The migrant-refugee gap on Lesbos

Despite NATO war ships now patrolling Aegean sea, hundreds continue to make dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A child plays in the Kara Tepe camp close to Mytilene on Lesbos island, Greece, March 5, 2016.

Here on Lesbos, the weather is changing as fast as the politics. Icy cold wind transitions into a sunny calm day overnight and volunteers are up and out before sunrise.  Politically, its somewhat reversed. Lesbos, once the gateway to Europe is fast becoming the frontline to what is fortress Europe. NATO war ships patrol the Aegean Sea and the EU and Turkey are trying to finalise a deal that would allow European countries to send back refugees in masse before they seek asylum.

The number of arrivals have dropped, but people remain undeterred. On average, more than 700 people are arriving every day. The will to take the perilous sea journey hasn’t abated, despite so many being in dire circumstances. On arrival to Lesbos, many know the speedy route north is ending. As the Balkan route closes, the camps here are spilling with economic migrants and refugees who now wait, hope, that they’ll qualify for asylum.

The divide between economic migrant and refugee is becoming wider and wider. At a camp on the edge of Mytilini, people fleeing conflict and crushing poverty in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and northern Africa huddle around campfires and sip small cups of soup handed out by the volunteers that run the camp. They tell us they’re desperate to leave, to go anywhere in Europe so they can find jobs and send their children to school. To re-build their dignity beyond the muddy, man-made drains and makeshift tents.

To them, Syrian’s are the lucky ones. On the other side of town, they’re offered a chance to have their case heard. They too wait, but in clean well-staffed camps, with structured housing and family friendly play areas. While hope has a sweeter flavour at this camp, the Syrians we speak to don’t associate “luck” with what they have endured.  A woman describes her life in Syria before the conflict. The peaceful happiness she enjoyed with her family and friends. She said the assault by the Assad regime was bad but when the terror of DAESH began, it was time to go.  And so the arduous journey began across Turkey and then by boat to Greece.  Now, as she waits for her application to be processed through the “relocation program,” she fears the closed doors further north on the Greek and Macedonian border are the start of a larger rejection by Europe.

And she could be right. The proposal to take back all refugees that land in Greece means that for most here on Lesbos, the journey they took to which so many risked their lives, could be for nothing. 

Author: Sally Ayhan

Photos: Sarah Jones