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The Latest from Lesvos, Greece: Refugee Crisis 2016

Once again, it’s hard to know where to start.  Here, things change so fast that a ticker tape is needed, rather than a blog.

For Seven Days the Refugees Stopped Arriving on Lesvos

Last week, there was a lull in refugee arrivals.  This was a strange time.  Refugee camps were nearly empty, volunteers still attending them as if by ritual, without reason.  Volunteers stared at each other over coffee and extended meals.  Some explored this beautiful island for the first time.  We all wondered what was happening.  The sense of uncertainty was as thick as pea soup.   Will they come tonight?  Will they ever come again?  Where are they?  Many volunteers left, feeling they could be more useful elsewhere on the refugee route.

 

Refugee boat on Lesvos

Refugee boat on Lesvos

 

During this time, volunteers cleaned beaches which are littered with rubber dinghies and lifejackets, improved systems which began in crisis, and caught up on rest.  My contact with refugees has been limited to my first few days on Lesvos.  During this time, and since then, I’ve helped reorganize a clothing warehouse, painted, cleaned, sorted clothes and shoes, rolled donated sleeping bags and made directional signs.  Some volunteers wouldn’t consider doing these mundane tasks, but they need to get done.  Fortunately, I like this kind of work and would be a disaster as a “hero” at the shores.  We all have our strengths and something unique to offer.  Like musicians in an orchestra, together we are amazing!

 

Rolling donated sleeping bags. This one, with an ironic message: Make Love, not War

Rolling donated sleeping bags. This one, with an ironic message: Make Love, not War

 

Why Did They Stop Coming?

Incredible wind and cold swept over the island for a solid week.  Refugees, however, have arrived in worse conditions, so it was unclear what was happening.  Rumors flowed like waterfalls.  Just prior to, and during this lull in arrivals, all kinds of political deals were being made.   As volunteers, all we knew was the following:

1) It was announced that NATO would send three ships to the Turkish border.  This NATO warship intervention is curious.  It’s being sold as a “humanitarian” effort to help crackdown on smugglers but the general consensus here seems to be that that it’s merely a guise for turning all refugee boats back towards Turkey.  This is a highly unusual operation for NATO.  Smugglers are found on land, not in the sea.  One does not have to be Einstein in order to smell something fishy here.  NATO ships are in the unique position of being able to sail in both Turkish and Greek waters.  What are they actually doing?

2) Several politicians from the EU were figuring out how to push refugees back to Turkey.  Because international refugee law makes this illegal, they decided to change the rules to work in their favor.  They’ve now declared Turkey a “safe” third country, making it legal to return refugees there.  As I’ve explained previously, Syrian refugees in Turkey are not legally allowed to work or rent a home, therefore they are subject to all kinds of exploitation and human rights abuses.  The refugee camps have been described as hell, and are not safe, especially for women and children.  Turkey is not known for it’s respect of human rights.  “Safe”?

3) The Greek Army, which is broke, has been moving onto Lesvos this week, expanding and setting up additional refugee camps.  Rumors swirl that volunteers will soon be pushed out and be denied all access to refugees.  If true, a lack of oversight will only mean horrible things.  Refugees need advocates and an ounce of humanity, clearly.

4) The Greek Coast Guard and Frontex (EU Border Control) ships continue to patrol Greek waters.  They can rescue and bring refugees to the shores of Lesvos, but can only do so after they have entered Greek waters.

5) There is rumor based on refugee reports, that men on Turkish Coast Guard ships are spraying water cannons into refugee boats, sinking or disabling the boats.  Refugees tell stories of masked men on jet-skis using knives to cut their boats or stealing their engines leaving them adrift.  Is this why no refugees are arriving?  Who is watching?  What is true?  When financial incentives are given to any country to stop the flow of refugees, terrible things can, and will, happen.  

Since the Weather Cleared, the Refugees Continue to Arrive

Since the weather cleared, several thousand refugees have arrived.  It’s hard to know the numbers because the arrivals are not met exclusively by volunteers anymore.  The Greek Coast Guard is bringing in some of the arrivals, but not all.  But 200-2000 people are still arriving daily.  Now, they are coming after midnight and arriving at new locations, perhaps trying to avoid the increased surveillance in the water.  So the journey continues, but now in an even more dangerous manner.  The desperate will always take the risk no matter what obstacles are placed in their way.  Doctors Without Borders summed it up nicely in their response to the NATO ship mobilization:

“More than 300 men, women and children have drowned in the Aegean in their desperate attempts to reach Europe this year alone. In this context, NATO’s involvement in the ‘surveillance of illegal crossings’ is dangerously myopic. People will continue to risk their lives in search of safety and protection, no matter the obstacles that the EU—and now the leaders of the NATO alliance—put in their way. How many deaths will it take before Europe, Turkey, and others focus their energy on providing humanitarian solutions rather than deterrence measures that clearly miss the point?”

 

Making signs for the clothing warehouse with very limited resources.

Making signs for the clothing warehouse with very limited resources.

 

What’s next?

Just recently, the volunteer organization I work with, which is widely respected, was told by a government official that their services (which are extensive) in the main refugee registration center/camp were no longer needed.  New volunteer groups will be used on a rotating basis within the camp which is highly impractical and totally inefficient.  But this is how it is here.  Things change rapidly and often for reasons that seem totally non-sensical.

It feels that tensions between governments, volunteers, refugees, and armies are reaching a zenith, but that’s based on my limited experience.  I don’t know.  This is the most dynamic environment I’ve ever experienced.  Every day it’s something new.

And every day, thousands of volunteers working together all along the refugee route, do their best to care and protect these vulnerable people, accomplishing things that governments will not.  This has inspired me deeply.  In all this darkness, this cooperation amongst international volunteers is one of the most stunningly beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

I am raising funds for refugee aid.  Please click here to donate.  Also, every share or “like” of this post helps spread the word.  Thank you.

 

Photos from Lesvos, Island (click to view):

8 Comments

  1. This is very informative. I will be going to Lesvos Island in May to help, with a group from my graduate school. Our organizer has been vague about our duties, and now I see why. It changes so quickly that we don’t know how to prepare. We don’t know what’s going to face us when we arrive. This blog post was wonderful, and I am going to forward your blog to our group!

    • Glad it was a helpful post Kira. The whole situation is so dynamic that it’s hard to know what to expect tomorrow much less months from now. It’s wonderful that you’re coming with a group. I hope you’ll find the experience as enriching as I have. Thanks for sharing my writing.

  2. Thank you, Laura, for continued work during this difficult and turbulent time. Strength and patience be with you and all volunteers. Your sign making images are a delight and will send me back to look again at your artwork.

  3. It’s all so mind-boggling, I don’t know how you make any sense of it.

    Australia has a similar policy of turning back refugee boats to protect people from people smugglers which I (and many Australians) find appalling. The part of me that likes to see the best in other people tells me that perhaps they see a bigger picture than I do and truly believe that is the best course of action. If that is true, I wish they would share that with the rest of us.

    The only thing that separates us is that we had the good fortune to be born somewhere safe.

    I love your posts and look forward to your updates. Thank you 🙂

    • Thank you Melinda. I wish I had faith that governments had any care for doing what’s best on a humanitarian level. I was impressed by Germany’s invitation to refugees but even that is not holding up. Until more people like you and I see beyond “us” and “them”, I’m afraid this will continue.

  4. Thanks for reporting, love your signs! Be safe.

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