Return from Lesvos, 3 March 2020

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I left Skala Sikamineas, Lesvos, before dawn on Saturday, just as everything we took for granted began to fall apart.

My two weeks there had been quiet, with only a handful of landings to deal with. But on Thursday night Turkey’s President Erdogan announced he was opening the floodgates and pointing all the DPs in his country in the general direction of Greece. Social media – which bristles with hate against refugees and those who help them – even started focusing its poison on Skala Sikamineas, a place so out of the way that few people know it exists. The serenity with which operations have gone on there since 2015, even during flare-ups in the island’s capital Mytilini or around the notorious Moria camp, has been extraordinary; the affection of locals for Lighthouse Relief and its volunteers has always been – and remains – palpable. So this state of affairs came as a shock.

On Friday I took turns staring through a telescope from 8am until 5.30pm, first down at the chapel on the port, and then from Lighthouse HQ: going to our usual look-out point further up the hill was deemed too risky given the invective being hurled at us.

Far from the flotillas of desperation being predicted, two boats arrived: certainly nothing out of the ordinary for a late-February day but the journalists stuck on Lesvos since the riots of ten days ago were overjoyed to find something else to focus their attention on, and turned these poor souls into an international story. That was the last day of almost-normality.

A largely sympathetic story in the New York Times drew more not-entirely-helpful attention. A tweet (bizarrely) from Katie Hopkins proffered Lighthouse being in the right place at the right time (ahem… LHR has been there 24 hours a day for the past five years, through months of no landings at all and days when the dinghies never stopped: it would have been weird had we not been there on this day) as ultimate proof of collaboration between NGOs and the Turkish forces of darkness, whetting extremist appetites. (The ironic thing about the landing which drew Hopkins’ hateful attention was that the dinghy in question was guided into LHR hands by a rhib dropped from the Valiant, a British border force vessel.)

As I was half way to the airport, another boat landed. Those 74 people, including lots of very small children, are still there on the beach as I write, along with another 47 who arrived on Sunday. After Saturday morning’s landing, the LHR people involved in helping the boat in and distributing clothes and food were taken off to Mytilini police station for questioning. Volunteers in Skala Sikamineas were confined to their accommodation. Stories of roaming bands of thugs abounded.

Even before I left the locals had been readying themselves, determined to a wo/man to put up barricades in defence of LHR’s amazing volunteers. Marianna in Goji’s bar had moved her alsatian on to the front porch as an early-warning system in case of hostile raids. The inhabitants of Sikaminea, high up on the mountain behind the port, were ready to drop down to take up our defence. But despite preparations, they were helpless on Saturday evening when the mob from ‘elsewhere’ that had gathered outside the now-disused Stage Two transit camp immediately above Skala Sikanineas torched the structure. The right-wing mayor of Molyvos had (it seems) sent out a message asking the mob to ensure that there were no sneaky manoeuvres to reopen the camp to give a minumum of shelter to the latest refugee arrivals who were being prevented by unrest and road-blocks from being taken south to Moria. The mob interpreted this in the most literal way: Stage Two is now a charred wreck.

Another day confined to quarters for the LHR volunteers; an order to stand down and cease operations or face arrest to all NGOs; a day of chaos, hate and horror. A child died when refugees capsized their boat off the south-eastern shore of the island, having been assured by smugglers on the Turkish side that that was a failsafe way to have themselves picked up by coastguards. An angry crowd hurled invective and missiles at a dinghy that came into Thermi harbour, and refused to let it dock. A stomach-churning video emerged of Hellenic Coast Guard deliberately circling a dinghy at speed, attacking it with long sticks, then firing shots into the water around it. Lesvos was split in half by roadblocks set up perhaps by police or perhaps by vigilantes – nothing was clear. And in Mytilini the press and NGO workers were being attacked by masked youths with chains and sticks. The situation was getting out of hand.

To the extent that yesterday LHR was forced to find a way to evacuate its wonderful, devoted volunteers – something that would have seemed unthinkable just days ago. There was nothing they could do there: they had been threatened with arrest if they tried to intervene in landings. They departed in the knowledge that, in Skala Sikamineas at least, the refugees would be looked after. The owner of a local restaurant was feeding them. The UNHCR has pulled out of the north shore but their local reps are still providing drinking water and extra blankets.

And the big hearts of the inhabitants of Skala Sikamineas are going out to ‘their’ volunteers as well.

“I am really very sorry about everything that have happened recently,” said a message from slightly grumpy Maria in the bakery. “We all in the village love the guys that came and cleaned the sea and have lived with us altogether peacefully the recent years and have helped all the people. I don’t want your life to be in any danger…let us wait for the future. I feel that I have to express to all of you that I am very sorry. If I can help at anything let me know… I care about you, we have become friends, family all these years that you have been here.”

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That Lesvos was going to explode was obvious. It was only waiting for the final straw, and Erdogan provided that. Arrivals have not sky-rocketed, but that doesn’t quell the terror of another avalanche.

The island is full of fantastic, kind people. But there are situations that challenge even the kindest.

Then there are the people who have resented the refugees right from the start, who say (quite understandably) that increasing numbers and lack of coherent policy has damaged their lives and their livelihoods.

And there are the racist thugs, who have crawled from the shadows into the bright sunlight, emboldened by the advent of a right-wing government favouring strong-arm tactics, and who have, almost certainly, been bolstered over the past few weeks by fellow extremists drafted in from the mainland.

That the ghastly Moria camp now houses 20,000 people where it was intended for 3,000 is common knowledge. That resources are diverted away from the local populace towards these unfortunates is a widely held belief (and it has to be said, infrastructure such as medical services and water were inefficient even before the first big influx of 2015, so high numbers of arrivals have taken their toll).

The new government swept to power promising to deal with the ‘migrant crisis’ with hardline measures. But for residents on Lesvos and the other islands that implies removing the refugees, not building bigger, better camps right there. But this latter is what the government is planning to do, creating an odd coalition of right and left who, for very different reasons, are united in being dead set against any moves which mean that hotspot status is prolonged, enshrined, immortalised.

Now Greece has declared a one-month moratorium on accepting asylum demands, and has begun army manoeuvres along the east coast of Lesvos, shooting live ammunition across the sea where refugee dinghies cross, towards the country’s traditional foe, Turkey. The scope for disaster is unlimited.

In an unsettling way it’s the continuation/culmination of an EU policy which has increasingly handled the refugee issue as a security problem along its borders rather than a humanitarian one on its soil.

Greece’s claims that it has been abandoned to look after the refugee crisis all alone are not entirely true: something in the region of €2 billion in EU funds have been channeled into the country since 2015, and more is on the way. But money is one thing: a lasting solution is another and that’s not going to be building bigger camps and stepping up repression. Nothing will stop people fleeing hardships and conflicts to a large extent of our making. We’ve got to learn to accept, integrate and deal with it. To do otherwise is a shameful dereliction of our responsibility towards humanity as dictated – or so one would hope – by our European values.

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING TO LIGHTHOUSE RELIEF WHICH WILL RESUME ITS VITAL WORK ON THE NORTH SHORE OF LESVOS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, AND CONTINUES TO OFFER PSYCHO-SOCIAL SUPPORT FOR CHILDREN AND YOUTH IN THE RITSONA REFUGEE CAMP ON THE GREEK MAINLAND

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Lesvos, 22 February 2020

0222AThe seaside blows the cobwebs beautifully from the heads of people like me who live in green, landlocked places. And the salutary effects are even better – for me at least, as someone who doesn’t have much time for lying in the sun turning brown – if you get your dose of sea in winter, with ozone-laden wind penetrating your many layers of thermals and making short work of attempts to blow-dry your hair into any semblance of normalcy.

0222MNot that I need neat hair to do what I’m doing. In fact, yesterday evening I dried my hair and even put on my thick and functional woolly dress and non-hiking-boots – something few people around here ever wear – to drop by a party for two of the volunteers who have been working in this tiny port on the northern coast of Lesvos. But the moment I got ‘dressed up’ (it’s all relative…) what happened? The first boat-load of refugees to head in our direction in many many days washed up right here on the beach and I ended up chasing wind-tossed rubbish and hauling abandoned life jackets away to ready them for disposal.

Spotting and emergency response is a strange life of long long stretches of time-filling, punctuated with unexpected bursts of urgent activity. You have to be there, but you have to be resigned to not doing much, even though what you do eventually do is vital.

0222LBesides getting your fill of sea air (which, I’ve been reading, really doesn’t have all those health-giving qualities that we’re taught to think it has), being here is good for your faith in humanity… though bad too, at the same time.

Did I enthuse last year (see here and here) about the wonderful young people who pitch up here to do their bit? Of course I did. But I’ll do so again. The ambience is different this year – perhaps because there are more northern Europeans (last year there were more, more voluble Portuguese and Spanish volunteers) but perhaps also because the main bar – Goji’s – no longer allows vols to run up tabs (too many people neglected to pay before leaving) which means that it is no longer the unofficial HQ, brimming and noisy. But the commitment and efficiency remains. And it’s wonderfully heartening.

0222PIt’s not only here, naturally. There’s been so much talk recently about the horrors – and they are horrors – of the camp at Moria, but beyond the nightmare and the injustice and the suffering there are instances of humanity which so deserve flagging up, which is why this article in the Guardian, which came after days of reports of demonstrations and clashes on the island, was timely. However bad things get, you mustn’t lose sight of the good.

The other day I managed to get away to take a look around One Happy Family. OHF is closer to the ‘nicer’ Kara Tepe camp for the most vulnerable cases; it’s a 40 minute walk from Moria. But people do walk (they serve 1200 lunches a day on average, which gives an idea), because at their destination they find not only a little haven of civilisation, but also something to do. And inactivity is arguably one of the worst scourges of a refugee camp. Boredom breeds despair (mental health problems are rife in the camp), and it breeds violence (frustrated, idle young men in their thousands will get into fights, or take it out on others in some way).

0222SThere are a number of NGOs operating in OHF’s umbrella space, with staff and volunteers, but refugees too work hard here… or don’t, as they wish. There’s a primary school and a bike repair shop, a women’s space and a barber’s. There are people welding and doing carpentry and there’s a professionally run early learning centre. Then there’s the kitchen and the café.

But loveliest of all, for me, is the vegetable and herb garden. When I turned up an Afghan botanist was outside washing down the table which had been used for a sauerkraut-making workshop earlier that day. A toddler with a piece of stick was trying to poke Bella the dog who, however, was keeping just beyond his reach. It was clearly not the first time she had had to deal with that situation.

0222RSome men lounged at tables alongside the perimeter fence, deep in conversation. Inside the potting/herb drying shed, Afghan women were tending seedlings and in-putting data on the garden’s new computer.

A 16-year-old with a heart-melting smile told me he’d arrived four months ago. It took six hours to cross from Turkey he said, because the outboard kept stopping and the ignition rope broke so they had to get it going again with shoelaces. There were 45 people on his eight-metre dinghy he claimed, the men sitting along the edges and the women and children down on the floor in the middle. His school in Kabul had been bombed three times. His mother – an economist he described her as – had lost her job. So the two of them and his sister had left. I didn’t dare ask about his father. They’d been on the move for a year, travelling through Pakistan and Iran and Turkey. He told it all with such grace, in good English and not calling for pity. Was he giving his story some extra gloss? There’s every chance that, far from exaggerating, he was concealing the really ghastly bits behind that gorgeous smile.0222Q

With chronic overcrowding in Moria camp, and asylum interviews being carried out either too quickly for refugees to seek that tiny bit of legal advice that is available on the ground or only after many many months or even years of waiting (there is little middle ground), the situation looks intractable. Locals are fed up – with the refugees and with the authorities’ seeming inability to come up with solutions. It’s quite comprehensible. The righter bits of the right-wing government milk this for all it’s worth, stirring up discontent, against refugees and the NGOs that bring some little comfort and solace.

Amid purely silly threats to build walls in the middle of the Aegean, and scarier ones to construct closed internment camps on the islands, nothing much seems to be happening. In the interests of fairness – which I have to say, really is more than the authorities merit – it should be said that transfers off Lesvos up to mid-February this year have been more (2241) than arrivals from Turkey (2053), though hardly a dent in the 21,700 refugees currently blocked on the island, according to Aegean Boat Report. What I am unable to work out is whether these are all being transferred to the mainland for further consideration of asylum claims, or whether they’re being deported back to Turkey. The government says over 24,000 were pushed back from Greece last year. Police reports say only 48 were deported from Lesvos. It’s difficult in this chaos to get at the truth.

And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about people fleeing from the kind of situation where even the risks they run on dangerous journeys and the cold shoulder offered once here are preferable to what they have fled from back home. But for how long? If authorities are aiming to dissuade desperate people from pitching up here, it’s working for some. The coordinator here at Lighthouse Relief told me that a Syrian friend had shocked her the other day by announcing that he was giving up, and making his way back to Syria, because he felt he stood no chance in Europe. Could there be any greater condemnation?

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING TO LIGHTHOUSE RELIEF WHICH IS DOING SUCH VITAL WORK, IN INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES, ON THE NORTH SHORE OF LESVOS

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En route to Lesvos I stopped in Athens to stay with C who is living there for the moment. Athens is a funny place, that I had spent a total of four hours in before this trip.

I like its energy. It is admirably green, even if much of the green is atrociously maintained. Its antiquities brought on culture-awe palpitations, quite literally. But it’s an ugly kind of place, and I don’t think I was quite prepared for that.

Somehow I was expecting it to fall into the Rome/Istanbul category, where everything around tells you that this is a city that was at the hub of unfolding history for centuries or millennia. But it doesn’t. Its ruins are splendid but its venerable age doesn’t seem to trickle down into the lived city. Its period in the limelight was too long ago. Its phases of insignificance were too lengthy. Its unplanned, merciless growth came at a time when protection and conservation were non-existent. And of course the country’s recent travails have done nothing to improve the situation.

Its multi-culturalism is of a downbeat sort, or at least that’s the impression I had in the immigrant-packed streets around C’s flat. Many of the people loitering around the piazza at Victoria metro station are in a Moria-like state of limbo – one step forward, in that they’ve managed to leave the islands, but still suspended, untended and unresolved. On one level there’s a feeling of hopelessness. On the other, the area is buzzing with little Middle Eastern eateries and what have you. I think I need to go back to get the measure of the place better.