Greece (population 10 million) has received 250,000 refugees and migrants this year, mainly in the islands of Lesvos, Kos, Samos, Chios, Leros, Kalymnos. Lesvos, population 85,000, has 13 million olive trees, 17 brands of ouzo, an island of poets, writers, painters, ceramics, sardines, cheese. More than 85,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Lesvos this year up to the end of August.
They reach here from the coast of Turkey, around Ayvalik. They get there through a variety of routes. They concentrate in Izmir, from eastern Turkey, Istanbul or Mersin by bus. In Izmir they are distributed to get to different islands. They get to Mersin by ferry from Trablus in Lebanon, to Istanbul by plane from Beirut or Amman, or walk across the south eastern borders from Syria, Iran and Iraq. Syrians in their majority, recent refugees most of them, among them many Kurds and Palestinians. But also Iraqis from Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit, who have passed through Jordan and by the time they get to Lesvos they register as Syrians hoping for ‘priority’ treatment. From Afghanistan, through Iran, walking and taking buses, taking a long time to get to the Turkish coast. Few Africans, from Eritrea and Somalia, through more complicated smuggler routes. Most people spend time waiting on the Turkish coast for their turn, often paying twice to cross, spending nights in the forests. Pakistanis –and some Syrians- that often have been smuggled into Greece before, worked for several years and are now returning, speaking the language. Most people know Greece is in crisis and that jobs are scarce.
The Syrians and Iraqis in their majority are graduates or artists, that found it hard to be torn from their homeland to, either a new life for them and their families, or to avoid the army draft. You will hardly hear the words Al Qaeda, Assad regime or ISIS, so popular in European and American analyses of the situation, when they speak about what drove them to take theperilous journey. There are people who have tried legal channels to reach the wealthier countries of Europe and North America: Canada, US, Germany. There are Palestinians from the West Bank, who cannot get visas to anywhere, joining the Syrians, who are obliged to register as such in order to make it out. There are people who book hotels through the internet to stay after they get their papers and while they wait for the ferry to leave and there are those that barely have enough to get to Athens. Improvised camps have been set up all over town in Mytiline (capital of Lesvos) and outside the three allocated areas. It is a huge pressure for the local population and authorities, already low on resources due to the economic crisis. No doubt, some make money from this situation. The sale of tents has skyrocketed. Fruit and water sellers at the camps charge inflated prices. But there is an outpour of volunteers from the villages together with foreign tourists, helping people when they disembark and are disoriented from the trip and traumatised from their experiences.
They land at the north and east coasts of Lesvos where the distance from Turkey is at five nautical miles. They then have to walk the 45-60 km to town where the registration takes place. It is prohibited for private vehicles to give them a lift before they receive their registration papers. Even so, many locals do take old, injured or families with babies (often a few days old) and pregnant women, at the risk of arrest for violation of anti-trafficking laws. And there are taxi drivers that charge hundreds of euros to bring the refugees and migrants into town.
The road is lined with people, families, old people, sick and handicapped, young and strong. They arrive in the camps with blisters on their feet, dehydrated, having stepped on sea urchins when coming from the sea to the shore, some chronic diseases, pregnant women, small babies, head lice.
At Sikamnia, one of the main entry points, a village of 200 people in Lesvos, a dingy arrived in front of us. People disembarked, all Syrians. Most spent some time at the shore to get their bearings. Smiling, hugging, taking selfies with the Turkish coast in the background. They had had a smooth crossing, less than two hours. Three young men (shabbab as they say all over the Arab world) came to us with huge smiles. One asked me: is this Ithaca? I was so absorbed by the scene, that I answered stupidly, ‘no, this is Lesvos’. Many refugees are not sure where they land in Greece and also do not trust what the traffickers tell them. He was referring to the allegory, of reaching your Ithaca, your destination, that you had started doubting even existed after long and tumultuous travels. He didn’t stop smiling. He asked me if I am from here. I said no, from Athens. They all let out a big ‘oohhh’. He said, Athena, goddess of knowledge, referring to the ancient Greek deity, protector of Athens. I said yes, goddess of wisdom. Then another guy told us they were students of English literature and were hoping to get to Germany to finish their studies. I wished them all the best with their long trip, starting with the 45 km walk to Mytilini under the baking sun. They were grateful to reach this historic country, even under the most stressful of circumstances. They were adventurers on the road, they had found their safety, their Ithaca.
We met the family from Haleppo; the father a teacher of music missing all the instruments he left behind in their home, his daughter of 12, whose school was bombed but who still was longing for home, the son of 16, a piano student trying to behave like a grown man and the mother, with tears telling us as soon as she disembarked that they had tried for four years to fight it out but in the end there was no life left in the city. Everyone there depends on international assistance. They left a home without electricity or water. And without even taking a shower said her daughter. They didn’t know where they were heading, maybe Sweden, they had heard asylum is given there, but the girl wanted to stay in Greece, relatively close to home.
The refugee arrivals in Europe is not a huge influx. It is a fully manageable situation with some resources. It is however a huge strain on an island the size of Lesvos, which is a main entry point into Europe for refugees and migrants.
As of 4 Sep, UNHCR reported 366,402 arrivals by sea in the Mediterranean (244,855 to Greece). The population of Germany, Sweden. Netherlands, Denmark (most popular destinations for the refugees) have a total population of 114 million. Jordan with a population of 7 million is hosting one million Syrians and Lebanon with population 4 million is hosting 1.5 million Syrians. These countries receive international assistance, from the very countries where refugees would like to go to. But the impact of the numbers is important especially for the demography of those small fragile countries. Europe can take the people reaching its shores. Three quarters of them are Syrians and skilled or willing to study (I have met many young Syrians doing the perilous journey by sea because they will not get a student visa). And if the war came to an end, many of them will return.
Europe again has shown how conservative it is and what slow reflexes it has, allowing the situation to unfold with its own dynamic. Denial is not the way forward. Greece has been under this pressure for at least five years but it is only in the summer of 2015, when the refugees and migrants moved on and reached Hungary, Austria and Germany, that the issue became a significant debate. It is expected that once the weather deteriorates, the flows to the islands will diminish but will increase through the Evros crossings in mainland Greece’s border with Turkey.
• Increase international assistance offered to Greece. The country is expected to remain in political instability while the economic crisis lasts.
• The European Union has to decide quickly on its migration policy related to this crisis. The criteria for asylum applications and acceptance or not of economic migrants have to be agreed. Potential returns have to be clearly planned and accompanied by reconstruction programmes in the countries of origin.