Faced with an ocean of refugees flooding the island, the local population was dumbfounded, fearful, and tied up in knots. They shut their doors and turned their heads: “it was as if a dark cloud of death had descended on their minds, and so they felt nothing. They did not want to see anything or to hear anything that was happening on the other side of their doors.” The end of this story is well-known: with courage and a great will to live, the refugees put down roots and found their way.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Lesbos again experienced a wave of refugees who came via Asia Minor. This group, mainly from Afghanistan, came to the island with the hope of putting war behind them. Most of them were held for a year or more in cramped conditions near the capital of Lesbos. Their conditions only started improving once the detention center was closed in 2009, thanks to the efforts of local volunteers who had alerted European groups to the problem.
But the Greek debt crisis soon followed.
For several years, the flow of refugees lessened. When it began to increase again, at the end of 2012, volunteers from all over the island came together without any government support to provide help. Thousands of refugees were housed in a former holiday camp, where they were offered clean clothing, blankets, and food, as well as love and compassion.
Lesbos became known as an all-European model for solidarity. Resisting the xenophobia that was growing in Greece and in Europe as a whole, the citizens of Lesbos reached out to the refugees, refusing to listen to those who were promoting hate. The neo-fascist anti-immigrant party known as Golden Dawn gained less support in recent elections in Lesbos than in most other parts of Greece.
The good will of the people of Lesbos is currently being tested by the wave of migrants arriving on our shores. According to estimates, more than 20,000 refugees have arrived in our island alone in the first five months of 2015. There are no systems in place to deal with them.
Yes, the European Community has dedicated resources to the “refugee problem,” but most of that has gone into patrolling the borders in hopes of stemming the flood of refugees—not to helping those who arrive on European shores.
Those who arrive in northern Lesbos are currently being welcomed and fed by volunteers, but the Coast Guard does not have the resources to transport them to the capital city for processing. Thus they are being told—mothers and babies among them—that they must walk 60 kilometers on mountainous roads in summer heat to reach their next destination.
Once they arrive in the capital city, the Coast Guard is not able to accept and process all of them, because the reception center cannot cope with the numbers. Thus, thousands of refugees sit in the harbor, hoping the authorities will arrest them and be forced to process them.
The residents of Lesbos are once again starting to feel afraid of the influx of refugees. In the touristic village of Molivos, at the same time that both locals and foreigners are helping the new arrivals, while others are complaining that the refugee problem “spoils the vacations of tourists to be faced with seeing so many refugees.”
People are getting fed up
The situation seems to be too demanding for government officials to cope with it. The mayor of the island has been trying to find a place where the refugees can stay while they are being processed, but the regional government has not yet lifted its hand. The Minister of Immigration visited the island, but no interventions followed. The European Community appears to be unwilling to get involved.
This state of affairs plays right into the hands of the racists and xenophobes. Rumours are spreading about the refugees—lies about diseases they are carrying and threats they pose to local and tourist women. Volunteers, and other people who in the past have been sympathetic to the refugees are getting fed up. Their pent up anger could lead to violence within our own communities or against the migrants.
At the same time more and more refugees arrive. They sleep in the streets and relieve themselves without toilets, because that’s all they are offered. Among them we find pregnant women, babies, old people, and even disabled individuals—all fleeing from violence in their own countries.
Time to move forward
Instead of fighting each other, it is time to get serious about finding a solution to this humanitarian crisis. Lesbos—along with other islands of the Aegean—must be declared an “Emergency Zone”. The Greek government, the European Community, and international organisations must provide resources to deal with the vast number of refugees.
We need arrival centers in northern Lesbos, where the immediate needs of the migrants can be met—including shelter from the sun, food, toilets, blankets, and a place to sleep if necessary. Processing centers adequate to the numbers of refugees need to be opened in the island’s capital. Transport to these centers must be provided. Trained Greek or EU officials must be sent to staff them. We also need a plan for August tourist season, when the ferryboats being used to transport both tourists and refugees to Athens, will be full, and if no alternate plans are made, large numbers of migrants will be forced to stay on the streets, or in already crowded centers, in the worst of summer’s heat.
It is time for us to move forward—Greeks, Europeans, and migrants together—in the name of our common humanity and in concern for the lives of all human beings on our planet. Without forgetting that we have another task as well: we also need to work to end the wars and the violence that drives people from their homes and homelands.
This call for action was originally published in Greek on June 16, 2015 on www.aplotaria.gr