Day 1. We arrived on the island of Lesvos last night – me, my daughter Julia and her friend Isabella. When we planned our trip a few weeks ago, we were anticipating working with refugees – greeting them as they arrived, providing dry clothing and food, assisting in the camps. In the past 4 days, everything has changed.
We arrived on the island of Lesvos last night – me, my daughter Julia and her friend Isabella. When we planned our trip a few weeks ago, we were anticipating working with refugees – greeting them as they arrived, providing dry clothing and food, assisting in the camps. In the past 4 days, everything has changed.
On Friday, March 18th, the EU made a deal with the devil. Ignoring human rights and basic humanity, they decreed that any refugees arriving in Greece after midnight on March 19th would be immediately transported to a detention camp and then, if they are not eligible for asylum, they would be deported back to Turkey. Moria Camp, which has been used for the past several months to house arriving refugees, would be turned into a closed camp run by the Greek police and military.
On Saturday morning, volunteer groups which had been working in Moria were told to pack up and leave. It was a hectic and heartbreaking scene. Volunteers desperately pressed food and clothing into the arms of the refugees, trying to prepare them for the next stage of their journey. In the meantime, Greek officials wanted to free up space for new arrivals who would be held in the camp. Buses pulled up to Moria first thing Saturday morning and started transferring refugees to the port of Mytilini. At the port, refugees were told to buy tickets for a ferry which would take them to Kavala in northern Greece where a number of refugee camps are under construction. If they did not, they too faced detention.
Any refugees who arrive after midnight on Saturday are immediately incarcerated in Moria. According to the EU statement, the refugees will be given the opportunity to request asylum, but there are grave concerns that the officials will find loopholes which allow them to return ALL refugees to Turkey. This seems to be in direct contravention of the UN Convention on Refugees, so there are various lawyers looking into the legality of this situation.
The response on the island – and elsewhere – to this drastic turn of events has been shock, horror, and fear. Volunteers and human rights organizations are afraid that the refugees will not receive the humane care and support they require while they are in Moria. And there is a great deal of concern about the idea of returning refugees to Turkey, a country which has a terrible reputation as far as human rights issues. Refugees are terrified and confused. Many of them – particularly the women and children – are trying to reunite with family members in other parts of the EU. This agreement effectively ends any opportunity for them to do so.
We weren’t sure what to expect when we arrived here on Lesvos. After 24 hours on the island, the situation is still very confusing and unclear, but I am somewhat hopeful.
Here is why:
Shortly after the announcement of the agreement, the UNHCR – UN High Commission on Refugees - condemned the idea of incarcerating refugees in a closed detention camp and refused to assist in transporting refugees to Moria.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) declared that they will not work at Moria because they do not want to support the detention of refugees.
Today, IRC (International Rescue Committee), which has been providing much of the refugee transportation on Lesvos, announced that they will not transport refugees to Moria.
And, a piece of information that I don’t believe has made it to the media, the Greek military has refused to participate in running the detention camps, even though originally they were supposed to work with the police to run the camps.
It is a difficult and confusing situation for the volunteers and volunteer organizations on the island. The agreement is intended to dissuade refugees from making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, but long-time Lesvos residents shake their heads and say the arrivals will not stop. These people are fleeing what they perceive as almost certain death. They will take any chance, no matter how slim.
Many volunteers are questioning whether they should stay or go. Others who were planning trips are wondering if they should bother to come. I have only been here a day but here is what I have learned in the north part of Lesvos:
I spoke to the folks at Starfish Foundation and they are carrying on with their work. They are on standby for the harbours of Petra and Molyvos and they continue to provide volunteers for the IRC camp, in case any refugees do arrive. They are still offering orientations 4 times per week and accepting volunteers.
We visited the Hope Centre which is being developed at Eftalou by the Philippa and Eric Kempson. It is a beautiful project. The Kempsons and their team are hoping to provide housing for refugees who have made asylum requests and who a place to live while they await approval to stay in the country. They have taken over an empty waterfront hotel and will have 16 rooms for families, with a large communal kitchen, living room and vegetable gardens. There is lots of work to be done. If you are interested, you can drop by and take a look at the volunteer “to do” list.
Here on Lesvos, the only constant is change. The change over the past few days has been dramatic and unexpected and even the most knowledgeable and experienced people don’t know what the future will hold. There is, however, always lots of work to be done and, as before when I was here, there are some amazing people doing it.
On a lighter note, a recent online article called the Molyvos market street the “most beautiful street in the world.” We walked along it today and we can’t help but agree.