A letter from Lesvos

06 January 2016

Dimitris Ballas  - Associate Fellow, SPERI; Senior Lecturer in Geography, University of Sheffield; Associate Professor of Geography, University of the Aegean

The inspiring humanity of many ordinary European citizens in the face of the refugee crisis contrasts shockingly with the limited actions of European governments

I am writing this post at the beginning of 2016 in my office at the University of the Aegean, part of which is situated on the island of Lesvos, near to Turkey. I’ve been working at the University here since last April on special unpaid leave from Sheffield and inevitably I’ve been reflecting on what has been an extraordinary year for an island that has not only become one of the hotspots in the worst global refugee crisis in recent history but is also located in a country going through financial implosion following a sustained recession.  Throughout the past months I’ve witnessed heart-breaking, shocking and overwhelming images, but I’ve also seen extraordinarily touching manifestations of humanity and compassion.

According to the most recent estimates by the International Organisation of Migration, at least 650 refugees have died in desperate attempts to reach the shores of Greek islands, travelling in dinghies and other unseaworthy vessels often in extremely dangerous weather conditions. Most of these tragic deaths occurred just off the coasts of Lesvos, very near to where I’ve been living.  In many cases they included the deaths of babies and young children. The UNHCR estimated that one million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, with a significant increase in numbers and changes in regional patterns compared to 2014. Of these, more than 80% arrived in the Greek islands, with an estimated half a million arriving in Lesvos alone.

A data snapshot for Lesvos island shows the dramatic increase of the monthly arrivals throughout 2015, going up from 742 in January 2015 to 5,440 in April; then rapidly rising in the summer months and peaking at 135,063 in October. They arrived in an island with a population of just 85,000. July and August were particularly challenging, given that it was the peak tourist season which meant that all scheduled passenger ferries were fully booked and it was thus impossible for refugees to leave the island. In addition, most of them had to walk for days in extreme heat along mountain roads to reach Mytilene, the capital and main port of the island. Throughout August and early September more than 20,000 refugees were estimated to be stranded in the island each day due to passenger ferries being booked to capacity with most of them staying in Mytilene (a town with a population of just under 40,000).  Their numbers included many families with babies and elderly people staying in tents or outside in public parks, streets and beaches.  Most aimed to travel to the mainland and from there to northern Europe, although some chose to stay.

These people are coming to one of the least affluent island regions of Greece, a country that saw its per capita income shrink by a quarter over the past six years.  Unemployment rates rose to more than 25% as the country went through the worst political and economic crisis in its recent history, generating widespread pessimism about the future amongst its people. However, what has been remarkable, encouraging and indeed inspiring to witness has been the many expressions of the positive attitude of the local population.  The people of Lesvos have reached out to refugees, making so many spontaneous acts of generosity and humanity that it is impossible to describe them all.  They have ranged from just smiling and making others feel welcome, to buying and giving food and clothing, to offering transport and accommodation, to rescue at sea and sometimes engaging in the grim task of arranging a proper burial for the bodies that washed ashore, as well as generally being involved in or setting up formal and informal volunteering organisations. The people doing this have themselves suffered so much so recently and have so little material resources; but they have good hearts, are kind, and recognise when people they have never before met are in desperate need.

Photo by Lydia Hague on Unsplash

As one of the local volunteers put it, ‘even if Greece is bankrupt and we have no money, we will still have our bodies and we will help the people who need us’. The vast majority of work has been done by the islanders themselves, but they have also been joined by NGOs and people coming here from all over the world, offering help and forming waves of humanity laid bare on the shores of Europe: ‘often taking unpaid leave from work, bringing their own equipment and living in whatever accommodation they can find; a nurse from Palestine, a doctor from Israel, lifeguards from Barcelona; from Bolton to Oslo, everyday people are making a difference’. Volunteers coming from afar include the American actress Susan Sarandon and the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who is setting up a studio in Lesvos to highlight the plight of refugees.

There has also been a strengthening of existing local volunteering groups and networks as well as new teams of volunteers emerging who have been increasingly co-ordinating their efforts. The University of the Aegean has also been supporting these volunteering activities by making formal plans and proposals for open access and enrolment of the refugees, as well as offering support to the local authorities by drawing on the expertise of academic staff (who have, for example, translated texts and signs into Arabic to help the refugees) and by supporting on-going efforts by staff and students in all that they are doing in their own time and with their own resources to help.

However, all these amazing manifestations of humanity and solidarity have not so far been matched by adequate government policies and actions at the national, European and global levels. The European Union has put forward emergency plans for all member-states to relocate 120,000 migrants and refugees across the continent over the next two years and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Germans to see refugee arrivals as an opportunity in her New Year address. Nevertheless, these actions are inadequate and disproportionately small when considered against the sheer scale of the crisis and the huge resources European states have at their disposal.  In addition, some European politicians and many media reports have tended to approach the refugee and migration crisis as a failure of immigration control, often adopting a toxic discourse, rather than seizing the opportunity to celebrate humanity and uphold ideological and humanitarian responsibilities that are usually considered to be pan-European and universal ideals.

In addition to the obvious humanitarian imperatives, there is also a very strong economic case for refugees and immigrants to be welcomed, especially given their demographic and educational profile and the potential contribution that they can make to the economies and pensions systems of European countries increasingly faced with a demographic and pension crisis. Also, there are non-monetary benefits for countries like the UK and cities like London, where the integration of people with diverse backgrounds can be culturally enriching.

At a time when the numbers of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea are increasing, the foremost action that is needed should be to make urgent arrangements for the safe transportation of the refugees by licensed passenger ferries or airplanes rather than dinghies. For example, an air ticket costs massively less than the amounts refugees pay to travel in unseaworthy boats, but it is not possible for refugees to travel that way due to the apparent misuse of EU Directive 2001/51/EC. In my view, what is happening now will be seen in the future as a crime.  Refugees were barred from much travel within Europe during the Second World War and many died as a result.  The famous Kindertransports were only Kinder-transports because the children’s parents were barred entry.  We too easily forget the errors of the past when they should be valuable lessons for today.

As late Papa Stratis, founder of the NGO Agkalia (meaning ‘Embrace’) in Lesvos put it:   ‘What I see are people.  People in need.  I cannot turn them away, nor can I kick them, nor imprison them.  I cannot send them back to where they came from.  Nor can I throw them in the sea to drown.’

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