Refugees, who were forcibly returned from Idomeni at the Greek/Macedonia border to Athens on Wednesday night, queue for food outside Tae-Kwon-Do Stadium in Athens on Thursday morning
After spending Autumn working with refugees arriving in Lesbos Broadsheet’s Olga Cronin returned to the Greek island this week.
On Sunday, November 29, the EU struck a deal with Turkey. In return for €3billion, visa-free access to Schengen zone countries for the citizens of Turkey and a speeding up of the process of allowing Turkey into the EU, Turkey promised to stem the flow of refugees travelling from Turkey to the Greek islands.
The agreement was made as high numbers of people seeking refugee protection – the majority of whom are from Syria and Afghanistan – continue to travel from Turkey to Greece on inflatable rubber dinghies.
The number of people who have died this year while trying to cross the Aegean Sea is unknown while, according to the UNHCR, more than 3,440 people have died trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean.
After the EU/Turkey deal was struck, the chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel – named this week as Person Of The Year by Time magazine – said the agreement would help “keep people in the region” and out of Europe.
According to the latest figures from the UNHCR, 768,916 people in total travelled across the sea to Greece between January and December 8 of this year – 58 per cent men, 26 per cent children and 16 per cent women.
A total of 447,958 – or 58 per cent – landed on Lesbos alone.
Chios and Samos islands have seen the second and third highest number of arrivals with 105,691 and 91,243 landing on its shores respectively during the same time period.
Although it’s less than two weeks since the EU/Turkey deal, and fluctuations in the number of people arriving are common – with numbers commonly dropping in tandem with political events such as a visit of a politician or dignitary to an island or Turkey’s recent general election – the UNHCR figures indicate the smugglers, perhaps inevitably, may be changing the route upon which they send people.
The winter weather is also likely to be a factor, but smugglers offer those travelling in bad weather a discount.
The daily number of people arriving on Lesbos island decreased dramatically in just a matter of days, from 2,462 on Sunday, November 29 to 1,337 on Friday, December 4.
Boats are very much still arriving on Lesbos, with the figure rising to 3,231 on Monday, December 7, but the location of where the majority of boats are arriving has changed dramatically from the north of the island – where the Turkish coastguard activity has been most visible to date – to the south.
The coastline of northern Lesbos – just six kilometres from Turkey – is unrecognisable from how it looked just a few weeks ago and volunteers and rescue teams present in northern Lesbos now feel it’s a waiting game in regards to deciding where they should place their efforts.
Gone is the necklace of washed-up bright orange lifejackets along the northern coastline, due to a substantial clean-up operation – with a mountain of thousands upon thousands of lifejackets piled high in a dump outside Eftalou – while the unofficial camps outside Skala Sikaminias and in the car park of nightclub Oxy, outside Molyvos, no longer have the swarms of people huddled outside trying to sleep on cold, muddy ground, often without any shelter or blankets.
The south of the island is receiving more and more boats every day, prompting volunteer and rescue groups to send teams to the south, and volunteer groups to increase their night-time operations in Camp Moria where, as of the weekend, all nationalities must register and where those not from Syria must sleep – often outside, in mud or on a section of pavement, without blankets.
Sadly, the change has come at a time when the north has seen a substantial increase in both volunteers and returnee volunteers arriving.
New infrastructure and provisions have also been put in place.
The International Rescue Committee has built a camp on the so-called dirt road between Eftalou and Skala Sikaminias, equipped with enough tents to provide shelter for 1,500 people and is scheduled to open in a matter of days, while Médecins Sans Frontières and Greenpeace have launched three rigid hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) – strengthening the huge rescue efforts of the Spanish Pro-Activa Open Arms lifeguard volunteers who have been present on the island since September.
Much like the south of Lesbos, the other Greek islands have also experienced significant change. Chios, which lies south of Lesbos, saw a sudden spike in arrivals from Turkey with the figure jumping from zero on November 28 to 2,139 on November 29 – placing tremendous pressure on the locals who have led the effort to provide for those arriving, along with the skeletal number of volunteers who were present at the time.
Those working at Tabakika in Chios – a freezing cold and rundown former factory building which serves as a Frontex hotspot and where smoking area-type heaters heat the area officers register arrivals while those waiting to register go without – are currently trying to work out how to provide food to those arriving as the prospect of opening a food station has prompted fears of attracting rats.
Refugees waiting to register may leave the camp to buy food in local stores but, for those who don’t have any money, they could face remaining in their wet clothes and living off of water and crackers provided by the UNHCR for up to three days.
A clothes distribution hut is in place in the camp but it is only opened when there are three volunteers present. If there are fewer than three present, as is often the case, men, women and children sitting in wet clothes must remain in them.
Those helping people off boats try to offset this by hurriedly trying to provide dry clothes – mostly donated – from the back of their cars as soon as refugees reach the shores.
Depending on the number of volunteers present at a given time, and what they have in their car at the time a boat arrives, this can amount to just a pair of socks with a small plastic bag in lieu of dry shoes.
In an effort to prevent – in children especially – hypothermia, volunteers hand these little bundles out, telling people to take their wet shoes and socks off, to place the dry socks on, followed by the plastic bag, and to then put their feet back into the wet shoes.
A bus system is in place in Chios whereby, once a boat arrives, volunteers can call for a bus – which is organised by the local authorities – to come and collect people and take them to Tabakika. The police running the buses charge €3 per adult while children on the near 60-seater coaches can travel the 10-minute or so journey for free.
After registering, refugees can go to a makeshift camp set up in the shadow of the Castle Of Chios, called Souda, to sleep. Just a few minutes’ walk from Tabakika it is equipped with two 250-capacity tents and multiple IKEA shelters. Souda is cleaned daily.
On Samos, between November 28 to 30, the number of arrivals rose from zero to 517 while Kos saw the number of arrivals rise from less than 50 on November 29 to 229 on November 30, rising again to 378 on December 7.
Leros also saw the number of arrivals rise from zero on November 28 and 29 to 264 on November 30.
In the meantime, as the number of arrivals from Cesme in Turkey to the shores of Chios rises, so does the death toll.
On Tuesday, it was reported that six children, including a baby, died when a dinghy – believed to have been bound for Chios – capsized off Cesme.
Separately, it was reported Wednesday that at least 11 people, including five children, drowned and 10 are missing after a boat sank off Farmakonisi island.
But change isn’t only afoot on the Greek islands.
On Wednesday night – the eve of the 67th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” – approximately 2,400 refugees were rounded up and forcibly put on buses in Idomeni, at the border between Greece and Macedonia, and sent to Tae-Kwon-Do Stadium in Athens.
The move followed several weeks of authorities only allowing the citizens of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to pass through the border, putting a blanket ban on those from other countries and prompting smugglers to offer those stranded other methods of getting further into Europe.
The ban disallowing those not from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to pass forced them to camp out in squalid conditions while some sewed their lips shut in protest. Last week a Moroccan died after he was electrocuted. It’s been reported he had climbed on top of a train carriage when he came in contact with electric cables.
It’s also been reported that, prior to these people being put on the buses, journalists were removed from the area to a place two kilometres away and that some were asked to delete photographs. Volunteers were also removed.
Following the eviction of those at the camp a volunteer in Idomeni wrote on the Facebook page, Forgotten In Idomeni:
“When the camp was re-opened, it was clear that people didn’t have time or weren’t given the opportunity to gather possessions. Refugees reported from inside the camp that people were dragged from tents and some were beaten. Others gave up and left peacefully. All hope lost.”
After refugees register on the Greek islands, Syrians are given a document which allows them to stay in Greece for six months while all other nationalities are given a document which orders them to leave Greece, or return home, within 30 days.
Many of those who had been in Idomeni were there for three weeks meaning their deadline to move is fast approaching.
Different treatment for different nationalities isn’t uncommon in Greece.
In Lesbos, only Syrian families can sleep in a camp near Mytilene called Kara Tepe – which has facilities much more favourable to those provided at the barbed wire-fringed former prison that is Camp Moria, just two miles from Kara Tepe.
As thousands of refugees continue their journey from the Greek islands, via ferries, to Athens and more and more buses return from the border with Macedonia to the Greek capital, many long-term volunteers and solidarity groups on the islands – who are largely dependent on the testimonies of other volunteers via Twitter and Facebook for details of events on the ground – are starting to feel that perhaps Athens will be their next stop.
It’s likely smugglers feel the same.
Previously: A Drop In The Aegean
Pic: Daphne Tolis