During the media hype around the refugee crisis back in 2015, the Greek Island of Lesbos became the symbol for the big influx of people coming to Europe. Due to its geographical location it was, and still is, the place where many refugees enter European territory for the first time. Many people that we talked to in various camps across the Balkans told us that here is where their personal journey within Europe towards a safer life started.
We have spent a full week on Lesbos to explore the current situation for refugees and to look for background stories to the countless images of boats on the Aegean Sea which dominated the press before the borders closed in March this year.
Cleaning Rabbit Island
Personal belongings that were left behind upon arrival, hundreds of rubber dinghies that were not durable enough to make their way back to Turkey together with countless life vests painted the beaches of Lesbos so black and orange that, according to locals, it was to be seen miles away from passing ships on the ocean. This made environmental pollution to a forefront issue and had an impact on the quality of many beautiful tourist spots of the island. Local initiatives are thus conducting daily beach clean ups to tackle this problem. We were able to volunteer for a day with one of these private movements. After four hours of work we loaded a whole boat with rubbish from the island Ai Yiorgi just out of the city of Petra, which our skipper called ‘Rabbit Island’ due to the hundreds of rabbits living in that Wildlife Reserve. The trash bags that we filled contained plastic bottles, glass containers, fishing lines, shoes and other debris. Our most bizarre findings were old shotgun and machine gun ammunition. Even a used smoke grenade made its way into our collection.
Hospitality Center Kara Tepe
The following day we visited the municipality-run hospitality center for migrants in Kara Tepe. Living conditions there were surprisingly humanized in comparison to what we have seen elsewhere. This is in our opinion largely due to the commander-in-charge there. He did talk to us only off-record but we witnessed how he treated every inhabitant under his watch with the same dignity and love that a father has for his own children:
“This is not a refugee camp. This is a village, where the refugees can experience the hospitality of the local people of Lesbos. In the end, we are the first encounter that these people have with Europe.”
Under his guidance numerous NGO’s were able to conduct very beneficial projects in the center. We saw community gardens where vegetables were riping, cooking possibilities and a ‘hygiene store’ run by the International Rescue Committee where people could pick and choose whatever donated products they needed to stay clean and healthy. For the evening we received a personal invitation to attend their own ‘Children Olympic Games’ in honor of the opening of Rio. In the presence of the mayor of Lesbos, kids were able to complete a sports parcour. Their smiles after they jumped, ran and climbed multiple obstacles spoke volumes. The only thing that we were a little startled by was the lenghty opening speech of a UNHCR representative. Due to the use of countless difficult phrases and notions her speech seemed more appropriate for a formal fundraiser dinner and not some 150 children who were largely occupied with cheerfully giving hugs and high-fives to the visitors and volunteers.
A Simple Fisherman and a Life-Saving Hero
Al Jazeera has been a fruitful source of information throughout our trip about current developments regarding migration and mobility in Europe. Coincidentally, one of their reports popped up on our Facebook about Kostas Pinteris, a local fisherman and Nobel Prize nominee (according to the Lesbos mayor’s office) from the north coast of Lesbos. We did not hesitate and rented a scooter to drive to his little hometown Skala and learn more about his story. Upon our arrival in the small village we met some fishermen who told us where to find Kostas. We met him in a restaurant nearby and after some initial small talk he called his friend and photographer Dimitris Michalakis to translate for us. Soon enough we were invited on his small blue fisher-boat, which is by now more than thirty years old and named after Kostas’ mother. When the numbers of arrivals reached a daily count of more than 5000, Kostas stopped fishing entirely and started rescuing migrants. He opened his fisher-boat, his house, and first and foremost his big heart to those in need. He revealed in our interview that this did not only stop him from receiving any income but also had a challenging impact on him emotionally as he was on more than one occasion facing a capsized inflatable all by himself, taking dozens of migrants on board and bringing them safely to shore. He told us that there were even days where the police called him in the middle of the night asking if he could undergo a search & rescue mission because all other ships were busy with pick-ups at other locations.
The Role of the Municipality
To better understand the situation on Lesbos we were invited to talk to the senior adviser of the mayor Marios Andriotis. He was kind and open and informed us about the statistics, the long history of migration on the island, the cooperation with national and international bodies and told us about the countless efforts of the municipality to manage the influx of refugees to the best of their abilities. There are even plans to build a statue in Mytilini to publicly commemorate the bravery of the locals and the hardships of the migrants.
Facing an unpredictable Future
All in all we were highly surprised of the resilience and ethics of the Lesbos community. They have been welcoming migrants since the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. However, the lack of governmental and international support during the most recent massive influx has strained the patience of the island inhabitants as there is only so much that their small economy can handle. We did find out that Erdogan’s threats to cancel the EU-Turkey deal in the aftermath of the attempted coup caused more refugees to flee this uncertainty. Numbers of arrivals per week are now back in the hundreds. And with every new boat that arrives in Lesbos, about fifty stories are added to the mountain of uncertain futures which is currently building up against the closed Greek-Macedonian border. Over 55.000 people are currently stuck in Greece and their fate is as predictable as next week’s lottery results. Continuously placing human lives in a playing field of contradictory national solutions cannot be in the best interest of the European identity, if there is one that is. Opening borders and sustainably integrating across the continent or closing of borders and properly enforcing such – whichever solution Europe will opt for in the long term, our stay in Lesbos showed us once again that it is important to implement a common policy as soon as possible. Getting rid of the uncertainty that is currently dominating the minds of all people on the Balkan Route – volunteers, government workers, journalists, citizens and refugees alike – must be top priority.
Although this largely sums up our experience on Lesbos, we haven’t shared with you one special event that took place during our stay on the island. Hint: our next blog post will be dedicated to Frontex!
To be continued…