader social challenges created through the waves of migration.
Most of the people who arrive here are fleeing the war in Syria and undergo difficult journeys, according to one refugee, who talked to Handelsblatt Global Edition via a translator. The man, who did not give his name, had traveled by a boat whose motor had failed. After more than two hours rowing, the boat was rescued by the Greek coast guard, but he had lost €2,000 and his shoes at sea.
Many of the other peoples’ stories were similar. Most had been travelling for several weeks and crossed the water by boat from Turkey; many wanted to continue to travel to Germany or Sweden.
But on arriving, instead of relief, another wave of despair awaits.
The people who reach Greece find a country that is at the core of the European economic crisis, with unemployment over 26 percent, people struggling to make ends meet and a government on the brink of collapse, unable to provide support to the struggling island of Samos, or the other Greek islands such as Kos or Lesbos.
The overcrowding means a lack of shelter, shade, food and water. Most refugees are forced to sleep out in the open.
Greece’s authorities are struggling to handle the situation.
“We are helpless here. We have no competencies to deal with the situation and zero funds,” said Mr. Angelopoulos, who has been Samos’ mayor for 11 months and is the head of a Greek delegation of mayors who briefed the Council of Europe about the situation last March.
“On the island, our economy is based on tourism. Greece is already in a crisis, and now this can harm tourism, too,” he said.
Illegal migrants who reach the island are allocated to one of two groups. There are those who are eligible for asylum in the European Union; they are asked to buy a ticket for the ferry to Athens. Once in Athens, they are on their own again; some try to buy passports and move on towards northern Europe.
The others are sent to the holding camp on the island.
“The camp was made for 280 people 10 years ago and is currently holding 400,” Mr. Angelopolous said. Illegal immigration has always been an issue here, but not to the extent it is today, he added.
The stark increase in the number of people arriving is mainly due to Syrians crossing the border into southern Turkey within the last six months due to fighting between rival military forces, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
“It’s great we’re helping people here, but what’s needed is to address the root of the problem,” said Christian Umbach, one of Startupboat’s members who works for Lufthansa Innovation Hub in Berlin. He said the European Union should launch a transnational agenda to address the issue – and stop the war in Syria.
Mr. Umbach traveled to Greece on his vacation time to join the group. “After meeting these people, you start to understand that they don’t come here because they want to benefit economically from us,” he said. “They come here because they are under fire and bomb attacks at home.”
In the medium term, Ms. Schwarz, who also runs a platform to connect Greek start-ups with investors from around the world, wants to set up an information center. Another idea would be to open a place where young people who reach the island can learn IT skills such as coding.
“That means later when they start work, they’ll be able to get higher level jobs than cleaning or other low level positions,” Mr. Umbach said.
Startupboat now want to do more to help the refugees in their immediate situations.
For now, Ms. Petersen said there are ways tourists can help.
“What you can do here is to carry water and biscuits with you in the car at all times and approach refugees when you see them, be polite and offer them something to eat,” she said.
“They are all very grateful and nice and we are the first faces they encounter in Europe after a long and exhausting journey.”
Video: The U.N. Refugee Agency: In Greece, Syrians are heading for Athens.