Lesbos—Stratis Valiamos, 40, is a fisherman from Sykamnias, a village on this Greek island that is at the epicenter of Europe’s refugee crisis. Valiamos and other fishermen now routinely abandon their daily work to rescue people stranded in the Aegean, hauling rickety wooden ships crammed with hundreds of refugees off the rocks and towing them to port. They dive in the sea fully dressed to save drowning people of all ages. “Every time I go to sea, I know something’s going to happen,” Valiamos says. “This has been going on for 10 years now—it’s become a way of life.”
Valiamos says the Coast Guard often calls the fishermen to assist in sea rescues. “On October 28, I was cooking when they rang around 5 pm and said: ‘We have 300 people drowning on the open sea!’ The conditions were very dangerous that day. I thought to myself: ‘Even if I save one person, it’s worth it.’” So Valiamos dropped everything and left immediately, taking his boat 12 miles out to sea. “When I reached the shipwreck, I saw many dead bodies in the water—babies, children, and adults. I cooperated with the Turkish fishermen to save as many people as possible.”
Over 1 million people arrived in Europe by sea in 2015—the vast majority fleeing war and persecution in Syria and the wider Middle East, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency. Greece received a staggering 851,319 of these people, with half a million landing on Lesbos alone. The Mediterranean is now the deadliest migration route in the world. Last year, 3,770 people died or went missing on this short sea crossing, made more perilous by people-smuggling gangs who frequently overload unseaworthy boats at gunpoint.
As signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the European Union and its member states are responsible for providing reception and asylum. But the system is broken, falling far short of international law and the human-rights standards enshrined in the convention. Some of the factors driving this crisis are policy-driven, chief among them the European Union’s failure to agree on and implement a coherent policy that acknowledges the unstoppable flow of displaced people; its attempts to reduce refugee numbers through the militarization of land and sea borders; its unrealistic €3 billion deal with Turkey to stem the flow; and its tendency to blame Greece for the crisis—or, worse, to insist that Greece shoulder an impossible burden.
Carlotta Sami, UNHCR’s senior regional public-information officer for Southern Europe, says, “The EU needs to open safe, legal means of arrival. Even in a politicized environment, people should receive a dignified reception. This has been the dilemma, because meanwhile the humanitarian crisis continues to escalate.” Even though this influx is the largest migration wave since World War II, 1 million people represent only 0.2 percent of Europe’s population. “The European Union is the richest union in the world, with a population of 508 million,” Sami continues. “Europe has the means and resources to cope.”
Unwilling to share responsibility for the refugees, the EU expects Greece, now in its seventh year of deep recession, to be the gatekeeper for Europe simply by virtue of its geographical location. This February, the EU gave Greece a three-month deadline to greatly reduce migrant sea crossings; if it doesn’t comply, it risks expulsion from the 26-country, passport-free Schengen area. Greeks see this demand as undue punishment for not succeeding at the impossible task of securing their country’s 8,497 miles of coastline—the longest sea border in the EU.
But while Greeks are angry at having become a scapegoat for Europe’s immigration woes, they’re far from satisfied with their own government’s response. When it was in opposition, the leftist Syriza party—especially leader and future prime minister Alexis Tsipras—criticized the immigration policies of the mainstream parties as inhumane. Tsipras also vowed to close the country’s migrant-detention centers, whose conditions had been called “degrading” by the European Court of Human Rights. The centers are now slated to stay open until 2018.
When the number of arrivals soared early last summer, many Greeks expected the response of Syriza, now in power, to be in line with its social policies. Greece is in economic crisis, they argue, but it’s not a failed state, and the government has assets at its disposal. “Tsipras could have sent in the army, done something,” says Yannis, a 23-year-old delivery driver in Mytilini. “But he just talks—a lot of hot air. He spent the whole summer complaining to the EU and took no meaningful action.”
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While the government was sitting on its hands and EU leaders floundered, the Greek people stepped into the gap, offering heroic practical support to the thousands of refugees arriving daily. Two cultural practices deeply embedded in Greek society—philotimo, honor and respect expressed as acts of generosity and sacrifice; and philoxenia, hospitality to strangers—may explain why Greeks, despite limited means, have been assisting people transiting through their country. Many Greeks also have refugee experiences in their family history. In the last hundred years, Greece has been through two world wars, the 1922 war with Turkey, a civil war, and a military dictatorship, each of which forced thousands to flee.
Fotis, a Sykamnias resident whose stone and wood house was built by his grandfather in 1887, says that last summer the village was so jammed with people arriving every day that it often took 30 minutes to drive 20 yards. Trash was piling up everywhere, and in the lane next to his house, groups of refugees were lighting fires, even in 100-degree heat. “I was so worried about the fire hazard that I bought a 90-foot hose and was constantly running to extinguish campfires—a whole summer of sleepless nights.” But Fotis (who requested that I use only his first name) continued to help transport refugees—and risked arrest in doing so, since it was a criminal offense until the UNHCR lobbied the Greek government to amend the law.
One morning in September, Fotis came across two Christian Syrians, a father and daughter, outside the village church. They’d seen the bell tower from their dinghy and had walked up from the beach. They were soaking wet, and the smugglers had stolen their luggage. “When I found them, they were helpless,” says Fotis. He took them to his home so they could bathe, eat, and sleep, and he gave them dry clothes. “They stayed for three days. We cooked and played cards together and became friends. We kept in touch via text when they left, and I was happy to hear they made it to Germany.”
Natasha Tsangarides is a researcher on refugee issues for human-rights groups. Originally from London and now living on Lesbos, she arrived on the island late last June, among only a handful of volunteers on the north coast. “Until the end of August, it was total chaos. Huge numbers of people were arriving, and there was no system in place for anything, even though the signs had been clear from the spring.”
Tsangarides says the state was unhelpful. The local government shut down the transit camp set up by volunteers at Molyvos, and at Mytilini, the national government allocated only a tiny booth, with two police officers and one photographer, to register tens of thousands of refugees. “It shows the complete disorganization and ineptitude of the Greek government, an absolute failure to have a concrete plan in place,” Tsangarides says. “But ultimate responsibility rests with the EU—and if Greece can’t execute its role properly, then the EU has massively failed.”
Last year, local groups were the only ones providing daily meals at Mytilini’s port and at the registration facility in nearby Moria set up in August. The PIKPA refugee shelter, established near Mytilini in 2012 to assist Greeks in crisis, operates entirely on volunteer labor and donations. “PIKPA serves the most vulnerable people arriving on Lesbos—shipwreck survivors, pregnant women, families with newborn babies and young children, asylum seekers looking for family reunion,” says Mytilini local and PIKPA volunteer Yulie Tzirou. In addition to providing short-term accommodation for transiting refugees, the camp is a central point for the distribution of humanitarian aid on Lesbos. Volunteers also cook and serve hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hot meals every day and have even boosted the capacity of NGOs on the island, like Mercy Worldwide.
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The waterfront taverna at Sykamnias, where fisherman Valiamos also works as a cook to make ends meet, has doubled as an emergency room, and babies have been resuscitated on its tables. “When I see people in distress, I can’t just sail past and leave them to drown. I have to save them,” Valiamos says. Last summer, he helped rescue 25 babies from a capsized dinghy. “Often there are so many people in the water, you have to choose whom to save. That day I brought the babies in first, not knowing if the parents would survive by the time we got back.”
By December, volunteer groups had transformed the Moria camp through improved sanitation, a field hospital, on-site storage, and tents. On the north coast, 40 miles from Moria, volunteer lifeguards from Proactiva Open Arms and Team Humanity had consolidated their sea-rescue teams and equipment, and the local group Platanos Refugee Solidarity had set up a winter beach camp to continue distributing hot meals and clothing to people getting off boats in freezing conditions.
But just as the volunteer and NGO efforts on Lesbos grew stronger and better coordinated, the EU-Greek crackdown on humanitarian volunteers began. On January 14, the Greek Coast Guard arrested three Spanish and two Danish nationals from Proem-Aid and Team Humanity on suspicion of human smuggling, as they were approaching a sinking boat that authorities claim was in international waters. They were released without charge after 36 hours and posting €30,000 in bail, but the case remains open pending investigation. In the same week, three British and two American volunteers were arrested for theft as they collected life vests from the municipal dump to use for making mattresses for the refugees. Greek volunteer groups report being threatened with eviction from their aid-distribution points, and they are increasingly angry that after a year of ignoring its responsibilities, the EU is now, as they put it, “criminalizing solidarity.”
The crackdown is intensifying as the European Union centralizes border security. EU border agency Frontex has deployed Rapid Border Intervention Teams, a land- and sea-border patrol with unprecedented independent powers, to work alongside Greek authorities. And on February 11, NATO—with the full support of the United States—deployed a naval force under German command to combat people-smuggling in the eastern Aegean and to reduce the number of migrants entering Europe via Turkey. Asylum seekers “saved” from boats intercepted in the Aegean can be returned to Turkey, which Greece has now formally declared a “safe third country.”
The deployment of NATO warships to stop the exodus from Turkey came just as some 70,000 refugees were amassing on the Turkish-Syrian border and 300,000 Aleppo civilians prepared to flee in the wake of a massive assault by the Assad regime, aided by heavy Russian bombing.
Last November, the European Union started classifying asylum seekers by nationality. Those not from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan are deemed economic migrants and cannot register to have their claims heard. The EU now wants to reintroduce the Dublin regulation, which mandates the return of asylum seekers to the first EU country they entered. These policies, alongside five new “hot spot” detention centers on the Greek islands and two refugee camps near Athens (due to open by the end of February, just as Macedonia prepares to permanently close its southern border) will trap thousands of people and ring-fence Greece, transforming it into a holding bay and deportation point—a permanent buffer zone against refugees trying to reach northern Europe.
The UNHCR, human-rights and humanitarian-aid groups, and European citizens in solidarity with refugees and opposed to what they call “Fortress Europe” continue to demand safe passage and a dignified reception for refugees.
Meanwhile, individuals like Stratis Valiamos continue to help those in need. As he recounts his many experiences of rescuing people at sea or retrieving dead bodies, his eyes show the sorrow and trauma of witnessing so much death and suffering. “The tragedy being repeated is that children and babies survive but have lost their parents,” Valiamos says. “Or parents survive but have lost their children.”