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 worsenby David Tonge / September 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
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 Erdoğan has been respecting the March 2016 agreement to counteract “irregular” migration which his (soon sacked) Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, 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.