I was recently in Lesvos as part of a delegation jointly organized by the Tällberg Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. We were a group of 35 people from a variety of different countries; our time was split between visits to the structures that are in place on the island for welcoming refugees and conference sessions analyzing the underlying causes and long term consequences of the refugee crisis.
Here are some notes I typed up directly after returning. They were written before the Brussels bombing and before the decision of MSF and UNHCR to suspend part of their activities in Greece in protest against the EU-Turkey agreement. Under the terms of this agreement all new arrivals in Lesvos will be detained and sent back to Turkey; the refugees who were on the island before the agreement came into effect are being sent to mainland Greece where many are ending up in makeshift accommodation in the port of Piraeus or in the overcrowded camp in Idomeni near the Macedonian border. Moria, one of the camps we visited in Lesvos, has been reclassified as a detention center which was a contributing factor to the decision of the aid groups to stop their work there.
Lesvos is a large island in the Aegean sea. It belongs to Greece but is far closer to mainland Turkey than to the Greek mainland. From the Northern and Eastern shores you can see Turkey and the shortest point between the two is only six kilometers. Ninety per cent of the refugees arriving in Europe are arriving in Greece and 60 per cent of those are arriving in Lesvos. At the height of the crisis last November 150 boats were arriving everyday. The rhythm has slowed down but so far this year there have still been approximately 80,000 new arrivals. This is equivalent to the total population of the island.
The refugees come from three main countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are also smaller but significant groups from Iran and Pakistan. This is a change from the pre-2015 situation when most immigrants arriving in Europe were coming from African countries. In terms of gender profile the new arrivals are 40 per cent male, 20 per cent female and 40 per cent children. Sometimes families are traveling together, sometimes it is single men, sometimes it is mothers and children.
In order to reach Greece the refugees have to pay a smuggler in Turkey. The cost is between 1,500 and 3,000 Euros. The negotiation is done via cell phone with a variety of intermediaries who arrange a meeting place on the Turkish coastline. The smuggler only appears physically at the last moment to collect the money and put the refugees on a boat. 1,500 gets you a place on a small inflatable boat designed to carry 20 people but generally carrying 50. 3,000 gets you a place on a larger boat with a solid hull. This is considered safer, hence the higher price, but in practice it is equally dangerous as these are two level boats which are overloaded on the upper deck and hence at risk of capsizing.
Women and children are put on the lower deck — if the boat capsizes or sinks, they risk being trapped. The boats are driven by one of the refugees who is given rudimentary instructions by the smuggler in how to use the engine. The smugglers do not make the trip themselves and the boats are abandoned after use. Depending on which route they are taking the trip lasts somewhere between 1.5 and three hours. The refugees are given counterfeit life jackets which will not keep them afloat in the case of an accident. Boats and life jackets are abandoned in "graveyards" which are out of sight of the beach. The locals are currently trying to dispose of the mountains of life jackets and boats in order to clean up before the tourist season. Last year tourism was down 80 per cent.
If the boats are intercepted by the Turkish coast guard, the passengers risk being arrested, beaten or simply sent back to shore where they will have to pay again to make the trip. If the boat makes it into Greek waters there are teams of volunteers who will guide them to shore if their engine is still working, tow them if the engine breaks (the boats are very cheap and often the engine breaks down before they arrive) and attempt to rescue them if the boat capsizes. At the height of the crisis the boats would arrive at locations all over the island. The north of the island which is closest to Turkey is very rocky so it would often take several hours to identify where the boats had landed, send a rescue team and evacuate the people from the rocks. This meant there was a risk of hypothermia so the system they have in place now is to try and intercept the boats as early as possible and guide them towards certain designated landing sites. This makes it a lot easier to organize the follow-on care they will receive.
The lifeguards are all volunteers - we met some Greek lifeguards but there are also Spanish and Dutch teams working plus a boat from Medecins Sans Frontieres. There are also volunteers working on the beach to welcome the refugees when they arrive, give them dry clothes, food, baby equipment etc. We met one British, one American and one Norwegian woman who were working at the arrival spot we visited.
From here the refugees are taken to a nearby transit camp where they are sorted into groups and given further help and equipment - clothes, food but also solar powered chargers for their mobile phones. The idea of sorting them into groups is to ensure that families and friends who traveled together do not end up being separated. They wear color coded wrist bands to show which group they are in. The transit camp has showers, toilets and a medical clinic. There are also tents with beds in case the refugees arrive at night when the bus service is not running or if the bigger camps on the island are full. This camp is run by IRC and seemed very clean and professional. There are television screens which give updates on the legal and political situation in Europe, information on seeking asylum etc. They also show films and cartoons.
When we were there, a group of new arrivals had just left the camp so we were able to visit freely. They were in the process of building a wheelchair access to allow disabled people to move around the camp. The man in charge said that it had been a long process to build the camp - he was more used to working in countries at war where you don't need to bother with getting planning permission and where things could move quicker. Some of the nonaffiliated volunteers we met during our stay expressed frustration with the slowness of the bigger organizations to respond.
We also visited the children's room in this camp. The atmosphere here was very peaceful and the woman in charge said she had a policy of playing Mozart and Bach to create a calm atmosphere. There were toys and paints and she showed us some pictures that the children had done.
After this we went to two other camps — Kara Tepe and Moria. There is a bus service transporting refugees from the transit camp to these two more permanent structures. At first there was no bus service and the refugees would have to walk or take a taxi. It is a long trip — about 40 miles I believe — and we heard stories of refugees who had been robbed or swindled by taxi drivers.
Kara Tepe is a camp for Syrians and when we arrived we were not able to visit. Normally visitors are allowed but the Greek government had recently announced that 2,500 Syrians were going to be transported by a commercial cruise ship to the mainland and they were very busy organizing this. We were able to speak with some of the refugees who were hanging around outside the camp where there are stalls where you can buy drinks and snacks. One family there was from Aleppo but had been living in Turkey for the last few years. They liked Turkey but felt that job and education prospects were better in Europe. Another Syrian family expressed a very different opinion and said they hated Turkey and would never go back.
The other camp we visited is called Moria. It has an official section where visitors are not allowed and a more makeshift section called the overflow camp where visitors are allowed to move freely. There had been a recent influx of Pakistanis but we also met Iranians and Afghans. Because the people in this camp are not fleeing a war zone they are not considered as refugees but rather as economic migrants. Their legal status is not totally clear which is part of the reason why they are housed in a separate structure from the Syrians who have different legal rights. This distinction between political refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants was a topic that came up a lot in the conference sessions. Meeting these people and interacting with them as humans it was very hard to think that some will be allowed to stay and others won't. Anyone not qualifying as a political refugee is at risk of being sent back to their country of origin. We met an Afghan family with young children and a great many Pakistani men. Germany was a popular destination for people, but a great many other countries came up as well — sometimes for family connections sometimes seemingly at random.
Overall, the infrastructure in place for welcoming the refugees seemed good but apparently this all quite recent and up until a couple of months ago things were much more makeshift. It would be great if people could learn from this experience and be able to anticipate the next influx of refugees — which looks like it might be from Libya heading to the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria.
The discussions in the conference were rather bleak. While we were meeting the EU and Turkey signed an agreement which is aimed to stop the people smuggling. Under this agreement new illegal arrivals will be immediately deported back to Turkey. Only people arriving by official channels via Turkish refugee camps will be welcomed. There was great skepticism among the panelists as to whether this agreement was legal and skepticism too that Greece would be able to enforce it. The deal was supposed to come into effect on the day we left but Greece has already said they do not have the manpower to do it and have pushed back until the 4th April. A large number of boats arrived overnight Saturday and Sunday morning as we were preparing to leave.
There was great skepticism too about the reliability of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a partner because of his authoritarian behavior. There was a general feeling that Europe had bought a temporary peace by outsourcing their border control to a foreign despot. Nobody felt this was a long term solution to the problem as Erdogan is now in a position to keep asking for more money or else threaten to open the tap again. So far he has extracted 6 billion from the EU plus a promise that Turks would be entitled to Visa free travel within Europe. Also there was a general consensus that the political and climate related situation in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia was so bad that cutting off one route would just mean that potential migrants switched to another one.
Concern was expressed about Pakistan and Egypt as two countries with large and rapidly growing populations, poor governance and not enough water. Libya was seen as the most immediate problem but there was a concern that one of these two countries could potentially tip over the edge which would significantly increase the number of people trying to reach Europe.
The nuclear deal with Iran was seen as a potential spark of hope - the idea being that a more powerful Iran would cancel out Saudi Arabia and create a form of deadlock in the region. But fears were expressed too that low oil prices, fighting multiple wars and infighting within the Saudi royal family could weaken Saudi Arabia; this would upset the balance of power and allow Iran to come out on top.
The only country in the region about which people felt even moderately positive was Jordan. There was some muted enthusiasm about Tunisia too. But Jordan seemed to be the panelists' choice for the country most likely to develop into a tolerant, secular society with a functioning government. Doubts were voiced however about the long term viability of Jordan's economic model which relies heavily on foreign aid for maintaining its large refugee population.
There was no consensus as to how many refugees Europe as a whole or any individual European country can absorb. Germany has so far taken the largest number and their GDP has increased. On a per capita basis, Sweden has taken the most (two per cent of their total population) and may be near their limit. In Sweden unemployment among immigrants is ten percentage points higher than non-immigrants. This is partly to do with women who have little or no education; male employment rates are higher. Unless immigrants are integrated into the workforce they will be perceived as a drain on the economy and this will be exploited by anti-immigration parties in Europe.
There was no consensus either about the need for new arrivals to counterbalance Europe's aging population. Some pointed to past statistics on the positive role of immigrants in creating economic growth, others said that automation in the workforce had made many old jobs obsolete and that as a consequence old economic models were no longer valid. Some countries were mentioned which had absorbed large numbers of refugees in the past: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria (which prior to the current conflict had accepted many Iraqis fleeing the war) and Greece itself which in the 1920s had absorbed 1.2 million Greeks from Asia Minor. In some countries integration was successful, in others the immigrant communities have been afforded limited labor rights compared to native citizens.
Distinctions were also drawn between European countries with loosely regulated labor markets where it is relatively easy for new arrivals to enter the workforce (albeit with low paid and insecure jobs) and countries with greater social protection for workers but where it is harder for new people to get a foot in the door. Will welcoming new refugees - who are often but not exclusively unskilled laborers - mean that countries like France or the Nordic nations need to liberalize their labor laws?
If I were to attempt to summarize I would say that the human interactions gave me hope but that the broader geopolitical discussions made that hope seem very fragile. In the long term the only solution to this situation is to bring peace and stability to the region the refugees are fleeing; the multiple challenges of poor governance, climate change, water scarcity, sectarian violence, foreign intervention and religious extremism make this long term solution look hard to achieve. In the shorter term we should be doing all we possibly can to show solidarity to the Greeks and to other countries on Europe’s periphery. Donations and volunteering will help and, frivolous though it might sound, so will the simple act of taking a vacation in Greece.
In terms of human capital and generosity of spirit, the Greeks seemed amply capable of helping the refugees, but the Greek economy needs help in the form of financial capital and job creation — particularly if the refugees currently stranded in Greece end up staying there permanently.