On 20 March 2016, the EU signed a deal with Turkey to stop the flow of refugees to the Greek islands. Moria transit camp, where I AM YOU looked after housing and shelter in their first six months of existence, was closed to most NGOs and turned back into the detention centre it once was. Since then, I AM YOU have been working with people who are in limbo in camps in mainland Greece, waiting to apply for family reunification, European relocation or asylum in Greece. But, the situation on the Greek islands is still present, so exactly four months on from the deal, I AM YOU’s Operations and Logistics Manager, Liz, and Communications Manager, Pippa, visited Lesvos to undertake qualitative research to find out what the current situation is for the hotspot.
The report is made up of information provided from interviews with humanitarian aid workers, volunteers, Greek locals and refugees. Two camps were visited as well as local businesses that have been affected by the influx of refugees, and the beaches where thousands of boats arrived during autumn and winter 2015.
Arrivals to the island
At the peak of the arrivals to the island in September 2015, Lesvos island reached up to 8,000 arrivals per day. Shortly before the deal took place in February/March, an average of 3,000 people arrived to the shores each day. (Source: Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras)
The EU-Turkey deal succeeded in reducing the flow of boats to the island In the first quarter of the 2016 tourism season, from April until June, there were a total of 9,904 arrivals, roughly a third of the 29,106 that arrived in the same period in 2015. (Source: Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras). As few as 2-3 boats were arriving per week during this period, averaging between 100 and 200 people per week.
More recently, in July, the boats have increased to 1 or 2 per day, averaging between 50 and 100 people per day, or 350-700 people per week. There are currently a little over 3,000 people on the island (Source: MSF).
In 2015, the International Organization for Migration (Source: IOM) estimated that 1,011,700 people arrived to the Greek islands with more than 3,770 people reported to have died at sea. On 13 July 2016, a family of two adults, a 4 year old and a baby died. It was not reported by the media.
The sea for the crossing is still quite rough at this time of year, and becomes calmest during September, the month that saw the highest number of arrivals in 2015 (Source: UNHCR). The increase in boats over the last few weeks could indicate that by September, numbers will continue to rise based on last year’s figures and the local Greek people who confirmed that the sea is calmest at that time. However, opinion on the island amongst the locals and aid workers observed by this report is unanimous that the situation experienced last year will not return due to Turkey enforcing patrols of the areas where most boats had been leaving. If the relationship between Turkey and the EU were to change, however, it is very possible that the situation would worsen very quickly. There is also a unanimous opinion that if numbers were to increase, it would be far better handled as the island is prepared should another influx occur.
What happens when they arrive?
Almost all boats are picked up by the Greek Coastguard and brought into Mytilini Harbour, on the south of the island. Some occasionally reach the island before the Coastguard see them and arrive at the shores in the north or south of the island. Upon arrival, police buses take the people immediately to Moria Detention Centre, which was previously a camp used for registration of refugees who arrived to the island, providing them with transit papers to continue their journey to Athens.
People seeking refuge are detained in Moria camp for 25 days following their arrival to Lesvos. After this, they are able to move around the island, but cannot leave Lesvos until they have an appointment for an asylum interview in Athens. There are nearly 4,000 people on the island waiting for an appointment.
Moria Detention Centre houses people in their first 25 days of arrival, and then predominantly adults after that. It is a closed camp and permission from the Greek authorities must be requested and granted for aid workers, volunteers or any other person who wishes to enter. To gain permission there must be a very strong reason for going inside, for example, any organization wanting to do anything other than provide basic needs – food, clothing, blankets, would be unlikely to be granted access.
The Detention Centre does not have any facilities for entertainment or education. People are living in Refugee Housing Units, or ‘Ikea huts’, usually up to three families per RHU, which measures 17.5 square metres. There is a large overspill of people sleeping in camping tents on the concrete.
Unaccompanied minors (under 18) are housed in a ‘first reception’ area of Moria while they wait for their asylum applications, with some moving to Malakasa camp (see below) and some able to go to shelters in Lesvos or Athens, though there are only spaces for 600 people compared with the 2-3000 unaccompanied minors currently in Greece. Unaccompanied females are fast tracked as well as the youngest or most vulnerable.
Kara Tepe is a camp mainly for families and currently has approximately 700 people living inside. It is also a closed camp, and permission to enter must be granted by the Greek authorities running the camp. Again, good reason must be given to enter, however this camp has children’s activities and other creative programs, not just the essential human needs. Families are also living in RHUs, but have more space due to the lower numbers of residents compared to the camp’s capacity, which is from its existence in the peak of arrivals last year.
Pikpa camp is run by volunteers and is for vulnerable cases with a nurse on site 24 hours. The camp currently has just 80 residents who live in wooden huts with beds and kitchens to cook for themselves. They have children’s activities and musical performances and volunteers frequently attend the camp, which is open.
Mantamados camp is run by Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) specifically for unaccompanied minors and currently houses approximately 75 males. The camp provides sports and activities for the boys and is closed for their protection.
The situation for Lesvos
The last year has been poignant for Lesvos. With some local businesses booming throughout the winter from the volume of people on the island, there has been a huge drop in tourism to the island.
Multiple businesses reported losses of 60-90%. 95% of the cruise lines and tourism companies have pulled out of advertising or visiting Lesvos.
Fears amongst locals
Additionally, car accidents rose due to international volunteers being unfamiliar with the roads, stressed or rushing to help. Recently, a 27 year old local woman was killed when a volunteer’s car collided with her boyfriend’s motorbike.
Tensions are rising amongst the local people whose lives have been significantly affected by the situation, much stemming from fear, according to others.
Thanks to a mass beach clean up by volunteers, the beaches are reported to be cleaner than they have been for years. Life jackets and old boats are taken to an area known as ‘The Graveyard’. It is unclear what will be done with them but it is illegal to remove them without permission from the Mayor.