The squalid conditions thousands of refugees endure after defying death to reach one Greek island is a shocking testament to their desperation, writes Helen Nianias on Lesbos
DESPITE having watched hours of footage of desperate refugees, very little can prepare you for seeing them in real life. I arrive in Lesbos by ferry, and as the metal door of the boat slowly opens, there is a dazzling strip of blue across the waterfront. It’s a row of tents, stretching as far as the eye can see, nylon flapping in the breeze. Men pace along the dock, and stand on the waterfront squinting into the horizon.
Many hundreds of refugees are camping here, underneath the island’s version of the Statue of Liberty. Their bronze Lady Liberty has gone green after 85 years standing and facing the Turkish coast. More families of refugees sleep in the small public parks nearby, and some spend their days sheltering from the sun in the shade of parked cars.
Every day, about 3,000 refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and Taleban massacres in Afghanistan arrive on the coast of Lesbos. Locals out for their morning swim see RIBs (rigid-inflatable boats) arrive every day. The passengers will jump out, puncture the boats, and leave the scene as quickly as possible. Some kiss the ground in gratitude for their safe passage. Nobody knows what happens to the motors of the boats, but locals say they suspect there is a black market for them, with many being smuggled back to Turkey for re-use. It might explain why some cut out mid-journey.
It’s only about an hour and a half from Turkey to the island by sea, but tempestuous waters make it a treacherous journey. The UNHCR says 2,778 people have lost their lives or disappeared at sea in the Mediterranean this year, but the number for Greece is unknown. This week, Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old son of Syrian refugees, became the symbol of those who perish at sea while trying to find a better life in Europe.
Despite having a smaller population than Argyll and Bute, Lesbos has found itself at the epicentre of the refugee crisis. The International Rescue Committee says the number of refugees who arrive every day is the same as the total number of people at Calais. Over the past few weeks, the situation has reached breaking point, with the island’s mayor calling for a state of emergency. Two-thirds of all refugees to Greece have passed through Lesbos. A few days after my visit, rioting broke out on the island. The huge numbers of arrivals, coupled with a paltry three ferries a week taking refugees to the mainland, has meant there isn’t much space in the camps and tensions are high.
On the waterfront, there are already about 500 people queuing for tickets, despite the fact that the stall is shut. People jostle and shove, while one policeman, who looks worn out, whacks a stick against a metal pole and shouts at everyone to stop pushing. Local resources are threadbare – there are only two working ambulances on the island and in recent weeks it has been an administrative challenge to simply register the refugees, never mind get them off the island.
Speaking about the violent clashes between police and the refugees, the International Rescue Committee’s field director, Kirk Day, said: “If this isn’t as bad as it can get, I’m afraid to see what is. The clashes we have seen on Lesbos today are a direct consequence of people being frustrated at being forced to live in undesirable conditions and prevented from continuing their journey to the Greek mainland.”
He argues that authorities need to immediately provide people with more ferries or flights so they can leave the island. Day warns: “If something doesn’t change soon we will only see more violence.”
In the emergency refugee camp in Kara Tepe, a few minutes’ drive from the capital city of Mytilene, the stench of human waste is pungent. The camp was built for 500, but is home to over 1,000 refugees, and life isn’t much easier for them here than it is on the waterfront.
Rubbish – plastic bags, cans of Pepsi, empty packets of Cheetos – crunches underfoot. Used nappies are chucked in a ditch. The shower facilities are busy, with women and men carrying piles of wet clothes to hang on the camp’s wire fences. The metal shower and toilet cubicles are sprayed with pink graffiti to indicate whether they’re for men or women, and they shimmer under the midday sun. People, mostly groups of 20 and 30-something men, sit and talk in small groups.
Two men charge their phones using an electricity pylon in the middle of the camp. Lots of the people here are highly trained and qualified, with careers in Syria as pharmacists and engineers, so it’s no surprise they’re finding ingenious methods to keep going.
Mobile phones are their lifeline. Charity workers say that refugees will find the camp on GPS, and many of them already have the location loaded on Google Maps when they step off the boat. Free messaging services such as WhatsApp help them stay in touch with their families at home.
A group of young Syrian men I meet explain that technology plays a vital role. “I speak to my family with telephone and WhatsApp. But the electricity is very bad.”
What’s it like talking with your mothers – do they miss you? “Always she cries when she speaks with me,” says one 25-year-old man.
Another says: “I am married. I have children – two sons. They are in Syria. I miss them.”
The group left Aleppo, Syria, 15 days ago and has been in the camp for a week. Having taken the bus from their hometown to Mersin, on the Turkish coast, and stumped up $1,200 each for a space on a boat to Lesbos, they are now frustrated at how slow progress has been. This is stage three of nine of their journey to Germany, and they need to get going before borders start closing.
People aren’t here to stay. The priority for most refugees is to have a shower, wash their clothes and try to get out of there. The average refugee spends three days in the camp. Nobody would stay longer than they had to.
“When I first arrived at Kara Tepe, I would describe the conditions as squalid,” says Day. “The first priority was emergency water and sanitation, plus gravel and drainage throughout. There was standing water and people are lighting fires at night – the gravel helps stop the kindling from spreading and creating a forest fire.”
The recent increase in numbers has made a hard situation much worse.
“The western volunteers were horrified by the open showers and insisted on giving the refugees more privacy – which is a good thing in lots of ways but also created problems as there are not enough toilets,” Day says.
Without putting too fine a point on it, some refugees then started defecating in the cubicles, creating a major sanitation problem. For women especially, the prospect of using the dirty, unfamiliar toilets is frightening. IRC workers explain that the women often come from close communities and many are used to having female relatives and friends with them at all times.
But hygiene is just one of a whole jumble of problems for the refugees and the camp volunteers.
“The refugees complain about food, too,” Day says. “They should complain and they could be much more vociferous.”
There’s a queue outside the medical tent. Health problems the refugees suffer from at Kara Tepe tend to have been caused by the long walk to the camp across the baking hot island – in summer it can reach 45C. There’s been a recent spike in the number of women and children, and many children also suffer with the journey and adapting to the new surroundings. Day tells of one child who had severe intestinal problems as he was afraid to go to the toilet outdoors. The environment is strange and unfamiliar to the refugees. We might be used to seeing displaced people in hot countries on the news, but the refugees I meet find it a strange experience.
One man I speak to is a 26-year-old qualified pharmacist, who declines to give his name. He has never slept in a tent or on the street before and would much rather have had a hotel room, but they’re all booked.
He left Syria because he was being forced to join the army. He wants to go to Germany to study for an MA, and hopes to return home one day. He says: “When we go back to Syria, we will have to rebuild everything destroyed and produce a new life.”
His family has no plans to join him. “I go to Germany to advance my studying, and I will go back.”
While the journey itself may be physically dangerous, it wouldn’t be difficult for their families to arrange it. Human trafficking isn’t even a “known secret” in many Turkish towns – it’s completely out in the open. In Izmir, everyone knows where you go to meet the traffickers, Day says. “You go into a building that’s like a bank to get a card with a code on it for ¤1,000. Once you’re on the dinghy, you give the card back to the traffickers, who take it back to the bank and claim the money you put down.”
Human traffickers have been profiting from the desperation, but others are also making money out of the refugee economy. The young Syrians I speak to estimate that the journey to Germany is going to cost them ¤3,000 each, and a big slice of that will go on food and electricity. The fast-food stand selling pizza slices and falafel on the waterfront is doing constant business and the Lidl near the camp is where all the refugees do their grocery shopping.
While many retailers are welcoming and have set out stands with bread and tinned fish and bottled water next to signs in Arabic, some are rather severe. Several restaurants make it clear the refugees are allowed to buy their food, but they can’t actually eat on the premises. Old Greek-Turkish tensions have resurfaced and some locals I speak to complain about men praying to Mecca in the street and women wearing the hijab.
Apart from small lapses like this, most islanders have been extremely welcoming. Lesbos has long been a destination for refugees as the situation has deteriorated in Syria. Tourists and expats help out and when I visit the camp at Kara Tepe, a team of ten young Greek men in heavy-metal t-shirts are getting ready to help clear up the camp.
In Molyvos, in the north of the island, a local restaurant owner, Melinda, has taken over the refugee care and helps the IRC account for numbers. Day tells me she doesn’t go to bed until 3am – Greeks like to eat late – and will often get up at 6am to help with the early morning boat landings.
The big numbers are becoming increasingly predictable, and are always the aftershock of a major event in Syria. “Syrians showed up three weeks after the border closing,” Day says. “Generally, if a major event happens in Syria, you can set your watch by a spike in numbers hitting the Greek islands three weeks later.”
Roughly 80 per cent of the refugees arriving in Lesbos are Syrian, but there are others too. There is a strong presence of Hazaras – a persecuted ethnic group from Afghanistan – who are escaping racism, violence and the new rise of the Taleban. I meet a group of Hazara boys in Mytilene airport, who are attempting to walk most of the way from Athens to Sweden.
They are aged 17 to 20, and met in Turkey. One says that he spent four years in a youth refugee camp run by the UNHCR in Turkey. “I’m 18 but I left home when I was 14. I lived in a UNHCR underage camp.
“I was there for four years and suffered with racism. I went to school for two months but dropped out. I started working in a car wash all day, seven days a week.”
When he turned 18, he left the camp and saved up enough money to escape from Turkey. Will it be worth it to go all the way to Sweden? “I want an equal life,” he says.
One of the group spent 30 hours climbing through mountains of Afghanistan with no food or water, to cross into Iran, to get to Turkey, to get to Lesbos, to get to Athens, to walk to Sweden.
Whatever their origin or destination, the journey through Europe will be fraught for the refugees. Hungarian authorities have put up razorwire fences to try and keep people out, and Serbia is described as a particularly inhospitable place by charity workers.
But nevertheless, people are climbing those fences and making their way across countries that don’t want them, in the search of sanctuary. «