The Mediterranean is blue and calm, the sun warm, though not hot, on this winter day on the beautiful Greek island of Lesbos. A bus rumbles past, followed by an ambulance, and it is only because they stop at the same place that the scene becomes a little more complicated than its first appearance as a holiday destination.
Medics get out and join a group already on shore, some sporting luminous vests, all staring anxiously out to sea. And then the object of their attention comes into view, quietly and calmly: a rubber dinghy packed full of people in bright orange life jackets. Some of those on shore detach themselves from the group and wade into the sea to pull the dinghy in, lifting out the children and passing them along a human chain. There is a shout and a larger child is half carried, half pushed to the front of the boat, supine, the medics waiting: It’s a case of hypothermia, not at all unusual, though it can be fatal.
Before the dinghy has been completely unloaded, another one drifts into view on the still-calm and beautiful sea, in exactly the same spot. The volunteers speed up in their work of wrapping the children in space-age foil blankets and dispensing snacks and drinks, knowing that the next load will arrive any minute. The medics are working with the case of hypothermia and a case of severe shock, eventually loading both into cars, with their relatives, to be taken to the local hospital. The others are discarding their life jackets, the at-risk groups such as new mothers and children are wrapped in blankets (for they are running low), and all are unwrapping sandwiches. Some look exhausted and defeated; others happy—delighted to have reached what they have been told is paradise.
I’m not sure which is harder to witness, the despair or the optimism. For I know that this is only the beginning, whether they are genuine asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia, or economic migrants trying their luck on the same route, discarding their Moroccan, Ethiopian, or Pakistani passports and claiming to be Syrian. All are facing an uphill battle to prove their stories and claim refuge, a brutal journey to get to other countries in Europe. Many will be turned back, “repatriated” to their home country or, after the recent deal with the European Union, back to Turkey—minus the thousands of dollars they’ve spent getting to this point. The irony of fleeing this way is that the legal, commercial fare is €15 each way, in seaworthy ships, taking just an hour and a half. But this safe way is blocked to the refugees, since they have no visas allowing entry to EU nations.
The only winners in this scenario are the people smugglers, who make around $1,200 per person and who count on the work of the UN and 81 or so different NGOs and charities to make their business work. “You will be looked after by the UN when you get there,” the smugglers tell the smuggled, and they are right. The blankets, snacks, and buses are there, the medics on hand; the registration process by the Greek authorities is efficient; and food and shelter are now also largely sufficient. The entire process, from the welcome on shore to the paperwork in the camps and tickets for the onward journeys, is working, or at least it was when I observed the process in December (and, by all accounts, until a sharp change in approach in March). It took a few months from when the scale of the problem skyrocketed last summer beyond all expectation, taking the international community unawares, but now UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, runs coordination meetings and networks, mostly via WhatsApp, which allow a division of labor and an early-warning system for all. Ting: a boat has been spotted; ting, an approximate location sent using Google Maps; ting, an offer to be there from a group of volunteers close by; ting, a UN bus has been dispatched; ting, an appeal for a medic, with a description of symptoms.
Others quick to the scene are locals, scavenging for leftovers, from the motors to the rubber of the dinghy. Questions are not often asked of them. The locals have had to put up with a lot, and by and large have done so with heroic hospitality and patience—there are movements to petition to give them the Nobel Peace Prize. As many Greeks explain, much of the population were themselves refugees in the 1920s, as Greek Ottoman citizens kicked out of the new Turkish Republic. It’s not quite a living memory, but strong family and folk memories persist, with the children and grandchildren of that wave still alive and sympathetic to the plight of the others. This might be particularly strong given the stories of the reactions of the locals at that time—it would be an understatement, one Greek academic at the local university said to me, to say that those 1920s refugees were not welcome.
Other reasons to endure the ongoing problem is that it is good, many said slightly shamefacedly, for business: Winter is normally dead on this holiday island, but the international aid community bring with them the demand for hotel rooms, restaurant meals, coffees, haircuts, manicures, clothes, and alcohol. Of course it is sad, said my hotel receptionist, and we would like the problem not to exist, but it is not our fault that it does exist and there is no doubt about it, our hotel is taking as much as in the summer, and we are all employed all year round, for once.
But there are definite downsides, and murmurings of discontent, which the UN is taking very seriously indeed. “We would be in serious trouble if the locals were not happy,” said Boris Cheshirkov, the UNHCR’s official spokesman for Lesbos, explaining that those locals formed the foundation of the international humanitarian efforts, for at the beginning of the emergency it was the locals who were the first responders, caring for the early people arriving on the island. “But we need to be mindful of the fact that this is a tourist location. The local economy depends on tourism. And that’s why it’s essential that this is managed properly,” he said.
“We have not had our beaches for nearly a year now,” said one Lesbos native, “and our water bills have tripled—we citizens are paying for the refugees’ water—why?” The Greek authorities are footing the bill for the electricity, something the UN is trying to take over. And the refugees who are free to move often go to other places than the camps to sleep, tempted by NGOs that set up kitchens without checking in with the UN. So one public park has been a makeshift camp, with rubbish everywhere, as no one is responsible for cleaning up. The UN went in to clear it, sending residents to the camps, but one NGO kept cooking, tempting refugees into the area and depriving the locals of their public square, where they once took their children in the evenings.
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Another facility lost to the locals is a camp for girl and boy scouts, a series of small cabins with two large rooms for activities. This was commandeered for refugees back in 2012, Lesbos having been a popular landing place for them for many years, and is still being run by a charity—that is, it is neither a national nor an international authority, though invaluable in providing shelter. It was there where I met Almas (“Diamond”), a true survivor, as durable as her name: At 83, she was the oldest refugee the island had welcomed.
Almas was hazy as to many of the details of the past few years. Originally from Afrin, near Aleppo in northern Syria, she lost contact with her sons due to the conflict and herself fled to Aleppo when the security around Afrin deteriorated early in the conflict, and then over the border to Turkey, “going with the crowds,” as she put it. Once there she was dependent on charity, and probably the same charitable networks paid for her passage to Greece. Whoever it was, they obviously did not stick with her, for she was found by the volunteers onshore—disoriented, alone, and without any possessions.
That was how Manas Ghanem, a Syrian UNHCR worker, found her. Manas was particularly sensitized to her plight; first, as a Syrian, she told me, “each one of [the Syrian refugees] could be a cousin; you think you see your neighbor, your friends, your friends’ cousin.” On top of this, Manas’s grandmother in Damascus had just died, and of course Manas could not attend the funeral or see her parents or the rest of her family, and was terribly homesick. And so seeing this lost-looking old woman, Manas felt a tug on her heart: “I couldn’t believe it, she looked so much like my grandmother, but extremely pale, and lost, and shocked. She understood what I was saying, but would only shake her head in reply.”
Almas soon recovered to tell her story, but it got stranger and stranger. She asked when she could take the bus to her daughter’s house. Manas was confused. “Where is your daughter?” she asked. “Here, in Germany,” came the reply. The smugglers had told her that the boat was going to Germany—that paradise, the end of the rainbow for refugees—and she would be able to go straight to her daughter there. “But why didn’t you contact your daughter for help before this?” asked Manas, bewildered, after breaking it to Almas that she was not in Germany and indeed could only go to her daughter once her case was processed. The answer was heart-breaking, since so many of her difficulties, including the dangerous sea crossing, could have been avoided. She had been too proud to ask for help, after accepting so much charity in Turkey, especially if it involved telling her daughter she was destitute.
“You did not tell her you were taking the crossing to Greece?” Manas probed. “I thought that if I arrived I’d tell her; if I don’t, then I don’t,” came the fatalistic reply, a fatalism common to many refugees I spoke to, who responded to questions concerning fear and worry with shrugs and phrases like “If I died, I died,” or “Only God knows; there’s no point worrying about what we cannot know,” leaving their situations and even their lives in the lap of God.
Almas reached inside her clothes and brought out a small purse. She took out a scrap of worn paper and handed it to Manas. On it was a German phone number. Wordlessly Manas tapped it into her phone. “Hello? I work for the UN in Lesbos and I have your mother here…” The daughter had not heard one word from her mother since she had left Aleppo over a year before and, understandably, went into shock. Manas explained a little more, before handing the phone over for a very emotional long-distance reunion.
This should have been a simple asylum case: Papers showed Almas to be Syrian; her daughter is financially secure in Germany, married with children; and, at 83, Almas is clearly a vulnerable person. But nothing is simple when so many thousands of refugees are still flooding into Europe every day. The Greek authorities have become proficient—and efficient—at registering all asylum seekers, but they have no mechanism for keeping track of them once they leave. The official advice is to stay in Lesbos while the asylum case is processed—it’s safe, the weather is good, they will be fed, and so far, there is space. But people are anxious to get to Germany or Sweden, so the ferry to Athens is packed every single day, taking people on their first leg north despite the harsh pictures dominating the media of what is facing them at further borders: tear gas, barbed wire, and armed police at the borders with Macedonia, and then Hungary, if you get that far. And then refugee camps in the paradise of Germany. Even if people have seen these images, they choose to believe the messages of hope from the smugglers and the rumors that Europe will welcome them, feed them, house them, and educate their children.
But Almas did listen to the advice and stayed put in her makeshift room, quickly becoming an institution on the island, where everyone—locals, refugees, volunteers—called her Grandma. She was introduced and photographed with the youngest refugee on the island, a little boy born in the Lesbos local hospital. And, sitting in the sun, receiving visits, fed by charity, she waited for her case to grind through the system of the EU’s relocation program.
This haven, though, as a non-UNHCR-run camp, is under threat from the most self-defeating of Western strategies: the War on Terror. Western governments are constantly trying to shut down all possible avenues of financing and logistical support to terrorist groups. Humanitarian NGOs and charities are prime suspects, and have been under increasingly punishing demands to provide evidence of where every single penny ends up—not one piece of bread can fall into the hands of a jihadi, or your funding will be instantly cut and you will be on a blacklist for future grants. This is forcing charities to shift operations from the most vulnerable of populations—their very raison d’être. And it is having an impact on the refugee crisis, in terms of fund-raising and operations (it is impossible to prove every penny’s destination), which the EU has made even worse on the grounds of “encouraging” refugees to come to Europe—even as it plans to criminalize those who travel to Greek islands to volunteer. There is little acknowledgment of what is driving these refugees across the sea to a hostile continent, and until there is, there is no way of combating the problem or caring for those who make the voyage.
There is an epic quality to this most Greek of islands; tales of war and refuge are the backbone of so many Greek poems and dramas. The “wine-dark sea” seems unchanged (despite the degree of pollution) since Homer gave it this (slightly confusing) epithet; the speed of the dinghies is not so different from that of rowboats, the sound of them scrunching onto the shore identical; the shout-outs of local lookouts, too, cross the centuries. And the experiences of death and violence the refugees bring with them are surely as traumatic, whether through spears or cluster bombs. Perhaps the numbers in each wave seemed overwhelming to each successive local population, but this is where the situation diverges from the Homeric tales of war: The modern world seems to have no place for refugees; there are no rules of hospitality that can extend to this many of them in a world run by a combination of dysfunctional supra-national bodies and increasingly fearful—if not outright racist—nationalistic election pledges. There is, of course, legitimate concern about dangerous elements coming in on the boats; and rumors of ISIS presence—even domination—of the smuggling rings are rife. But combating this threat needs to be part of the strategy, not a reason to shut the door to everyone, for the latter approach is simply unsustainable in the long run.
The recent deal struck between the EU and Turkey to try to stem the flow to Europe has led to egregious changes in the system, a system that had been working, albeit under greater and greater strain amid increasingly desperate appeals from the UN. But, as Human Rights Watch has recently reported, some camps have suddenly and horrifyingly been turned into detention centers. Journalists have been forbidden access to Moria camp on Lesbos, newly adorned with barbed wire to underscore the point: this is no holiday camp and no haven, but rather a prison, run with no accountability. (The barbed wire was removed for Angelina Jolie’s recent visit; the wall whitewashed for the pope.)
This move to detention rather than welcome has led to a rapid downward spiral in conditions. Those NGOs that have not already been bullied into withdrawal by international laws and regulations have pulled out in protest at this new development, unwilling to lend legitimacy to such a system through their support but leaving the detainees in greater and greater need, the toilets going uncleaned, the medical facilities reduced, the water for washing and drinking and cooking left dirty. This is causing widespread outcry, but there is a side effect that is welcomed by the EU: The numbers arriving on Lesbos have plummeted, from thousands per day to just 78 (averaged over April as of the 18th), with zero arriving on April 16. What this bodes for the future of the Syrians and Iraqis and Afghans trapped in Turkey is impossible to say. Will they return to their home countries, unable to claim asylum anywhere, trapped? If so, how will their resentment be channeled; who will they turn to for security and safety? The Islamic State is doing a good job at alienating the local inhabitants it controls, but right now the EU is matching them.
But there are success stories. A few weeks ago I got a photo from Manas, with the caption: “Mission accomplished.” Almas is sitting on a sofa, next to her daughter and cuddling her granddaughter—Almas. One story among the thousands of stories arriving on Lesbos has ended well, and the UNHCR can be proud of that. But the problems that are driving such huge numbers to leave their homes are not being resolved, and the new approach of detaining arrivals in despicable conditions under prison regulations before shipping them back to Turkey and an unknown future reflects a shameful disregard for human dignity and human rights, values the EU is supposed to stand for, not diminish. And what the future holds when thousands upon thousands have been humiliated in this way, and left destitute once again, cannot contain much hope for any of us.