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Monday 15 June 2015

The evolving refugee crisis on Lesbos Island

Guest post by Timothy Jay Smith

A firsthand account by author Timothy Jay Smith of conditions faced by Syrian refugees arriving on Lesbos, Greece, and of how people living on the island are trying to help. Reposted from his Facebook page by kind permission.

This is indeed a dynamic situation, changing on almost a daily basis, and sometimes a lot more rumours available than facts. Lots of numbers get bandied about: a six-fold increase of refugees arriving on Lesbos from last year to this; according to the BBC, some 7,000 arriving in May alone (which personally I think is seriously underestimated). What is definitely indisputable is that numbers are increasing, and the ability of local officials, volunteers, and every support network has been overwhelmed.

Yesterday, Michael Honegger and I went to the island’s capital of Mytilini specifically to visit the three refugee camps. We started in the port, where the refugees also start. The process seems to be this:

Refugees first register with the port police, who only take the names of the people if they have space available in the camp. Since only two hundred refugees are processed and sent to Athens a day (after many arduous days ‘in the system’), you can imagine the backlog. The pictures below were taken outside port police's gate. Almost all have been waiting in the open with no support or services for a few days.

From there, the ‘lucky’ 200 are moved to a hellish camp. Called Kara Tepe, it was set up last month for 600 people, which was filled immediately, and is now at triple capacity. It is a squalid nightmare, with ten filthy toilets for 2000 people, but at least there are tents. There, they wait again, up to a week or perhaps longer, hoping their name will be called to be moved to the detention centre, which was originally a prison—razor wire fences, etc.—for illegals waiting deportation. It is also filled at more than double capacity. It is the last step in the process before the refugees are given papers that allow them to travel to Athens. Usually they are in the detention centre for several days.

Except for an increasingly vocal right-wing anti-immigrant movement, no one wants it to be so horrible for the refugees. It is an overwhelming task, and the international NGOs are just beginning to pay attention to it. That said, it is increasingly clear that the island government has failed to take some basic steps to alleviate problems. For instance, it is illegal for the refugees to takes buses or taxis; and private drivers can be arrested if they transport them. So from all over the island, they have to walk to Mytilini. In our case, that is 70 kilometres away, and except for the rare Good Samaritan who risks arrest to give someone a ride, it means that very pregnant women, very old people, and infants are walking the distance.

To address that particular and unnecessary problem, tomorrow there is an island-wide protest to form a major convey to drive refugees to Mytilini. Lesbos is the third largest Greek island, and apparently many villages are participating. We’ll see what happens. My next report may be from jail!

Not all stories are horror stories. We also visited a camp (PIKPA) built a few years ago, housing only 60 people: the disabled, pregnant women, families with very young children, and women who, in their journey, have been accidentally separated from their male family members (and are hoping somehow to find them). At PIKPA, Michael and I found some people we had helped a week ago. One older man on crutches (not the 29-year-old man crippled from childhood whom I wrote some days ago); and, a lovely family with five children whom I had worried about for the last few days. (Whew.)

Locally, we are still providing basic food and water as the refugees arrive. There has been a slight lull of arrivals in this village. I understand a naval ship has been the cruising the channel, perhaps to discourage them from launching in Turkey—but it is not going to stop them.

At a transit house that I visited this morning in a nearby town, there had to be at least 200 people camped out. As they start their walk to Mytilini, it’s been my initiative to make sure people have baseball caps. It’s hot, the sun is brutal, and the people are delighted with them. Despite having headscarves, even the women want caps with brims to keep the fierce sun off their faces. I have been really astounded by how generous people have been. Thank you all so much. If anyone still wants to contribute, the easiest way seems to be through PayPal. This is a growing problem, and will be a lot worse by the end of summer. I am staying on a couple of weeks longer than originally planned because I want to make sure that the donations that I have received are used as effectively as possible.

It is amazing to witness what is happening. It is also extremely satisfying to help in a relief effort. Those of you who know me know that I used to work in international development. I never had a chance to do emergency relief. It is as compelling as it is emotional.