Recently, we have begun to work daily at the Doctors Without Borders camp in Mantamados. Together with Praxis and Save the Children, the camp has taken on seventy-five minors. About three weeks ago these teenagers were chosen to be taken from Moria to another camp. The aim was to give them a temporary place to live that was not in the confines of Moria which has been proven unsafe time and time again. As volunteers in the camp we play sports with them, organise trips to the beach and make group activities such as art and cooking. Many of the teenagers also participate in English classes every morning. Most of our days consist of talking with them and although the question comes up many times, no one is able to answer what will happen next. As far as we know, Praxis is working to place all of the minors in homes on the mainland, yet this process may take a while. Thus far, about twenty minors have been moved to Mytilini to a house under the care of Praxis and eventually all of them will be moved and separated to housing. The next step to the mainland seems very far away, but at least it will be forward. All minors that arrived in Europe before their 18th birthday cannot be deported. Some have relatives in other European countries, although many will probably stay in Greece. Because of this, the teenagers are very eager to learn Greek, especially through watching Greek news.
The last six weeks have been marked by uncertainty as to the development of the situation on the island. On April 4th, the first deportation of refugees took place, followed by a second a few days later. This presented refugees with the only option to apply for asylum in Greece as to avoid being deported to Turkey.
At the same time, the number of arrivals has almost dropped to zero, which means our initial project, the Cheese Factory, is not in use, apart from two landings in the past weeks. However, the costs for the factory are minimal and should the EU-Turkey deal fail, we will keep it open in case arrivals recommence. Moreover, NGOs are increasingly leaving the island or abandoning projects in the North, making our reception point there more important in the case of a landing. In the time being, we are looking for additional ways to be of assistance on the the island.
The situation has changed such that the refugees spend a much longer time on Lesvos as they await the processing of their asylum applications. Exacerbating this situation, is the lack of promised auditors by the European Union. Given this slow level of processing, we believe that some may have to wait over six months for a response.
Therefore, we want to begin projects that will help the refugees during their term. Among other things, we are planning a one that will match Greek lawyers to asylum seekers. However, this may take some time given that the asylum laws are so vague and misunderstood that they leave even the EU still searching for staff.
Alongside another group, the CK team, another potential project aims to re-accommodate people from the camps in dis-used hotels. Currently there are about 5,000 refugees on the island, divided between the camps Moria and Kara Tepe. In theory, once after registration, refugees have to stay in the camps for a period of twenty-five days. The implementation of this is slightly lacking however, as the Greek officials are understaffed and each person registered must receive an ‘exit paper’ in order to leave the camp which often takes more than twenty-five days. In Moria it is also the case where overcrowding has caused problems concerning food and accommodation. Everyday we hear reports of a lack of food, both in portion size as well as lacking enough portions to feed the entire camp. In terms of sleeping, there are up to forty people in one cabin, often with no lights or windows where, due to overcrowding, people sleep on mattresses on the floor. Even the quality of drinking water is poor and medical care is often inadequate or absent. It is for these inhuman conditions that we wish to provide alternative accommodation for people where food and beds will be provided.
We are still tackling those who feel that what is happening here is lawful, even necessary, and therefore also fine. Because it is not and we will never accept such actions as the ones happening here. Therefore, our main tasks are to stand up for and change the inhumane conditions of those whose rights as human beings have been violated. In this respect, our work as a human rights watch group has grown increasingly stronger since Moria became a detention centre as we will never accept actions which discriminate and treat people inhumanely based on their country of origin.
For over a week, the new EU regulation has been enforced. Starting on Sunday, the 21st of March, all new arrivals are imprisoned in the former registration centre and HotSpot, Moria. They get a piece of paper explaining that they are legally arrested, their rights and that they have to wait for the next step. In addition, organizations such as UNHCR and Doctors without Borders, have withdrawn in resistance to this prison. Their actions, such as providing medical care, were also restricted. When we talk to the interned refugees through the fence, we hear that the most challenging aspect for them to cope with is the lack of information. They do not receive any and it seems as if the officers themselves do not know what will happen next or the refugees’ fates. Therefore, there are now 3000 refugees detained in Moria, unknowing and anxious. Especially we must give regard to the many imprisoned children- this is unacceptable.
According to what they tell us, food is provided by the NGOs allowed in but medical care is seriously lacking. Almost every boat that has landed has had its passengers brought to Moria; as we still have landings and deportation back to Turkey is not consistent, we will see the conditions in the prison deteriorate. Turkey and Greece have not yet completed the necessary legislative requirements to make legal deportations, at least from an EU perspective. In addition, according to legal texts, mass deportations are prohibited. Therefore, the implementation of this deal will certainly be difficult. Apart from this, the EU plans to asses everyone’s case for asylum within 48 hours. In the past, European countries often take months, if not years, to consider these applications. We must bring the fairness and thoroughness of their assessments into question. This is all disregarding the fact that their safety is not ensured in Turkey, both in the country and for fear of deportation to their home countries. For the many Kurds we have seen, talked to and helped the idea of being sent to Turkey must be terrifying with regard to the treatment by Turkey of these people. These problems ultimately make deportation difficult to implement. Yet, even if laws and fates were disregarded, we must say that we will never accept that people are locked up while in search of a better life, or simply in search of safety.
The principle of hope has played a large role in the arriving people these days. Some people tell us they knew the situation yet had no choice but to try their chances, hope that Europe had some level of acceptance for them. This is to show that simply because there is no chance, it does not mean there is not any hope. This hope still drives people to pay exuberant amounts and risk their lives countless times in order to seek asylum in Europe. The European policy has not been entirely successful in deterring people. On the other hand, some have told us they would have stayed in Turkey, not in the camps they will be deported to, but to work and lead a somewhat better life. As we hear this statement, it reveals much about the situation in Greece, a European Member State, and its European partners. The rights refugees have in Turkey, not even considered a safe country, compared to the EU.
Since NATO began patrolling in early February, we have since the arrivals decrease, but never halt. Even now, after the deal, there are boats every day. Perhaps the information has not spread everywhere, or the smugglers are taking more caution. No one can be sure and only in time we will see the full evolution of the situation.
Again we will say that Borderline-Lesvos will not leave. History has always shown that despite intermittent blockages, people will eventually be successful in finding a route to where they need to go. The EU-Turkey agreement is only valid for Greece and not for other EU countries, such as Italy and Bulgaria which can be accessible via the Mediterranean or Black Sea respectively. It seems that European governments see this as a realistic situation as Hungary is currently building a fence on its Eastern border with Romania.
For our work, we have decided to continue and maintain Proti Stassi. It has increasingly become the case that people ask us for information and we try to explain the situation as best as we know it, whilst also referring them to MSF who provide translators as well as UNHCR representatives. This has become difficult. We can no longer assure people that because they have endeavored to reach Europe that they are safe.
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.
Since our two trips to mainland Greece, we have seen first hand how the situation has evolved.
In particular, there has been the almost complete closure of the Greek-Macedonian border, meaning that onward journey for refugees is not possible. It is the non-Syrian and non-Iraqi refugees that have little choice but to return to the camps in Thessaloniki or Athens. They are stranded. They have very little prospect of moving forward along the Balkan Route. To exacerbate this problem, the arrivals onto the Aegean islands greatly exceeds the departures of people past Greece. The camps in Athens and Thessaloniki are overcrowded and they find it difficult to provide everyone with basic supplies such as sleeping bags. This has lead to the rest stops around the motorway becoming a gathering place for people as the buses from Athens are selective of their passengers. This is done in order to limit the numbers of people arriving at the border town of Idomeni. As seen before, closures with a large number of people gathered leads to tensions rising. However, restricting the bus transportation has not fulfilled its purpose. People who have waited days at rest stops, spending money and making no headway, have begun to walk the hundreds of kilometers to the border. They walk along the roads, often leading to blocked traffic, and an inevitably stressful situation.
To prevent further chaos on the mainland, the Greek government has limited the number of refugees allowed to travel on the ferries. Yet this will eventually lead to a backlog that will repeat the images and numbers of last summer.
Greece has been isolated from Europe in this respect. The country, already digging itself out of an economic crisis, has neither the funds or capability to deal with the refugee crisis alone. Now, Europe speaks of reviving the Dublin agreement, meaning Greece will absurdly and solely be left to deal with this crisis. It is due to a lack of European solidarity that the situation is deteriorating here, that people cannot continue and that Greece has been left completely segregated.
For the last six weeks we have been building up Proti Stassi, both in reputation and structure. Now it is time for a review of our activities and of the general situation on the island.
We finished these winter months by solidifying our relationships with other groups, including the locals, through our common goal.
Arrival numbers have declined in the North, yet we continue to have daily boats in our area when the weather permits. Usually in the early hours, we work with land and sea support provided by other NGOs in order to bring the people from the beaches to the Cheese Factory. There, we continue to provide clothing, tea, snacks, toilet facilities and bus transportation. The number of people arriving each day varies greatly- some days only fifteen, others up to 300. As before, the ethnicities are different: Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi or Syrian/Iraqi Kurds are the majority, however, in the minority are Pakistanis, Iranians, Yemenis, Somalians, Moroccans and Palestinians.
After people have received primary care at Proti Stassi, we organise closely with MSF for further transport. Other groups we cooperate with include the CK Team, Cadus, SeaWatch, Dirty Girls and MarhaCar.
Our work with the CK Team has greatly intensified recently. When aid is needed at the Cheese Factory, ranging from translations to helping with storage, they always offer their time. We have also arranged first aid courses together as well as regular group meetings, both of which are held at the Cheese Factory. In these meetings, SeaWatch and Cadus are occasionally present in order to develop our sea to land correspondence. In early February, SeaWatch and Cadus decided to live and operate from Tsonia, a nearby port. Given our connection to these teams, we contributed to a smooth and accepted relocation by introducing them to the local fishermen, who have since shown the two groups the most common landing areas around Tsonia.
Besides these groups, we have also been in constant contact with MarhaCar, an NGO which distributes clothing and blankets from warehouses to (transit) camps as well as Dirty Girls who wash and reuse wet clothing.
In addition to this daily work, we are widening the communication between volunteers and islanders. For the islanders, life has changed drastically since the beginning of the refugee crisis and very often their work is unappreciated. After a boat carrying 200 people landed the other day, they were there towing it into the port and working alongside three other volunteer groups. As the refugees were all transported to the Cheese Factory, the volunteers left as well, leaving the locals with a very large sinking boat and everyone’s waste in their harbor. Yet, Borderline tries to implement its resources in a way that the locals are not left with a negative impression. This includes having a mutual understanding of our goal through constant communication as well as providing jobs.
Within the next few weeks Borderline will become a registered NGO in Greece and be able to provide legal security for both volunteers and employed locals.
We are also in the process of preparing for summer. Although the situation is unstable, if the number of arrivals begin to match those of last summer, it is vital we are ready. At the moment, Europe is trying to decrease the number of arrivals on Greece through tighter border controls. This has been a long term discussion and may take months to implement, if at all successful.
As Europe’s external borders struggle to lessen the arrival numbers, its internal ones have been more successful along the Balkan Route. Therefore, we are expecting and preparing for more substantial stays on Lesvos and at the Cheese Factory in particular.
We play our part on Lesvos gladly and are proud to work alongside so many NGOs, organisations and islanders. Our goal is to ensure that the situation on Lesvos is at its best for all arriving refugees as it is currently the most evolved area on the Balkan Route. Though never optimal, we endeavor to keep the island this way for as long as possible.
For the extremely dangerous roads by the sea around the cape of Korakas we urgently need fit cars. The rain season is approaching and all the roads will soon be undrivable with regular cars. We were already able to buy the first all-wheel pickup truck for “Proti Stassi” and send it to Greece. Until it´s arrival all discrepancies between the town council of Klio and the mayor of Mytilini will hopefully be dissolved.
We really want to show that our team 100 % stands with our commitment: the support of refugees AND the people of the town.