Lesvos in 2017: from 600,000 abandoned life jackets to an uneasy quiet

Two years after the migrant crisis peaked many NGOs have moved on—but help is still needed, and conditions in the Moria refugee camp have continued to worsen

September 06, 2017
Life jackets in Lesvos. Photo: Socrates Baltagiannis/DPA/PA Images
Life jackets in Lesvos. Photo: Socrates Baltagiannis/DPA/PA Images

It is 8.45 in the evening at the lighthouse above the Korakas reefs in northern Lesvos—sunset, and time for the two lookouts to reach for their night-vision binoculars. Normally, the refugees’ dinghies do not arrive until after midnight. Except that there is no normal. Sometimes, it is the day-time team spotting from Mount Lepetymnos who detect one of the dinghies which has got through the Turkish Coast Guards’ “push back.” But mostly the refugees set off after night falls, aim at the Korakas light, and then need to be saved from its treacherous reefs.

Much has changed since the human flood across the Aegean in 2015. That year, one million refugees entered Europe and half of these did so by crossing the six miles from Turkey to Lesvos in the northern Aegean. In October alone, 135,063 refugees came to the island, around 100 boats arriving each day, the local fishermen doing what they could to save those on the perilously overcrowded small rubber dinghies and bring them to the island’s northern fishing ports of Skala Sykamineas and Molyvos.

This year, arrivals average under 600 per month. For all his bluster, President Recep Tayyip Erdoan has been respecting the March 2016 agreement to counteract “irregular” migration which his (soon sacked) Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutolu, reached with the EU. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees statistics show that in 2017 4,796 refugees had arrived on the island by 24th August. This was only one-third of those who had launched off. The Turkish Coast Guard reports that by that date 9,659 “irregular migrants” had been stopped. Its methods are rough and ready. A video shot in mid-August showed one craft coming close to being capsized by the Turkish Coast Guard’s vessel. Push back is thus a euphemism but, whatever it involves, it is largely working. At a cost. Turkish statistics record 27 deaths this year—and 53 “apprehended organisers.”

On the Greek side, the response is managed by the Hellenic Coast Guard, augmented by vessels from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Frontex now has a Portuguese Coast Guard patrol in Molyvos. There are also two search and rescue craft in Skala Sikimineas, belonging to the NGOs Proactiva Open Arms from Barcelona and Refugee Rescue, a charity registered in Belfast. Refugee Rescue has complained that it is obliged to give 24-hours notice of any sailings: “This has prevented Refugee Rescue performing immediate rescues and has greatly constricted their operation,” it wrote on 8th July. But the Hellenic Coast Guard explains that the notice was purely to ensure that daily emergency response schedules were respected. Visited in Mytilene, it said that it had the resources to handle current refugee flows but would always accept offers of help—and indeed asked Refugee Rescue’s boat, Mo Chara, to take to sea on 19th August.

“The refugees set off after night falls, aim at the Korakas light, and then need to be saved from its treacherous reefs”
Today, there is little trace of the horrendous nights and days of 2015. “For most of 2014 and early 2015, we were left entirely alone, opening the bakery and shops at all hours of the night to support the flood of people passing through,” Giorgios Tsesmetzis, owner of the Café Kavos in Skala Sykamineas, a small fishing port of 140 residents, told me as we sat under his beachside tamarisk trees. A similar situation was faced in Molyvos where Melinda McRostie, a long-term resident, recalls “the enormous, bewildering gap created by Greece’s lack of resources and the failure of nations and aid agencies to recognize the emergency here early on.” As she told Chatham House’s The World Today earlier this year: “no formal or coordinated relief materialised. Amid unbelievable chaos and hardship, there was no choice but to clasp hands and leap in, without resources or experience. That time was a cacophony of ringing phones, dashing about for dry shoes, and bewildered tourists shouting, ‘How can I help?”

She set up Asterias-Starfish, which received nonprofit status in Greece in October 2015. With up to 80 volunteers a day, this established a transit camp in a Molyvos nightclub car park, providing food, water, shelter, medical facilities and buses south. A parallel camp was set up in Skala Sykamineas by Lighthouse Relief Hellas, a Swedish NGO registered in Greece.

In the changed demands of today many other NGOs have now moved on, but these two remain, though have closed their camps and adjusted their operations. McRostie describes how Starfish now concentrates on the practical needs of the 4,000 refugees in the camps of Moria and Kara Tepe, maintaining Needshub, a portal, to help meet daily urgencies in clothing or food. Lighthouse Relief continues to supply the spotting teams operating on Korakas and Lepetymnos. Interviewed in Café Kavos, Ivory Hackett Evans, Lighthouse Relief’s Field Officer, and Hannah Wallace Bowman, its Communication Officer, told me that they had closed down their shore facility in July but retained large items in store in case of a fresh emergency. They had also just suspended Lighthouse ECO Relief, the substantial operation which has cleared Lesbos’s shores of the welter of the 600,000 life jackets and 10,000 rubber dinghies left behind by the refugees who had streamed through. Lighthouse Relief has transferred resources to assist refugees in Ritsona Refugee Camp, 60 kilometres north of Athens, helping young refugees there to publish Ritsona Kingdom Journal, a magazine in which they share their perspectives in ways that one reader describes as “both deeply personal and startlingly universal.”

The March 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey on refugees put a halt to new arrivals but it also dramatically worsened the status of those who had already reached Greece. As Lighthouse Relief describes the deal: “Less than 48 hours after it was reached, Moria was emptied of both refugees, NGO staff and our volunteers and the registration site turned into a detention centre.”
“For most of 2014 and early 2015, we were left entirely alone”
That April, Pope Francis, The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece met on Lesvos “to demonstrate our profound concern for the tragic situation of the numerous refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.” Ten days later, migrants rioted after the Greek and Dutch migration ministers toured Moria, and conditions there have continued to worsen.

In July this year, Médecins Sans Frontières published an anguished description of the worsening health conditions at the camp. Until May 2017, Médecins du Monde was the main provider of services. Then the Hellenic Red Cross took over, with drastically reduced services. From June, instead of four doctors available for 105 hours per week, shifts averaging only 1.5 doctors are available for 40 hours.

Moria was originally built for 1,500 refugees and now houses 3,000. This summer has seen a number of hunger strikes and clashes between the refugees and armed police. Migrants set fire to facilities there after some were told their asylum requests were rejected and they would be deported to Turkey.

Moria is run by the Interior Ministry in Athens. However, nearby Kara Tepe camp comes under the Mytilene Municipality. This has over 700 refugees, many of them women and young children from Syria, already living in this open camp, in reportedly decent conditions. "After recent riots broke out in Moria, we managed to get about 60 people from there, mainly young families with children, and bring them to our own camp in Kara Tepe just to give them a sense of security," Mayor Spiros Galinos told DW (Deutsche Welle), according to an article published on 21st July. A number of NGOs are able to help there, including the local Eliaktida and Movement on the Ground, a Dutch NGO which has constructed a Community Centre at Kara Tepe.

After the riots, 35 had been arrested. Police treatment of these was sufficiently disturbing for Amnesty International to call for an urgent investigation. A few days later, police surrounded the camp, prevented humanitarian workers from entering and arrested 54 people. Some were released but 23 were incarcerated in the camp’s Block B. The Legal Centre Lesvos is acting for these. Its August Report on Rights Violations and Resistance in Lesvos describes cases of illegal detention, discrimination on the basis of nationality and asylum applicants being denied their right to free legal assistance during appeals.

For Mayor Galinos, the problems are being created in Athens and it is there that protests should be directed—and to Turkey which he has just accused of allowing a doubling of refugee outflows. But now it is the tensions from the crammed conditions in Moria rather than scenes on the beaches which continue to discourage tourism. Few of the cancelled charter flights have been reinstated. As Giorgios Tsesmetzis of Café Kavos told me: “Last year was terrible. This year, things are slightly better, but business is still 60 per cent down on the years before the crisis.”