Unsettling Encounters – Tourists and Refugees Cross Paths in the Mediterranean

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Özlem Gezer, Frank Hornig, Martin Knobbe, Walter Mayr, Maximilian Popp and Helene Zuber, Aug 7, 2015 (14 Photos in the Gallerytranslated from the German by Christopher Sultan).

Two worlds are colliding on the beaches of the Mediterranean this summer: Vacationers looking for relaxation and migrants seeking relief from poverty or warfare. The result is a moral conundrum for Europe.  

It’s quiet on the beach. Vacationers are still sleeping in their hotels, and the only sound to be heard is of a few dogs barking. Dawn is breaking over Kos.

Rasib Ali drags his body out of the water with the last of his strength. His arms and legs are shaking, his lips are blue and his wet jeans and shirt cling to his body.

The Greek island of Kos is only a few nautical miles from the Turkish coast. Ali, an 18-year-old migrant from Pakistan, left Turkey in a rubber boat the night before. He traveled alone, unable to afford the cost of a spot on board a smugglers’ ship. Not far from Kos, his boat capsized. Though he can’t swim, Ali somehow he managed to make it to the beach.

Some Greek fishermen hurry over, pull Ali’s clothes off and wrap him in a jacket. “Don’t be afraid, boy, you’re safe now,” they say. Ali stares at the sea. “Thank you,” he stammers, “thank you.”

Three hours later, at around 7 a.m., the first hotel guests shuffle out to the shore for an early-morning yoga class, and by noon the beach is full. Families spread out their towels, retirees play bocce and children build sand castles. Tourists snorkel in the exact same spot where Ali almost drowned a few hours earlier.

It’s high season once again, and millions of people are flocking to Mediterranean beaches this summer, from Sicily to the Aegean Sea — vacationers from the north and refugees from the south. The sunny weather promises relaxation and fun to some. To others, those seeking protection from bombs, hunger or poverty, it offers a less dangerous crossing than in fall or winter.

Dazzling white yachts glide across the turquoise-blue water alongside jet-skiers, guests at beach bars sip chilled rosé and tanned Germans, Swedes and Britons model the latest beach fashion along the waterside promenades. But those same waters are also the scene of a gruesome drama with no end in sight. This year alone, more than 1,800 people have already drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe. There are few places in Europe where rich and poor stand in such sharp contrast as in the vacation spots of the Mediterranean.

(Map) … //

… There are no good answers to these questions. Still, we must try to gain a better understanding of Europe’s biggest conflict. A team of SPIEGEL reporters traveled to five places where vastly different worlds collide.

Valletta, Malta (with map): … //
… Melilla, Spain: … //
… Catania, Sicily: … //
… Bodrum, Turkey: … //
… Kos, Greece: … //

… At the end of a long day, Rasib Ali — who spent the night paddling from Bodrum to Kos in his rubber dinghy — also ends up at the Captain Elias. He is looking for a place to sleep, with eyes looking empty above his sunken cheeks. But Ali has reached his goal. He has arrived in Europe. All he has to do now is wait until the Greek authorities issue him a document allowing him to continue his journey. His next stop, he says, is Athens. Or maybe even Germany.

(full text).


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