Lesvos, From a Holiday Heaven to a Refugee's Haven

Lesvos, a peaceful, Greek island in the Eastern Aegean, famous for its old tradition of Ouzo, beautiful landscapes, and Mediterranean weather. It is especially because of the latter two that the island has become a popular tourist destination in the last few decades.


However, that insular idyll was disrupted last year by the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. According to the UNHRC (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), in 2015, more than half a million refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Greece, many of them arriving first in Lesvos. These refugees originate from Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, and many other countries, fleeing from war, discrimination, and violence.


I went to Lesvos in July 2016, to attend a summer school program about migration and borders at the University of the Aegean in Lesvos. The fact that the island used to be a gateway to Europe for millions of migrants even before the current refugee crisis made this a good location to discuss such issues. The summer school took place one year after the peak of the European refugee crisis and four months after the highly debated EU-Turkey deal. Europe and Turkey agreed that all ‘irregular migrants’ who arrive at the Greek Islands would, after March 20, 2016, be sent back to Turkey. In return, the same number of refugees would be sent from Turkey to the EU on a legal and more organized basis. Additionally, the EU pledged to support the accommodation of refugees with large sums of money.


In July I met in Maadi with Olivia Keller, a Swiss national working for a translation company in Cairo who between November and mid-December 2015 volunteered in Lesvos. That meeting gave us the opportunity to exchange experiences before and after the EU-Turkey deal. Olivia told me that the situation and the procedures improved within a short period of time. At the beginning of the high inflow of refugees, the island was unable to appropriately manage these masses. The initial lack of coordination led to chaotic conditions from the arrival of boats on to the registration of persons and their accommodation. With an increased number of NGOs and volunteers arriving on the island, things were more coordinated. Local people also got involved, bringing food, clothes, medicine, and sheets. Some even opened up their homes to refugees.


Seven months later, the situation has completely changed. Since the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal very few refugees arrive in Lesvos. Most of the NGOs and volunteers have left the island. Local people stay behind with mountains of torn-apart plastic boats and life jackets. These people told me that it felt as if a Tsunami had struck the island. In the span of only a few months, the island had been overrun by a huge wave of people and media attention. Suddenly this has stopped, and it is now empty and quiet. These sudden changes have affected both tourism and the psyche of the local people. Even though everything has been cleaned up, the media images of massive numbers of refugees on Lesvos remain in tourists’ mind who therefore have not returned. As a result, the local economy that depends a lot on tourism is stagnating. However, it is astonishing how positive and strong local people appear. The owner of the hotel we stayed in told us that July is usually the beginning of the high season and the hotel would usually be fully booked. Instead, she offered her rooms to the summer school participants at a very low price. Most of the time I would see the owner sitting close to the swimming pool with the other employees talking, laughing, and enjoying the sea view. When I asked her about the future of her hotel she was very optimistic. She said that they may be passing through difficult times now, but she is sure that the tourists will come back.


As part of the summer school, we went on a field trip to the two remaining refugee camps on the island. I was excited to finally be there after all I had earlier seen and read in the media. However, my mood changed immediately once we arrived. When our group got out of the bus, many took out their cameras and started taking pictures of the prison-like exterior of the refugee camp. Behind the fences, the refugees tried to live their everyday life as well as possible within the confines of the camp. We saw mothers playing with their children, young men chatting with each other, and other people waiting in line for food. For me it felt like a touristic trip, as if I had gone to the zoo to watch the animals behind the fence. The feeling became even greater when we managed to get inside one of the camps. Since the EU-Turkey deal, this camp, named Moria, serves also as a detention center for refugees classified as ‘irregular migrants’ are waiting to be deported back to Turkey. Their situations produce a very sensitive atmosphere. These people are desperate and hopeless, having had their dreams of a better life in Europe end here. Because of this, it felt very difficult for us to approach people. One young Pakistani man, however, came to us eager to talk. He told us about his wife who is suffering terribly from post-traumatic stress disorder having travelled from Pakistan with two small children. He showed us traumatic videos of her screaming and hitting out. While he was talking, his children approached timidly and hid behind their father’s legs. He explained that his wife’s mental state worsened with the feeling of being stuck on Lesvos after all the struggle and without knowing what the future might hold. His face showed the desperation he felt but also a sense of hope that someone would help him and his family.


On a second field trip, we took the ferry from Lesvos to a nearby town in Turkey. The journey was safe, relaxed and cost us 20 EUR per person going and returning. Refugees probably paid around 2,000 EUR per person for one way in order to get onto an overcrowded, unsafe boat that might sink. When we returned, we went back to our nice hotel, jumped into the swimming pool, and enjoyed the view of the sea with Turkey visible in the background. The contrast could not be greater.


German, student of Migration, Ethnic Relations and Multiculturalism at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. Interned in the summer of 2016 at the Center of Arab-West Understanding, Maadi, Cairo

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