The EU has closed its borders. Moria has become a detention centre. People around the world have protested. On March 24th around 200 people on Lesvos gathered in front of Moria to protest the EU deal which will implement mass deportations. As far as we have gathered from the news and from MSF, people will be forced to apply for asylum in Greece and those for whom it is not granted will be deported to camps in Turkey. Officially, only people from Iraq and Syria are considered refugees and we expect that all other nationalities will be deported with minimal consideration.
In order to interview everyone individually for asylum the EU has estimated a cost of about 20 million euros per day. This money will be put into employment of extra people in order to speed up the process. Yet, it is said that no one will be deported to Turkey until April 4th and even then it may take weeks more to fully implement this system. From Lesvos, we have been witnessing ferries being filled and sent to the Greek mainland where they are put into camps with atrocious conditions, completely uncertain of their future.
We are also left with very little information to give to people upon landing. As we work closely with MSF they have told us their advisers and translators will be in charge of distributing as much information as possible to the refugees. As well as this, MSF has refused to be involved in the transportation of people from their camp in the North to the detention centre, Moria, in the South. Police buses are now being used for this purpose.
In this confusing time it is difficult to place our role exactly. We do not agree with what Moria has turned into as it restricts people’s movement as well facilitates the deportation of people who have come from war zones or poverty and should be given the right to live in a safe country. We continue our work as normal and try to equip people as best as possible. It is still of the utmost importance to us that people arrive safely and are given basic needs at the cheese factory. Police forces have not intervened in our work so far and by transporting people to the MSF camp we can at least be assured that they are given information. In this time, news is invaluable and it is a small comfort knowing that the people are at least given primary care and information.
In recent weeks, landings have moved mainly to the South although we have had a boat both yesterday and today. Yesterday’s arrival was smooth with everyone transported to the Cheese Factory and given primary care, but the arrival of today was much more critical. A larger boat with about 100 people was sinking off the port of Palios and when we received the call people were already in the water. Fortunately, the rescue team SeaWatch was started already in place with their boat and together with them we organised an emergency rescue call for the groups in the North. Through Whatsapp, a messaging app which we use to communicate most frquently, we quickly organized more lifeboats and assistance to the port. Soon two more lifeboats had arrived and with SeaWatch they ferried people from the sinking ship to the small port. On land were MSF, the CK team and Borderline, ready to supply the wet and hypothermic. Just yesterday our new team member and doctor Johannes had arrived. Johannes aided some hypothermic children, one of whom showed more serious symptoms and was sent to the hospital in Mytilini. The newly arrived, shocked people were taken in vehicles to the MSF camp in Mantamados where they got dry clothes and shoes. We picked up a lot of shoes from our warehouse in the Cheese Factory, and brought them to the camp, where they were distributed quickly.
The well-functioning network of NGOs made this situation pass without anyone being seriously harmed. It is always difficult to make such an assumption, but it is very possible that without the help of land and sea rescue people could have died this morning.
Accordingly, we want to thank all those who helped this morning in Palios as well as everyone who works on the island of Lesvos and the Balkan route in general. Land and sea support would have never even been possible without the donations and man power that is provided to every NGO. Despite difficult times, we are glad that there are still many people around the world who continue to advocate that people in need should be helped. In a time when the view of Europe is morally wrong, the passion and commitment of so many people shows that we will all continue to stand up and fight for human values.
The last week or so, we have all been preparing for the expected influx of refugees, yet so far, we see no signs of this in the North. Although all camps are supplied, the number of arrivals has somewhat diminished. This is especially the case in the North where we now go days without any arrivals, only to suddenly have six in one day. In the South, there are still arrivals, but in a much different manner. Most refugee boats are picked up by the Greek Coast Guard and brought to Mytilini port. We can therefore only think that the decline in the number of arrivals is caused by actions taken in Turkey. One refugee told us when he arrived that this had been his seventh attempt. Six times he had been on a boat turned back by the Turkish Coast Guard.
Aside from the Turkish Coast Guard, there has been no cases of direct push backs at sea. The only case of returned people known at the moment is of 150 Pakistani refugees brought directly from the island back to Turkey. Since this increase of control, fear has grown, encouraging people their best chance for the crossing is under the cover of darkness, which is all the more dangerous.
With the situation on the island at a lull, we are shocked at the images we have received showing Idomeni. Volunteers we work closely with have recently left to the border. We have tried to give all the support we can from the Cheese Factory including sleeping bags and medicine.
From recent events, we doubt the new European policy, including the closure of its external borders, will be successful. In the past, people have shown that they cannot be deterred, but resolve to more dangerous routes. The state of emergency declared by Hungary shows that they, too, do not believe that closing the borders of Europe will be a long term solution.
So what does this mean for Lesvos and for Proti Stassi? Perhaps the number of arrivals will decline and a new route will emerge via the Black Sea and Bulgaria. Or refugees will continue to seek refugee on the Aegean islands, but continue along a new Balkan route, including Albania and Kosovo. Although for now this is all speculation. In these alternative routes, less aid would be available, less sea rescue in the case of the Black Sea. Moreover, there have been numerous cases of ill treatment of refugees in Bulgaria.
In any form the situation evolves to, we have decided to continue our work as Borderline-Europe on Lesvos. Unlike many other organisations, the cost to maintain our structure and work here is very low, which makes it possible for us to stay without an influx of refugees. We can also begin our work as a human rights watch organisation at the Aegean and on the borders.
All the while, we have been taking care of our Cheese Factory, restocking, building shelving units and receiving refugees who have just arrived in Lesvos.
Over the past few days, the situation in Greece has become desperate, the partial result of continuing influxes of refugees and also, to a greater degree, the inability of European leaders to settle on adequate provisions for asylum-seekers’ safe passage and relocation. As humane policies fail to be reached, the EU’s improvisational and, as is the case with the recent EU-Turkey agreement, illegal, tactics for stalling the influx, have left thousands stranded in Greece, with little hope of continuing their journey to central and northern Europe through legal channels.
Beginning on March 1st, the border between Greece and Macedonia was shut to Afghani and Iraqi people. Despite their previous recognition as refugees (their home countries classified as war zones like Syria), these people are forced to stay in Greece. Thousands of stranded people are finding that they have few options: walk over 500 kilometers to the border only to squat at on the borders of the Idomeni camp whose facilities have been stretched beyond breaking point, and then turned back to Athens, or be placed in over-crowed and underfunded facilities in Athens. The repercussions of the new policy have led to rescheduling and capping the number of tickets sold to refugees arriving on Lesvos.
Blue Star and Hellenic Seaways Ferries have become the only ferries to leave the island whereas before their passenger overflow was given to a state-organized ferry. So far, the schedule is for one ferry to leave each day. This ferry will only sell twenty percent of the tickets to refugees, which is a maximum of 600 places. According to UNHCR, there are almost two million refugees in Turkey. Up to 2000 people arrive in Lesvos per day; the registration capacity of the Moria camp is at 2500 per day. Yet only 600 of these people will be allowed to leave.
With camps such as Moria in the South becoming overcrowded, there is more pressure for transit camps, like the Cheese Factory, to accommodate the influx. We try to provide as many people as possible with backpacks stocked with basic necessities: such as shoes, dry clothes and toiletries. Given the change in situation, Proti Stassi is gathering its resources together to make temporary accommodation a top priority.