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Lesvos: where humanity confronts borders

Depending on the situation at the border with Macedonia, there could soon be thousands of people stranded on the Greek island of Lesvos. It was chaos in August and September last year, but now it has become manageable with strong organisation, diligence and volunteers. Over the past six months, volunteers and tens of thousands of refugees have arrived on the island. Humanity has showed up on this island in spite of the authorities, European border regulations and other mechanisms meant to prevent it happening. Today, Lesvos has navy vessels from various states in Europe, including Spain and Portugal; it has staff from the EU's Frontex border agency, police forces and coast guards, and NATO is expected soon, to ship people back to Turkey. The authorities are falling over each other in their muscle-flexing, whilst refugees and volunteers reach out in humanity as boats land on the island. The welcome is warm from people who have travelled across Europe and the US to go to the border and receive people reaching out for help. Their hands meet in Lesvos, and I went there to join them.

The EU has given Greece three months to "strengthen its borders" and fix "deficiencies" in controlling the influx of people or face suspension from the Schengen Area passport-free zone. According to Lesvos Mayor Spyros Galinos, the Greeks have been "upholding the ideals of Europe" in their support for thousands of refugees. "For seven years the Greeks have been accused of not being able to put forward their own policy," he explained, " but the same people who were brought to their knees by the economic crisis still found the strength to stand up and take it upon themselves to deal with a European problem."

For Turkey and its smugglers, the flow of people is big business. Each dinghy crammed full of desperate people is estimated to generate €50,000. Hence, at night, when busses fill up far away from the coast in Turkey, the smugglers are let through depending on the fluctuating regulations, to make good business sense. The government cracks down on certain crossings, changing the flow of refugees to Lesvos; at the moment the refugees arrive on the north coast of the island. The Turkish government had a crackdown on smugglers from Izmir aiming for the south of Lesvos, an hour-long, lethal journey with faulty lifejackets and dinghies in choppy waters, so they find themselves capitalising instead on the five times longer and thus five times more dangerous route to arrive on the north coast. People have to pay €1,500 to risk their lives crossing the Aegean on a good day (many times more expensive than an official, and safe, ferry); when it is windy the charge is €500 or €700 at night, when the chance of survival decreases. This is how the smugglers capitalise on the status of extremely vulnerable people fleeing from war.

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People get confused and scared when volunteers try to help them to get out of the boats, thinking that they could be officials ready to beat or repatriate them. The beaches in Lesvos do not have barbed wire. Volunteers have to communicate that they are there to help, stretching out their hands. It is difficult to gain trust as all official policies are intended to push them back, showing them violence and that they are not welcome.

That families are facing life-threatening and traumatising situations as they cross the Aegean is somehow seen as a separate issue for Europe, which believes that Turkey is now "safe" despite the horrendous exploitation and treatment of refugees. The volunteers told me several stories of boats filled many times over their official capacity and women miscarrying due to the traumatising experience in the dinghies; even of a woman who went into labor right after landing and had her baby right there on the shore. The strength and humanity of these people are unmeasurable. The camps around the island are filled with compassion and solidarity.

Greece's Alternate Minister for Migration Policy, Yiannis Mouzalas, expressed his opposition to the EU stance on Saturday, saying that relocation is increasingly ignored and Greece is being made into a "scapegoat" for the slow progress made in managing the refugee flow. More than 850,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Greece last year. The EU member states have not agreed on an EU-wide mechanism for relocating migrants, meant to alleviate the pressure on Greece and Italy. Several states in Central and Eastern Europe even refuse to accept migrants, the Athens news agency ANAMPA reported yesterday.

Mouzalas admitted that the government has made mistakes and delayed taking action. "We made mistakes, we were confused, we didn't know how to work with this new phenomenon; we had delays. But if someone wants xenophobia to prevail and the lack of reason, one has to find a scapegoat and for some people, it is Greece," he explained.


  • 250.000 people have been killed in the war in Syria, and over a million have been wounded.
  • At least half of Syria's population is displaced beyond or within its borders.
  • According to local sources, Lesvos has received up to 3,000 refugees per day (although the flow has been stemmed at the moment, due to increased restrictions and weather conditions).
  • 22,000 refugees were "stuck" on Lesvos in August last year, on an island with a population of 86,436.
  • The EU recently declared Turkey to be a safe state and asked for NATO involvement, allegedly "not to stop refugees from accessing Europe" but to "weed out the illegal migrants and assist refugees" by returning them to Turkey.
  • Turkey hosts 2.5 million refugees, many of whom are waiting to enter Europe

Two weeks ago, a draft report found that Greece had "seriously neglected" its obligations to control the external frontier of the border-free Schengen zone. Now Austria, Albania and Macedonia have started to cooperate on border restrictions, News that Moves has reported. Austria is bolstering its borders to limit the transit of refugees into the EU, across the Macedonian border from Greece, passing on the responsibility to Macedonia to "stem the tide". Austria will increase the number of its police and military personnel working with the Macedonian authorities to achieve this.

"We must re-secure the external borders of the EU, particularly in Greece, and provide more humanitarian aid to the countries of origin so that fewer people are forced to go to Central Europe," insisted Mouzalas. "I support the Minister of Defence of Austria, Hans Peter Doskozil, who is ready to deploy Austrian soldiers at the external borders of EU or in Macedonia or Serbia."

Europe knows that people will keep coming. Refugees will find new routes, and so, volunteers are locating these routes and go to meet them there. We are already seeing this trend on Lesvos. Humanity knows no borders.

It seems, though, that structures are put in place to curb or redirect "flows" of people travelling east to do whatever they can to meet people heading west. It seems that this unique expression of humanity, which attempts to rethink the way that we treat people based on the fabricated concept of borders, is proving to be a significant threat to the authorities. Speaking humanity to politics is not something one can expect of Europe or the European Union today ?

Amnesty International has warned that NATO forces about to begin working in the Aegean Sea must operate in line with international law by carrying out search and rescue operations for people in distress, and not simply, and illegally, return refugees to Turkey. "Hundreds of refugees, including many children, have already died this year attempting the treacherous journey across the Aegean," said Iverna McGowan, Head of Amnesty's European Institutions Office. "Any NATO ships that witness a boat in distress must provide immediate life-saving assistance."

The human rights organisation insists that NATO forces must not become yet one more barrier between refugees and the international protection to which they are legally entitled: "Intercepting refugees attempting to reach Europe and pushing them back to Turkey would be a serious violation of their right to claim asylum, and would fly in the face of international law." Europe should immediately implement and scale up plans to resettle refugees from Turkey, it demanded. Offering legal and safe alternatives would be the only measure likely to deter people from dangerous and irregular sea crossings.

In August 2015, refugees beached in their half-deflated dinghies at the rate of several thousand per day, the local Lesvos newspaper's editor told me. Today, at a camp by the shore, properly built and prepared for the extreme weather that Lesvos has witnessed this winter, there was just one refugee. "They all went to Moria," a volunteer told us. When the Macedonian border allows it, the refugees will try to get on the 8 o'clock ferry after their official registration in Moria — the official camp —often allowing just a 10-hour layover after their dangerous journey from Turkey.

NATO's decision to "assist" refugees by declaring that Turkey is a "safe place" for them is really an attempt to repatriate "illegal" immigrants by taking all refugees back to Turkey where the "illegals" among them can be "weeded out" from the "real refugees". People on Lesvos are stunned and frustrated, even the locals who struggled to accommodate the refugees when they were unprepared for the influx last August. The NATO vessels are likely to swamp migrants' dinghies and force people to accept their "assistance". After having paid for an extremely expensive journey thanks to the Turkish smugglers, NATO will take them back to the place where they were — and will be again — treated appallingly.

Many of the volunteers I met have expressed anger and frustration over the EU's policies and exploitation of the borders and people at their most vulnerable in order to capitalise politically on the situation. This has been obvious with several right-wing politicians and parties across Europe.

The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, may still want to shelter under the cloak of humanity, but not once have I heard any politician in Europe talking about responsibility for the disasters which have prompted the refugee crisis. Whether they are wars, civil violence or economic destruction, there appears to be an unwillingness to connect the terrible proxy war in Syria — in which Western states like Britain, France and the US, as well as Russia, are bombing the country — to the displacement of millions of people. There is also evidence of collective historical amnesia of how the neo- and colonial systems have led to such disparities in the Middle East and North Africa.

As such, we need to feel responsible, but perhaps not guilty, as we in Europe are, indeed, very connected to the tragedies that lead people to put themselves and their families into such desperate situation as the refugee run, to the extent that they are willing to send unaccompanied children or pregnant women into the dinghies. It hurts when we see EU or NATO representatives "speak about humanity" whilst delinking it from the "protection" of Europe's borders.

We can conclude, therefore, that the legitimacy of the "fierce face" at the borders is weak. How can humanity be such a threat that barbed wire, violence and repatriation has to be cloaked by security concerns, and questions about this remain unanswered? The response to this "threat" manifests itself in the treatment not only of the refugees and migrants heading west, but also on the volunteers going east to help them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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