I am writing this letter having just returned from Lesvos with second-year and third-year human geography field classes with the University of Sheffield. My colleagues and I were in Lesvos either side of the controversial EU-Turkey deal which came into effect on 20 March 2016, so we witnessed first hand the effects this had.
In the week before the deal we visited two refugee camps, Kara Tepe and Moria. Kara Tepe is a small camp just outside Mytilene whose residents are mainly Syrian. Moria's residents are more diverse, including Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Iraqis. We were able to enter Kara Tepe, talk to residents, and take photographs. We were also able to enter an informal camp next door to Moria on a former olive grove, and here we talked to many of the 400 residents and volunteers, played cards with a group of Pakistani men, and took photographs of the residents and the conditions. It was here that my students and I handed out superhero capes, sewn by my wife and some of our friends, for the children to play with. We were not able to enter the formal Moria camp without a permit, but we later learned that Moria housed many vulnerable groups including unaccompanied minors, so this might have been the reason for restricted access.
Among the refugees there was, as one volunteer put it, a 'two-tier' system (it has also been more critically described as a 'humanitarian caste system'). Syrians were likely to be granted asylum but those from other countries seemed to be less fortunate and were less likely to be granted asylum status. For example in 2015 more than 99% of Syrians were granted asylum in Greece, but between 35 and 97.7% of asylum claims were rejected at first instance from people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, and Iraq (Eurostat database, extracted 12/4/16). Because this group were unable to obtain papers to travel, they could not leave Mytilene and Lesvos for mainland Greece, trapping them in a state of limbo. Similarly because they could not obtain papers they told us they could not leave the camps for fear of being arrested by the police. Volunteers in the Moria camp told us how the police had, on occasion, come in and forcibly removed individuals who could not legally register. One of the medics in the camp, a Sheffield alumna as it turned out, spoke of occasions where they had to call for an emergency ambulance but the patient had been concerned they would be reported and arrested. When I asked what the volunteers did in these situations she replied, “We just have to hope that the medics turn a blind eye and don’t report them.” Fortunately, it seems most (and possibly all) did turn a blind eye, so the individuals concerned were able to return to the camp. It did not surprise me to hear that mental health problems among this group were numerous due in part to greater anxiety and stress this would undoubtedly cause (although this is not to say that they were the only group with mental health issues).
After the EU-Turkey deal, access to the camps became restricted, even to Kara Tepe where we had previously been able to enter. The cafe and shop trailers set up outside Kara Tepe and Moria had no patrons as residents of the camps were no longer allowed to leave. But against the backdrop of these mass deportations, perhaps the most enduring memory of the humanitarian crisis for many of our group was the life jacket mountain. This monument to the refugee crisis served to remind us of the hardship, suffering, and risk these people had endured to reach Europe and how questionable the European governments' response is. Located just outside Molyvos on the north of the island, this graveyard of abandoned life jackets stands as testament to the number of refugees arriving on the island, with some estimates at over 450,000. Most jackets were counterfeit, unable to provide buoyancy to a building brick, let alone a human being. In amongst the mountain I tore out a life jacket too small even for my own three year old son. Thinking about how desperate I would have to be to place my son in harm's way like this I could not help but cry. It is a memory that will likely haunt me forever.
But in amongst the heartache and the uncertainty stood an army of volunteers, activists, and protesters [YouTube video] who showed what it truly was to be human and have been doing in Lesvos since the refugee crisis began. They continue to help some of the most vulnerable and exploited people in the world by getting them to the safety of dry land, giving them food, dry clothes, and a place to stay, help with the legal process of claiming asylum, and by fighting for fair conditions and treatment. It is these people who help me not to give up hope.