Unsettling Encounters Tourists and Refugees Cross Paths in the Mediterranean

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. By SPIEGEL Staff

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.


Hoteliers and mayors are doing their best to keep the two groups of foreigners apart. But encounters happen nonetheless, in inexpensive guesthouses, where the poorest of the vacationers and the richest of the migrants stay side-by-side, or in beach shops, where they buy the same inflatable boats -- some for enjoyment and others as a means of escape. They can also encounter one another on the high seas. And then there are the tragic moments when plastic bags containing passports, loose change and shoes wash up next to the tourists' beach chairs -- or when bodies are found in the gentle surf.

Difficult questions are part of this summer's reality on the Mediterranean and along its beaches. What does our dream destination on the northern Mediterranean coast look like to those who reach it from places like Eritrea and Syria? Is it okay to vacation in places where others are engaged in a life-or-death struggle? And can we simply look the other way and ignore the suffering, to preserve Europe as the idyllic place it remains today, despite the euro crisis?

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

They both had the same destination, and both came by ship. Kofi Koami came from Libya, a voyage of 350 kilometers (215 miles) across the sea, in a cutter with 80 other migrants. That was more than four years ago. Eva Maria Bannert came from Catania, a 260-kilometer voyage, on a cruise ship with 2,500 other vacationers on a Sunday this summer. Both of them landed on the island of Malta, but that is the only thing they have in common.

Bannert, 67, is strolling through the historic section of the Maltese capital Valletta. A native of the Bavarian city of Bayreuth, she admires a painting in St. John's Cathedral by Caravaggio, more than 400 years old, along with massive marble gravestones. She gazes down from the Barrakka Gardens at the harbor, where the cruise ship glitters in the sun, and she takes pictures of screeching children as they run through a fountain, with the Grandmaster's Palace in the background.

She and her friend Edith Hübner have separated themselves from the group so that they can explore the city on their own. It is the last day of their trip, the end of a week-long, round-trip cruise from Malta on the Mein Schiff 3, with stops in Piraeus, Mykonos, Bodrum and Catania. They ate well on board, they laughed when the captain performed in the "Crew Show," and they relaxed by the pool, gazing out at the sea and the sky. Bannert is a retiree, and this is her 10th cruise. "I still want to see a lot of different countries," she says. "I think everyone should be interested in other cultures."

Kofi Koami, as he calls himself in Malta, is sitting in a dark room just 100 meters from the Grandmaster's Palace. He collects 30 cents from everyone who walks into the room. It is Valletta's nicest public toilet, he says, and probably the nicest one in Malta. With its red curtains in the vestibule and heavy, mirrored doors leading to the toilets, he might be right. Once every half hour, Koami wipes the doors to keep them shiny. He likes it when cruise-ship passengers are in the city. There are so many of them, and they are friendly, friendlier than the Maltese, and most of them pay good tips, especially the Germans. He will probably take home €40 or €50 today, after 10 hours of working without a break. He is actually helping out a friend who couldn't make it to work this week, so he'll be out of a job again next week.

Graphic: How migrants reach Europe.

Graphic: How migrants reach Europe.

Then he'll once again spend his days in the asylum seekers shelter, where life revolves around the billiard table in the lounge, a watermelon stand, two snack bars and a mosque. "No refugee wants to stay in Malta," says Koami. "The only problem is: You can't get away from here."

He is 22, and there are deep scars on his cheeks, a tribal tradition, as he says. He was born in Burkina Faso, and after his father died at an early age, he lived in Ghana and Nigeria before going to Libya, where he found a trafficker with a boat. He was picked up by the coast guard, and he has now been in Malta since 2011.

The European Union criticized Malta in the past for jailing migrants immediately upon arrival or trying to send them back to Africa. It took some time, but now the government has finally reacted to the criticism. Hardly any migrants are jailed nowadays, every asylum application is reviewed and two out of three are approved. Those who remain in Malta are allowed to attend local schools, and they are also permitted to work, provided they can find any.

But integration has its limits, as the tourism minister readily admits. "Of course, we try to keep the two things apart, tourism and the refugee problem," says Edward Zammit Lewis, noting that most visitors come to Malta to relax and enjoy themselves. His country receives 1.7 million visitors a year, and the minister wants to see that number increase.

"As far the refugees go, we have a policy of integration," says Lewis, but notes that that is only one side of the story. "For those who do not abide by the rules, we have a different policy, namely prosecution and arrest."

Bannert and her friend have returned to port. She did have her qualms at some point, she says. Can you go on a cruise in the same body of water where thousands of people are currently drowning? Can you sip cocktails in a deck chair, while others are dying of thirst only a few kilometers away?

She asked herself these questions often during her week at sea, in the evening, for example, when she was gazing out into the dark night from her balcony. Or off the coast of Greece, when the waves were three meters high, she found herself thinking of the small rubber rafts. She believes she even saw one of these boats at a distance from the cruise ship. She suddenly felt great pity for the people on board, but she also felt guilty. "But what is the right response?" she asks. "Not to go? Doesn't that harm the countries in question, which may need tourism more than ever before?"

Many concerned customers have been calling tour operators, wanting to know what would happen were their cruise ship to encounter a refugee boat. Will the refugees be brought on board, perhaps even their bodies? Under international maritime law, the crew of every ship is obliged to assist another ship in distress. Crews are trained for such incidents, and cruise ships even have specially trained personnel on board to help explain the situation to passengers.

Eva Maria Bannert places her suitcase on the bus that will take her to the airport. She is looking forward to her next vacation. Kofi Koami locks the public toilet building a short time later. He says that he will stay here a few months longer, but then he wants to move on, perhaps to Germany, England or France. He wants to leave Malta, but he just doesn't know how he'll do it yet.

Melilla, Spain

The residents of Melilla are familiar with defense measures. The Spaniards captured the city in North Africa in 1497, built a citadel with four concentric walls and sealed themselves off from the surrounding area. Melilla became a Spanish enclave on the African continent.

These days, though, they have begun feeling uncomfortable with their role as an outpost of Fortress Europe. "We have the ugly part," says Francisco Mateo, the city's deputy director of tourism. "We are the bouncer outside a nightclub deciding who gets in and who gets thrown out."

Mateo has fond memories of his boyhood, when he used to play with Moroccan children on Mount Gurugú. At the time, only a knee-high fence marked the border, designed to keep animals off the city's streets. The Spaniards have repeatedly raised the fence since then. La Valla, as it is known, is now a bulwark consisting of three rows of fine-mesh fencing. It is 11.5 kilometers (7.1 miles) long, 6 to 8 meters (20 to 26 feet) high and 3 meters wide, reinforced with razor wire, equipped with motion sensors and infrared cameras, and patrolled by the Spanish police force, the Guardia Civil. Nevertheless, a total of some 16,000 migrants, moving in large groups, stormed this iron curtain more than 70 times last year, often enduring deep cuts on their hands and feet.

A photo taken in October 2014 shows Sub-Saharan Africans clinging to the top of the fence, as golfers in snow-white outfits hit their balls among palm trees growing out of the manicured grass. The photo caused an outcry throughout Europe.

This is the photo, taken by Jose Palazon, that attracted attention throughout Europe and the world.
Jose Palazon Osma/ DER SPIEGEL

This is the photo, taken by Jose Palazon, that attracted attention throughout Europe and the world.

Since early 2015, very few migrants have managed to reach the border fence, now that Moroccan security forces have cleared the camps previously occupied by Sub-Saharan Africans. They are now building a new fence on their side.

Miguel Angel is sitting in front of the clubhouse at the Campo de Golf, as he slips off his white golf shoes and puts on flip-flops. He understands the criticism, he says. "But we citizens of Melilla also have to live."

The Spanish government spent €3.5 million, and the European Union provided a subsidy of €1.4 million, to improve the quality of life of the city's 85,000 Europeans. Part of the money was used to build the new golf course. "Building isn't allowed here, so close to the fence, so why not use the land?" asks Miguel Angel, who prefers not to provide his last name. "Of course, if we see the fence being stormed while we're playing golf, we can't exactly look away," he says. "Out of decency," he adds, he and his fellow golfers then continue their game at a more distant hole.

His hometown may even benefit from the photo, as well known internationally as it is controversial. When Mateo recently attended a tourism conference in London, colleagues asked him about it. "We didn't know that you have a golf course," they said. Now Mateo wants to market the course as one of Melilla's attractions. A visit to the historic district, spending time on the beach, playing golf, and excursions to the desert and to Morocco's historic sites could easily be combined as a package for short vacations, he says.

Right next to the golf course is the refugee camp built by the Spanish authorities in 2000. Designed for 500 people, it now houses close to 1,500. At first, it was almost exclusively Africans who were coming to the city, says Director Carlos Montero, but since last summer, most of the new arrivals have been Syrians. Instead of climbing the fence, they enter Melilla through the Beni Ensar international border crossing, where they can apply for asylum.

Montero can't complain about the exclusive neighborhood. "The club president even offered to provide our refugees with free golf lessons." He of course refused the offer, Montero adds.

Catania, Sicily

Moharam was in a hurry. He jumped off the fishing boat that had taken him across the Mediterranean from Libya as soon as it hit a sandbar. He was determined not to be caught this time.

He had been apprehended four times before in Italy and deported as an "illegal." Moharam Walid, 27, was born in Egypt and had always dreamed of going to Europe. He wanted his fifth attempt to be a success.

He was only 15 meters from the beach, just a couple of steps in shallow water, he thought. But coastal waters in Catania, Sicily can be deep even close to shore. And Walid couldn't swim. He drowned just a few feet from his destination.

The words "Cause of death: hope," are engraved on the commemorative plaque in the waters off the Lido Verde beach resort, a memorial of that Aug. 10, 2013, when Walid and five other Egyptians paid for their dream of a better future with their lives. Now as then, beach chairs stand near the spot where their bodies were found in the sand. Dario Monteforte is sitting in the bar where the survivors of the 2013 tragedy received emergency assistance.

With his designer stubble and shoulder-length hair, Monteforte, 44, is the manager of the Lido Verde, a family-owned resort for the last 60 years. "At about 4 a.m., when it was still dark outside, I heard a loud racket outside my apartment here at the beach resort. I went outside right away, where I encountered the first of the migrants, who were shouting: 'Where is the exit?' They wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, and they were grateful that I didn't stop them." The local fire department later recovered six bodies.

In 2014, some 170,000 migrants reached Italy's coasts after traveling across the Mediterranean. In the same period, close to 50 million foreign tourists visited the country, generating €40 billion in revenues. This year, Sicily expects the number of visitors to increase by 10 percent. One reason vacationers are still visiting the coasts of southern Italy in such large numbers is that beachgoers rarely get a glimpse of the migrants, not to mention dead ones, as was the case at the Lido Verde in 2013.

"It was an apocalyptic scene that day," says Monteforte. "There were bodies on the beach here and survivors from the fishing boat, while over there" -- he points to the harbor -- "three brightly lit cruise ships were at anchor." The vacationers were so close to the tragic scene, he says, "and yet, trapped in their own reality, so far away."

Everyone, locals and tourists alike, he says, must "ask themselves what they can do, in their own way, for these refugees." At the time, in August 2013, after the police and fire department divers had finally left the scene, he closed the Lido for two days. "I was in a panic, thinking there still might be bodies lying around in the water."

Finding the migrants stranded in Sicily isn't difficult. Mina, a young Egyptian, is one of them, as is Pomadou, from Gambia, along with all the rest waiting in and around Catania to continue their journeys. They spend their days outside the Regina Elena refugee center or the La Madonnina reception center for minors, which is located along the road up to the summit of Mt. Etna. From the courtyard, they can watch the tourist buses slogging up the mountain.

They can also be found on the beach, usually on Saturdays and Sundays. At around five in the afternoon, as the heat begins to abate, boys from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa walk with their yellow leather ball past the Romano Palace, a five-star hotel where, at this hour, waiters are already discreetly disposing of the first empty wine bottles at the pool.

Only a few steps away, not far from the Lido Verde, at the "free beach," covered with garbage and broken glass, the migrants play football.

On this evening, Monteforte spends a long time ruminating at the beach. Those who see migrants as nothing but a threat, rather than as a valuable contribution to society, know nothing about the region's history, he says. "The sea, and the unobstructed view of the horizon, that's the soul of Catania. The sea represents hope and the prospect of a better future."

Bodrum, Turkey

The place shared by the world's rich and the poorest of the poor is a long wooden jetty. There are lounge chairs and blue umbrellas, and a small flight of stairs leading down the turquoise-blue Aegean Sea.

By day, the jetty belongs to the wealthy, the tourists who travel to Turkey's Bodrum Peninsula, to swim in the pool at the luxury hotel on the hill, get massages in the spa or, on the private beach below, experience the peace and quiet they expect in return for the hotel's high prices. Here, they lie in the sun and rub sunscreen on their skin, order cocktails and enjoy the view of the Greek island of Kos, only a few miles across the water.

At night, though, the jetty belongs to the poor, the refugees and migrants who come here from all over the world, from countries like Pakistan, Burma and Syria. From Bodrum, they attempt to paddle in inflatable dinghies to a new life in Europe.

It is shortly after 5 a.m., as dawn breaks over Bodrum, and there are about 30 people standing on the jetty. They had wanted to go to Kos the night before, but there were too few boats and not enough space. Now it's too late and too light outside so they walk over to a bus that takes them to the center of town, where they will wait until nightfall to return to the jetty for their next attempt.

In town, they congregate in a small park at the marina, with its manicured lawns and red roses. Hundreds of migrants are gathered here on this morning, with temperatures already at 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit). Fidan, 27, is sitting under a tree, staring out at the sea. It terrifies her, because she can't swim -- and because she has heard about the people who drown in its waters, night after night.

Fidan uses the toilet at the Waffle House, and she fills her thermos with hot water from Domino's Pizza across the street. Her sons have coughs, and the youngest has had a fever for days. The older one has head lice.

Fidan is from Aleppo in Syria, where her husband collected scrap metal, barely earning enough to feed the family. "The rich have money, and we have God," she says. She used to be familiar with Bodrum from Turkish soap operas, but now that she is here as a refugee. She watches female tourists walk past her in high hells, sometimes buying ice cream for her children. Two of the yachts at anchor in the marina across the street are called Primadonna and Shakespeare in Love.

She is grateful for the tourists' handouts, says Fidan, but there have been days when she and her family were so hungry they could have eaten grass, while the vacationers were slurping down oysters. She doesn't like the way the tourists look at her, or their pity and constant questions about why she is here.

When asked, Fidan always responds with one word: "Bombs." She doesn't tell the tourists that she was actually happy in Aleppo, and that it was an ordinary afternoon when her life changed forever. She doesn't say that she was in the kitchen cooking when the bombs struck her friend's house next door, ripping off the arms and legs of her children. That was the day Fidan, her husband and their four children left home.

At night, Fidan removes her headscarf and ties one end around her children's ankles and the other around her wrist. She is afraid that someone will steal her children, or throw them into the sea. She has experienced a lot of hostility in recent weeks.

The restaurant owners say that with their begging, people like Fidan are ruining their business. The bus drivers say that the refugees stink and shouldn't get on their buses, and that they should walk instead, since that is what they are accustomed to. Some of the tourists throw stones at them from their hotel balconies.

A few hundred meters from Fidan's tree, waiters are serving fresh-squeezed orange juice on the beach. A party truck with go-go dancers drives by, advertising a foam party. The mood is festive on the beach, until a group of young men arrive and sit down at the water's edge.

They are the refugees from the park. They are not loud and they are not out to disturb people. All they want to do is cool off, put their feet in the water and go swimming.

"Get Out of the Water Immediately!" a man shouts from his lounge chair. A female tourist quickly takes her son out of the water. "Why don't you go fight in your country, instead of going swimming here, you stateless sons of bitches," says another man.

The people on the lounge chairs call the police -- all but one women, wearing a pink bikini, who stands in front of the refugees and says: "Go back in the water immediately." She berates the angry tourists as racists and tells them to leave the refugees alone. "The sea belongs to all of us," she says.

While the tourists argue, the refugees disappear into side streets. They seem to be welcome there. Some guesthouse owners rent them empty rooms for €10, and supermarkets sell them life vests for €15.

By evening, the main bus terminal in Bodrum is overrun once again. The refugees are waiting for the last bus that will take them to the jetty at the luxury beach. Once they arrive there, they hide in the bushes behind the bus stop and wait until the music dies down, the lights go off and the tourists drift off to sleep in the luxury hotel.

Those who hope to reach Europe from Bodrum usually can't afford to pay traffickers. In Bodrum, the refugees organize their own passage, pooling the last of their funds to buy inflatable dinghies at the supermarket. They don't know how dangerous the currents are in the Aegean -- or, if they do know, they are willing to accept the risk, especially having survived so many dangers already.

As soon as night falls, the Turkish coast guard begins patrolling the waters, both to save people from drowning and prevent them from leaving the coast. But there are too many rubber dinghies in the water, as the refugees all leave at the same time, so that at least a few of them will make it through. Hundreds leave Bodrum every night. Last year, the Turkish coast guard prevented 1,500 people from crossing to Greece, while this year the number has already skyrocketed to 12,000. No one knows how many have drowned.

On land, police patrol the streets. Shortly before 4 a.m., a man is walking back and forth on the beach, talking into his phone. A few minutes later, seven men emerge from the bushes, barefoot, carrying a rubber dinghy on their shoulders. They run across the jetty, place the boat into the water and get in. But there are too many of them, and the boat quickly fills up with water. The men become nervous, and before long they run back into the bushes. By now it's too late, because they have been spotted by police driving by. The officers fire their weapons into the air.

The jetty, where sunscreen and cocktail glasses predominate during the day, becomes littered with bullet casings.

Kos, Greece

Two crises of global politics are currently unfolding in Greece, but Giorgos Kiritsis, the mayor of Kos, could do without the drama. The island off the Turkish coast is normally a vacation paradise, but many tourists are staying away this season, deterred by the euro crisis and fears of a Grexit. Will there be enough money in the ATMs? Will they be able to buy food? Kiritsis has his hands full dispelling the tourists' fears.

Other visitors are not deterred by the euro drama, which to them is nothing but a farce. Thousands of them are waiting across the water in Bodrum for a favorable opportunity to make the crossing, to follow in the footsteps of Rasib Ali, the Pakistani migrant with whom this story began.

The passage from Turkey's Anatolian coast to Greek islands like Kos, Rhodes, Samos and Lesbos has become one of the most popular migrant routes to Europe. The crossing is short, and Turkey, as a staging post, is safer than places like Libya. Some 68,000 refugees arrived in Greece in the first six months of this year, including several thousand on Kos. The number is higher than ever before

In May, the British tabloid Daily Mail wrote that migrants are turning Kos from a popular vacation spot into a "disgusting hellhole."

Mayor Kiritsis's office, in a grand building at the Kos harbor, is filled with heavy wooden furniture and images of the saints. Kiritsis is a jovial man with a firm handshake, wearing a white Lacoste shirt. The Daily Mail article still infuriates him. After the article was published, the island's tourism agency received almost daily calls and emails from concerned vacationers wanting to know whether migrants are living all over the town, and whether they are also frequenting hotels.

Kiritsis sits down at his computer. He has launched a counter-campaign on the Internet, complete with a video designed to highlight the island's attractive features, from its sandy beaches to Greek cuisine. Kos is a safe place, he says, and not a crisis area.

Migrants and tourists do encounter each other on Kos. Carola Hüls, 24, is wearing sunglasses, flip-flops and a tight top. The engineering student from Dresden is taking a short vacation on Kos with her boyfriend, Lukas. She says that she was surprised to see "the blacks" in the city, but that she has not paid much attention to their plight. "The migrants aren't doing anything to me, and I don't do anything to them."

The authorities do their best to keep the two spheres apart. When they arrive, the migrants are taken to empty quarters on the outskirts of the town. The words "Hotel Captain Elias" are painted in red letters on the whitewashed building, and palm trees line the driveway. But the last vacationers left long ago, and now men from Syria and Pakistan stand on the balconies.

Garbage bags are piled up in front of the entrance, there are shabby mattresses on the floor in the lobby and the plaster is peeling from the walls. The place smells like rotten eggs. Every now and then, a bus will pass by Captain Elias, with tourists leaning from the windows to take photos of the migrants.

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.

By Özlem Gezer, Frank Hornig, Martin Knobbe, Walter Mayr, Maximilian Popp and Helene Zuber

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Discuss this issue with other readers!
6 total posts
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spiegelerin 08/09/2015
1. What of those left behind?
Fidan's neighbor can't leave because the legs and arms of her children have been blown off. Shouldn't the E.U. evacuate every last Libyan out of the country? Why does the squeaky wheel get the grease? Where is the social justice in that?
Fred 08/11/2015
As long as it is not the north africa beaches, it is safe.
asilaink57 08/11/2015
3. Fake altruist
If the West are true altruists.They should not have happily done businesses with such totalitarian ,authoritarian regimes to help them to consolidate their power grip. Any leader of any country who let their living in TERRIBLE POVERTY for centuries, millenniums MUST BE DENOUNCED, CONDEMNED IN HARSHEST WAY POSSIBLE because it's a BARBARIC ACT, IT'S 2ND CLASS CRIME AGAINST HUMAN BEING
spiegelerin 08/13/2015
4. DL is going to get louder and rowdier
Seen the latest from Kos? These are rich people (paying $6000 cash for the trip) who are loud and confrontational. I already go to the downtown shopping center in my town less often. I miss quiet German conversations around me.
cdherz44 08/15/2015
5. Refugees
Your Europe once again takes the consequences of the wars sponsored by my USA. I am so very sorry, but really you should not be so subservient to Washington.
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