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Unpacking the refugee crisis in Lesbos

11 November Nov 2015 0817 11 November 2015
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The refugee crisis has played out with particular intensity on Lesbos, an idyllic Greek island of high interest to both smugglers and cameramen. In Mitilini, the main port town, Arabic can be heard more often than Greek. Like its neighbour Kos, Lesbos has consistently been witness to bodies washed ashore, angry clashes with the police and tense encounters between refugees, vacationers and locals.

In the universe that’s been shaping at an accelerating speed around the crisis, each player has fit into a neat role: the helpless refugees, the villainous policemen, the heroic coast guard, the nervous locals, the benevolent volunteers, the smart aid workers, the well-meaning state officials, the daring reporters, among a longer list of figures directly and indirectly related. As the historic levels of migration are reaching their fourth month, though, no narrative can tightly contain the drama that has been unfolding on the island.

Refugees are not victims

Not anyone can be a refugee. Those wading through the Aegean shore, weighed down by a dripping life jacket and collapsing on the bank, each share an unordinary level of resilience and will to live.

Some go forward simply because they cannot go back: Seyd Makbood was 18 when he saw his father killed by the Taliban. He decided to leave his hometown of Mazar, Afghanistan when he received a phone call saying he was next. The caller had been a close friend. Only one of his five brothers and two of his four sisters could come. Ali, 23, also lost his father—and his sister, grandmother and girlfriend of five years—in car bombs in Baghdad. His left forearm, dominated by the cursive letters of his late girlfriend, stayed hidden in public. He has survived multiple attacks.

Seyd and Ali talk of the past with glazed eyes, but they quickly jump back into banter with friends. Seyd is quiet, engaging mostly with a big grin on his wide sunburnt cheeks. He grabs his two-year-old niece and plays as his brother and friend speak in low tones. Ali is big but has a high chuckle as he sings boundless praises of Messi. His brother, a baker, cannot win with his arguments for Ronaldo. Next to them, their sister, whom they had not seen in two years, sips her first-ever beer with a second sister, who refuses offers.

To others, the biggest worry is the future: Arman, a Hazara, fled ethnic violence in Afghanistan but grew up with relative tranquillity in Pakistan. He says he is 19, but his soft face suggests he is not. His father accompanied him all the way to Turkey before he sent him off with smugglers. The photos in his Android mostly feature selfies: big, gloomy eyes under an oversized snapback. He can’t sleep, he doesn’t know why, and walks the length of the port to pass the time. When his departure day arrived, he had a bandage on his fist from having punched a wall.

Survival does not always come without provocation: Mohamed Yama, also likes taking pictures on his phone—not of himself, but of airstrikes. His hometown, Da’el, Syria, saw some of the first clashes in the Syrian civil war. There, he says the police broke his hand; he was again detained in Turkey where his phone was confiscated. He says he has kept proof of smuggler violence and theft but refuses to show the videos, fresh from intimidation by police.

When a Syrian man spoke to him in dialect, Mohamed could not respond. He was pestered to explain why: many Syrians suspect others of pretending they are Syrian to reap the privileges. To expedite processing, the police indiscriminately considers Syrians as prima facie refugees, granting them a simpler registration process, a longer travel allowance and separate facilities. Those that can distinguish dialects—which excludes local police—estimate that less than a quarter of arrivals are Syrian. The rest may also be refugees, but not all. Fights between refugees and migrants of different nationality break out constantly, triggered by fake asylum cases, but also by religious prejudice, theft and exploitative money exchanges in the camps. Some are pointed attacks; others instigate to disperse crowds and gain a spot at the front of the registration line or in the last departing ship.


Authorities are not heartless

Both the police and the coast guard, local and national, have been brought in to manage the dismantling order. They put on a mean face—batons in hand, barks in pocket—which helps in the absence of translators. Representatives of state policy, they are reproached for many things: by refugees, for being notably absent from patrol. Multiple refugees, including Mohamed, share stories of black-clad German-speaking “commandos” or pirates shooting at dinghies and entire families of passengers, seizing the engine and all extra belongings, and disappearing. No coast guard was in sight, they say.

A handful of NGOs planted in the makeshift camps have also reproached local authorities for their half-baked plans for shelter. The camp for processing non-Syrians, Moria, used to be a detention center. The camp meant for Syrians, Kara Tepe—or “dark hill”—had no toilets, no running water, no tents and the persistent reminder that a sewage treatment plant sits next door. Even after the NGOs stepped in to provide basic services, most refugees and migrants ditched the tall barbed-wire walls and flies for a slab of concrete by the port. Up until September, when all tents were evacuated, rhetorical questions like “Don’t you speak English?” and “Don’t you know what a line is?” would punctuate the entirety of working hours.

If the officers are on a short fuse, it is partly because they are working longer and on more tasks than ever before. Without a central coordinator, all actors—the municipality, the police, the coast guard, the army, national politicians, EU institutions and NGOs—have been intervening independently. Untrained and disorganized, state forces are limited in what they can do despite any desire to help. About a third of the coast guard has developed skin and lung problems. According to Katerina Rozakou, an anthropologist that studied evolving migration management in Lesbos, the police is feeling “fed up and helpless.”

Refugee arrivals are nothing new to the island, but with the record rates this summer, policy has been forced to catch up. Until June, driving refugees from their landing point to the registration point, often 50 km away, was illegal. Though a ride is still not easy to catch—recently, a refugee set fire to an open field after being refused a lift—the police, NGOs and locals pick up travellers daily. A black market for engines has also developed—with fishermen sometimes piercing dinghies while still at sea, passengers on board—to which the police responded with surveillance to thwart the main circuits.

In early September, the interim minister of migration policy, a doctor originally from Lesbos, managed to redirect resources to round up 15,000 refugees in a stadium and register them all in 24 hours. With vacationers buying up most tickets to Athens, he sent in extra ships reserved for refugees. Most are entirely for Syrians—reducing their waiting period but resulting in several hospitalizations from fights at the port.

Locals are not jealous

The colossal effort of local and state authorities has, among other things, depleted the island’s reserve supplies in case of natural disaster. Brussels was not sympathetic to the Greeks during their economic crisis, but with the refugee crisis, funds and project proposals have flowed in freely. With need among locals rising, in some cases near the level of the refugees, some are tempted to pit one population against the other.

Maria Stamatogiannopoulou, history professor and occasional volunteer, says that she keeps hearing the phrase, “I’m not racist, but…” Her theory is that Syrians, who resemble Greeks physically and culturally and whose political condition inspires immediate regret, are reputed as “good” refugees, while others are dismissed as “bad” refugees. Looks go a long way, she says, when an increasing number of shopkeepers and restaurants distinguish between “indigenous” customers and foreign visitors—some even charging for WC use and up to 4€ for water.

Tarek, whose kids stayed in Homs, Syria, says that he can sometimes get by as a Greek. He has tall legs, smart orange glasses and a sharp stubble. People have told him he’s “too clean” to be Syrian. After a number of references and negotiations, he reserved a hotel room and a personal taxi driver—details he hides from others, who are not allowed either without papers.

Desperate for such services, refugees and migrants are raising the eyebrows of even the most sympathetic locals. Unable to hail a taxi, some refugees lay in the middle of the road to demand that drivers stop. Unable to use a laundry machine, they clean their clothes by the port, the runoff and stench impossible to ignore. Unable to dry off inside a house, they create fires on the beach with anything they can find, including nets used to harvest olives. Unable to open a faucet to quench their thirst, they pierce water pipelines.

Locals are beginning to lose patience, and yet the idyllic island has earned its place in international headlines for its exceptionally humane reception of the refugees. In Lesbos, helping the newcomers is not just a matter of hospitality or humanitarianism; it is personal. Many have parents and grandparents who were refugees themselves, fleeing Turkey during the population exchange of 1922. Then, 100,000 Anatolian Greeks crowded the island. Deputy Mayor of Culture and Tourism Konstantinos Astyrakakis says that this history has helped residents serve as a model to the rest of Europe. The tourists, most of them Turkish, have not been turned away but rather sometimes extend their stay to volunteer. It helps, he adds, that the refugees are not a “sore sight”—their limbs are intact, by and large.

Aid workers are not peacemakers

Tourists and locals are certainly not the only ones moved to offer a hand. Over 20 civil society groups have come to the refugees’ assistance, from the UNHCR to German activist collectives to local associations for the homeless. Colored vests and bold-print logos are regular sights at the camps and the port, but the presence of individual organizations is usually periodic.

UNHCR Communication Associate Katerina Kitidi is based in Athens, but she says that her trips to Lesbos are always valuable. She chokes up as she remembers walking the long, hot route to the port with refugees, for once coming close to experiencing a portion of the physical hardship the journey demands. Zoi Livaditou, part-time volunteer and part-time information officer for the International Organization of Migration, is less outraged at the trip of the refugees than that of workers, who come “like a comet” for surveys and pictures without stopping to offer water to a thirsty child. After a stint with Médecins Sans Frontières in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Livaditou has been working with medical associations in Lesbos since 2001. She has the flu but is still working: “a real volunteer never gives up,” she says. Her tightly braided hair, all-purple clothing and invigorating energy defy the bags under her eyes. She admits that she is tired, but not because of the refugees.

“We don’t have only refugees and migrants, but nobody cares about this because the light is now on the refugees and migrants,” she says. She uses her office to pack in donations that she distributes to both refugees and poor and disabled locals, who break a deal with her that supplies will fluctuate depending on the balance of need.

The sudden boom of interest and funding has left many eyeing each other, measuring up the other’s intentions and level of dedication. David Triboulot, a French expat that is currently unemployed, has been volunteering consistently at a civilian-run camp for the sick but notes the visible absence of the big international aid groups. He points to a Médecins Sans Frontières truck that he suspects is unofficial.

Opportunism, in some cases, creates aid that is useless, says Dora Vakirtzi, daughter of a refugee and member of the new center-left party the Society of Values. She came back to her hometown, now the main landing point of most dinghies, to outline immigration proposals for the party. Despite her disappointment with aspects of the management, she focuses on openings for change.

“We are not in the position to accuse the government if we are doing nothing,” she says. The party, a response to the rise of radical politics, prides itself on its members’ experience outside of politics.

The media is not invisible

Just as consistently present—and transient—as NGOs is the international media. In the scramble to convince, to anger and to sell, the media has tugged at the story of the past few months’ refugee crisis in all directions. Evocative images and reporter gimmicks try to pierce through the cacophony: hordes of shoving bodies, huddled families, exclusive footage of the voyage at sea.

As much as reporters may try to camouflage, the click of the camera can be louder than the call of the coast guard. Omar Sattout types into Google translate that as soon as he stepped foot on the island, he was surrounded by a wall of photographers that gawked at him as if he were “an African slave.” Others used the words, “animal” or simply, “subhuman.” He, like many, hid from the flashes not just because he is shy or modest, but because he has concerns about his publicized image affecting family still in Syria.

Several women, like Samah Hossein of Daraa, Syria, have had to refuse multiple requests to be filmed. She shows her dirt-packed nails and touches her burnt cheeks saying, “dirty not beautiful.” She wants the world to know she has not showered, but she wants to be seen in a state of dignity. Videographers may then opt for her 8-year-old son, limp after a recent hospital visit, passing over her two daughters whom she boasts are geniuses in school. Livaditou has also repeatedly declined being filmed: “Enough,” she says. “I saw the result. It’s just for money.” The three times she was on camera, the only result was some medicine donations.

Still, for every news crew that hop on and off the island, there is also a documentary team camping out for weeks, a photographer extending a stay to volunteer, a writer exchanging contact info to keep tabs on a new friend. The attention span of the refugee crisis has long lost interest with Lesbos, but for now, reporters are still coming. How long they—and the accompanying cast of police, politicians and aid workers—keep being dispatched, though, may depend on more than the story they spin.