In a taverna overlooking Molyvos harbour, exhausted Greek coastguards have come off shift and are drinking in a huddle. They have just pulled 242 refugees out of the water, in the worst shipwreck off the shores of Lesvos since the refugee crisis began last year.
By 1.30am there is only one man left in the bar, Yanis Stipsanos, the vice-mayor of Molyvos. ‘Too many people have died at my place,’ he says, his face like thunder. ‘I didn’t kill them. Turkey killed them.’ He thinks for a moment. ‘Europe killed them.’ Pauses. ‘Fuck you, Europe, and take them. This is not Lesvos’s problem, it’s humanity’s problem.’
Outside, a scene of quiet devastation is unfolding. Wet, salty clothes are strewn about the large cobble stones. The floor of a tiny port-side Orthodox chapel is covered by survivors in blankets, trying to bed down for the night.
At the chapel entrance, Salman, a Syriac Christian with red-rimmed, green eyes is pacing. He fled Qamishli in northern Syria, joining the exodus of Christians from the Middle East that began with the invasion of Iraq. The last rescue boat has long since docked but his 27-year-old cousin is still missing. His phone lights up with another call from his uncle and aunt.
A young Yazidi woman, Linda, approaches a medic. Despite the blankets piled high on her shoulders, she is shaking violently, going into shock: ‘I had my son in the water for an hour, then I lost him.’ She left Bashiqa in northern Iraq 14 months ago with her two young children, when ISIS fighters were one day away.
‘I had my son in the water for an hour – then I lost him’.
The medic leads Linda back the way she came, on another search through some of the people bedded down on the top floor of a port building. They cross paths with an official clutching reams of paper, which bear the names of 38 missing people.
Elsewhere, a young Iraqi man announces, to no-one in particular, that he will never sleep again. ‘I am so happy to be alive! I will stay here – and sell noodles!’.
‘There were so many kids around me. Their life jackets didn’t work for them – the waves were going into their mouths. We paid money to die’
The refugees – mostly from Syria, but also Iraq and Afghanistan – had embarked on the 10-kilometre crossing from Turkey in a large wooden boat, on the afternoon of 28 October. Supposedly more seaworthy than the customary rubber dinghies, smugglers had charged a premium of up to $2,500 per person. But the craft was made of insubstantial stuff, thin as cardboard. Any doubters were forced on at gunpoint. After 40 minutes, it ran into high winds. The top deck crashed into the lower deck; the boat sank in a matter of minutes.
‘It was like a disaster movie,’ says Feroz, who used to do PR for the Free Syrian Army, ‘Everyone was screaming. There were so many kids around me – the life jackets didn’t work for them, the waves were going into their mouths.’ He shakes his head. ‘We paid money to die.’
The UN refugee agency has found that 90 per cent of those who cross into Europe by sea last year came from the world’s top-10 refugee producing nations. So why are refugees paying money to die? The answer lies in Europe’s dysfunctional asylum policy which, to borrow the phrasing of Refugee Law scholar Cathryn Costello, majors in shifting responsibility for refugees and migrants instead of sharing it.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention, born of Europe’s own terrible wars, bestows protection on those fleeing persecution and can extend to conflict refugees. It has been signed by 145 nations. But there is a catch: people can only claim asylum once they are inside your territory. The game, then, is to stop their arrival.
All photos: Petros Diveris
The Schengen Agreement, which allows free movement between signatory European countries, effectively pushes Europe’s border to the outer rim – Greece, Italy, Spain and the Balkans. Amnesty International reports that the EU spent $2 billion between 2007 and 2013 to stop people breaching that border.
Legal entry is a pipe dream for most asylum-seekers. In 2014, a total of 104,000 of the world’s refugees were resettled by the UN directly from camps: less than 0.1 per cent of the total.
Slowly but surely, land routes into Europe have been fortified and sealed. A visa-regime prevents travel by air or ferry, and family reunion is highly restricted.
History shows us the world can act together when it chooses
This pushes refugees into more and more dangerous journeys at the hands of smugglers. Linda, the mother I met in Molyvos harbour, was travelling with 20 members of the persecuted Yazidi community who have a strong claim to protection under the 1951 convention. She was hoping to join her parents in Germany. They had driven to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and later flown to Istanbul, only to pay upwards of $35,000 (a ferry ticket costs $15) to travel together on a ‘cardboard’ boat that sank.
Linda’s 18-month-old son Joud was just one of 90 children to drown in the Aegean Sea in October. The deaths of some 3,600 people on Europe’s Mediterranean border in 2015 make the beaches of Lesvos – the entry point for half of Europe’s sea arrivals – feel like a war zone.
The perverse paradox of Europe’s asylum policy – offering protection while pulling up the drawbridge – creates a do-or-die asylum policy. If you make it, you can claim. And for most, it’s a risk worth taking. If you’re Syrian, like 50 per cent of those coming to Europe across the Med, you are almost certain to get it.
Volunteers are filling the gap left by a negligent Europe
We are failing refugees on a monumental scale. What’s more, history shows us refugees need not be arriving broke, exhausted and empty-handed – if they arrive at all – on an island of 85,000 inhabitants, ill-equipped to shelter or support them.
As Cathryn Costello has pointed out: ‘If everyone arrived with a humanitarian visa, and was claiming asylum in the country they wanted to, things would look very different.’
‘There are 19.5 million refugees in a world population of 7 billion. It’s a manageable problem,’ Alexander Betts tells me. Head of the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre, he appears to have encyclopaedic knowledge of all the refugee crises the world has ever known.
He puts this crisis in perspective, reminding me that the overwhelming preponderance of refugees are in the Global South. Ethiopia is home to 650,000; Iran to nearly a million. Europe as a whole, with its 508 million wealthy citizens, has yet to receive as many people as Lebanon.
The world can, and has, dealt with refugee crises before. The million arrivals in Europe reported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2015 represent a challenge, but we have found imaginative ways to ensure safe passage in the past. Betts talks about Nansen passports – refugee travel documents issued in the interwar years – that gave safe passage to 450,000 refugees between 1922 and 1942.
Rapid, effective, global
Europe has also handled crises on its doorstep. In the 1999 Kosovo War, 850,000 refugees streamed over the border into Macedonia and Montenegro. The UN speedily evacuated 100,000 people under a temporary humanitarian relocation scheme, to every country in Europe.
Earlier, the Hungarian crisis of 1956 saw 180,000 people flee to Austria. Within months, just 410 Hungarians remained. The rest were taken in among 36 states, everywhere from the US to Paraguay.
Any attempt to control borders is delusional
No refugee crisis is the same as any other; all were fraught with mistakes. But they show that the world can act together when it chooses.
The protracted exodus from Indochina in the late 1970s saw thousands flee Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in rickety boats, heading for Southeast Asia. The countries receiving them were overwhelmed – much like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan today, and thousands drowned. But the UN agreed an Orderly Passage programme to stop the sea crossings. By the time the crisis ended in 1996, 1.6 million were resettled, mostly in the West.
This time round, certain European states – primarily Germany and Sweden – stand out for their generosity. But efforts to share the load have stalled. The EU’s relocation scheme, brokered in September 2015, aimed to ease the pressure on states of first refuge, such as Greece. But four months later, only 160 people had been moved out of its 160,000 target. On a global scale, the US has pledged to take 10,000 Syrians, Australia 12,000 and Canada 25,000 but these numbers represent just a fraction of the 4.2 million who have fled the Syrian war.
This looks like a crisis of politics, not numbers.
‘How many sandwiches did we make today, Stelios?’ calls out Melinda, back in Molyvos harbour at her restaurant, the Captain’s Table, which has turned into a de facto hub for refugee support. Stelios thinks for a moment. ‘More than 5,000’, a prodigious rate of sandwichmaking for new arrivals. Melinda estimates that they are spending $10,000 on relief, every day.
If governments are refusing to step up to the plate, the citizens of Europe have had less reserve. As extraordinary as the numbers flowing into Europe, is the solidarity flowing out to meet them.
Lesvos has become a magnet for these new humanitarians. Scores of people wearing branded tabards with names like Drop in the Ocean or Team Humanity, stride into the sea on Lesvos’ northern beaches, to meet refugee boats. The volunteers are not easily pigeon-holed, and have divergent political opinions. They are people such as Richy, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan; Amanda, a single mother of four grown-up children, who first came to Lesvos as a tourist, and Lukas, a German cyclist, who came to do his bit for Europe.
Across the island, they spot boats, clean up beaches and hand out dry clothes to new arrivals. A team of Spanish lifeguards work around the clock with six jet skis to assist the Greek coastguard. (The EU contribution to the rescue effort – a high-sided Frontex patrol boat – has proved ill-suited to the task.)
These volunteers are filling the gap left by a negligent Europe. All are self-funded, most co-operate with local efforts and often channel significant resources from networks back home.
The ‘problem’ is not migration but xenophobia fuelled by politicians and the media
Freed of bureaucratic constraints, they can also complement the work of international NGOs and the UNHCR, which were late to come to Greece.
In the camps to the south of the island where people must register before moving on, there exists what one aid worker harshly described as a ‘humanitarian caste system’. Syrians, who are thought more likely to be accepted as refugees, stay in Kara Tepe camp. Those slated for rejection by Europe – Pakistanis, Iranians and Afghans – are consigned to Moria, in appalling conditions. There they are fed by volunteers from Pikpa, the ‘village of all together’.
Established in 2012, Pikpa’s entirely volunteer-run reception centre has become a haven for those whose journeys have been interrupted by illness or bereavement. The run-down recreation ground is peaceful after the heart-thumping adrenalin of the beaches, but suffused with sadness.
As I walk in, a little girl with a mop of straight black hair walks up and hugs me, then walks off to make a collage. Leo, a Syrian volunteer in his twenties with hazel eyes, pitches up to show me around. He left Damascus three years ago, tried life in Lebanon and Turkey before slipping through Greece’s land border, unable to face ‘working 12 hours at half-pay and paying double rent’.
Big migrations will prove to be the new normal. Think of this crisis as a trial run
The shockwaves of the shipwreck two days ago are plain to see. A widowed Afghan man is standing awkwardly by the swings with three daughters, gazing into space. A 10-year-old Syrian girl, Sara, tells me in perfect English, ‘my parents were lost on Wednesday,’ with a shrug and a small self-conscious smile, adding, ‘but now my uncle has come from Germany.’
‘It’s too much,’ says Leo. ‘Every day we hear about people dying in the sea. They can open the land border. People will come anyway. Why not make it legal?’
Yanis, a psychologist who volunteers with Pikpa, was comforting refugees in the hospital after the accident. ‘These families came looking for a better life but they lost everything,’ he says. ‘I feel so ashamed.’
The moral case for safe passage is beyond doubt. We have the track-record and legal framework to deal with this. So why is Europe – and the rest of the world – falling so far short of its moral obligations? An obsession with migration, pinned as the cause of all 21st-century ills, may have something to do with it.
Dutch academic Hein de Haas believes the Left has boxed itself in when it comes to migration by drawing on humanitarian arguments and neglecting practical ones.
‘You can’t persuade people to have the same values as you,’ he tells me in a weary tone when we meet in an Oxford bookshop. Instead, he has spent years running the numbers. His analysis tracks migration flows and policy over the past century in 163 countries. And his findings are startling. His work on visa policy shows that border controls have often spurred settlement, not stopped it.
The Spanish case is one example. Until early 1990, Moroccans did not need visas to enter Spain. They would come for seasonal work and then leave. As soon as visas were introduced, immigration from Morocco rocketed. And instead of returning, people stayed put.
‘If we had visa-free migration, more people are likely to come to work, and to have a look around – but also to go home again,’ he says.
He takes apart other migration myths. There is no ‘invasion’ – the percentage of the world’s population that migrate has remained static, at around three per cent. There is scant evidence that welfare is a pull factor, either. Migrants are attracted by labour markets – economies that perform well. And on balance, they contribute more to economies than they take away. Meanwhile, much-needed assistance is sent back in remittances – in amounts which dwarf international aid. And his parting shot: as poorer states get richer, their citizens are more likely to migrate, not less – it is a function of development, not something that will be ‘stopped’ by aid.
De Haas says we should be more worried that migrants will soon choose to go to India and China, and shun the West altogether, and he highlights a growing trend of north-to-south migration. The ‘problem’, he concludes, is not the movement of people but xenophobia fuelled by politicians and the media.
And what’s more, any attempt to control borders is delusional. ‘The migration hardliners are ignoring reality. They act like ostriches, they want to think it away. But it’s like being against ageing! Migration is happening. There’s little we can do about it.’
The Great Walk
Back on the beaches of Eftalou, in northern Lesvos, there are no deaths the day after the major wreck. At dusk, close to 1,000 people huddle in the wind on the beach road, newly disembarked from rubber dinghys littering the seafront.
Empathy is holding out – against the odds
A beaming Iraqi stands with his wife and four children wrapped up in golden foil emergency blankets like little toffees. He hopes to join his brother in Switzerland. A Syrian whose only luggage seems to be a guitar tries to speak to me in English. His friend Hila translates: they made the crossing because they felt it was their ‘last chance’. ‘But,’ she adds, ‘I would go back tomorrow, if I could.’
Up at Oxi transit camp, on a dangerous curve with commanding views of an Aegean turning purple as the sky darkens, a volunteer admires the new multi-coloured bus ticket queuing system, pinned to a piece of cardboard on a post. The whole world is here. Afghan women with jet-black hair and loose scarves, tall Somalis with high cheekbones wrapped in brightly coloured shawls, carrying large handbags.
Up by a kiosk, a Somali who introduces himself with a wide grin as ‘Captain Phillips’ is ordering sandwiches for the 13 in his group who sit texting on their Samsung phones. He describes circuitous, arduous routes through Dubai, Iran and Turkey. His decision to leave was prompted by a bomb that killed a Chinese diplomat in Mogadishu in July and threats against him from an acquaintance linked to Islamist terror group Al Shabaab.
It has never been so urgent to challenge alarmist, illiberal voices
There’s an Iranian house and techno DJ, Farzad, with foil blankets flying out into the wind around his socks, making him look like Icarus. His plan seems to hinge around being free to party in Switzerland, where a cousin lives.
A senior UNHCR official on the island says we need a new lens, beyond the 1951 refugee convention. ‘I call this the Great Walk. There’s everybody here. People who say, “I’m leaving because I want to be fulfilled as a human being.” It’s not only because of the war. And I understand them – life is life because it moves! This is the formation of a new generation in Europe. Let’s not be afraid – let’s understand how we can live together.’
It’s only when you obstruct this flow that you get a crisis.
In Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, the following day, hundreds of Greeks are demonstrating in support of refugees. Migrants are applauding and filming the march on their phones.
University lecturer Dimitris Ballas is inspired by the tolerance of his island’s inhabitants. They have seen their per capita income
‘I’m hopeful. Obviously there are some people who are unhappy about this but most are doing their best to help – in the midst of our own crisis,’ says Ballas. ‘It brings to prominence what it means to be human. And that is beautiful to see.’
Yet at a political level, humanitarian solutions have never seemed further away. Boats are still sinking, tragedies on endless repeat. And the ink is fresh on a questionable $3.3billion EU deal with Turkey, which hinges around keeping refugees out of Europe.
‘How are we going to stop people? Trap people in Syria? Where are these people going to go?’ asks Rae McGrath. The director of Mercy Corps relief operations in Turkey and northern Syria, he is struggling to see the movement of people into Europe as a ‘crisis’ after stopping food aid to 621,000 displaced people in ISIS-controlled areas in early 2014.
He throws down the gauntlet: ‘When do we start shooting refugees?’
Don’t give up on the politics
There’s an alternative to this dystopia. And we can start building it now. The UN needs $20 billion for its humanitarian budget for 2016. (That is just two-thirds of what Britain coughed up to bail out Lloyds Bank Group or the cost to the US of two-years’ worth of bombing ISIS in Syria); responsibility for refugees must be shared out globally, and safe passage assured; people seeking new lives would stop dying tomorrow if land borders were opened, reception centres built and carrier sanctions (which prevent airlines from transporting refugees) dropped. In the meantime, search-and-rescue in the Aegean Sea must be deployed immediately.
We must push for political solutions. For people to be able to go back to their homes and live in peace, or to be accepted in Europe and the Western world that has played its part in making wars, and creating an unstable, unequal world.
It has never been so urgent to challenge alarmist, illiberal voices. Recent regional elections show the far right is gaining ground in Sweden, Austria, France and Switzerland, and the proto-fascist Pegida is attracting support in Germany.
Yet empathy is holding out, against the odds. British journalist Paul Mason reports that many in Athens voted Syriza back in through gritted teeth, if only for better treatment of migrants.
There is everything to play for. Alexander Betts believes that as protracted conflicts bed down in our fragile and mobile world, big migrations will prove to be the new normal. Think of this crisis as a trial run.
People will continue to come. We have to expect it and not be hijacked by fear. Fruitless attempts to seal borders come at a terrible human cost that is unacceptable. Such policies are the work of functionaries who see people as numbers. Anyone who has witnessed men, women and children dying on the prosperous shores of peacetime Europe knows this is wrong. We can, and must, do better.
This article is from
the January-February 2016 issue
of New Internationalist.
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